Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

October 4th, 2004

Wooden Boats
By Roger Emile Stouff

Not fishing as much as I would like these days, due to the computer-related stress injury in my upper right arm, I have been going a little stir crazy.

But I found that exercise of the arm in activities which do not involve use of the computer mouse or similar movements - such as fly casting - does actually help, to move the muscles and tendons in other directions is actually good therapy.

I had enough of lying on the sofa all weekend watching the tube, so I pulled out some of my boat building books and started researching. Back in March, I had purchased a fiberglass bass boat, an eighteen-foot Cajun Esprit some twenty years old. Though I was raised and nurtured in wooden boats, I felt I needed something bigger and faster to make those distant trips into the river basin safely.

It's been a love-hate relationship from the moment I acquired it, moving steadily toward the hate side each time I use it. Oh, I love the size, the convenience, the speed. But I despise the fact that much of my former shallow water haunts are out of my reach now, and that in order to get the big Johnson outboard up and on plane I need about three feet of water to take off. I also don't like the gas consumption. This boat's a member of OPEC.

This was a predicament made in heaven: A boat I dislike and time to get into the shop.

The search was long and laborious, but I finally settled on the work of John Gardner, perhaps the premiere small craft designer and historian of the boat building community. In the book More Classic Small Craft You Can Build Gardner drew the lines for a northeastern clamming skiff that seemed ideal for my needs.

Now, I do not fish for clams, nor do I intend to. I like clams just fine, don't get my wrong, but what I need is a good fishing boat that is in many ways similar to the big Cajun but in other ways quite the antithesis to it. The Gardner skiff suits my needs: Nearly four-and-a-half foot wide at the transom, with a generous rake to the bow for a choppy water trip, flaring sides to keep her dry, and best of all, built like a battleship. She is also flat-bottomed, and at that width, should ride shallow, providing me with the opportunity to get into those forbidden spots again. A smaller outboard, perhaps forty horsepower, should move it along nicely.

I salvage and hoard antique lumber. Mostly cypress and Douglas fir. The old wood is far superior to anything you can buy today. I raided my stash of eight-year-old fir and built a transom to Gardner's specifications, and as of this writing, two more frames moving from the transom forward. They are screwed and glued with marine epoxy mixed with a little sawdust as a thickening agent.

Last weekend, the "old fella" that I wrote of recently and I lofted out and built the stem of the boat, a demanding and time-consuming process. It came out great, as you can see by the photos, I hope.

I hope to have the boat done and fitted out by spring. If it interest you kind folks at all, I'll continue to write updates on its construction with photos. Please let me know.

In the book Wooden Boats by Michael Ruhlman, the author approaches the subject of present-day boat building in wood by working a year at the Benjamin and Gannon boatyard in Martha's Vineyard. Early on, he writes:

"My three-year-old daughter was up and down the companionway, frolicking through the spacious quarters of the sixty-three--foot boat, enchanted as children invariably are to be down below in a boat. And she was in view in the main salon when I asked Gannon why wooden boats were important to him - why he had devoted his life to them? Ross seemed surprised by my apparent ignorance regarding what to him was plain, and his blazing eyes burned right through me.

"'Do you want to teach your daughter that what you do, what you care about, is disposable?" he asked. "That you can throw your work away? It doesn't matter?'"

Wooden boats are to boat building what fly fishing is to angling: The mark of the eccentric, to a degree, but to their advocates, a finer and deeper immersion in the joys of the disciplines. A bamboo fly rod in a fiberglass boat rebels against its surroundings, but in a well-crafted wooden skiff seems to embrace the world within.

When some of us look into the open hull of a wooden boat - skiff, launch, utility, it makes no difference - we are seeing things alien to the confines of a fiberglass vessel. The frames, thick oak or fir or cypress, mahogany or cedar, lock the boat - and ourselves - firmly in another place, another time. The frames, chines, sheers and longitudinals sweep through a world that has no sense of artistry, only functions. Here we can see in the mind's eye a world before the obsession of permanence, the neglect of care. People who fashion wooden boats and those who use them do not wish to be buried in hermetically sealed stainless steel coffins painted faux mahogany. The notion of perpetual imprisonment in such a device is chilling and unsettling.

What modern man will leave behind when he has faded from the world at last is refuse. Nuclear waste, strip-mined mountains, rusting steel skyscrapers and crumbling concrete highways. Our neglect will outlive us, for we are far more concerned with such things as apartment houses, tin-can cars and fiberglass boats. Our homes are temporary despite the fact that we have built them of materials that do not rot or decay. Our cars are disposable, and our boats can too easily be parked on trailers in the back yard, or left in the slip of the marina, without the need for attention. When we die, our makings will continue, but our names will be forgotten.

Ross Gannon's question to Michael Ruhlman is an inquiry into what the listener holds dear. Is it the boat that is to be treasured, or the notion given the child concerning the caring for things, the disposability of our lives? In fact, it is both. To fashion a boat, or merely to own one, made of wood is to embrace fundamental values sadly lacking in today's stop-and-go world. A world where little is held sacred, and the idea of taking care of things treasured is obsolete because there is so little left to be treasured.

Nea'se. Thank you for sharing my ramblings, my waters, and my road. ~ Roger

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