Do you know what
it is to be boat sick? To hang upside down through a hatchway to see how they
put that shapely cedar planking through the turn at the bilges? To watch
someone take hot white oak frames out of the steam box and bend them down
against the form so that when they've cooled they bear the transept of the
hull's flowing sheer, yet hold the shaped planking against green, wind-driven
sea water, against careenings, groundings and the attritional violence of
years' usage? Have you ever walked on a laid teak deck, sprung to the sheer,
then fitted to a king plank at the center as though all the planking had grown
that way, gathering in sweeps around the catwalks, up the foredeck and around
the samson post with passionate simplicity? Now, once you have seen that, do
you know how to keep from offering the traditional arm and a leg for some
authentic artifact of a very old allegiance between wood and water?
In 1948, L.
Francis Herreshoff, the mandarin genius of American yacht design, issued from
his literal castle at Marblehead a set of plans for what he called a poor man's
yacht, designed for those "who can visualize a different type of yachting
than ocean racing." Today, when a great number of the stock sailboats
available are compromised for the cruising sailor by designs that aim to
capitalize on gaps in racing regulations and rating systems, Herreshoff's
dictum has a certain pungency, and the sailor with even the vaguest esthetics
turns with refreshment from the emetic details of the swollen, winch-encrusted
racers to the wholesome lines of this poor man's yacht.
his creation the Meadow Lark, a shoal-draft boat that could, he said, "skim
over the marshes and meadows as the joyful bird of that name does over many of
our fields which border the Atlantic." The boat derived in main from the
old New Haven sharpies, fast, capable, hard-chine oyster boats that were
popular in the 19th century. And it quite possibly derived from the experiments
of Commodore Ralph Munroe, a south Florida pioneer who in the late 19th century
built the legendary Presto boats.
The Meadow Lark
was ketch-rigged, 33 feet long and, instead of a keel or centerboard, had
leeboards like the Dutch Boier yachts, winglike things that are alternately
dropped and lifted when tacking. The draft of the boat was 15 inches, a
wondrous fact in a 33-foot sailboat and a statistic which opened a world of
cruising grounds that seldom see a sailboat.
The Meadow Lark,
said Herreshoff, was for those who would like to spend their vacations "in
pleasure." It is amusing to speculate upon those who like to spend their
vacations otherwise. One suspects that here Herreshoff again meant the racing
sailors, surfing the big screamers with their sail bins, tower-of-power
spinnakers, and wilderness of madhouse equipage with names like "reaching
struts," "shroud releases," "spider blocks" and "boom
vang tangs." It is reasonable to wonder if someone wailing away on a
two-speed Barient pedestal winch is spending his vacation in pleasure, or (you
see the old man in his Marblehead stone tower, grinning) in pain.
Americans have done surpassingly well is design boats, and the apotheosis of
this national trait is in larger-than-life figures like the Herreshoffs (Capt.
Nat and L. Francis), S. S. Crocker, William Atkin and John Alden, to name a few
peaks. The moment you tune in to an activity like sailing and sense the
variability of esthetics and performance and finally the long, noble tradition
of preoccupation in its unbroken stream, you begin to sense there is something
beyond sport and pleasurable vacations.
The Meadow Lark
is almost an aside in Herreshoff's career, though the old man, with his
penchant for variety (from sail skis to serene canoe yawls to world sojourners
), is a little hard to pin down. Where today's highly
trained naval architect will describe some negative trait in a boat's
performance in terms of, say, section and flow, Herreshoff will simply note
that it is "annoying" and tell you how it is avoided. The annoying is
to be avoided just as the vacation is to be spent in pleasure. The best thing
when you are out at night in a strange anchorage is "not to be
worried." That sounds simple enough, but the sailor who has watched the
compass shift slightly with a dragging anchor in the darkness and the ocean
rumbling spookily on a lee shore knows that to sleep without worry is a concept
clogged with meaning.
Key West is a
lovely noisy town. A realtor once told me not to worry about the fantastic
racket in the drumlike 19th century house she was showing me; the exhaust pipe
of every car that passed in the street outside seemed to be routed via some
stereophonic magic into every room. "You use the air conditioners to drown
out the noise," she explained. And since Key West is surrounded by water, I
found myself concentrating upon the theme of silence as the principal verity of
the eternal sea. The eternal sea has other verities, but in a bustling,
Latinate town like Key West, silence is the Big Mamu.
For me this was
the fissure through which boatlust entered. Marine reading increased to the
point that my bedside looked like headquarters for the junior-high paper drive.
I would have eleventy-seven vessels, if I could, and in my spare time I would
build a lissome traditional schooner, thousands of feet of deck and planking
pouring from my backyard miter box.
Instead, I built
a dinghy which the designer called "the acme of simplicity." I fitted
secondhand fire hose from the Key West Fire Department to its gunwales so my
six-year-old could ram things, as is his wont. The boat worked fine. Then he
wanted a window in its bottom, so I installed one. At the relaunching the
dinghy headed for the bottom, so I slobbered aquarium sealer all over it and it
floated, the sea's eternal verities passing the plate-glass window.