Whaleboats, Craft looking for Purpose

The WoodenBoat Show held at Mystic Seaport at the end of June saw the first stage in the celebration of craft that culminated at the end of July with the re-launching of the Charles W. Morgan.

What strikes me with great poignancy is the way this state of affairs illustrates a wider predicament. Our surviving examples of craft are tied inextricably into our history. Our history is a chronicle of our complicity in increasingly destructive attacks on the world and life itself.

It is no indictment of either institution, or the schools and boat builders around the country who have completed the new set of whaleboats for this refurbished ship. Or of the motives behind the re-build and the intended usage of the ship, which, as I understand it, includes a sailing tour. Something this ship has not done since arriving on the shores of the Mystic River in 1941.

I laud their efforts. I congratulate both WoodenBoat and Mystic Seaport for carrying this off in what are increasingly difficult times.

However, even as these premier institutions within the world-wide movement to hold on to the fundamental craft of wooden boatbuilding have done so much to engage in their mission, a larger question looms over all their efforts and all of our efforts combined. No matter what we attempt today in the light of our broader predicament, we need to confront a crisis of purpose.

The way this question has come into focus for me lately is in running into the last question anyone involved in boats would care to face, Is there yet a valid reason to design and build boats?

I first touched on this by changing the tag-line for my design website to Cave Navicula! Beware of Boat! Or, watch what you wish for…. Behind this warning stands this broader question, is there a valid purpose for yet another boat?

We are accustomed to hyperventilate and rush into argument, or drop the subject all-together, when scary questions are raised. Let’s not. We need to begin to distinguish between facing difficult questions and feeling as though we have been personally attacked. Our guilt-fed defensiveness is a minor reflection of a wider complicity in the state of the world. None of this can be addressed by throwing blame or resisting it. We have been born/borne into complicity. It affects all of us. It can only be addressed by accepting it and then moving on.

Questioning why we build boats brings us to the confusion around any intention. When confronted with a complex, over-arching situation reasons devolve into rationalizations. Or, they are simply dropped as an impossible complication, “We just need to get on with it!”

That leads us to ask, “Get on with what?”

Another scary question. Especially when every outlet open to us is complicit in systemic violence. It is important that Amistad and Charles W. Morgan, two of the most challenging and significant replicas/restorations of the last decades have had to acknowledge deep complicity. A slaver and a whaler.

It’s too bad that the depths of their complicity, our complicity, is so often swept under the rug with a misty eye and then a rush to forget and get back to the fun.

Visiting Mystic for the show I was asked, in all honesty, “What difficult times?” When describing this venue to someone at the golden end of the chain of exploitation that funded the entire arc of the Morgan’s existence. There are those who must make a mental adjustment and abstract what they can barely imagine might be a difficulty for someone somewhere as their own life goes on in a comfortable reflected glow of privilege.

It would be easy to demonize those with that perspective. Anything other than looking at how we are all complicit.

While tackling difficult topics in difficult times is an up-hill battle. Let’s push on. This state of complicity and the need to gaze clearly at its implications is behind any meditation on the Morgan and its place. There is another difficulty closer to home for those of us involved in boats.

Whether we are building dinghies or rebuilding ships, we focus our appreciation and attention on the products of a pre-industrial or earlier industrial mode of work, on craft, but we do so with some modicum of “modern conveniences.”

There’s no need to rush in with equivocations. There are plenty of rationales for using power tools, or a computer, or a diesel-powered hydraulic lift. Or a digital camera and posting on the web. To be clear that I include what I am doing here in this critique.

We resort to pragmatism. But then we take this laudatory bent only so far. We seem to share with Louis XVI the sentiment, “Apres moi? Le deluge!”

“After me/us? The flood.”

If our pragmatism runs only deep enough to get us through the next little bit, while things still look pretty much as they did before, if we squint and ignore a hell of a lot. Then what kind of pragmatism is it?

As people involved, deeply committed to craft, we cannot do much about the complicity we are mired on so many sides. Other than to acknowledge it. To let our attention fall on it and watch as we come to some creative adjustment.

When it comes to our particular crafts, there is something more direct, more pragmatic we could be doing.

Fundamentally our “pragmatic” adjustments reflect a hesitancy to admit that things are as they are, and that they are difficult, and getting more so all the time. We keep looking over our shoulders at some twisted reflection of what was before and judging our selves, our merit, our work by this slippery and ephemeral standard. Fear and regret and guilt radiate from this falsification.

We falsify the past. We falsify the present, and we lie about the future.

We don’t have to do this. We are in a position, increasingly rare among our contemporaries who have not had the benefit of such a touchstone in craft as we have, to do something else.

Here is the tricky part.

It’s not about jumping out of our skins and becoming something/someone else. It’s not that we wake up one day and swear off all our conveniences and get on with it. More likely that at least some of them sink out from under us while we’re not looking.

As with everything, it comes down to attitude and how we allocate our attention. How we move by incremental steps from where we are to where we will be.

At this point this change is hard to see. It doesn’t show up in a program for an event. It doesn’t even appear in passing conversation. It might be there in what we do without our actually being fully aware of it our selves.

There is no way for me to say that it is not widespread already among us. What I can say is that if it is, it is still hidden from general sight.


One of the hardest things about writing what I write is the urge to self censor. To believe, “Nobody wants to hear this!” And, then pull back.

There is a comfort to be had in maintaining such a view. That one is “ahead” of what others are willing to face. But this is just another lie.

Change happens when it is self-evident. When the excuses fall away. It is not that they are forced away, argued away, legislated or punished away. They simply fall away because their falsehood becomes clear.

This happens within individual perceptions before it appears in any observable behavior. Long before it can be seen embodied in any institutional response.

I believe we are deep into this stage. Many of us are in the process of raising doubts and finding glimmers of certainty here and there. Even the most privileged among us have an inkling of, “some sort of difficulty out there….”

The next stage is to recognize this in our selves, and then in each other. At that point pragmatism can achieve a seismic shift. What was confusion, impossible to consider, becomes obvious. Consequences cease living within the sphere of psychic shadows and manifesting themselves in nightmares of reason. They can surface where they can be admitted and dealt with by capable people doing what they can.

Mystic, and the WoodenBoat Show. There are few places and events where we can find so many gathered together who can have that kind of impact on how we could get on in our difficult times.

We know this. We don’t, at least openly, acknowledge it. I, at least, have only had the most tentative and halting first stabs at even broaching the subject there. I keep returning because I believe in the potential within this assemblage. I write this, and other essays, in the hopes of sparking further realizations and fostering an open dialogue on these questions.

At a time when there are precious few, if any public events worth celebrating I can honestly say that I celebrate this one.

We have the craft. In both senses of the term. We have the tools. We are equipped to discover purpose.

Are we poised to accomplish something?






2 thoughts on “Whaleboats, Craft looking for Purpose

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