The Ash Breeze Editorials
Almost Out of Sight
During the course of a summer there are a lot of boats on the water; relatively few, of course, are what we would call "traditional" craft, propelled by oar, paddle, or sail alone. Certainly auxiliary power has its advantages...but in small craft the learning experience often stops when the power comes on. While motoring can be fun, much of the subtle feedback of the waves, current, and wind simply vanishes or becomes irrelevant.
Children see this as well. "Going for a boat ride" becomes another passive, spectator experience when your propulsion or control input is neither needed or desired, and the focus is on the destination, not the voyage. The tantalizing sandbar or small island, the unexplored rocky shallow bay, the bottom-scraping surprise, are off-limits.
As traditional-crafters, we foster the skills and values of many generations before us. The chapters and the national structure allow this vision to be shared, and give us a collective voice to shape legislation. Twenty-five years ago there was concern that we were a vanishing breed; we clearly weathered that storm, and are -- through national-circulation niche publications like WoodenBoat, Messing About in Boats, and Open-Water Rowing -- a more united family than ever.
But where are the kids? The youth-boatbuilding programs of museums, schools, and after-school agencies very often use the "boat" as a device to teach or demonstrate teamwork, math, science, assorted technologies. Very rarely are these programs integrated with actual on-water outings, let alone independent explorations of the attractive gunkholes which abound in almost any body of water. Yet most of us can vividly recall our first solitary passages as exciting events, which propelled us through life and into many other currents.
We in TSCA have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to help children make memories. We also have the means literally at our fingertips. We just have to take the time.
All in all, it is a noble task at the end of a day, varnishing up a scratch on the brightwork, after setting a kid loose to savor a fine small boat on a sunny afternoon -- for a voyage almost out of sight, and beyond the familiar.
It’s difficult to row, paddle, or sail a “traditional” craft without reflecting on the tradition itself…and, especially, the experiences of those who have traveled over the water before us in similar craft.
Such mental reflection is central to participation in a vessel’s ownership — even the temporary possession of an hour’s outing. Such participation both builds and perpetuates our tradition.
Literary reflections are essential as well. In this issue we can read of a long trip in a cutting-edge craft of some 125 years ago; we look at the very origins of TSCA; we observe the construction of two new, historic small craft; and we enter a reflection — serialized — on a 20-year vessel restoration which is continuing to this day, integrated with a family’s life.
How else are we going to know how it feels to paddle a largely untried design for many coastwise miles...or to sample a bit of pilot’s bread and fresh milk from a pail? Or to row the recherché Whitehall up the Mystic River for the first of the Workshops? Or to bring a lost-cause sharpie skiff back to life, working afresh from Chapelle and the commonsense words of wisdom of the Old Man of Mystic, himself? Or to revisit, through Margru, a tragic and heroic episode in America’s past?
Soon the waters will be warm enough for everyday boating.
Books of interest…
Working Thin Waters
It’s not particularly difficult to find a grizzled waterman or sturdy
waterwoman on the piers of New England, particularly before the break of
dawn or in late midday when the catch is coming in. Weather beaten,
well-used oysterboats, no-nonsense lobstermen, scallop draggers, and
multipurpose family-business boats with serious nets and winches, and
a “professional” odor are part of the scene too.
-------------- Note: an earlier, 1981, book by Stephen Jones, Harbor of Refuge:
Being the Recreation of Four Seasons on an Offshore Lighthouse, has
been re-published in paperback by Bibliopola Press, 1981 and 2000. 357 pp. 32
illustrations. ISBN 0-939883-07-4. Distributed by University Press of New
England, 23 South Main Street, Hanover, NH 03755 [phone 800/421-1561].
Note: an earlier, 1981, book by Stephen Jones, Harbor of Refuge: Being the Recreation of Four Seasons on an Offshore Lighthouse, has been re-published in paperback by Bibliopola Press, 1981 and 2000. 357 pp. 32 illustrations. ISBN 0-939883-07-4. Distributed by University Press of New England, 23 South Main Street, Hanover, NH 03755 [phone 800/421-1561].
"Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room;
The bay or the river or the sound is a vast sea for a small boat, whose perceived size seems inversely proportional to the expanse of the body of water it graces. Are we not destined somehow for a larger canvas, broader waters to prove our surly mettle, "not with arms waving, gonfalons flying, but with sharp eyes and a steady hand 1"?
Or is that mettle quite well-proven enough, thank you, within a smaller compass, in a "shallow water academy of seamanship 2"?
Several of this issue's stories answer those questions in their own fashion. They are adventures at "sea;" explorations of the capability of a small craft and its crew to withstand hardships on a small scale, which despite their confines do indeed toughen character and enhance skills and confer happy (if sometimes some while after the fact) memories.
An offshore cruise out of Miami on a colorful ocean-going buffet-laden pleasure palace may bring Romance to the voyaging couple, but it does not usually heighten their seafaring talents; whereas an afternoon afloat on a seakindly beach cruiser under sail, paddle, or oar always does. It may even bring that hoped-for Romance as well. For Romance demands participation in the process, or event - being on the spot, using one's wits and training, mind and emotion.
Wordsworth's reflection on the constraints of the poetic form, in particular "the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground 3," speaks to all who voluntarily constrain their vision, and explore the much-in-little that small boating offers. Traditional small boating offers a deep experience because a traditional vessel's soul has been shared with many others. The original creators of that soul - the designers, builders, those who first pulled the oar or tended the sheet - may have now passed away, but their handiwork and talent can be captured and emulated within our own lives.
Thus we individually adapt the past and refine it to suit our own vision and our own watery environment, "Pleasedif some souls...Who have felt the weight of too much liberty, Should find brief solace there." All thin waters are not the same, nor are their thin-skinned craft, nor are their thoughtful skippers.
Wonder ye then at our diverse craft?
1. Joseph Conrad, reflecting on his earliest maritime training
(from Joseph Conrad, A Sketch, Doubleday chapbook, 1924)
Fall / Winter, 1999
Laete Cognoscam et Laete Docebo*
"Tradition" does not, we hope, exist for its own sake. We do not follow the past's practice or philosophy blindly, but rather seek to build a new, conscious appreciation of values that may inspire us, and which we then may hope to pass on to others. The peculiar delights of mastering oar-leathering or tacking a tender sailing canoe into a secluded estuary for an overnight camp are pleasures which emanate from an earlier era, but which can illuminate 21st-century life.
The vessels of the past -- some seeming heavy and overbuilt, some pressing "lightness" beyond the capability of the materials available -- carried with them the freight of a complete society: the ships must get back home to the investors, the boats must be pulled and sailed with a full and heavy load of fish, the light livery or gig must carry the passenger faster and farther and more comfortably than the competitor's. The successes of design and construction underlying these craft occasionally coalesce into a "perfect" or benchmark vessel or building method, ideally suited to its time and place.
We who, years or centuries later, carefully explore "perfection" in a small craft are bound to rediscover not only the design and craftsmanship that created it...but the human culture out of which it was born. And in doing so we explore ourselves, and create a new voice to transmit what others learned and practiced in days long ago. Thus, we explorers of "tradition" are not keepers of a silent and immutable library; we are teachers who speak out to the future. As we enter a new century, let us go about this task with a will -- enjoying the past, enjoying the present, and preparing the way for others willingly to follow.
*Gladly I learn, and gladly I will teach.
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