The Schooner Boat, part I

There are different kinds of thinking. I’ve been focusing on the forms of thought involved in Craft recently, beginning with an insight that we are motivated to Craft out of an awe for the abundance of quality that surrounds us in what used to be called the Natural World. Technique is about getting something. Craft involves us in immersing ourselves in a relationship with our physical surroundings and then responding in kind to the quality of what we find there. Looked at in this way, Craft is a practice, or more precisely, a series of practices that engage us with our reality and help keep us from wandering off into realms of wish-fulfillment. Technique claims to be neutral; but it fails to mediate between our desires and reality. Adding more powerful technologies overwhelms our capacity to see our deviation in time, leading to overshoot. Practicing Craft exercises our capabilities and hones our judgement; making us fit; physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Boats give us an important and ambitious point of contact with Craft. Boats can be at the pinnacle of what Craft can accomplish. In their making, their crafting. And also in their lives as craft, as vessels, as actual physical vessels, and also as vessels of our transformation, as individuals, and within our societies.

Boat design; since it claims to direct the outcome of boat building, and through that of the ways in which we use boats; has a tremendous responsibility. It’s not enough to enter “the market-place” with attractive looking boats, or to just accept an agglomeration of half-remembered traditions, fads, and ill-considered enthusiasms to be catered to by pandering to “the customer.” If we fail to consider how boats – and our conception of their qualities, their utility, even their aesthetics – effect, and are affected by, the crises and challenges sweeping away the world as we’ve known it; we are not only letting down the potential of what our boats can be, we are letting ourselves down, abdicating our responsibility to ourselves and to us all. Instead of careening along on a dangerous course oblivious to what is within our power to effect while we ignore or discount all the destruction taking place around us; we can meet our responsibilities, to carve out meaning and to live lives that affirm what we value.

The driving force behind my involvement in boat design, as originally laid out in Designer & Client, has been to explore how we may use the privileged position pleasure boats have in the grander scheme of things to guide the evolution of our search for meaning. Our boats, whether we admit it or not, are vessels of transformation first and foremost. There is no other reason for their existence other than as an embodiment of our dreams and aspirations. We act on these yearnings within a realm carved out of the day-to-day world of necessity and contingency. No one forces us to have a pleasure boat. We go through significant expenditure and even sacrifice to have one, and the chain of experiences they involve us in changes us in particular and fundamental ways.

Our dealings with the whole notion of pleasure craft has been entangled in our attitudes about class and notions of social and economic superiority. We are either resisting, ignoring, or accepting a series of presuppositions related to class when we confront any pleasure craft. The terms Art, Craft, privilege, quality – the entire vocabulary of judgement – has been immersed and subsumed by the social construct of class. So much is lost if we leave it at that! We are left either defending the indefensible, or we attempt to wash away any and all distinctions to deflect the judgments of others. This is a prime example of our tendency to put social “reality” above all else, a tendency with dangerous results apparent all around us today.

There is a way to talk about judgement and its offshoots that, while not ignoring class, gives us a wider perspective on how pleasure boats might fit into our lives. If we posit that fundamentally all we have is our attention, and that our lives matter to us, then the ways in which we attend – and to what, and in what manner we attend to them – is the ultimate arbiter of value. This leads directly to another assertion, that the same is true of everyone and every “thing” else. Together these realizations give us a framework upon which to ascertain and define value, and make judgements that connect these values to the totality of our reality, instead of merely squabbling over purely social differences. Most importantly, it frees up a language-of-judgement, of quality and distinction; removing it from a narrow social sphere where it becomes primarily an object of what John Berger identifies as glamour, “codified envy. …the commodification of abhorrent behavior.”

Setting aside reactions to the entire notion of pleasure craft as seen only from within the confines of glamour, we can begin to talk about ways in which to grapple with finding and producing meaning within our lives with the help of a reinvigorated vocabulary and with a secure foundation upon which to build. We discern, we make judgements, we choose to attend to this over that, because this is ultimately all we have! If we choose to belittle ourselves by attending solely or primarily to issues of glamor, then we have made a choice that diminishes us, that effects us predominantly, not just our supposed foes. None of this denies that class, and social distinctions around power and money, are significant issues. Our ability to make these distinctions, and free-up our vocabulary, can give us new ways into dialogue surrounding these matters as well. This conversation is never far from what we discuss here, although it is not the focus of what’s at hand.

Schooner-Boat- 1st draft Lines 540

The Schooner Boat referred to in the title is an example of this other kind of thought. Writing, painting, carving, sculpting are all ways to access and manipulate thought. Each has its way in and each brings a different set of critical faculties to bear. Drafting a boat design involves aspects of all of these realms and combines them into a particular practice. To begin, it firmly establishes that we are not making Art, but working in Craft. Not only are we developing an object that must be Crafted, that must hold together and have a function; but we are creating a Craft, one that will transport and transform those it encounters during its construction and throughout its existence, we might even say, its life.

This design, still in a preliminary state, has been a way to begin to confront some of the implications swirling about here at Boats for difficult times. It begins with the belief that boats need to meet a new, and as yet unfamiliar, set of conditions. Not only are these conditions unfamiliar, but in many ways they are unknowable. We can’t predict where we’ll be in five years time, or what we might be asking of our boats then. So we begin by carving out a different set of assumptions:

The first is that our boats need to be modest. We cannot, will not, be able to afford boats that are wasteful or ostentatious. There are other aspects to this kind of modesty. It is modesty opposed to hubris, not just show. It is modesty as a form of humility.

It’s a stretch for us today to consider the implications of what it might mean for a boat to be humble. This is so foreign from our current expectations. To begin, it must be able to look out for itself and its people. It cannot count on deus ex machina, like towboats or helicopters at the other end of a cell phone call. We need to recognize, and take seriously, that we go to sea under our own care and responsibility. That what we do is dangerous, in that we cannot eliminate risks entirely. We work to minimize these risks while accepting that in a moment of extremis we don’t expect someone else to go into danger to save us. Nor are we putting our comfort and convenience above anyone else’s. Saving others isn’t just a “profession.” It is a mutual series of obligations we all share in. Not something we “pay for,” and therefore expect as the reward for a quid pro quo.

Our need for a boat that is self-reliant is combined with an assertion that our boat rely solely on wind and muscle power for propulsion. It’s a sailboat. It must be able to meet a wide variety of conditions ably and surely – not just under “racing” conditions, but for extended periods. It must have a robust redundancy, not a narrow and fragile efficiency. Its use will require seamanship and piloting without a “time-out switch.” This is related to changing our conception of “free time.” Our time on the water will need to be part and parcel of our lives, not seen as some interlude of prepaid leisure – or leisure put on the credit card! Our notions of free time, of “time to kill,” of “saving time,” are undergoing transformations. When we are not caught-up in trying to “make time” for life in the odd corners of our days then the rest of the rationale for calling on an engine to whisk us away becomes irrelevant, even as our reliance on their availability begins to come into question.

Our boat must be durable and repairable. It represents a considerable investment of effort and material, and that generates a responsibility that we put that effort and material to good use, and that the resulting craft last. This cannot be met by making a fossil-in-a-boat’s-shape out of some material that cannot ultimately find its way back into circulation. When our boat has reached its end, it should die and decay, not become one of the undead, continuing to impede the cycles of life to which it does not contribute.

Our boat must also be adaptable to fit into some foreseeable and many unforeseeable forms of utility within its life-span. While its first purpose is to focus our attention on how to carry boats on with us through the coming transitions, and to help us find ourselves along the way; it should also, as we enter even more constrained circumstances, help us find and accomplish some useful task or object. This requires that the boat not be solely dedicated to carrying its crew and meeting their comforts, but that it have the space and versatility to do something else.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions of what that might be. Fishing! Or smuggling! Piracy! All these might come to mind. They may or may not be what we actually come to. Let’s not forget the value of the simple act of traveling and connecting with other people in other places, or carrying out some form of inquiry at sea without dedicating enormous resources. We do need to remain open to this uncertainty to avoid falling into a trap of simple wish-fulfillment.

We call work like this a project. This is interesting because as we envision and delineate a new design we are dealing in acts of projection. We are imagining something and attempting to put that vision down, to project it onto the page or block of wood. What can make this different from a psychological projection, projecting our interior states onto others and then reacting to them as though they were external and not internal conditions, is that in this process we are continually assessing whether the vision we project meets external criteria. We remain aware of these traps and watch out for our tendency to simply project an intention and simply accept it as having fulfilled its conditions just because we wish it so. In Art this trap leads to formulaic work that lacks resonance, a form of self-indulgence bordering on some form of pornography, as it fails to rise above the limitations of mere projection. In Craft work this failure leads to the creation of objects that either fail to meet their expectations or make obvious the limitations implicit in the assumptions that led to their creation. They leave us facing the ridiculous result of where our intentions have led us – just watch someone cutting doughnuts in a jet-ski! This is the crucible of design. This is what what opens design as a path to effect changes in how we we look at the world we inhabit and how we choose to live.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that beginning with these particular assumptions has led to a boat that hearkens back to nineteenth century craft. While we need to be wary of merely adopting the trappings of the old out of nostalgia, we are talking about returning to a set of conditions that predate the last century, and its excursions into an unsustainable reliance on cheap and abundant petroleum and all that has led to. In backwaters of the nineteenth century, like the fishing villages of New England and countless other places around the world, we see the last flowering of traditions that go back into prehistory. These boats took particular forms for a variety of reasons, some still pertinent, others arbitrary results of fashion; but they do make wonderful starting places – if we look to them and their builders not with condescension but with a new-found appreciation for the conditions of their use, and the lives they were a part of. Seen in this way, we can begin to realize how so many of their attributes are a function of the fundamental realities we are looking to reintroduce ourselves to – before they simply come crashing down upon us!

In the next part we’ll get into the particulars. I promise!






10 thoughts on “The Schooner Boat, part I

  1. Hello Tony,
    This is a great post. There’s so much to think about here, but ‘fossil-in-a-boat’s-shape’ will be rattling round my head for days. As ever, thank you.

    1. Jack,

      Good to hear from you again! Glad you’ve found Boats for difficult times!

      This post is just a beginning. It will grow into something if people find something in it that inspires them to respond. Please let us know what you get from sleeping on it.

  2. Tony,

    Prior to the availability of cheap and abundant petroleum, there was cheap and abundant timber, cheap,expendable and abundant labor, and fisheries that seemed everlasting. Cheap fuel allowed expansion into otherwise unreachable fishing grounds and scouring of those grounds that were already in decline. Now, sadly, there is nothing left that is cheap and abundant. So if one is going to build a wooden vessel of any sort, should not he build it to last, and be repairable and be beautiful, if not at least as a respect for the tree or trees felled to build it.

    I see a lot of designs out there that could not be built before, because of the limitations of the materials at hand. For lack of suppleness wood cannot be tortured into certain forms without expected failure. Newer methods like lamination/cold molding have changed that to an extent that boats are being built without repair-ability in mind.

    It seams like the older designers, or dead ones, knew the limits of what could be expected of wood, and their designs depicted those limits with elegance and grace and an almost organic form. It is a huge turnoff to me to see modern vessels, of any composition, that look like they are just the byproduct of numerical coefficients and the biggest worry being where they are going to put the wet bar and round bed. There needs to be some artistc and craft knowledge in the design process, and practical construction knowledge shared between designer and builder.


    1. John,

      I agree!

      We do need to consider all we no longer have. The end of natural abundance is a central fact of our existence today.

      We do need to approach our medium with respect. Longevity of what we build is one element of that respect, but as you also point out we need to integrate what we make with more than just narrow jabs at efficiency. The poetics of what we make are a sign of respect, they are also an aspect that should help lead us to the creation of resilient things that can find uses beyond what we may be capable of imagining today.

      This sense of shooting an arrow at a moving target, and our need to call on more than just mathematics if we are to have any hope of hitting it when the time does come is the challenge we face with anything we chose to make now. At least if we are to take our situation seriously.

      Again, you are right that now more than ever a design has to be a collaboration, more than just a recipe resulting from a single viewpoint and then slavishly followed by a technician.

      Much of that work happens in the space between designer and builder, and in their conversation with the elements that go into the fabric of the boat.

      I’ve likened the schooners of New England to the cathedrals of Europe. In a way they are even more amazing and a more useful exemplar for us because of the modesty of their purpose and of the people who created them and used them. One thing they shared with the cathedrals was the way they were designed and built as a collaboration over time, one that went through its own evolution that has left us a record more like those of some lineage of once living creatures than of a technological progression.

      This I see as their greatest legacy, if only we can pick it up.

  3. Tony,

    Longevity can be morphed as well. I love a story told by singer songwriter Gordon Bok. He narrates a story of a fisherman caught in a storm at sea in a tired old boat that he built and spent his life working from. He promises that if the old boat can just stay together this last storm, he would sail it home one last time, save it from the ship breakers or abandonment, and take her apart “plank by plank and frame from frame” and use the timbers and planking to build a house for their mutual retirement. This has always been the embodiment of service ,respect, love and stewardship that drives my thoughts about what we do with natures gifts.


    1. Wonderful!

      I know it well, The Seal Djiril’s Hymn.

      I’m also reminded of habit, that in the end, can be the last thing holding an old boat together. There is a force to its form and the years its parts have followed its contours, that persists when any reasonable expectation of soundness would be folly!

      This might have been what the old fisherman was praying to….

      We hear quite a bit about fiery, Viking funerals-at-sea, but little of the much more common use of old boats as shelters on the shore, turned over so their ribs form a vault instead of a vessel, a transition between earthly and heavenly aspirations as the boat and her people leave birth far behind and approach death in each others company.

      I was fortunate also to live at a time and place when there were still hulks and relics sheltered in back coves or showing their bones jutting out of a tidal flat. Dead boats have a majesty that ersatz ones can never attain. They are not just the end of our human intention for their use, but they are the final return of their fabric to the world from which they were born.

  4. In “Inshore Craft of Britain” E.J. March comments on the introduction of motors to the fisheries. I paraphrase:

    A fisherman that went out under sail and oar alone invested only his time, and that’s all he lost if he returned with an empty hold. The fisherman that went out under engine power (also still carrying both sailing rig and oars in the early days), had made an (additional) investment in the motor, lubricants and fuel. If he came back empty, he sustained a direct cash loss that day. This simple reality held back the introduction of motors in the (UK) inshore fisheries long beyond the point at which it became technically feasible.

    I’m quite sure that I would not want to live the short and hard, even brutal life of a 19C fisherman. But not least by the same cost calculation I have always preferred to do my boating under my own power, or such propulsion as i can finesse out of wind and current.

    I applaud your design philosophy, Mr. Dias.

    Ralph Hoehn

    1. You’ve pointed to the progress-trap we’ve fallen into. Progress has not been win-win.

      We tend to connect everything about early-industrial hardship with the condition of a lack of fossil-power. That makes it hard to consider doing without that power as an improvement. Draconian economic conditions back then are returning. With or without fossil power, they increase misery.

      We also forget that glottalization has merely exported misery – for a time – and it is finally coming home to roost as we cannibalize large swaths of what was the “First World” along with the rest.

      When we practice boating while electively choosing to do without we are helping envision an alternative while maintaining, and hopefully passing on, skills and attitudes that will stand us all in good stead.

      Thank you so much for your interest and for taking the effort to join the conversation!


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