Sunday, December 28, 2014

Small boats Small waters

In the newest issue of Wooden Boat Magazine there is an article about a small boat, the Westport Pond Skiff.  It is an older sheltered water sailing skiff, one of the simplest of boats to build.  I am well aware of the simplicity of the skiff type boat to build and of the great return of satisfaction that is gained in a handsome and useful boat.
I understand that most of the yacht/boat clubs in my area have one class groups for racing, most all fiberglass boats, purchased boats, and I think that they are missing another dimension of boating that can be just as rewarding, if not more so, than just racing boats, and that is building boats.
The simple design of a skiff makes it a good candidate for club building, youth programs, and with minimal requirements in tools, space, or even expertise.  Some may object to wooden boats in that they require "too much maintenance, but that annual work, if it could be called that, is part of the joy and the investment that creates the bond between sailor and vessel.  In this age of consumerism, the age of disposable things, and things that are acquired rather than created, wouldn't this kind of pride of ownership and pride of craft, this kind of stewardship, be the kind of qualities we'd like to see developed in ourselves and most importantly, in our children.
I am no racer, I have no interest in it.  The idea of running around buoy's, somebody else's idea of an interesting path, just leaves me cold.  The idea that it develops young peoples skills for life supposes that their futures will be about "beating" others, about raising up themselves only.  I realize that many of these club racing seasons are merely excuses to have a beer with friends, but I really don't need and excuse to share time with friends and I would much rather have a more genuine adventure, less structured and not clothed in competition which is a much overrated condition that is given far to much importance in this land of plenty that we call our country(culture and age).
When on land I would much rather find a path thru the woods then find myself on a 4 or 5 or 6 lane blacktop highway, so why would I want to force a race course upon the water to race around, when the entirety of the water's surface is open to me and I won't leave a mark upon it as I pass over, just as no other paths have been left for me to follow?
I am much more fond of what I call  the "Swallows and Amazons" attitude of sailing and boating.  Ratty's famous quote also comes to mind when I think of my time in and on the water, "There is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as messing about in boats, simply messing about".  These outlooks are almost the antithesis of racing and competition, unless I suppose you are imagining you are a pirate and your friends in their boat are carrying trunks of treasure to be taken from them.
The waters here where I live offer an almost limitless possibility in that they are bays on a river and a days sail south is the atlantic ocean and thus all the seas of the world.  That literal connection allows for imagined adventure on every sail.  Even if one stays up the river all your days, just bouncing from one shore to the other, up and down the bay, there is always that little fantasy, lurking in the back of the brain about pushing over the helm and loosing a sheet and heading down river and out to the sea.  It is a real possibility with each sail that is kept as a fantasy by greatest effort to resist the call of adventure, or maybe with little effort by just continuing to tack from shore to shore as one usually does.
The really wonderful thing about this area is that the 3 bays, or so, all link together make for a little inland sea, if one uses ones creative mind to think about it.  Only 3 miles wide at it's widest, but about 20 miles from top to bottom, by choosing a couple of points that are obvious geographically as well as very good boating destinations.  If one is in a small boat, or even a medium size boat, tacking from eastern shore to western can take half an hour or more.  Plenty of time to relax and enjoy the view, but not so long as to get bored without something to do.  If one is in a small boat and has a shallow draft that will allow beaching then there are many state parks and such to land on and picnic or stretch or just add another dimension to the day.  The cliffs to the west rise up from the waters edge a good 500 feet and for a length of about 3 miles in the section closest to where I sail.  These cliffs can make wind direction "interesting" sometimes as the wind is affected by them but the scenery is majestic.
A small boat like the Westport Skiff would make these waters seem vast and full of possibility.  I once went for a sail on a friends boat.  The boat was over 50 feet long and it sailed pretty fast.  We were across the bay in no time, up to the top and then back down again.  He complained about the waters here being too small, not enough for his boat.  I think that the more useful assessment would be that the boat wasn't really suited to the area.  After all, you can influence the size of the boat, but I'd rather that nobody tried to influence the shape and size of this beautiful river.
I have taken my skiff, WHISP, a Jim Michalik QT flat iron skiff, modified with a sailing rig out on the river and have resisted the urge to "stay out" or stretch the length of the sail and the adventure but mostly because I forget or just don't plan ahead and carry a lunch onboard.  There is also the concern that I will sail far enough away that getting back to my launching place won't be easily possible.  Quite the opposite problem of my friend with the 50 footer.  One of the things that lurks in my mind is that landing places for a small boat have been reduced. on these shores that are now mostly privately owned by people who have little connection to the river other than looking at it and the understanding that the proximity increases their property value.  If the shore line isn't part of some large house, then it is part of a marina or shore side business that only welcomes those willing to pay.  What does that leave for kids wanting a little adventure but being subject to the vagaries of wind and the ever changing tide as well as their own mercurial natures?  The long shorelines of the parks along this stretch of the river help in this respect greatly but even those are more regulated each passing year and seemingly just for the sake of control and not so much about logical stewardship of the land.  One often wonders for whom the parks are kept.  In my own village launching places become the challenge.  The two "town" parks that are on the river are fenced off and have access regulated during the season, and off season the gates are locked.  It makes one feel as though the town officials look at it's citizens beyond reasonable judgement to take care of themselves or their own parks.  This might be so in many cases, but it certainly will be more and more the case if people loose their experience of having to make reasonable decision and the benefit of learning from misadventure.  The statistics on the number of people injured by having access to a shore side park are note even worth looking at when one puts them against the numbers of injuries in children who play weekend soccer or baseball, or the automobile accidents that happen each day.
As long as we have access to our waters we can still have the kind of adventure and fun that comes without predetermined rules or limitations of the person or of the mind.  A small easily built and maintained boat, like these flat bottomed skiffs are great "magic carpets" that we can explore in, be proud to own and keep.  The can lead us on great little adventures on the water and along the river edges all the while helping us to resist the temptation of pointing the bow to sea because of their limitations, but not keeping us from imagining all the while we are bobbing about, what it might be like to venture out down and out upon the ocean.

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