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Week 19: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Wooden boat builders are a philosophical bunch, or at least they come to be so. Constructing watercraft from a medium that has its own mind makes you realize time is fungible and progress often incremental. These are frustrating conclusions for recent generations who are offered the expediency of internet searches and phones smarter than equipment employed to launch NASA’s first space shuttle. (Look that last one up, I’m not kidding.)

But, there is more to our philosophical bent than patience and splinter wisdom. A designer employing a computer or lofter with a keen eye and micrometer for measurements can blueprint a boat of supreme perfection. There is, however, a difference between vision and execution. Hence the endless arguments in general construction between architects and engineers. Architects see a perfect structure, engineers have to work with materials that do not always yield to those visionary specifications. The same is true in wooden boatbuilding—even if you apply all the epoxy to be found in your shop.

Wood twists, shrinks, and comes complete with checks and knots that will fail at the most inopportune moment. I have watched my classmates spend hours spieling, cutting and shaping a plank only to have the timber split upon that last twist onto a hull. It does not matter if you are in large or small craft, wood does not always cooperate. Back to the planer and hours of careful time.

And so we arrive at week 19 of our year here at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding. Some of you may recall I predicted last week that we would be putting the “whiskey plank” on Felicity Ann. Turns out Zen master Jody Boyle needed to take one more walk around the hull before blessing this act of closure. No joy; he found three more planks in need of replacement.

Two steps forward and one step back.

Fortunately, the Felicity Ann planking crew are now relative experts and took on the mission with nary a grumble. Back to feeding Oliver planks and spieling for another set of timbers that come with a promise of more time fitting and hours of riveting. I told you this wooden boatbuilding was a philosophical business.IMG_1268

Meanwhile, down in small craft, more thinking and woodworking has been taking place. Zen master Leigh O’Connor has his Whitehall teams pressing forward with stem, transom and keel. They were also busy planing their planking to dimension—a final fit one of my counterparts compared to “paper” as opposed to the “cardboard” dimensions we use in large craft. (All I can say is they managed to fill the dust system in the Hammond Mill Shop with fifty pounds of shavings—a lot of cedar dust for someone’s garden.)

Thinking of gardens—now I am off tangent—Spring has arrived here in the great Northwet! I grew up in the Midwest, where the saying was “April showers bring May flowers.” Well, here in Port Townsend it seems January showers bring February flowers. My front yard is abloom with daffodils. The deer, for some reason, do not eat these morsels, so the neighborhood gets to enjoy a bit of yellow and contemplate even warmer weather.

IMG_1263All of which points to a coming sailing season! A sailing season that opened last Thursday, when Zen master Olivier Huin splashed a sailboat into the Pacific Ocean. After weeks of paint, sanding mast and spars, to say nothing of varnish, his team finished Catspaw and rolled her into the water. Nothing quite like watching a new boat with fresh sail be put to test. Now if he can just get similar progress to occur with the Philbrick Runabout—a philosophical discussion for another day.

Oh, I would be remiss in failing to note our sailing season did not just open at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding. On 27 February, the Port Townsend Sailing Association sponsored its annual Shipwrights Regatta. With sun overhead and a 10 knot breeze coming from the south, 33 sailboats of all sizes took to the Port Townsend Bay. Thanks to the efforts of Tulip Morrow, a member of the boat school staff, no small number of us were aboard craft enjoying fair winds and following seas.

Back at the school, Zen master Bruce Blatchley and his contemporary crew have just about finished their Nutshell Pram and the submarine appears to be progressing into the super-secret phase—at least we outsiders think so. The last I looked, at least half the hull was draped in canvas, just like the US Navy hides its latest designs.


All of which brings us to the end of week 19. A bit wiser, perhaps more philosophical, and certainly coming to grips with the fact that wooden boatbuilding requires two steps forward and one step back—even if that one step back is just to admire your craft’s lines and the result of hours of painstaking skilled labor.

eri profile
Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering
in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard.  A new resident of
Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer.