I went to “Boat School” in Lubec Maine in 1973. At the time there were only two schools in the country that fit that description, the other one was in Washington State. That I’d been living in Maine for three years, the first two at Bates College, then the third working odd jobs around Lewiston; meant I qualified as a state resident and paid $300 per year for the two years for the privilege. I’m glad to have had my college and post grad experience, but these two years were formative and continue to nourish me in many ways. The school, part of the State Education System, a branch of the county’s community college established only the year before at an abandoned coast guard station and boathouse on the easternmost peninsula in the United States confused everyone involved with setting it up while it provided a wonderful experiment in mash-up education forty years ahead of its time.
The school, officially titled; Washington County Vocational Technical Institute, Boatbuilding Division; was intended as a vocational class for local downeast kids to pick up a trade. I’m sure they expected it would fill up with the same fairly homogenous mix of non “college-track” kids that went to the other vocational programs. The unwritten rule was that smart kids went to college, the rest got a vocation; fixing cars, plumbing, or in downeast Maine logging pulp wood or building boats.
The place didn’t meet anyone’s expectations. There were two instructors. The senior instructor, Ernie Brierley was a flamboyant English bachelor Gent from the Isle of Wight full of stories about life at Vospers during the war and accompanied by a brace of English Pointers with whom he hunted upland game birds in his off-time. The other was a young man, Doug Dodge, fresh from Beal’s Island where his family had guarded their boatbuilding secrets for countless generations. To Mr. Dodge someone from Jonesport, across the bridge, was an outsider. What his grandfather and father had grudgingly let slip to him as he swept their shop as a boy was not to be spilled to just anyone, least of all a bunch of misfits from wherever.
Brierley and Dodge were in their own ways representative of the spread of ages and cultural diversity that made up the thirty-odd students comprising the two year-classes in residence when I was there. My friend and later partner Eric Dow, a very young eighteen year old from Brooklin Maine, son and brother to lobstermen/boatbuilders who had grown up on Bridge’s Point, named after his mother’s family who’d been there since the English took the land from the Indians – as we called the Native Americans back then – who’d camped there in the summer leaving shell-middens and artifacts Eric had found walking from his parent’s house down to the shore. Eric might have most closely fit the mold of students the school expected to attract, but he was far from typical. – He didn’t turn out quite as expected either, spending a year living in a Teepee on his parent’s land with a classmate friend from an academic Cambridge family as he was starting his own shop in his grandfather’s old auto repair garage down the road. The rest of us were of all ages, the oldest a gentleman nearing sixty from England, others from all over, and some from nowhere, escapees from the counterculture who had sailed around the world or been off lost in the Yukon.
We were a mash-up all right! For me it was a wonder. The whole time I was pinching myself for being in such a magical place. West Quoddy Head, Passamaquoddy Bay, the Bay of Fundy, Lubec and Eastport, and Campobello Island; these places have a tremendous power and stark beauty. They were inhabited by spirits, ghosts, and mortal residents who were all larger than life. I was thrown into this mix aware of the miracle of it while at the same time unable to appreciate how unique and fleeting the opportunity was. I guess that’s true of the best parts of youth for everyone. Going there from Provincetown on Cape Cod I was both as provincial as the locals and at the same time much more cosmopolitan. As I’ve written in Shoal Hope, Provincetown has been a unique and powerful place too. One set at a crossroads where many currents of twentieth century life intersected. I’d also been to Portugal, and had two years of college behind me to give me airs. Still, next to many there, I was narrow in my perspective and experience.
To the State of Maine, we were renegades and misfits. They worked to tame this aberration, eventually they succeeded. The school moved and became proper, before falling away. The property was abandoned again. Now part of it is a B&B. Order temporarily restored.
I began this post not to reminisce, but to come to a point. There was one particular lesson I learned there that I haven’t been exposed to in quite the same way anywhere else. Afterwards I’ve been able to use this insight in all of the different pursuits I’ve followed. It had to do with the way a traditional boatbuilder like Mr. Dodge approaches his work. On one side he has an idea for a boat. It’s in his head. It got there through osmosis and the experience of seeing and living with and creating forms, but had no connection to any theoretical construct about design, aesthetics, or art. This was a conception of what boat is, and an attempt to approximate it as closely as his talents and vision allowed. He would build a half-model, carved from white pine layered bread-and-butter style. A profile laid out on its backside/center-line, and a half breadth marked on its top. The rest was carved from these two edges to suit what the hand and eye created in a back and forth of intention and execution followed by perception, retrospection, and then a fresh intention. This was my first exposure to what John Boyd was in those same years codifying as the OODA Loop.
While Mr. Dodge, he was scarcely older than I was, and so painfully shy and retiring as to seem even younger – if that was possible! – brought his model to the shop, arrayed outside, in stickered piles or rows of planks standing on end leaning their upper ends against each other like a transformed transplanted Copse of Atlantic White Cedar, he would have gathered the materials to build his boat. Here is the point of what I’m getting at. In every shop-class or industrial design, or engineering school in the world; we are taught that we develop an idea and then we shape materials to fit that preconception. That’s not the way you build a boat. That’s not the way humans built things for the possibly 700,000 years since we have any evidence of boats – with artifacts of human occupation on sea-locked Crete dating from that time.
Mr. Dodge would respect his model, but he also respected his materials. An oak log that told him it had a keel in it might be two feet shorter than the boat he had in mind, or three feet longer. If it was truly worthy he would adapt his boat to incorporate it, amending his intention either shortening or lengthening the boat to match. The same spirit informed every visit to the wood-pile or planking stack. I learned that you approach materials with an intention, but worthy materials push back. We couldn’t expect to have what we made respected if we failed to respect what went into it. These weren’t lifeless lumps of stuff. They had been living trees and ores, even animals; who all had their own purposes. Contingency and labor had brought them all together with an unrepeatable rhythm of potentials and limitations. They would end up coming together into the creation of a living craft once we were done, but only in so far as we were able to respect them and listen to their input and not simply impose our will.
What we make has the opportunity of transcending expectation. We can be involved in miracles of creation, but not if we are blind to the currents of accommodation and collaboration, not only with our fellow “Man” – as we called people in those days – but also with a limb of Oak, a sweep of Cedar, or a rod of Copper; a scrap of Leather or bowl of Tallow, a gallon of Turps or a pint of Pine Tar. They contribute to what we make, but that contribution is truncated if we force them without listening and respecting them for what they are.
That’s what I learned in Boat School. This is one of the reasons I persist in finding value in boats when so many considerations would tempt me to see them as frivolous or at least impractically difficult in these difficult times. You see this lesson isn’t frivolous. It cuts through notions of efficiency and ill-considered “pragmatism.” These lessons can’t be lost. They only survive in little havens that have temporarily escaped the ravages of progress, or in the fragile memories of a few of us who have had the good fortune to be exposed to them quite by accident.
By accident. No one involved with that school wanted such lessons to be learned. Certainly not the State of Maine and it’s representatives at the Department of Education. Mr Dodge taught this lesson as reluctantly as he parted with any of his family’s secrets – that in itself a fund of wisdom I’m still mining for its truths so deep and esoteric for all of the downeaster’s matter-of-fact and undemonstrative demeanor. We students had no idea what was really on offer, either from Mr. Dodge, or from Ernie’s endless stories of wartime Britain and the cream of the Empire’s nautical traditions brought together to defeat the Nazi hoards. Nor from each other and the rough and tumble of day-to-day life with so many odd and difficult characters gathered in an inhospitable and impoverished corner of the world where twenty foot tides met the sunrise and sea-smoke encrusted on the walls inches from our beds.
The place was itself a reluctant teacher, its inhabitants caught up in their own dance with collapse, decay, entropy, and death in a place that had prospered into the start of the twentieth century and then never recovered from the Great Depression. A calamity whose human cost became the life’s work of our neighbor – residing there still, in spirit, in his old summer home, Campobello, where he’d succumbed to the Polio that turned a feckless rich-man’s son into perhaps our last great national leader.
None of us wanted this lesson, or made much of it at the time, but that is how the greatest lessons are learned. They come to us in whispers, daring us to ignore their soft power. So much of what they give us comes from the way we find the luck and persistence to catch them anyway, against their “will?” Or is it against, or merely despite, our own?