September 19, 2007

And a star to steer her by

Building

During the winter of 65-66, my father began building a boat in his basement. I was a tiny kid, not yet in kindergarten, and the 18-foot sailboat seemed huge to me as I watched it take shape. I wasn't allowed in the cellar when he was using power tools, although I could hear the familiar whine of the table saw from where I would be sitting up in the kitchen, eating or playing a game with my siblings. But when he wasn't using power tools, I could perch on the stairs and watch him work. He'd be marking pieces of wood with the flat pencil that he kept above his ear. The light bulbs on the cellar ceiling shone down on puddles of sawdust and scattered bits of wood.

When he was halfway through the project, my parents threw a boat-turning party. My father removed bunch of cinder blocks from the wall of the basement, and his friends carried the boat outside to turn it over and then carry it back in so he could finish the project. A newspaper reporter showed up at the party, and they ran a story about the man who built a boat in his basement and knocked a wall out so that he could get the boat out. I can remember even as a kid thinking that the story was a bit exaggerated: he'd planned all along to remove the wall.

And how exciting it was when we finally got to sail the boat. Well, come to think of it, the first half an hour wouldn't be exciting. My parents would tell us kids to stay in the cabin and keep out of the way, while they went through the hassle of raising the mast and figuring out where the ropes went. In the early days, this process was fraught with tension, since my parents didn't know yet how to sail: my father was learning from books he'd read, which is possibly not the easiest way to learn something like that. We kids would be huddled in the cabin, amidst the white duffle bags and orange life jackets, impatiently waiting for the moment when we could climb up and out the forward hatch and sit on the deck in the nice breeze.

But soon, my father had learned to sail, and some of us kids began learning too. In the summertime we sailed up on the river, where we went camping, and in the fall, we sailed on Big Lake Near Snowstorm City. I can still remember those fall afternoons when my father and I would drive out to the lake to the marina where he kept the boat. Whitecaps would kick up on gusty days, and other days, we would just ghost along with the slightest breeze. When we glided near shore, we'd hear the hum of chainsaws and smell fires burning autumn leaves. Mostly, it was just the two of us, although sometimes my brother came.

But wooden sailboats don't last forever, and after twenty years, dry rot spread through the hull of the sailboat. My father salvaged what he could, including the mast, the centerboard, and the rigging, and we had a boat burning ceremony in their backyard. The ceremony included dramatic readings from the ship's log, flowers presented and dropped down the hatch, and ended with an emergency call to the fire department. But that's another whole story.

Not deterred by the loss of his first boat, my father did something he'd been wanting to do: designed his own sailboat. He drew up the plans and built the boat during the winter of 85-86. I was, coincidentally, expecting my first child that June, and we decided to race to see who would get done first. When I went into labor, my husband and I went over to my parents' house, so that I could take a walk through the apple orchards behind their house. My father had the boat on the trailer and was just raising the mast for the first time, testing out the rigging and the sails.

The new sailboat was both fast and stable, with a centerboard that could be pulled up in the shallow marsh where my parents' camp is. For over twenty years, my father has sailed this boat on the River That Runs Between Two Countries. Early this summer, both the boat and my daughter turned 21. And in the boat, my father discovered rot. It was time, once again, to salvage what he could and re-design the whole boat. He ripped off the cabin, and set to work.

That's been my father's project for the last month or two. He's been working on the boat, not in his basement this time, but up at camp, since he no longer has a boat trailer. The temperature has to be high enough for fiberglass to set so he's been working furiously to get the boat done before the cold weather. He's 76 now, and he claims that he gets tired more easily than he used to, but you would never notice that if you watch him work. He's been doing carpentry so long – he built houses with his father when he was a kid – that building a boat is easy to him as walking is to most people.

He's had to battle the weather during this project: rain, heat, gale force winds. In some ways, working under a tarp at the edge of a river is the worst possible working conditions. Thunderstorms move quickly up the river, and rising winds can tear the tarp from its moorings. But on the other hand, he has also been working under the best possible conditions. The fresh clean air from the river sweeps away the smell of the fiberglass. The marsh provides music -- birdsong, frogs, the splash of turtles or fish. When he wants a break, he can retreat to the shady spot under the oak trees where my mother might be reading a book or working on some project of her own. And there's something satisfying about building a boat right at the edge of the water, just a few feet from the dock where it will be tied next summer, just yards from the river where he'll be sailing it.

Fiberglass

26 comments:

ppb said...

so, so, so cool.

Magpie said...

lovely.

liz said...

I love your family.

my15minutes said...

What a great story! What a cool Dad!

amypalko said...

Your writing, as always Jo(e), is so evocative. What a beautiful narrative. Make sure and let us know all about the next boat-turning ceremony!

Silver Creek Mom said...

Your family is so creative. No wonder your a writer. You have subjects all around you to keep those creative juices flowing.
My Dad never did anything but work. He had no hobbies. My mom Knit and nothing complicated.

Wonderful story

AF said...

I can imagine that he'd be awful proud of this narrative, knowing he raised a daughter who can write this movingly. Make sure that he reads it!

argon(one) said...

Jo(e), have you written and published any books? If not, you should. Your blog is like a book of short stories and it is fantastic, but I would really enjoy reading a book penned by you. Think about it!

YourFireAnt said...

Jo(e), see the comment by Argon(one)....[AHEM!!] How's the printing project going?

FA

jo(e) said...

araon(one): Up until now, I've published mostly poetry, but yes, I am working on a manuscript of creative non-fiction. I'll be sure to let all my blog readers know when it gets published.

AF: What's funny is that you are so much like my father. But yes, my parents read my blog just about every day ....

Abby said...

i am sooo in love with your dad. My own father just turned 70. He's a retired firefighter who spent a lot of time in the basement or garage at a workbench. He used to tell me that he could fix anything except a broken heart. I believed him. I believe him still.

I imagine our fathers would probably get along well.

The Simpleton said...

Your dad learned to sail from a book?? No wonder you're such a can-do woman.

(It's telling that for me, building a boat from plans is not scary, but learning to sail that way is.)

jo(e) said...

He used to tell me that he could fix anything except a broken heart.

Abby, I just love that. I think I'd like your dad.

jo(e) said...

The Simpleton: Yeah, my family has the idea that you can do anything that's in a book. We once tapped maple trees for sap, with our knowledge based almost entirely on Little House in Big Woods.

He built the first boat from plans, but the second boat, he designed himself, which was a real achievement.

Nadine said...

I am super impressed.

kathy a. said...

what a wonderful story! beautifully written.

my dad was always tinkering, building and inventing things, and he learned a lot of skills from books. one of his projects was his darkroom, which began with a small storage space but grew to fill the garage, when he decided that making very large blowups would be useful for his business. he built huge trays to develop the prints, covering them with fiberglass. the photo of your dad finishing his boat brings back such memories.

Yankee T said...

Most excellent boat, father, and post. Cannot wait for the book!

zhoen said...

You teach me that families can be loving and functional, and I feel less precarious for having found love and good friends, and cousins as cool as your family.

Baby Lisa said...

I remember going on your sailboat with you and your father when we were kids. We stopped before we got to the marina and got Sarsasparilla (sp?). On the boat, the boom would swing violently, but your Dad controlled it like an orchestra conductor. I do recall, however, being in the path of the boom at the wrong time on several occasions. To all of Jo(e)s readers: her family is really just as she says. My childhood memories of jo(e) and her family are priceless.
Kindergarten friend: AKA Baby Lisa

sam said...

Before I was born, my dad and his friend built two boats together - a canoe for the friend and a wooden rowboat for my dad. My mom always joked that the boat was Dad's dowry coming into their marriage. It was sold when I was small, and I've always wished we could have taken it out together. Thanks for this post.

Aliki2006 said...

This was wonderful and made me think at once of my own father, who I can completely see building a boat--he loves projects like that!

Liz said...

That was a really nice story about your dad. It brought back many memories of me sailing with my dad. Thanks for your great writing and beautiful pictures day after day.

Rev Dr Mom said...

What a wonderful story!

BeachMama said...

That is such a wonderful story. Your Dad sounds so awesome. And to watch three boats come to life and be used and enjoyed is so amazing.

Cloudscome said...

What an awesome legacy!

OUT OF AFRICA said...

I love your blog, read it daily. This post brought tears to my eyes, my dad was so similar..i miss him all the time!