Jan/Feb 2006 Nonfiction

Two Women and a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog)

by Jane Cates

In the town of Brooklin, Maine is the Wooden Boat School, one of the few places left teaching the craft (all puns intended). It was to this place that my daughter Lily and I, along with husband David, step-daughter Gwendolen, and beagle Slick, went last July to learn how to build, and then to actually build, a 14-foot lapstrake canoe.

Now, you should understand that Lily and I had no boatbuilding, or even woodworking, skills. We took our supply list to Home Depot, handed it to a very nice fellow in an orange apron and walked out with five bags of mysterious shapes carefully encased in packages that required the tools inside to open.

The day before the class started, we headed north from Maplewood, NJ. It's about a seven to eight hour drive, and the car was completely packed with family, luggage and tools. Slick, of course, insisted on a window seat. David used his height and position as Pater Familias as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card from the back seat. The rest of us rotated.

One of the great pleasures of a trip to New England is the chance to stop at the Travelers' Book Stop on Route 80 just outside of Massachusetts. The walls are lined with used books and customers are allowed to select three to take along on the trip. That's where we stopped for breakfast. We managed to wedge our selection of books onto the package shelf and continued on. After a few hours a certain crankiness among some of us was in evidence. Some were able to nap or read. Slick worked on his loon calls.

Next stop: Freeport, Maine, where we anticipated the first official vacation lobster roll. Well, they were out of lobster. Maine is not particularly known for its hamburgers, but there you are. We continued north and got to the school just in time for dinner and orientation. Our class went down to the boat house to get set up for the next morning.

The first thing that Lily and I noticed was that the class was composed of men: men in little canvas aprons with lots of pockets and lots of tools; men with canvas bags with lots of pockets and lots of tools. We put our Home Depot bags down on the workbench. We noticed that no one else's tools still had bar code stickers.

There was lumber sufficient to make seven canoes. Now this is a lot of lumber, none of it looking particularly like a canoe part. Bill Thomas, the instructor, explained his policy of "no boat left behind" and assured us that we would all be working together to make sure that everyone progressed at the same pace and that we all would go home with something closer to a boat than to a lumber pile. Why were all the guys looking at us? Lily and I busily arranged out tools in neat rows and plugged in the battery to our drill. We were all given sets of plans to take home and study. Lily and I admired the blueprints and noted that some of them looked like pictures of a boat. The instruction manual was in a code which remains unbroken to this day.

But here was Bill's promise, a promise which was true: every task, no matter how daunting it may seem, is just a series of small steps which, done carefully and in the proper order, can be accomplished by anyone who cares to try. Moreover, there are no insurmountable problems, just challenges, which can be overcome.

The next morning we were introduced to the epoxy pumps. The boat house, I should mention, is decorated with artistic creations made from found objects and epoxy. One of the basic skills of boat building, apart from making appalling puns (when there wasn't a pun and a groan hanging in the air, you knew someone at least had a pun in the oven), is the ability to execute a good practical joke, and there is an amazing array of stuff on the walls, shelves and ceiling that isn't going anywhere anytime soon. We got a basic lesson in epoxy-mixing and a warning that the incorrect ratio of resin and hardener could result in a major challenge to be overcome in the middle of a lake. We started assembling the strakes by making scarf joints. We took comfort in the fact that we knew what those words meant, at least when taken one at a time.

Well, now, it really wasn't all that hard. The trick is to measure very very carefully, following the now clear instructions in the blueprints, as a wrong curve on the strakes is a major problem, excuse me, fascinating challenge. And we were careful. The pile of lumber now had half the number of large pieces. It still didn't look much like a boat though.

After lunch we did the scarf joints on the inwales and outwales (destined to become the gunwales).

Here's the interesting thing. It took only one round of gluing for us to realize that we could do this thing. And do it as well as anyone else there. With each session we grew more confident, more skilled.

Now these canoes are built with no frames and as such are not traditional lapstrakes, but, as Bill termed it, "Faux Boats." The advantage is that they are very light; the challenge is that they are a pile of lumber until they aren't.

The basic stitch and glue technique is to drill lots of tiny holes along the strakes and then to stitch them up with wire. As you tighten the wires the boat takes on its perfectly fair symmetrical form, or at least some form which you can manipulate into shape. Then you fill the valleys between the strakes with epoxy. When the epoxy is dry you clip the wires and yank them out. Some of us used both wire cutters and pliers; some of us had one tool which combined both functions. I suggested that it might be called a Yanking Clipper. Our stock as punsters rose.

As we tightened the wires, she was lumber no more. Lily shouted, "She arises--the princess we always knew she would become," and the "Princess Lily" got her name. It was, as they say, smooth paddling thereafter, and no boat was left behind.

By the end of the week we had a canoe, and a fair little clinker-built she is, too, quietly waiting for Spring and a final sanding and painting before the big launch, which will probably take place in the South Orange duck pond.

But what we really have, of course, is much more.


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