Beginnings

Boats Are Dear.

They always have been and will always remain dear. I first wrote about this in Designer & Client many years ago. It’s come to be at the crux of boats’ continued fascination for me. By exploring why we think boats are valuable we can better understand their significance. The key is to be found right there in the shifting perspectives behind the word dear. Dear is, well, a term of endearment. We use it to describe the people we have our deepest emotional connections with. It enfolds love, caring, and respect; and declares our vulnerability to those we care about. We tend to hold the well being of a dear one above our own. On the other hand, we say something is dear that demands a high price. We speak of the ultimate price, the cost of life itself, as a dear price to pay for what we hold most dear.

A wide range of obsessions might be said to meet both of these criteria. Heroin, drink, may effectively claim this level of commitment and demand a high cost be paid for that commitment. Does this mean that boats are just another obsession? Or, do they hold a unique position among objects and artifacts that might claim to be dear without being merely toxic simulacra for other, healthier relationships? Can we say we have a relationship with boats without being creepy, or facetious? These are questions we’ll be looking into here.

To begin, I would say that boats are not only personified, they hold a genuine place in our hearts more akin to living things than to mere objects because of the way they lay us open to experience. In a way this has parallels, in part, here and there; but in its totality, boats may be unique among things in this regard. Boats hold us, as vessels; they shelter us, like homes; they move us, both physically and emotionally; and they create situations that have the potential to transform us. They are complex objects, but they can be conceived and built by a single individual, or a small band. They demand respect, rigor, and discipline in their construction and their use. They are fragile yet exceedingly strong. They carry us into the aqueous world where we and our boats are exposed to our insignificance and impotence in the face of powers so far beyond our contemplation. In their use we visit, even inhabit these environments in relative safety. This allows us to experience not only sublime enormity, but supreme gentleness.

All that boats are, and all they can help us accomplish, is firmly grounded in physicality while simultaneously boats expose us to deep resonances within our own psyches. A metaphor is a vessel that carries us beyond where we thought we could go with our literal minds. Boats are not only metaphoric, they are like metaphor itself; vessels of transference and of transformation. In the end, we cherish our relationship with boats. They bring us value that rivals what we receive from our relationships with any other thing. There is a potential give-and-take, a potential for joy and transformation, that is tied to deep essential verities. Our relationship with boats exposes us to our weaknesses, our blind spots, as well as giving us the opportunity to exercise our strengths. The definition of “reality check” could be illustrated by a boat on the sea.

I hope this can be an opening for what I sincerely hope becomes a conversation, a series of correspondences about boats and their meaning to us. This site is titled Boats for Difficult Times. I feel this is a simple and direct statement of what I’d like to see explored here. These are difficult times. In this we are not unique, there have been difficult times in the past. There have also always been boats, perhaps as long as there have been humans physically like us. Very few categories of artifact go back as far, or have such a deep connection with our humanity.

In “flush times” it’s easy to enjoy extravagances without giving them much thought or stopping to appreciate the value of something we devote our time and treasure to build and maintain. In difficult times we are stripped of that excuse. Is that a loss or a boon? Are boats a trivial extravagance? Or are they vital, something we need to find ways to take forward with us? Can we strengthen their ability to give us what they are uniquely able to give? In investigating the consequences of our current predicament, as it affects our relationship with boats, our devotion to boats, we may learn a lot about ourselves and perhaps find means, and the strength, to go forward. This is another goal, a quest, for this place and those of us who meet here.

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17 thoughts on “Beginnings

  1. This essay opens the door to a great many avenues of exploration, all of which deserve comment, but right now I just want to relate one thing. Kayak is archetypal boat, one of it’s earliest forms. Skin on frame kayaks are still being built and paddled today, with great enthusiasm and in increasing numbers. Without doubt they offer huge returns for little outlay, in terms both of cash and time. This building technique is available to almost anyone, with few tools needed, few skills needed, and afford the home builder with both the satisfying experience of building their own and an intimacy with the water that is unparalleled by any other boat.
    The point I want to make, however, goes a bit beyond the economy and utility of these seminal boats. Many builders of these craft, both indigenous and western, have commented on the fact that in the building they experience, quite literally, not just as metaphor, that they are creating a living being, and as I take it, something beyond ‘the project took on a life of it’s own’. Lashed together, so pliant and supple, but very resilient, these boats become real beings for their makers. Hmmm, sounds a bit like humans, and indeed most lifeforms. The best characterization might be to say these boats are inspired, in the strictest sense, meaning that they breathe and have ‘life’.
    In ‘difficult times’ these become, and represent, a most accessible boat. there are abundant resources for how to make such beings, and cn be built for a little as 300. usd, and some time.

    thomas

    1. Thomas,

      Exactly! You’ve gotten right to the point. Kayaks are the archetypal boat. Their existence as beings, not merely things, is at the heart of the value boats have for us, as companions, and as an entry into being able to see all of existence as made up of beings, some mineral, some vegatal, some animal. This connection has been suppressed throughout civilization’s reign. Boats have been a refuge for this truth, and they are still available as guides to bring this realization back to the fore.

  2. Suppressed in western civilization, certainly, but there are cultures, past and present, which hold to these old truths, and in this our boats reconnect us with the web of life and the arc (ark) of consciousness through the millennia.

    Gotta go help fire a noborigama wood kiln. For ceramic (vessels)!

    thomas

  3. Interesting discussion; Tom suggested I swing over. I don’t have my thoughts fully pulled together, so forgive. I suspect that one would find the position of boats as beings correlates to their utility in a culture. Polynesians has elaborate rituals for selecting materials, never mind the boat itself (I understand one is not to step across the hull of an outrigger; it is considered disrespectful). This makes sense as they were an investment – thus showing stature – as well as a means to survival in an island society. Ditto other craft ancient and modern that are a vital link to basic nutrients. I think those how still earn their keep from the sea are most prone to regard their boats as “part of the team.”

    As boats became more abstract from survival, their place became lower. I guess this is a trivial point, but it becomes more acute as you think about plastic yachts, where the owner has no connection with the design and construction of the boat and is often using it for pure recreation. Among pleasure craft, the greatest tie today is that between builder and own boat. This is the thread to chase down (as we are, for better or for worse beyond dependence on the sea and are completely f**ked if we have to go back anytime soon). There are some, like me, who will pursue the raw “from the ground up” approach, but there are many more who need a head start. This is why I find what Chesapeake Light Craft and others do exciting. They are making it possible for a broader array of folks to have this tight connection with their boat’s birth and, thereby, see it as a being. Interestingly, Tom, kayak is a biggie, but not alone, and skin-on-frame is not in the mix (at least not yet). Quality plywood and epoxies are opening the ground.

    For a designer and/or builder of larger craft, I think our host, Mr. Dias, is on to something. It may be beyond the reach of all but the most determined amateur to design and build a polished daysailer and thereby build the connection we hope to achieve, but there are ways that they can be drawn into the process that those they contract undertake. Sharing stories of the process, involving them (virtually) in discussions, and so on are all possible via technology. Perhaps this is how we can build back deeper connections in a broader set of cases.

    Thanks for letting me chime in.

    1. Welcome Mr. Shaw! I’ll call you Tim, if you’ll call me Tony.

      Thanks for joining in. I hope you’ll make a habit of it, I’m looking forward to your “pulled together” thoughts when you have the time!

      One of the concepts I’ve been working on is that our common-sense view of utility is often upside down. Things matter inside and then we find ways to make them seem useful. This is true of just about everything today – we could make a parlor game out of proving it! I suspect it’s always been true. In cultures where survival was more closely linked to day-to-day behavior as it was for the islanders you mention, the internal meaning and the external utility were closely linked.

      This is a pivotal factor, not only for our smaller experiment here with boats, but for finding ways through difficult times in general. We give so much weight to habit, for good reason, it is as @DennyCoates quoted an old Roman, Publilius Syrus, “Powerful indeed is the empire of habit.” But we can’t find new ways unless we are willing to challenge habit’s empire. This is why I think testing our assumptions about utility is key.

      The DIY movement in boats has helped many people discover the early steps along a way to embody their yearning for something more satisfying. It’s been a great conduit for getting people to begin to break the old habits. What I’m looking for is the exploration of next steps. What do we do with our growing awareness? This is anther issue to be addressed here.

      To clarify my intentions in regard to your final point. I’m not advocating that people take on the quest to design and build their own boats. I’m not against it. That was how I began my own search. But I do believe there is a very wide range of options available here. They begin – and could fruitfully never go beyond – looking and thinking about boats from a different, or wider, array of perspectives. We might simply enjoy our existing boats with a new appreciation for what we are getting out of our relationship with them. Finally, some may chose to conceive and build new boats, with or without the help of others. As a designer, I do hope to find some people interested in following up on this third option by collaborating with me….

      I do want to stress that whatever one gets out of this project, that it at least gives those of us involved as contributors, or readers, both a sense of our need to collaborate to go forward, and a forum in which we may “practice” collaboration; sharing ideas, developing trust and relationships in an environment that is conducive and relatively simple to join.

      This can’t happen without people taking the effort to comment and contribute their views. For that effort, I thank you again Tim!

      Tony

  4. Being a child of the 60’s and a sci-fi geek from the beginning, I always enjoyed the personification of spaceships, for instance, the Enterprise was given the voice of a woman (who was voiced by Gene Roddenberry’s wife), and Kirk loved his star ship as much as any captain ever did. This symbiotic relationship between vessel and master, created and creator, skin on bone and brain, or even matter and consciousness, is something we who love boats are always attempting to fathom.

    In other words, it’s important. Who knows… I may be a vessel of some kind of consciousness that I know not – the baidarka of the gods.

  5. Whether we’re floating on salt water or amniotic fluid, which is salty, the one that gives us warmth, protects us, nourishes us, is our boats or our mothers.

    Wombs, like boats, are fragile yet exceedingly strong. Both carry us into the aqueous world where we are, either as fetuses or as adults, insignificant and impotent in the face of powers so far beyond our contemplation. As fetuses, we visit, even inhabit environments in the relative safety of our mothers’ wombs. We gestate while the deep resonances of salt water are embedded within our own psyches. No wonder the ship that is the supply ship in a convoy is called the mothership.

    (Many of the lines above are paraphrased from Tony’s text.)

    All ancient boats that I can think of, with the exception of the Chinese, but theirs is a different trajectory, are double-ended. All dugouts that I’ve seen, the bark canoes and skin kayaks of northeast Asia and North America, the canoes of Oceania, the wooden and reed boats of ancient Egypt, the lineage of the Viking and Norse boats, many work boats of the Indian Ocean. They’re all double-ended.

    I posit that this ancient boat form was derived from the vulval form. There is nothing manufactured (sex toys excluded) more vulval-like than a one-hole kayak. Everytime we exit from a kayak, especially wet-exiting when capsized, is the closest we, as adults, will ever come to experiencing the birth process. But then, maybe the reed boats of Lake Titicaca are more vulval looking. The “folds” created by the many bundles of reeds tied together to make the boat is truly a sight to behold.

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