Friday, January 8, 2010

Back in 95

I've wanted to tell my story of building, sailing and customizing my Bolger Birdwatcher for a long, long time. It would be nice to have the details laid out in some kind of order. And I owe the boatbuilding fraternity some record of my doings, since I could not have accomplished many of those doings without a lot of help from all over. I will forego the usual excuses. Let's just say that today, this -18 C January day, is the day.

My life intersected with wooden boats in the early 90s. Odd, because at the time I flew airplanes for fun and thought incessantly of building one. I had a set of plans from a Canadian designer and was just about to roll up my sleeves. Just then, an acquaintance of mine who had recently finished his own airplane was killed when his handiwork broke up in flight. It was determined that the design itself was flawed, but that there had been building mistakes too. I was a good pilot. But the accident made me question if I really wanted to test my building skills in that no-margin-for-error way. It seemed more stressful than fun.

One day I chanced upon a copy of the American magazine Woodboat and found that not only were boats just as sculpturally interesting as airplanes, the lexicon used to describe them was rich and mysterious. As a writer, it is impossible not to be lured by words like keelson, abaft, drogue, mizzen, binnacle, and so forth. Beyond the lovely jargon, the pieces in Woodenboat were somehow beautifully written, how-to pieces crafted into tales. I was drawn to wooden boats by language more than anything. As for getting killed in one of my own contraptions, it seemed less likely to occur afloat than aloft. (Pause while I touch wood.)

You don't dig too far into the modern wooden boat literature without encountering the words of Philip C. Bolger. I don't remember which of his writings I first found, but I do know I read everything he had to say about boats in short order once I did find him. A good writer can make the most arcane topic universal, and his self-critiquing style of boat prose was unlike anything else I'd read. Naturally, I came across his introduction to the Birdwatcher, design number 496, and this iconoclastic boat seemed to embody a very original kind of thinking.

I am drawn to classic lines, traditional beauty, and wooden boats have plenty of that. The Birdwatcher was something else again, call it what you will. But her designer made such a compelling case for her, and the way function drove her form was intriguing enough to make me want to build her just to see if the Old Man, as I came to think of Phil Bolger, was right. Moreover, she fit the bill of criteria I had set for the kind of boat I wanted to build, a topic I will address in the second post.

And so I sent a money order off for the plans. They arrived ten days later in a mailing tube with the rubber-stamp logo of Phil Bolger and Friends on the outside and a hand-written letter from Phil himself inside. He thanked me and said that, if my project "should go ahead," he would appreciate it if I let him know. That was in 1995. It was ten years later when I wrote back.

No comments:

Post a Comment