September 19, 2007
And a star to steer her by
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.
Posted by jo(e)