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Thomas McGuane
February 25, 1974
It was there he built his boat from the blueprints of an ancient mariner, where he learned the craft he came to love
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February 25, 1974

In The Factory Of The Mind

It was there he built his boat from the blueprints of an ancient mariner, where he learned the craft he came to love

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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.

Herreshoff called 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.

One thing 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 like the Marco Polo ), 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.

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