Efficiency versus Adequacy

In the early stages of burrowing into a potential design commission, thinking about the type, sketching, imagining myself into a particular subset of all the many avenues into a boat, leaning to fit into one way, leaving the options open and circling around, waiting as much as looking, to see what comes up; I found myself re-reading William and John Atkin’s First Book of Boats. In it is an essay written by John Hanna that the editor notes was written in 1924, a quarter of a century before that volume was put together, and now approaching a century before our time, Efficiency versus Adequacy.

I’ve written about efficiency, most pointedly in this remark and its commentary on Fine Lines. It’s been so long since I’ve read Hanna’s essay that it had receded into my common knowledge, I’d lost any connection between my own thoughts on the subject and Mr. Hanna’s. My next thought was my lack of surprise at having found myself scooped by eighty-six years! I’ve been recognizing lately how much of my present day armorarium has grown out of my education in boats, particularly my exposure to “old” ideas and practices and opinions that were already long out of fashion when my various sources, mostly old or dead before I found them, had gotten around to noting them. This process for me began in 1972, when I first discovered Howard Chappele, and began to follow a series of leads away from the present and supposedly “vital” contemporaneous world far downeast and back into time.

I’m tempted to carry this reminiscence along in a chronological order, turning what should just be some background for the point of this essay into a Tolstoyan opus none of you would have the patience to follow even if I had the gall to pull it off!

Mr. Hanna begins with a line whose sentiments were behind my starting this project:

“Most boating books and magazines of today are at least 51 percent bunk. And the most buncombilious bunk of all they contain is this w. k. ‘efficiency’ bleat.”

I must admit I don’t know what a “w. k.” “bleat” is, and I suspect there are few if any of you who have any clue, but the rest reads loud and clear.

He goes on to connect “efficiency” with the “dollar.” It’s heartening to see that I’m not the first or only person to fall into what is commonly perceived as a “luxury racket” while harboring rather unacceptable “leanings” in the expected eyes of my “natural” clientele. Putting my faith into a certain tolerance for eccentricity and hoping to find enough like-minded spirits with enough “disposable” cash to afford my services. This has been a “business plan” that was probably almost as foolhardy in his day as it’s proven to be for me over the years!

“If a man becomes such a slave to dollar chasing that he cannot possibly think or enjoy life in any other terms, of course he must buy only the most ‘efficient’ obtainable boat, to be happy.”

Mr. Hanna goes on to say,

“But there are many who can and do leave every commercial idea at the office and take some hobby for pleasure and pleasure alone. If that hobby is boating, the pleasure comes in being afloat, away from the land and its harassing problems, free from all worry and care, and above all, free from the ceaseless compulsion to get somewhere on schedule time….”

I began reading this passage by feeling myself a little superior, with my sense that such divisions, that form of compartmentalization of life that has been the watchword of the “successful” for so long has now finally been shown to be seriously mistaken, that we make these sorts of divisions at our own and the planet’s peril. But then as he goes on to state with a strong sense of the obviousness and common sense of his notion, that being on the water is a way to get away from worries and particularly the nagging concern over a schedule, it was my turn to feel chastened by his prescience. How pervasive has that erosion of peace become that even people who are looking to follow a different path in many other particulars are finding it so alien and difficult to even imagine entering such an exotic sense of “dream-time?” It’s sobering to think that the better adjusted middle-class professional of three quarters of a century ago would nod and take another puff on his pipe before going on without having found anything strange at all in Mr Hanna’s admonishment.

So much has changed. That “middle-class” that made up the bulk of clients for the Hanna’s and the L. Francis Herresshoff’s and the John Atkin’s of that time, are extinct. Any sense of the sea – certainly the coastal nooks and crannies of the northeast of the U. S., or the British coast, any of the shores frequented by most amateur boaters these days – as a haven of nature where its abundance and peace and quiet can be relished in anything like the ways I can remember from my early childhood are long gone. Probably most disturbing, because it is internal and should be subject to our own control in ways that the natural world cannot, the sense of peace and quiet as a place where we give up notions of planning and allegiance to schedule has been just about beaten out of us. The hold the trappings of “convenience” and “connection” have over us is astounding and pretty pitiful, especially when we begin to recognize how our dependence on this framework, this worldview where every action can be announced and every return verified by cell-phone and GPS, guaranteed by rescue services on 24 hour call anywhere on earth, so long as we qualify as holders of valid “First World” passports.

We want to enter into the world Mr. Hanna alludes to. It beckons to us, and we wish to follow its call. But! We accept as beyond consideration the “compromises” with our “realities” and slide right past any possibility of seriously considering the kinds of choices that either open or close the doors to what we wish to find. We carry radios, we have engines, we trailer our boats to expand our range, and deal with the too difficult complexities of wanting to be coastal, waterborne beings, while living in a land of cars and highways where most everything that matters to us is so many miles and hours away at the end of a long ribbon of petroleum waste carved through the very beauty and what little pockets of passable wildness might still remain within our reach.

At this point I see myself just as compartmentalized as the textile factory owner of 1927 setting out on his boat with his “man” onto Buzzard’s Bay to enjoy the “surplus” he’s won from cornering some market and being born in the right place at the right time.

“A famous passage in a forgotten book tells about a stupid young man who was knocked down by a big dog belonging to a young girl both beautiful and wise (never mind, any combination can be found in books). ‘What kind of dog is that? Of what use is he?’ peevishly demanded the s. y. m. ‘Why, he isn’t a use dog. He’s just a pleasure dog.’ retorted the b. y. g. Now what this country needs is more just pleasure boats.”

Here is the foundation upon which I’ve rested my entire “career” as a boat designer. This was the theme behind Designer & Client; looking for the redeeming and transformative nature of a radical examination of what it means to commit to something as substantial as a boat purely for pleasure, and following where that examination might lead us. It’s a foundation behind this project too. Humbling to see it spelled out here by Mr. Hanna all those many years ago.

This may be the point of this particular ramble. The intertwined nature of the look back that has always been influential for me in my pursuit of what boats could mean, and the way so much of what I’ve been finding to be “new” of late, either in my own thinking, or in the writing and conversation of others, keeps connecting back to precursors from the generation of my late father, the generation of my peers’ grandfathers, and what today passes for ancient history.

There is more and more connection and meaningful resonance between these various “ancestors,” Mr. Hanna and Ivan Illich, Chapelle and John Berger, than I would have expected. Dave Pollard a few months ago brought up the significance Loren Eisely has had for him. And I was struck by how much my own outlook had been formed and my path set by reading his books and essays in high school so many years ago. Like Mr. Hanna, his influence on me was so internalized over the years I had long since stopped seeing his views as anything other than my own “common-sense.”

It’s as important to rediscover these lineages and celebrate them as it is to root out the lazy assumptions that bolster the dissonances we fail to acknowledge. This – and what is coming to be called hypo-cognition: “our inability to see things that we’re not conditioned to see or to comprehend ideas for which we have no framework.” – have long been tasks I’ve pursued especially over at Horizons of Significance.

The latter clears us of unwelcome habits, old awkward relations and acquaintances we would feel better without. It warns us that we have blind spots, and what lies hidden by them might just do us in. The former honors where we come from and the people without whose guidance we wouldn’t be on a path we hope might lead us where we would like to go. These are Epimethean tasks. They have us looking backwards to see how to go forward. This, in a language I owe a much younger influence. Dougald Hine‘s conception, something that I think Mr. Hanna, and the Messrs. Atkin would recognize, had they followed a link from a tweet to an embedded video of a presentation given across an ocean and in another epoch from the time in which they lived.






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