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Boat Building 101

For yet another countervailing activity during Covid, I elected to build a wooden rowboat (remember that I like to build things!). So after a few months of shopping around, I finally decided on the “Chester Yawl” from Chesapeake Light Craft of Annapolis, Maryland. The simple beauty of this rowboat comes from how the hull’s smooth lines flow and converge in space. The Chester Yawl follows the classic Whitehall “pulling boat” used extensively in Boston and New York City harbors during the 19th century. History has it that Whitehalls were a commonly seen rowboat of the 19th century. However, the basic design is much older and of European ancestry. It strongly resembles a sailing ship’s gig or a Thames River Wherry used by watermen as a taxi service. They were first made in the U.S. at the foot of Whitehall Street in New York City to ferry goods, services, and sailors on and off the boats coming into New York Harbor. The Chester Yawl is the perfect example of when a whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. And believe me when I say that there was an astonishing number of parts! As the humbling complexity began to sink in, I realized that I needed to put my head down and just dig in. This, you might say, is where the hull hits the water!

My original plan was to spend two weeks in Maine building the “Maine Idea” (the boat’s moniker). I would have the boat finished before my wife, Juli, arrived, and we would enjoy a week of rowing together. However, the daily push to complete the project in two weeks turned into a fast-forwarded movie screaming to the end! So I decided to rewind, reflect, and remind myself that isn’t this really more about the process, right? Well, the process gradually turned into excuses for friends and family members to stop by to chat and lend a hand. Over the two-plus weeks, my brother’s garage transformed itself into a neighborhood ‘popup’ workshop, and the early skeptical naysayers ultimately became my most ardent fans as they witnessed thin strakes of marine plywood get tortured into the elegant shell of a most “fair” boat.

My friend Lisa asked me, “Why do you want to build a boat?” Well, to my mind, a rowboat is a beautiful and timeless form of transportation. And, if considered as an interactive sculpture, all you need to do is add water and some muscle. But, speaking of water, on a river, attention is drawn to the flow and pull beneath (time), and if taken on the open sea (space), many directions are now possible (even, under, heaven forbid!). So, perhaps metaphorically speaking, choosing to build a rowboat entails how one wishes to move through time and space. Of course, I could have decided on a motorboat, but that would’ve disrupted the tranquility of our Mirror Pond, or maybe a small sailboat, but then again, I wanted some way that I could work up a sweat!

Maybe it’s because there aren’t any moving parts except for the oars and oarlocks determining the rower’s position; the rower provides the movement. The same characteristics are found in the wood-fired brick oven that bakes my bread every week. But, again, it’s the absence of moving parts. This is what I find most compelling. However, the materials also give structural order to the rowboat and bread oven. For example, during construction, the wooden planks of the hull are pulled together in perfect tension, providing its graceful profile. As for the brick oven, gravity and a thin layer of mortar enable the interior firebrick arch to attain tremendous strength and symmetry.

The Maine Idea epitomizes ‘old school’ timeless design and construction methods, qualities that are rare these days. Step by step, piece by piece, the labor, attention to detail, and the many hands that contributed are embedded within every phase of its finished form from start to finish. I can say, without reservation, that the whole is (undeniably) greater than the sum of its parts.

Finally, I leave you with a few words from Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia. It goes to the heart of my entire boat building adventure and underscores many of my sentiments about the weaknesses of our overdeveloped and overbuilt environment:

“Technology is making gestures precise and brutal and with them men. It expels from movements all hesitation, deliberation, civility. [T]he ability is lost, for example, to close a door quietly and discreetly, yet firmly… The new human type cannot be [properly] understood without awareness of what he is continuously exposed to from the world of things

. [W]ithering of experience is the fact that, under the law of pure functionality, things assume a form that limits contact with them to mere operation; tolerates no surplus, either in freedom of conduct or in the autonomy of things.”  –Theodor Adorno, 1944

Baker at Marc’s Bread | + posts

A Maine native, Marc Jalbert is known locally as the former owner/baker of the Gettysburg Baking Co. and Pomona’s Cafe. His short essays have appeared in the Gettysburg Times as “The Baker’s Table.” He now bakes bread weekly for The Natural Food Co., Gettysburg, teaches a one-on-one, Covid compliant bread class, and supplies sourdough bread for The Mansion House (formerly the Fairfield Inn). Marc lives in Upper Adams county with his wife, Juli where he enjoys “building things” and playing his guitar.

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  • As one who loves the water, who sails and kayaks and canoes, I really loved this piece — not just the description of the sweat and intelligence that went into making a beautiful vessel, but also the philosophical thoughts of the maker, who sees similarities with baking and bake ovens.

  • Beautiful essay. I am thankful there are people in the world like Marc who demonstrate the art of living.

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