Finding an answer to rough seas
Published in The New York Times, Jan. 10, 2010
The digital revolution recently snuffed the life of the 146-year-old Seattle newspaper for which I wrote a column, and the recession has neatly disposed of most of the rest of my income-producing work. This has not been entirely bad, as it has liberated considerable time for work on the 19-foot sailboat taking shape in my shop.
I’m turning to the boat earlier and earlier every day, like a growing drinking problem,
and I’m now suffering work-ethic guilt hangovers: the nagging feeling that I ought to be doing more productive things with my time. Even though the tasks associated with boatbuilding, the sawing, sanding, planing, painting and worrying, look and ache very much like real work, modern culture defines work as labor that produces a paycheck. My strictly amateur boatbuilding doesn’t qualify.
I know I’m not alone in this quandary, so I’m going to wrestle with it here in public. What I want to do is challenge the accepted boundaries of work.
I first realized I might learn about something beyond boats by building them when I took a two-week course at the Northwest School for Wooden Boat Building. Our instructor, Joe Greenley, was a superb craftsman—his cedar-strip kayaks are seagoing sculptures—but it wasn’t his skill with tools that I absorbed. It was the way his mind would flow straight from problem to solution without letting any emotional muck—irritation, frustration, anger—in between. Greenley never got perturbed over a mistake; he simply set about finding the most efficient fix. He understood intuitively that surges of negative emotion not only interfere with problem-solving; they also get built into the object you’re working on.
The learning curve steepened with the first sailboat I built, a 13½-foot sailing dinghy that I chronicled in my book The Year of the Boat. This pipsqueak boat actually consumed a year and a half, and it delivered the lesson of perseverance.
I was aware before I started that boat projects have a tendency to ooze into infinity, beyond the builder’s life. I had run across an unfinished 27-foot sloop at a Canadian maritime museum, where a sign sparely outlined its history:
Started 1961. Worked on for 40 years. Given to Maritime Centre 2001.
As I worked on my dinghy I learned why. There’s a wavelike emotional geography in the building of any boat: crests of pride and elation to be followed, inevitably, by troughs of despair. These are interspersed with vast doldrums of boredom. The troughs and doldrums carry terrific potential for stalling the project, maybe forever. The solution, I figured out, is first to expect these cycles. By recognizing their inevitability, you take away their power.
The second strategy is to preserve momentum. Novelist Annie Dillard likens writing a book to keeping a feral beast that must be visited daily if the writer is to preserve her mastery over it. “If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.” A boat is exactly like that.
Now I’m in the middle of a larger, much more complicated boat—a three-year project whose ambition contrasts dramatically with the skills of its builder. It’s forcing me to confront my prime character defect, impatience. The only way to compensate for this shortcoming is to forcibly apply patience, no matter how unnatural it feels.
This week’s project, for example, is fairing the hull, which translates to long days of deadly tedious filling and sanding. One of my boatbuilding friends perfectly describes the process as “staring into the dark, gaping, bottomless maw of insanity.”
I devised a strategy to dodge that maw. At the beginning of the week I took a tape measure to the hull and rough-estimated its surface area: 165 square feet. That seemed immense, daunting. But one square foot is easy. It fits neatly inside a human’s close-up field of vision, and an impatient man’s attention span. So I attack one square foot at a time, sanding it to a satisfactory quotient of fairness. Each takes maybe 20 minutes, though I don’t really know—I’ve resolutely avoided timing and averaging. So instead of contemplating a bleak tundra of tedium, I substitute pleasure in completing square-foot swaths of fair, smooth, ready-to-paint surface.
This seems like good practice for the kinds of work that predominate today, where the end product is often so vast and distant from an individual’s daily labor that it’s hard to feel a sense of connection—or care. To remind me, I’ve printed out a profound line from Michael Ruhlman’s House: A Memoir and taped it above the transom:
All great accomplishments are composed entirely of interlocking details.
Attitude, perseverance, patience: No better vehicle than a wooden boat for drilling these qualities, because nothing else presents such a tangible reflection of the way I work on it. If I absorb these values, I’ll enjoy improved fitness for other kinds of work, if ever it reappears. I rest the case for my boat as a course in vocational rehab, or a postgrad seminar in character-building.
Just one problem. This boat has a chance of becoming an object of great beauty and substantial utility. Not all work has that potential. In the real world, frequently we must do jobs of dubious value. Building a boat can ruin us for less important paying work.