What I Learned in “Boat School”

I went to “Boat School” in Lubec Maine in 1973. At the time there were only two schools in the country. The other one was in Washington State. That I’d been living in Maine for three years; the first two at Bates College; the third working odd jobs around Lewiston; meant I qualified as a state resident. Three hundred dollars a year for the two years. I’m glad to have college and a post grad degree; but these two years were formative and continue to nourish me. The school, part of the State Education System, was a branch of the county’s community college established only the year before I got there. They had taken over an abandoned coast guard station and boathouse on the easternmost point in the United States.

The school’s official title was, Washington County Vocational Technical Institute, Boatbuilding Division. A vocational class for local downeast kids to pick up a trade. The state administration expected it would fill with the same, homogeneous mix of non college-track kids that went to the other vocational programs. 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. He traveled with a brace of English Pointers. Hunted upland game birds in his spare-time. Doug Dodge was a young man, fresh from Beal’s Island. His family guarded their boatbuilding secrets for countless generations. To Mr. Dodge even a neighbor, say from Jonesport just 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 all-over.

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 class-years 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 grew up on Bridge’s Point. Named after his mother’s family. They’d been there since the English took the land from the Indians – as we called the Native Americans back then. Their summer encampments left shell-middens and arrow-heads. Eric found his share over the years on the short stroll from his parent’s house down to the shore. Eric might have most closely fit the mold the school expected to attract. He was far from typical of who they got. He didn’t turn out quite as expected either. Spent a year living in a Tepee on his parent’s land with a classmate. A friend from an academic Cambridge family. When Eric started his own shop in his grandfather’s old auto repair garage down the road he and Mitch Ryerson built Mitch a Kingston Lobster Boat.

That’s getting ahead of the story…. Back in Lubec the rest of us were of all ages. The oldest, a gentleman from England nearing sixty. We were from all over and some were from nowhere. Escapees from the counterculture who had sailed around the world or spent time lost in the Yukon.

It was a wonder. The whole time I was pinching myself. Unable to believe I’d landed 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. Inhabited by spirits, ghosts, and mortal residents all larger than life. I was thrown into this mix aware of the miracle of it while at the same time unable to appreciate just how unique and fleeting this opportunity was. I guess that’s true of the best parts of everyone’s youth. 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. Set at a crossroads where many currents of twentieth century life intersected. I’d been to Portugal and had two years of college behind me to give me airs. Still, next to many there, I was limited in my perspective and experience.

The State of Maine considered us renegades and misfits. The administration worked hard to tame this aberration. They succeeded, eventually. The school moved and became proper. Before it fell away. The property was abandoned, again. Today part of it is a B&B….

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 my different pursuits. It had to do with the way a traditional boatbuilder like Mr. Dodge approaches his work. On one hand 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. These forms had no connection to any theoretical construct about design, aesthetics, or art. This was a conception of what a boat is. He would attack this in an attempt to approximate this ideal 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. A half breadth marked on its top. The rest 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 corrected to meet a fresh intention. This was my first exposure to what John Boyd was in those same years codifying as the OODA Loop.

Mr. Dodge, scarcely older than I was and so painfully shy and retiring as to seem even younger, brought his model to the shop. There, arrayed outside, in stickered piles or rows of planks standing on-end, leaning against each other like a transformed transplanted copse of Atlantic White Cedar. He 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 all the time we have any evidence of boats.

Mr. Dodge would respect his model; but he also respected his materials. An oak log told him it had a keel in it. 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 or animals. Each had its own purposes. Contingency and labor brought them all together in an unrepeatable rhythm of potentials and limitations. They would come 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 to transcend 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 respect to 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. We cannot allow these lessons to be lost. They only survive in little havens. They’ve only temporarily escaped the ravages of Progress. They remain in the fragile memories of a few of us who have had the good fortune to be exposed to them. Some of us quite by accident.

By accident. No one involved with that school wanted such lessons taught. 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 is a fund of wisdom I’m still mining for 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?

 

 

 

 

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9 thoughts on “What I Learned in “Boat School”

  1. “To express is to drive.
    And when you want to give something presence,
    you have to consult nature.
    And there is where Design comes in.

    And if you think of Brick, for instance,
    and you say to Brick,
    “What do you want Brick?”
    And Brick says to you
    “I like an Arch.”
    And if you say to Brick
    “Look, arches are expensive,
    and I can use a concrete lentil over you.
    What do you think of that?”
    “Brick?”
    Brick says:
    “… I like an Arch””

    (Louis Kahn)

    1. Jack,

      Thanks for that!

      Kahn was a powerful and influential architect. It’s interesting to see that even he had to turn to poetry to say things his time didn’t want to hear….

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