Not-So-Smooth Sailing

A novice boatbuilder needs help to keep his project afloat.

By Lawrence W. Cheek December 20, 2008 Published in the September 2008 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Alex Green

I HAD NO BUSINESS BUILDING a boat. I have little sailing experience, no patience, and an uncanny inability to look at a two-dimensional drawing and visualize the three-dimensional object it’s supposed to become. But with the wooden boat revival in full sail in the Pacific Northwest, people who are not remotely competent to construct such vessels—people like me—are doing so anyway. So, over 18 sawdust-flocked months, I attempted to build a wooden sailboat in my Issaquah garage.

I was seduced by the vessel’s unpretentious grace. It’s a Zephyr, a 13-and-a-half-foot sprit-rigged dinghy designed by Sam Devlin, a boatmaker in Olympia. It’s fetchingly beautiful and deceptively complicated despite its dinky dimensions. Devlin’s plans are not terrifically detailed and do not coddle the builder. He thinks there’s character growth awaiting those who figure things out for themselves. “This is not paint by numbers,” he told me, standing in front of his secluded waterfront workshop. “This is taking a pile of wood and breathing life into it. For us as men, I think this is the closest we can come to giving birth. This is as creative as we can possibly be.” Right, I thought, gazing out toward the water—if the embryonic pile ever becomes an actual boat.

The Zephyr has a pivoting centerboard that nests in the cockpit like the meat of a sandwich inside four-and-a-half-foot-long plywood buns. Like the weighted keel in a large sailboat, a centerboard is essential in a small one; without its underwater resistance the boat would be a chunk of driftwood sporting a skinny branch and a big leaf, getting itself blown sideways instead of pressing forward. A vigorous wind would be all the chunk needed to capsize.

My biggest problem was that the board, a long fin of lead-weighted ash, had to be installed after the hull was essentially complete. That meant I had to line up small holes in the sandwich, down in a narrow cranny of the bilge where I couldn’t see or feel anything, and somehow thread a big bolt through them. If the alignment of the holes proved to be even slightly off, the centerboard would bind or be impossible to install.

I needed an extra pair of hands for the attempt, and I couldn’t think of a neighbor who I’d ask to spend a morning at a hopeless task in my garage. At breakfast I turned to my wife. “There’s a good chance it won’t work,” I warned her. “But I’ve spent a couple of days thinking up a contingency plan, and I sort of have one. It would be a colossal amount of extra work, but at least I have an idea.”
I knew exactly how she would respond. “If you expect the first try to fail, it will. Why don’t you try expecting success?”

We’ve had versions of this exchange hundreds of times. I am by nature a worrier, a surveyor of the wreckage of the future. Patty—whose father died in an airplane crash when she was 16—has always tried to face trouble with a positive attitude and maintains a fierce belief in the power of faith to shape events. I was tempted to ask her to explain in raw Newtonian physics how positive thinking might favorably shift the alignment of holes and bolts—but I needed her help.

The boat was inverted on a cluster of tables so I could crawl underneath. Patty climbed a stepladder and wrestled the heavy centerboard into its slot, positioning its invisible hole where it should line up with the holes in its sandwich. Of course it didn’t.

Even the preparations for failure can cause the creative gears to seize up.

For an hour we experimented with measurements, cardboard templates, pencil marks on masking tape, and, yes, positive thinking—everything except what we really needed, which was X-ray vision. I had the bolt partway through, but it wouldn’t find the hole on the farside, and I was convinced it never would because the hole was in Belgium or someplace equally far from where it should be. My ideas ran dry. “The contingency plan is going to take about three days,” I sighed, tossing my wrench on the floor. “First, we plug the holes—”

“Have you tried everything?” Patty interrupted. “Have you really thought through the problem?” I groaned but took the question seriously. In reality, the bolt might be no more than a fraction of an inch from finding its home. If that was true, maybe we could use the centerboard itself as a lever to move it.

We choreographed a series of pushes, pulls, and twists with the board to torque the invisible bolt in four different directions to see if one of them would discover the hole. We didn’t even need four tries—the first was the right guess. The bolt parked at the threshold of the final hole and I coaxed it through. My boat had just acquired a perfectly functioning centerboard, and my wife had the grace not to point out that her prodding had pointed us toward the solution.

The next day as I scribbled notes in my boatbuilding log, I realized how my cloud of negativity had almost scuttled everything and triggered the dire Plan B. My theatrical imaginings (the hole is in Belgium!) nearly blocked the next, and ultimately successful, strategy. Only by assuming the best—that the target was no more than a fraction of an inch away—did the solution become viable.
People argue that perpetual optimism is annoying, but perpetual pessimism is worse than annoying: It’s self-defeating. I’ve always tried to plot what I thought was a realistic course between the two extremes: Aim for success, but prepare for failure. Seems entirely reasonable. But Patty and the centerboard showed me that even the preparations for failure can cause the creative gears to seize up.

Throughout the year of the boat, as I made dozens of mistakes and the prospects of finishing looked abysmally bleak, my wife remained unshakable in her wild belief that I could actually build this thing. So, okay, maybe her conviction exerted a tangible force, helping me slog through cycles of discouragement until finally I had my boat: the Far from Perfect.

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