17′ Hampden Boat, Howard Chapelle, Boatbuilding
Boats as a term covers the widest possibility of types and usages. My own experience, and perhaps the experience of most people drawn to this site and its concerns, weighs more heavily towards pleasure boats, as opposed to the more utilitarian or more lavish designations of either work boats or yachts. The distinction, especially between pleasure boats and yachts might seem arcane or even just a quibble. I do think of it as significant. This is why I’ve always called myself a boat designer with the emphasis on boat. Pleasure boats and yachts share their non-utilitarian differentiation from working craft. But the most significant difference between the two tends to be scale, cost, and the way in which they fit into people’s lives. Pleasure boats tend to be smaller, more modest in cost, and with fewer social pretensions. They also tend to take up a larger place, relatively, within the lives of the people who pay for and use them. The emphasis is on relative. Even the most substantial and costly yacht becomes a boat in this way if it grabs hold of its owners to the same extent as a simple boat does in the life of someone of more modest means. Boats, as I’ve said in my opening essay Beginnings, are dear. Yachts tend to be luxuries, and as such are trivial to their owners, in the grand scheme. It does come down to this as I see it. Pleasure boats are “toys,” but they are “serious” toys. They are dear in all senses of the word.
My quibble concerning my title is related to this. A boat designer is not providing commodities to an industry, but interacting with people who find boats important to them. The interaction combines a modesty of means with an ambition of expectation. The boats tend to be less costly, but more dear. The process and the interaction are not transactions merely, they are relationships. The result is an experience shared between the parties involved that fleshes out a particular answer to a broad, open question, How may this boat enrich the lives of these people?
Over the course of this discussion we’ll be going into every aspect of that question. It will be our E=MC². We’ll take apart each variable and constant. Each word of that sentence holds important points to be considered.
Just one more thing for now. There is a unique job pleasure boats can tackle that goes right to the heart of why this site exists, why I’m still struggling to find a way to grapple with boats during difficult times. Boats straddle two worlds. They are intransigently physical. They are carriers of potent meaning and vessels for primal experiences. In this way they are somewhere between utilitarian objects and works of art. They must meet demanding physical challenges, and they have the divine uselessness of an art object. They are real. We trust them with our lives. Yet they exist the way art exists, because we value the way they can transport us beyond day to day necessity and give us experiences of what if.
We tend to be captured by our conditions. Everything from external power structures to our own habits promote and protect this conditioning. It becomes very difficult to imagine our way out of these binds. This is always true, and always important; but this is especially so in difficult times when constraints close in creating ever more compelling anxiety, closing down our abilities to work at any alternative. This is where pleasure boats enter into our equation. Even when they are no more than thought experiments, imagined vehicles to transport us for a few moments beyond what’s in front of us, they create a space where we can inhabit alternatives free of the pressures brought to bear when we’re facing immediate and compelling contingencies.
You might say, “Well that’s just a daydream, or a fantasy. How is that any different from any form of escape?” This is where boat’s grounding in physicality comes in. Even when we’re just dreaming about boats, they are constantly whispering to us of the need for our dreams to connect with reality. Not in the stereotypical way that necessity keeps pushing us back into the grooves we’ve worn so deeply already, but in an open, playful, relaxed, yet rigorous interaction with reality at its most fundamental. Boats nudge us to ask things like, “What do we like? Why do we like this over that? How can we meet the fundamental requirements that the boat float, etc. and still have it both matter to us and also somehow somewhere fit into our dreams for ourselves?” It’s through these, and countless other related questions; that pleasure boats can be a school for our liberation from a tread-worn way of life; helping lead us towards the discovery of new approaches that grow out of our real, basic needs; and are not simply knee-jerk reactions to conditioned desire.
In a nutshell – my “first boat” was a walnut-shell-half rigged with a toothpick mast! – This is my answer to, “Why boats?” and “Why now?”