From the Shavings Archives: “Why Wood? Elegance’s Burden”

Our Boatwright, Joe Green, recently penned an article of the same title as this article from the 11th Annual Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival edition of CWB’s member newsletter, Shavings. This article, written by yacht rigger Brion Toss, is a wonderful exploration of just exactly why some of us are crazy enough to fall in love with, and stay in love with, wooden boats, and why that might not be so crazy after all. Stay tuned to read the recent article, “Why Wood?”

CWB’s back issues of Shavings are now accessible online through the CWB document archives. Browse the back issues here, including the issue from which this article was taken, Volume 9 Number 4, August 1987.

Why Wood? Elegance’s Burden

By Brion Toss

The elaborations of elegance are at least as fascinating, and more various, more democratic, more healthy, more practical — though less glamorous — than the elaborations of power. — Wendell Berry

Wooden boats are a particularly burdensome form of elegance. They need not be more expensive than other items of comparable elegance, but they do require more attention and refinement on our part, if we are to appreciate them fully. In contrast, say that instead of a sloop by Herreshoff, you had a painting by Matisse. You could just hang the painting on the wall and derive some pleasure from a simple, ostentatious display of wealth. And you might wait to take the trouble to find out something about the traditions and techniques of art in general, and of Matisse in particular, in order to gain a richer relationship with your investment. Altogether you’d be out a lot of cash and a modicum of intellectual effort. But you’d never have to keep buying spare parts for your painting at some outrageously overpriced Post-Impressionist chandlery, never have to worry about being rammed by some drunk in a Jackson Pollack, never have to replace a chafed background, and of course you’d never have to repaint it.

But the Herreshoff sloop, or any other wooden boat of even tolerable quality, is a sufficiently complex, evolved, aesthetically weighted artifact as to have serious claim to being a work of art. The owner of such a boat, regardless of its cash value, will not swing much weight in the showing-off department; the general public, to the extent that they are aware that wooden boats still exist at all, is inclined to regard them as somewhat musty curiosities, like steam engines, men’s clubs, and Esperanto. The sloop’s owner, in order to derive full pleasure from the vessel, will need to be well-versed in design evolution, the culture and waters in which the design evolved, the talents and personal idiosyncrasies of the designer and builder (invaluable knowledge, as a goodly portion of one’s life with the boat will be spent in endless retelling of those worthies’ encounters with clients, storms, police officers, etc.), and of the vessel’s temperament and handling characteristics, especially as compared with other (inferior) vessels of her type. “A hole in the water into which you pour money” isn’t the half of it; in order fully to appreciate a wooden boat, you must also pour in generous amounts of mental and emotional effort, not to mention blood, sweat, and tears.

The question must surely arise: “Is it worth it?” And by contemporary, bottom-line, investment-oriented standards the answer must surely be a regretful, “no”. Yet here we are, a thriving whooping subculture, happily involved with our vessels. Some — but probably not all — of our interest can be attributed to masochism. But what we have, and what we need to be able to recall and articulate when the task of caretaking seems too great, is a set of values generally lumped under the term “tradititional”. These values encompass more factors, meanings, and shades of meanings than the techno-accountant-influenced world is likely to consider. It is a set of values so rich and interlinked that it has no “bottom line.”

The only comparable phenomenon I can think of is that of falling, and staying, in love. With a new love, one experiences the same senseless rush, the same boundless optimism we might feel with a beautiful boat: “My goodness, what a handsome vessel! (face); See how she stands up to a breeze! (see how the beloved can tolerate my company); and what lines! (what lines).”

And as with love, once that first endorphin-generating jolt has passed, one is left with the options either to seek further jolts elsewhere, or to attune oneself to subtler, more profound delights. Relationships between people are — or should be — far more complex, difficult, and potentially rewarding than relationships between people
and boats, but the main point holds true: the greatest joys are rooted, not in immediate gratification, but in the very process of relating. That’s a concept we have difficulty
with, these days. Hard times for lovers. Perhaps our boats (and our gardens, and our workbenches) are leading us back to tradition’s senseless, elegant means of fixing worth. The jolt path is ultimately corrosive. It tends to lead to a cynical personal life and/or fast, ugly boats. This path is corrosive because it is inappropriate, on a primal level. We need complexity, need a rich context if we aspire to long-term happiness.

All of this theorizing isn’t going to carry much weight when you find rot in your stem, or when you’re scrambling to find an insurance company that doesn’t think
wooden boats are right up there with South American dictators in the bad risk department, or when you feel as though the entire civilized world is pointing at you and
saying, ” Nyah, nyah, look at the weirdo in the antique tub.” But devotion to worthwhile pursuits will reward one with moments, at least, of peace. Maybee not enough to be comfortable at being out of step with this world. But enough to feel in step with a better one.

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