A wooden boat’s beauty lies in its reflection of nature
Published in the Seattle Times Pacific Northwest Sunday Magazine
May 2, 2010
Once you have built a wooden boat, or even are contemplating one, it is impossible to walk through a forest and not see boats in the trees. If you are a committed conservationist, the adult flank of your brain will scold you for these immature and appalling thoughts—killing trees for a self-indulgent toy, the idea!
The guilt stings acutely in the old-growth rain forests of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where Sitka spruce can soar nearly 200 feet and the current record Doug-fir tops out at 281. Your internal Rationalization Department retorts that wooden boats are living things, too, as magnificent and worthy as the trees they come from. This is, of course, poetic romanticization, and may or may not hold water on Judgment Day. Depends on the weight finally given to our conduct within the relationships of life on earth.
I’ve just emerged from a rainforest hike, and I’m picking my way across the logs piled just above tideline on Ruby Beach. This stunningly remote coastline, 90 miles west of Seattle, sees 120 inches of rain in an average year. Routinely overflowing rivers undermine trees and sluice them to the beach, where monster winter surf strips and collates them into surprisingly orderly queues. I’m hardly expecting to see boats in these colossal matchsticks, but one practically leaps at me. A bare, sun-bleached log fragment about the thickness of a human thigh sports a graceful wishbone bend where a large branch had once cantilevered itself off the trunk. The poise of the curve, the graceful rhythm of the grain, even the stringy grass rigging around it, form a perfect abstraction of the 26-foot spidsgatter I admired just yesterday at the Port Townsend marina.
Did a chunk of driftwood like this, three-quarters of a century back, suggest the spidsgatter’s shapely rump to Aage Utzon, its designer? Probably not consciously. Physics provides no direct connection between the hydrodynamics of a hull shape and the cantilevering of a tree branch. But the human brain seems to supply such linkages instinctively. The geometry of nature has prodigious suggestive power, and frequently we mimic it in human-designed objects for aesthetic delight or functional advantage, or sometimes both.
There’s something about that name Utzon that’s suggestive, too, but I can’t quite pull it up from darkened memory. When I get home I google it, and another connection between the natural and built environments clicks in. Naval architect Aage Utzon was the father of architect Jørn Utzon, who designed the Sydney Opera House. Little question that Jørn had seen buildings in his father’s boats.
Wooden boats learn from nature, and if we’re receptive, they pass on the teachings to us. We’re first seduced by what we see simply as grace and elegance in their fluid lines, and in the resplendent tones of well-varnished brightwork. But then, if we look deeply enough, this beauty becomes something more powerful. Something we might call capital-T Truth.
Stay with me; I’m not dipping into the philosophy of aesthetics. I’ve struggled through Kant and Santayana, and I’ll save you the trouble. Those waters are chilly and lifeless. The questions What is beauty? and Why do we need it? are too real and vivid to hand off to theoreticians.
I plucked my stem of understanding from the modern writing of Scott Russell Sanders, a heartland essayist who weaves threads of science, culture and spirit together with dazzling insight. In a piece simply titled “Beauty” Sanders suggested that we find certain objects beautiful because they give us a glimpse of the underlying order of things. “The swirl of a galaxy and the swirl of a [bridal] gown resemble one another not merely by accident, but because they follow the grain of the universe.” Keep going: a bighorn sheep’s horn, a moonsnail’s shell, an ocean whirlpool—these all live in a geometric family headed by that spiral galaxy, a continuous curve of gradually increasing radius. The underlying order is a tough nut even for science to crack, because the density waves that sift stars into a spiral appear to have nothing to do with the cellular growth pattern of a mollusc’s shell. But we instinctively sense their unity, even though it eludes explanation. And we have a craving for order, for forms that fall into patterns, because they’re reassuring. They tell us that chaos is not the universe’s default mode, that nature is understandable, and we can make a safe and sustainable home within it.
Return to Ruby Beach with me for a minute. The winter storms aren’t yet rolling in, so the architecture of the surf is more beautiful than frightening. Each breaker is unique, which is what makes the surf endlessly fascinating, but all fall within a predictable range. Who’d ever stroll here, or launch a small boat onto a large body of water, if we couldn’t trust the physics, the underlying order, of wave formation? A swell destabilizes into a breaker when it encounters water depth 1.3 times its height. Trusting these numbers, I’ve ventured my kayak into a modest Pacific surf like this on a couple of occasions. I got dumped, but it wasn’t because physics had capriciously decided to suspend the rules.
Since we owe our lives to nature’s dependability, it’s not surprising that we turn there for inspiration in a vast range of the things we create. Often there’s a physical reason for doing so. Plenty of examples in the constellation of boats: A sail is a wing, rotated to the vertical to supply forward thrust in place of lift. And modern Marconi rigs look like wings, because 150 million years of natural selection had already worked out the ideal shape; all we had to do was copy it. (The square sail forms a perfect illustration of missing the lessons of nature; Vikings could have saved themselves centuries of upwind rowing). A tiller, however, which almost invariably curves in a gentle arc, is something else. There’s no scientific mandate for the curve; it just looks right. A satisfying tiller will have the sense of inevitability, as though it had naturally grown that way. Grown like a branch bending to the tug of gravity.
The esteemed biologist Edward O. Wilson invented a word that explains our attraction to the forms of nature: biophilia, which he defined as “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” Even as babies, we humans tend to be drawn toward living creatures (or their representations) more than to inanimate objects. We’re more likely to develop a relationship with a stuffed bear than a ball. This tendency is embedded deep in the human-instinct circuitry as a matter of survival and reproduction.
So the wooden boat revival was no anomaly. We willingly pour the considerable labor and love into building, maintaining and restoring wooden boats because they lead us to participating in something greater than ourselves. I have nothing against fiberglass, but a boat made entirely out of synthetic material simply reflects human culture back at us. It is purely a product of technology. A wooden boat is a partnership. It’s not literally a living thing, not quite, but it evinces respect for the life that exists outside the clubby circle of human intelligence.
The first sailboat I built, Sam Devlin’s melonseed-inspired Zephyr, sucked me in by its simple beauty. (I also thought it would be simple to build, which was wrong, but that’s another story.) Devlin’s plans promised a sweetly modest little craft of low freeboard, basic, unadorned lines, and just a suggestion of impertinence in her subtly upswept sheer and authoritative stem. As I researched the Zephyr’s ancestry for my book The Year of the Boat, I uncovered a well of affection for the melonseed, which originated as a New Jersey duck-hunting boat in the 1880s. The praise encompassed both the melonseed’s remarkable sailing ability and its beauty, which seemed to impress commentators out of all proportion to the boat’s diminutive 13½ feet. Historian Howard Chapelle called it “remarkably handsome.” Designer Robert Perry praised it as “a symphony of shapes.” Boatbuilder Roger Crawford, who took the lines off an original melonseed and began making fiberglass reproductions in 1989, wrote that his production decision “was based almost entirely on emotion and passion and very little on economics.” As it should be with boats.
I wanted a signature to make my melonseed distinctively beautiful, but I didn’t yet know enough about boat design to venture any substantive departure from Devlin’s plans. Somewhere in the course of construction, though, the idea of a pair of swooping buttresses flowing off the after end of the coaming and landing on the deck took form in my mind and simmered for months. They were frankly inspired by the Ferrari 308 GTB, unarguably one of the half-dozen most beautiful cars of all time.
After I completed the deck and coaming, I bandsawed a pair of trial swoops from leftover cedar and test-fit them. Then for a long 20 minutes I walked around the boat, contemplating from every possible angle. And then I plucked them off and tossed them into the scrap bin. Instead of a tug of regret I felt a flood of relief. It was as though after a long struggle of conscience, I had decided to not commit a sin.
What sin? Superfluous decoration, something that had no functional value on the boat. And something deeper: the grafting of ego onto an object whose intrinsic beauty flowed out of its function. A Ferrari is all about ego; it screams to be noticed. A small daysailer should go about its business quietly and unobtrusively; that is its nature. Trying to transplant the dharma of either machine into the other creates a fundamental conflict, certain to fail.
Michael Ruhlman wrote in Wooden Boats that “The science and beauty were inextricably linked, were perhaps the same thing.” That’s the central teaching of wooden boats: that there is an underlying order, and it should be honored. Materials should not be tortured into forms contrary to their nature (wood generally refuses, anyway). Beauty grows best from the inner character of the object, rather than being imposed on it.
This is why I respond mainly to sail- or human-powered watercraft. Occasionally I see a power boat that strikes me as beautiful, but these are never production sport boats or luxury yachts. The availability of easy horsepower, and too much of it, has corrupted their designs. They’re calculated to impress human sensibility, not nature, and the former is itself corrupt, conditioned by our consumer culture to respond to excess size, power, and bling. A beautiful power boat holds to the same principles as a beautiful sailboat: its form grows out of a desire, if not a physical mandate, to cooperate with nature rather than overwhelm it with brute force.
Beauty resides innately in that desire, and that’s when it becomes the Truth.
I live on a mostly rural island, so my environment comprises mainly natural forms: rocks, trees, deer, great blue heron, water. A quarter-mile from my house is a high bluff where I can look over a strait in Puget Sound. On occasion a certain sun angle coincides with just the right point in the tidal cycle, and a vast curving line appears in the water, the scribble of a mild rip. As simple as it is, it’s strikingly beautiful. It looks like a calligraphic flourish underlining the North Cascades, rising in the distance. One morning as I watched, a sailboat glided into the picture and bisected the line. And it occurred to me that there’s one human-crafted object that will always enhance, rather than spoil, a beautiful natural setting.
In my work as an architecture and urban design critic, I frequently have to leave my island to visit human-crafted objects, often forty or sixty stories high, in Seattle and other cities. Because my reference is now an island, I’ve become more suspicious of these things, harder to impress even when their design is undeniably expressive and dramatic. It’s not that I want everything to look like sailboats—there’s probably room for only one Sydney Opera House in the world—but that I’m looking for some of that honoring of the natural world in some thoughtful way. And rarely finding it.
What cities are now doing is celebrating our mastery of technology rather than our partnership with nature. Modern office buildings cocoon their occupants in environments where everything from the enclosure of space to the lighting spectrum is artificially controlled. It may be comfortable, but it’s not necessarily healthy or conducive to creativity. I was once standing in the drafting room of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, with its translucent ceiling, when a cloud drifted overhead. The mood of the room suddenly and dramatically changed—and what was wrong with that? When we work in an environment that remains connected to nature, we’re more likely to make creative decisions that respect those connections.
In A Sand County Almanac, the book that sixty years ago finally spilled the word “ecology” into everyday kitchen conversation, Aldo Leopold pleaded eloquently for his fellow humans to return to thinking of ourselves as part of the community of life, rather than as its masters. This requires an acceptance of nature and an appreciation of how the parts all fit together, rather than tireless efforts to manage and transform it. I expect Leopold, who died just before his book was published, would not be encouraged by what he’d observe in the world today: species blinking into extinction at the rate of 72 every day, suburbs oozing carelessly into forest and farmland, energy and natural resources being squandered. Frankly, if he were to paw the burgeoning scrap bin in my boat shop, heaped high with mistakes and misjudgments, he might be appalled at my waste, too.
But when I consider what wooden boats have taught me, the waste seems tolerable. I’ve grown a sharper eye for the beauty of underlying order. A deeper respect for the intrinsic nature of materials. More ability to pare away the self-indulgent and the superfluous to get down to essentials. A willingness to enjoy what’s freely offered—wind and current—rather than craving the power to overcome them. All of these point not just toward more skillful boatbuilding or sailing, but toward better citizenship in the natural world.