The philosophical tiller
On a sailboat, every line and form and should be informed by nature. Its beauty should grow naturally out of its harmony with physical forces—the flow of air and water around it, the management of tension and compression and shear. There is no place for self-indulgent bling; leave that to the powerboat kids.
How, then, do I explain my tiller?
A simple, broomstick-straight tiller, a 20-minute manufacturing job with table saw and sandpaper, would do the job. Sam Devlin’s plans depict a little more swoop; in profile his tiller shows a gentle bend downward so the stick will fall more easily to hand.
But I spent two hours fooling with a flexible batten on a plywood form, trying to find a just-right S-curve for my tiller. Then three or four more hours laminating five alternating strips of khaya mahogany and vertical-grain fir to bend in that same graceful S. With no guarantee of success.
Although laminating a bend with thin wood strips isn’t difficult, there’s always an element of chance since you can’t predict exactly how much the shape will spring back when you release it from the form. And I’d already observed when messing with the batten that the difference between a beautiful shape and a silly one was very small—literally a matter of millimeters.
Happily, my guesswork turned out all right. The tiller looks lovely, at least to my eyes.
But is it gratuitous decoration, contrary to my deep-seated belief about how a boat’s form should simply follow function?
I recall some years ago when Parade magazine splashed a red Corvette across the cover on its annual new-car issue. Its stunning and outrageous curves smoked with flamboyance and sensuality. I showed it to a friend who is a Presbyterian minister and asked, half-joking, “Is this a sin?” He replied, without a second’s contemplation, “Yes!”
It’s a long stretch to equate a curving sailboat tiller to a Corvette, but in a way, both address the fundamental human instinct to be around, and to possess, beauty. And both are beautiful in something of the same way, which is that they resonate with the forms of nature—long, graceful, liquid curves, like the S-bends of a river or the curl of a cat’s tail. These are “natural” forms for us; we’re surrounded by them everywhere in nature. The straight lines and right angles of architecture and file cabinets are the stuff of artificial environments. They may have to be that way for efficiency’s sake—who needs a swoopy file cabinet?—but what this means is that we need to fill part of our environment with forms that answer our intuitive need for pleasure.
Since human intuition is a legitimate part of nature, then a curving tiller is a “natural” form. And maybe a Corvette, too. The trick, I think, is in discerning when ego, the impulse to show off, forms the nuclear core of that intuition. There enters the sin.
The past month’s work has been a variety of projects small and large. I made the tiller, the rudder, the rudder cheek blocks (which will cradle the tiller), installed the bow eye (which terrifyingly required boring two absolutely parallel 4-inch-deep holes through the stem with a hand-held drill), and built a vent hatch for the forward deck.
The vent hatch has been, not to put too fine a point on it, a bitch, and continues to be. It’s surprisingly hard to home-build a hinged hatch that will open smoothly but close tightly against rain and splashing waves. Even the clear acrylic window in it has been a pain because I decided I needed to apply a UV-resistant film. To date I have thrown away one acetone-scarred window, three poor-fitting frame pieces, and half a dozen attempts at applying the film.
I’m nearing completion, but it’s still going to be highly imperfect. Would it have been better just to buy a factory-made aluminum hatch? Functionally, yes. Aesthetically, maybe. But somehow I’ve acquired an intuitive dislike for aluminum and plastic pieces on a wooden boat.
And rational or not, that intuition asks to be honored.
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September’s annual Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend was delightful, as always. I would be posting a nice selection of photos if it weren’t for the fact that my new camera is now residing in 15 feet of water at the marina.
That doofus drop was redeemed when for the first time we saw a Devlin Winter Wren, the same design as Nil Desperandum, in the flesh. Owner Tim Lemon had rescued her from dereliction after a former owner had left her uncovered for years, rotting in the Northwest’s relentless nag of precipitation. He has professional skills, and he did beautiful work, respectful of the designer’s intentions.
And on the festival’s final day, Tim invited us to sail with him. Happily, the Winter Wren proved to be a delightful boat, sweet and forgiving but confident. She moved cheerfully in a wisp of a breeze, maybe three knots, and didn’t seem to mind the weight of four adults aboard. For a 19-foot boat she has outsized capabilities.
The next morning at home, I was in the boat shop at 4 a.m., back to work on Nil Desperandum. No kidding.