Right now and about an hour’s drive northeast of here, in the not-quite freezing waters of the Atlantic, pieces of a special wooden boat are soaking. Bundled and lashed to a pier, eighty or so of these ‘frames’ are working toward the flexibility they’ll need to guide the curves and lines of a certain wooden boat that will be mine.
We all refer to her as ‘the Cliffy’ (or simply, ‘Cliffy’) right now, and for two reasons: 1. The original builder of this design was one Clifford ‘Cliffy’ Winchenbach of West Waldoborough, Maine, and 2: It isn’t necessarily good luck to refer to a boat by it’s pre-christened name, and I’m not mucking with any Sea God juju.
Commissioning a boat with a boat school, a non-profit with a very cool mission (“Inspiring personal growth through craftsmanship, community, and the traditions of the sea.”) is different from working with a commercial boat builder. Working with a school means that the folks building your boat are apprentices in the art and craftsmanship of boatbuilding, taught and guided by the masters. Time has to be made for the learning, as well as students moving on and off your project. The process of teaching and learning is part and parcel of the magic.
You become part of a story, and it becomes part of you.
We embarked on our journey with the folks at The Apprenticeshop in the early summer of 2018, with the idea that the building would begin some time that fall. The Cliffy project would take about a year.
Before I go on, I ought to make something very clear here: JoHn is totally indulging me with this boat.
I’d fallen in love with the romance and artistry of wooden boats a long time ago. Put a gorgeous wooden boat in front of my eyes… one with all the right lines, textures, scale…wood. Well. My swoons have gotten predictable. Words often flee.
JoHn, on the other hand, was (is?) a hardened School Of Thought graduate of the University of One Should Never Own A Wooden Boat. His cautions on maintenance and headaches and certainty of spontaneous combustion are legendary (I may have made up that last bit). To give him even more credit for his overall generosity, JoHn actually has some boating experience. I, on the day I signed the papers commissioning our boat, had exactly… none.
So this man, who would have chosen a small, easy to care for, easy to run, forward-operated runabout-ish boat, preferably with a roof? Well, he’s getting a 26 foot-long, hand-crafted wooden boat based on a design that lobstermen worked from in the 1930s – 1950s. Also, it has no roof.
I know. Poor guy.
That being said, I am telling you, and I’ve told him… this boat is gonna have soul.
Anyway, as fall dropped in on Maine in 2018, the Cliffy project was getting underway.
I met Rick – the student head of the Cliffy team – and another apprentice, Josh. The two of them introduced me to ‘lofting’ and ‘molds’ and massive logs of oak not-yet-milled. They invited me into the sights and sounds and smells of the workshops. And, yes, I was all swoon-y each time I walked in.
Then, a few months later, Covid hit.
We-have-to-figure-this-out hit… and not just at this wooden boat school on the coast of Maine, but for the whole world.
The Apprenticeshop, along with so many businesses and schools, closed for a while. There were so many questions surrounding how to move forward (you can’t build a boat on a Zoom call), and when – and if and how – new students might be able to enroll and begin their programs.
I kept up on line. The students, staff, and instructors, posted regularly and brought smiles to me in my own isolation. Builders gotta build, creators gotta create, and I watched as the apprentices (and masters) conceive and construct everything from sheds to raised garden beds.
I had a few conversations with Bella and assured her we were still all in, however the schedule for our boat was impacted.
As March became April became September and then December, something very cool happened. Enrollment in the Apprenticeshop didn’t diminish toward the January 2021 term… it expanded.
New folks signed up – some for weeks or months-long programs, some for two year apprenticeships.
A grant came through that allowed Rick to stay on as a journeyman, and with Josh and Jonathan moving on from the Cliffy project, Tabitha of Belfast (Maine) and Yonatan of Jerusalem (not Maine) have joined the team. I got to meet them for the first time a few days ago, and they (and Rick) brought me up to speed on the project, using words like – and answering all my questions on – ribands and rabbits and toplines and stations and molds (and, yes, why frames are soaked in the sea).
This is, indeed, a romantic undertaking. It’s one of the millions of small, cool, ordinary happenings taking place during this extraordinary time in human history… a time that at once feels like a blur of days and weeks and months gone by, and the world standing still.
I’ve realized that I am dovetailing into the life stories of the students, instructors, and staff of the school… just as they are joining with my own.
This boat will have all of this – bits of all of us – as a part of its story.
And as much as I love seeing the progress each time I visit, I’m finding that I am in no hurry for this process…
This experience of folks learning and working together to slowly create a wooden boat worthy of the sea…
Thanks for readin’.
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