The Hands will Solve a Mystery…

Howard Chapelle’s American Small Sailing Craft

Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.

Carl Jung

This insight is behind my deepest impulse to do, to make things. When I’m in doubt, I want to work on something. One of my few certainties is that I am more likely to find what I’m looking for that way. Not planning, or strategizing, or thinking about a problem or predicament, but beginning to do something.

The key is in what that “something” is, and how we approach our task. If we lash out in action, acting in re-action, not much comes of it, except perhaps a deepening of the hole we’ve been trying to climb out of. What Jung is talking about is an approach to activity in which we really open up to the intelligence beyond our conscious control. This isn’t meant to support any particular spiritual view. Spiritual and metaphysical pondering on such questions seek out explanation. We don’t really need one. The miracle is in the action, not its ultimate cause.

The impulse behind Boats for Difficult Times is fully in keeping with Jung’s statement. One of the ways I answer the question of what to do is to follow my inclination and desire to work with boats perhaps above all other “things.”

Recently, discussing what is possible while building a boat, I said,

The most important thing in building a boat is to keep thinking, looking, and feeling all the way along. Every decision, every action, should be an open question until it has to be closed. No plan is as good as the open judgments that can be made right there in dealing with the real thing. Every trip to the wood pile is a conversation between the intention, the plan, and the material at hand. Every space, every form, is felt and adjusted as it’s being made. The hand falls where the line should go. Placement is the result of being there and engaging with space and form.…  A wonderful design is one that is open to and invites this attitude. A good designer inspires confidence when we find along the way that they’ve touched upon the question of the moment and they have left some hint in the plan that corroborates our own sense of how the boat is best served as we come to our decisions, or as we confront what is taking shape in front of us and out of the labor of our hands.

If you open yourself to this, boatbuilding is one of the most exciting things you can do! It’s also daunting.

It’s not just building, it’s also designing, it’s also writing, or painting….

This is true of many activities, but there’s something special when we’re dealing with boats.






6 thoughts on “The Hands will Solve a Mystery…

  1. Antonio:
    I’m enjoying your blog, which I recently discovered. What the hands know — recalls for me many parallels — from the tactile memory that the jazz improviser uses, to the idea of craft activity as a communing with the past and reproduction of a future. As a beginning boat builder, some of the nuances of Chapelle’s American Small Craft are lost on me — but the basic idea of boat forms evolved in specific conditions, with materials at hand, to suit a practical need (and yet also aesthetic) resonates. Certainly, my own sense of sailing was altered by the experience of planing and shaping a centerboard for myself.

    Here’s a poem you might like that touches on the issue — Gary Snyder’s Ax Handles:

    One afternoon the last week in April
    Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
    One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
    He recalls the hatchet-head
    Without a handle, in the shop
    And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
    A broken-off axe handle behind the door
    Is long enough for a hatchet,
    We cut it to length and take it
    With the hatchet head
    And working hatchet, to the wood block.
    There I begin to shape the old handle
    With the hatchet, and the phrase
    First learned from Ezra Pound
    Rings in my ears!
    “When making an axe handle
    the pattem is not far off.”
    And I say this to Kai
    “Look: We’ll shape the handle
    By checking the handle
    Of the axe we cut with-”
    And he sees. And I hear it again:
    It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
    A.D. “Essay on Literature”-in the
    Preface: “In making the handle Of an axe
    By cutting wood with an axe
    The model is indeed near at hand.-
    My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
    Translated that and taught it years ago
    And I see: Pound was an axe,
    Chen was an axe, I am an axe
    And my son a handle, soon
    To be shaping again, model
    And tool, craft of culture,
    How we go on.

    1. Ken,

      Thank you so much for your contribution.

      There is that evolution, a driving force behind us as we contemplate the boat and its future.

      Snyder’s Axe Handle describes this so well, from the perspective of the generations involved. That it’s not just what we learn from our past, but how we pass it along.

  2. Under the guidance of a septugenarian born on the Isle of Wight, my daughters and I built a wooden Optimist this past summer. As they gained confidence and learned to sail this summer, they had the gift of doing so in a made (rather than manufactured) boat. How often do adults, never mind children, regularly experience this kind of connectedness? Looking forward to future posts.

  3. Antonio, I greatly enjoy your blog,

    Here are some experiences I had building a boat and writing a blog:

    Two years ago I started a project to build a small wooden boat and at the same time started a blog to record the process – at both boat building and blogging I was a complete beginner. Building a boat was a lifelong dream – not as a way to get a boat, but to have the experience of creating a boat. The idea for the blog was to let my family in Scotland keep up with progress and share the experience.
    As these endeavors progressed I became interested in the difference between the reality of the project, with the limits of my skills and experience and on the other hand what is presented in my blog which naturally tends to project a stereotype of an experienced, handy expert on seamanship and woodworking.
    Building a boat is like a poem composed of a series of tasks. Each task has associations and specials skills attached. Whether it is making and shaping the stem, or making spars; there is a connection to traditional skills and materials and proven ways of doing things to meet the challenges of the particular task. I felt I was tapping into the continuum of craft understanding. There is a lot of plain hard work in between too! It is good to switch your mind off and immerse yourself in the sensory pleasures of the materials, the smell, the look but most of all the feel of the wood. You come to understand its springiness, and the shapes it makes. There is a muscle memory and feedback that you get from your body rather instead of your brain.
    The struggles I had were mostly to do with the craft/quality equation: Over time you come to a compromise over what you can do and what you hope to do, between what you can live with and the need to get on. The epoxy and plywood technique is forgiving – but you have to set your own standards for quality.
    Writing the blog was also an interesting experience: Typically I would spend a weekend working on the boat and then on Sunday evening, write something about the stage we had reached and the progress made. It started as a way for my family in Scotland to follow along but I soon realized that other people were reading it. When I went alone into the garage, perhaps with my dog, I began to feel the presence of a “cloud of witnesses” in there too, watching me, waiting for me to make a mistake.
    I found that there’s a community of supportive people who share a passion for boatbuilding. They make friendly, encouraging comments on each others blogs and pass on experience and wisdom on what works well to accomplish various tasks – the general consensus is that “traditional ways are best.” I was amazed at the numbers of people reading the blog – 234 views a day on the busiest day.
    Although I appreciated the encouraging comments and greatly enjoyed reading others blogs, I did not feel comfortable with the showmanship and self-promotion aspect of writing the blog – it is very tempting to present the only the positive. Working in public, you find you are presenting a person that is not really you. This person is handier, more knowledgeable, and harder working. You find you have stereotyped yourself, but really you are a beginner.

    1. Sorry for taking so long to reply!

      You’ve captured so much of the way the human condition is reflected in our experiences with boatbuilding, along with attempting to blog about it! I guess you had me speechless!

      Boatbuilding, like the practice of an art, exposes us to an open-ended engagement with reality that is wonderful, but at the same time can be disorienting since it doesn’t fit what our conditioned response would consider “normal.” We are led to expect by the general culture that there is some difference between how we, as mere mortal “consumers,” might deal with things as opposed to the way “experts” ply their trades. When you admit to being a “beginner,” I think you are responding to the fact that if we engage directly in any significant task, we are all “reduced” to that status. In fact, this is one of the key values to be derived from such a practice. The condition of enforced humility this holds us to is a great boon!

      I’m afraid I’m trying to recapture the gist of a reply I’ve lost to the ether. It’s not as smooth trying to restate what I’ve said better….

      You also bring up the expectation of perfection implicit in an account like your blog, and that feeling that you’ve been anything but perfect. This was all tied up with a sense of connection with those who followed your posts and commented with support or advice. This is another knock against the fantasy of expertise as well as a sign of the way taking a chance and making an effort to communicate does bring us connection.

      These online connections are fragile, and problematic in their own ways, but I value your heartfelt comment and look forward to anything else you’d like to contribute here.

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