I grew up with wooden boats, cruising on the coast of Maine with my family starting when I was a year old. Some of my earliest memories are of the Winslow 28-footer that my father helped to build, and which he named after my mother. Many summer nights for years and years I fell asleep under her deck beams, listening to my father playing the mandolin, and to this day the scent of a kerosene lamp brings a feeling of security and contentment.
So from the first, wooden boats have been part of the texture and the backdrop of my life. When fiberglass boats started to show up in our harbor I remember being deeply shocked, not so much by their external appearance (which was actually pretty good in those early designs) as by their interiors, which didn’t seem like the cabin of a boat at all. And they didn’t smell right.
Soon it was clear that fiberglass was the coming thing. I even remember my father being wooed by a Cheoy Lee Luders 36 at the boat show. I was enchanted by her modernity combined with acres of wood both on deck and below. But when I came home to our wooden boat I realized that as nice as the glass boat had been, she lacked something fundamental, aesthetically. That something was the beauty of the structure itself. By that I mean the deck beams and carlines, the clamp and shelf, knees and frames, mast step and partners. I missed that type of thing—items that were seldom varnished even though they may have been carefully smoothed up, chamfered and painted, executed in proportions that had evolved over centuries to combine strength with light weight, ease of construction with longevity, and function with beauty. However well-engineered the fiberglass structure might be, it was and remains something you have to cover up on the inside, in order to even tolerate the boat, let alone love it. Even on the shiny side, it’s appearance comes from the mold, not from the materials.
Then came a whole generation of fiberglass boats that were quite poorly built, often to very bad designs. Those of us who had stuck with the wooden boats now had some ammunition that enabled us to maintain that we liked them because they were better, in fundamental ways. And this was true enough, at the time. WoodenBoat Magazine had appeared, and the decline of wooden boatbuilding slowed and eventually stopped, beginning a gradual revival that continues to this day. This was due in no small part to the advent of the magazine, which gave heart to we true believers, and began the process of preserving information and making it available, which enabled the field to rejuvenate itself.
As the fiberglass market matured, a spectrum of glass boatbuilders emerged, with throwaway boats at one end, and some really fine work, at the other. The same new glues and reinforcing materials that were helping to create a modern wooden boatbuilding industry found application in fiberglass boatbuilding, and today the best glass boats really could not be criticized on technical grounds.
Still, it is living with the synthetic materials inside the boat that is much of the problem for me, and for many other people. It has come to pass that virtually all of the best glass boats essentially carry a wooden boat around with them, inside, with cabinetry that is if anything much more elaborate than that typically found in wooden boats, because in the glass boats they were trying to cover everything up, not just position interior elements where they were needed. Thus there is always a trade-off between aesthetically appealing interiors and weight. Only relatively heavy glass boats can contain such an interior.
Conversely, far lighter boats are being made out of wood, and in them it has became customary to varnish the very structure itself, and leave as much of it exposed as possible. The structure is the décor to an even greater extent than in traditional boatbuilding.
Recently I have been shopping for a boat large enough to retire aboard, eventually, but with maintenance requirements that I can handle, at a minimal price, and this has led me to look at glass boats for possible purchase, for the first time. Over the years boats in my price range have shaken out nicely, and anyone who pays attention knows what the good boats are, and which to avoid. My objections to the glass boats continue to be aesthetic, and I actually enjoy the prospect of experimenting with ways to make them look good, inside and out, without trying to make them appear to be wooden boats—something that seems like bad taste, to me. But I haven’t yet been able to make this leap, and it is a wooden boat that is sitting on her trailer in my dooryard as I write this.
Not counting a couple of boats I have owned briefly just to find them good homes, or the various dinghies that come and go, I’ve owned seven wooden sailboats, over the years. I have had to deliberately suppress the notion that they were alive and had personalities of their own, because that was very much the relationship I had with all of them, and that seems a little crazy. Still I wonder about that, and at the very least anyone will tell you that two wooden boats of the same design, from the same builder, will be easily distinguished one from the other. When push comes to shove, it is not the materials of the glass boats to which I most object, it’s the molds.
Shopping for glass boats I see one after another of the same model that started life absolutely identical and pretty much stayed that way. Attempts at individualizing them often seem a little desperate. It is inevitable that they should be that way—they came out of production shops where the same people did the same things over and over, and that all makes perfect sense, as any businessman can tell you.
Wooden boats are of necessity built by craftsmen, by hand, and those men and women usually go into those trades not because they are the jobs available in town but because it is meaningful to them. Indeed, they often travel across oceans and continents just to take a job at a yard they respect. They will do a job over and over for just so long before they get tired of it and leave, so the management of wooden boat yards keeps variety in mind when handing out work assignments. Every piece of wood is different. Most of all, every owner is different and few are the wooden boats built on speculation without an owner requesting alterations large or small. Every wooden boat seems to come out of the shop with a personality all her own. Sentient or not, each is an individual, and nobody will deny it.
So when it comes right down to it, I think for me the answer to the question, “Why Wood?” is the owner’s and the craftsmen’s desire to create an individual, a thing that is not just a thing, a vehicle that is still doing something when it is standing still. It comes from a desire not just to acquire something, but to have a relationship with it. It comes from a decision to have a life containing a few things about which you care deeply, rather than a lot of things about which you care little. It is about the way it makes you feel, and that is the very flavor of one’s life.