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Friday, July 23, 2010

The Book That Launched a Thousand Boats

by John MacBeath Watkins

Howard I. Chapelle's American Small Sailing Craft, published in 1951, remains one of the most influential books ever written about historic small American workboat types.  You may think that's a narrow field, something like being the tallest building in Manhattan, Kansas, but the book helped inspire the wooden boat movement.  It includes lines, offsets, construction drawings -- everything you need to build these historic types.

Chapelle, a naval architect, made a career of documenting these types just as they were disappearing.  Sometimes he'd have a boat still sailing to work from, sometimes he'd have to measure a hulk and reconstruct it based on his research, sometimes he had nothing to work with but the lift model the builder had carved to define the shape he'd build. The result is a different kind of history, a history neglected by most historians, of how ordinary people got their living from the sea, of the needs, resources, and logic of the oyster fisherman and the Whitehall waterman.

The book helped inspire people to build replicas of these workboat types.  Chapelle gave the history of those types and argued that they had evolved over time for use in the conditions prevailing where they were used, and that they were the most practical way to economically get on the water.  He became the curator of the Division of Transportation of the National Museum of History and Technology.  Today, if you don't want to work from the small plans in American Small Sailing Craft, you can order plans from the Smithsonian, and get them for a lot less than most commercially available plans.

I've owned an 18-foot sharpie skiff built from that book, and regularly sail a 35-foot New Haven sharpie at the Center for Wooden Boats for our Cast Off program, which gives people a taste of sailing on traditional craft with free sails every Sunday.

These boats aren't as fast as a modern yacht, but they are roomy, practical and fun to sail.  I've seen dozens of boats built from the book, and sailed on more than a few.  I've concluded that he was right about the pleasure and practicality of these boats.  I've also restored a couple of racing dinghies and owned a racing keelboat, and I can tell you he was certainly right about the cost.  When I bought a competitive Snipe mast, I found that a new one would cost me about $1,200 (I went with a used one.)  My 18-foot sharpie had a mast that was basically a small tree with the branches lopped off and the bark removed.  The tree must have been about the size of those used as a municipal Christmas tree in small towns.  I've always wondered if the fellow who built that mast actually had to pay for it, or just waited for the right tree to show up after Christmas.

Of course, part of the reason people build wooden boats has nothing to do with cost.  A wooden boat is in some ways the ultimate wood project, having no square corners and  providing the ultimate test of craftsmanship when you see how it handles the sea. Every aspect of the boat is made by human hands and took skill and personal attention. Unlike something popped out of a mold, there is the risk it could be done wrong, and the satisfaction of doing it right.

Workboats tend to have large cockpits and to be designed to carry big loads.  This makes them delightful for piling a big crowd of friends into and banging around the bay for a day.  Modern dinghies tend to be built around the need for speed, with too little rocker to carry large loads.  A boat designed to plane, when too heavily laden, sinks the transom in the water and becomes a pig.

The wooden boat movement got started in the US.  I recently read Iain Oughtred: A Life in Wooden Boats, and was surprised to learn how late the movement was in getting started outside the US.  No one had done as much as Chapelle did in documenting the workboats of other nations.  Those books that were available didn't include offsets, so you couldn't loft a boat from them.  Oughtred has partially filled that gap for British types, most notably double-enders based on the Scottish Yole.  But at the point where the wooden boat movement in the US had matured to the point where it had its own magazine, Oughtred was having a difficult time establishing himself in Britain.  WoodenBoat magazine, searching for signs of a wooden boat movement in England, 'discovered' Oughtred, and by publicizing his work helped give the British enthusiasts a push.

But I have to wonder where all this would be without American Small Sailing Craft, and what my life would be like without it. I discovered the book after I'd discovered the joys of sailing, while my family was living on Okinawa, where wooden boats of traditional design were very necessary for many people to make their living. (Information on the traditional sabani here.)

And I'd learned to sail in Maine, where traditional wooden boats were still loved and used (and are, to this day.)

And my first boat was a Thai sampoa, similar to the lower picture here, which I had built for me some years ago, which now hangs in the rafters of the boathouse at the Center for Wooden Boats.

It's given me a connection to the long life of mankind, to the Australian aborigines who crossed the Wallace Line long, long ago -- genetic studies indicate they split off from the rest of humanity between 62,000 and 75,000 years ago, and the only way to get to Australia then was by boat, which is why, when Europeans arrived, they found that humans and dogs were the only placental mammals on the continent except for bats, who could fly there.

It's given me a connection to my father's favorite uncle, Alec MacBeath, said to have been an Astoria pilot. The only picture I have of him is on a small wooden vessel with a distinctive rail that allowed the pilots something to grip without limiting their ability to grab a ladder and climb up the side of a ship, so she was probably a boarding boat..

Not that I have chosen to build replicas of old workboats for myself, although I love sailing them, and learning from them how the old sailors thought, and how different their boats were from modern yachts.. I've studied them since those long-ago days, daydreaming over a library copy as a teenager, and tried to apply what I've learned to my own boats, Black Swan and Meerkat.

And of course, I've learned that boats are not just tools for moving. They come to signify things to us, like adventure and exploration, like excitement mellowed with faith in their seaworthiness. The boat becomes an extension of you, a companion who speaks in creaks and whistles with its rigging, needs your care, and to be kept in mind, and carries you safe home from the storm. Whether you're nursing a frail old bundle of sticks along or getting to know one still smelling fresh with the first coats of paint, a wooden boat is such a made thing, such a living thing, it has a good deal of humanity in it (and in the case of those I've built, the vessels share some DNA with me, from the clumsy use of a chisel, but perhaps not enough to be a blood relative.)*

And all this became part of my life because Howard Chapelle was interested enough to make the knowledge of such boats his life work.

* From Master and Commander:
"He says there's enough of his blood in the
woodwork for the ship to almost be a relation."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Analyze This (writing sample)

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, here's a fun new game.  I've discovered, via Obsidian Wings, a tool that analyzes writing samples, compares them to the writing of famous authors, and tells you who you write like.

I've put in a number of posts on this blog, and the tool sometimes thinks I write like David Foster Wallace, sometimes James Joyce, Margaret Atwood, H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, Chuck Palahniuk and (this is a little embarrassing) Dan Brown.  Strangely, it seems to make a difference when I include my byline.

Two of Jamie's posts came up as being like Stephen King, or H. P. Lovecraft, or David Foster Wallace.

In this post, by the way, it says I'm writing like David Foster Wallace.

Makes a man quietly proud.  Of course, the tool is probably intended to flatter people into using the other services offered at the site.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Pirate With a Hook for a Heart

Image result for howard pyle pirates
by John MacBeath Watkins
copyright 2005
Twice Sold Tales, Seattle

There are pirates with a hook for a hand,
I'm a pirate with a hook for a heart.
A hook for a heart is hard, awkward and sharp
and it's shiny and cruel to caress.
It speaks of the cockpit, the blood and the sand,
the surgeon, the saw, the severed part.
A hook for a heart, a patch for an eye, a no for a yes,
a sigh, a sigh,
I see her look and I curse the hook
and the peg for a soul and the nay for an aye
a sigh, a sigh
for battles won at such a cost
for shattered hearts and souls we've lost,
a patch for an aye,
a sigh, a sigh.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Moral Dimensions of Economic Theory

by John MacBeath Watkins

It is sometimes obscured by the math, but economic theory is a theory of values. Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, was by profession a moral philosopher, which is why he was writing about values. He was certainly not a believer in the natural moral probity of successful businessmen.

"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices," Smith wrote. He understood the need to regulate markets, that in fact, markets cannot survive without regulation. If property rights are not secure, trade becomes impossible and is replaced by banditry.

I have a theory that one of the problems with Russian capitalism is that they had spent decades describing capitalism as a criminal system. When they decided to become capitalists, this was still their understanding of what capitalism is. It didn't help that some of the western economists advising them had lived so long under societies with properly functioning legal systems that the need for such a thing was not uppermost in their minds, but without such a legal system, you don't get markets. You are more likely to get banditry or kleptocracy.

Because economic theories arise from systems of value, they are entangled in our moral outlook and our political urges. Those who prefer the moral outlook of that most moralistic of writers, Ayn Rand, can be expected to view success as evidence of moral superiority. And if you believe the rich are morally superior to the poor, your policies should reward that superiority. The advocacy of tax cuts to the top marginal rates was justified based on an economic theory that proved not to be true, that such cuts would lead to faster economic growth and would in fact produce higher revenues. Long after it had been shown that the Laffer curve does not function at American levels of taxation, the theory was still trotted out to justify the policy.

Those who think the success of the individual depends in part on the society that enables such success tend to think the successful should give something back in return.

And in the long twilight battle between conservative and liberal views on how to deal with recessions, we see what are clearly moral imperatives once again. Those who think success is a sign of virtue also view failure as a sign of moral inferiority. It is right, therefore, that people should suffer for their failures.

Therefore, those holding this view will naturally think unemployment benefits should not be extended, even though there are five job seekers for every job right now.

Those who think we ought to help those less fortunate -- and the key there is the term 'less fortunate,' a very different view of their moral situation -- will naturally think the benefits should be extended. Further, they are more likely to think society should do something to help those less fortunate to get a job. This moral outlook is compatible with Keynesian economics.

One would think that 74 years after John Maynard Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, that the rightness or wrongness of the theory would have been tested, and we would know which policies governments should adopt. But the moral consequences of the theory are abhorrent to a large part of the population.

It reminds me a bit of the global warming controversy. Conservatives claim liberals only embrace the science on this because the policies required to fix it fit with the liberal agenda, but this is an obvious instance of projective identifications. Conservatives strive to find any chink in the science because they find the policies required to deal with the problem abhorrent. And of course, where moral arguments are made, self-interest is not far away. Carbon-producing industries have long given financial support for conservative politicians and think tanks.

If we were looking at these issues dispassionately, we would simply find the best policies for solving the problems. But there are few things we are more passionate about than our system of value.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Pleasure of Machines

by John MacBeath Watkins

My bookstore has recently been flooded with World War II books from a gentleman who is moving back to Italy. Consequently, I've been tempted back into reading about the war.

I've never had that much interest in the battles. What fascinates me is the technology. Of course, I'm also fascinated by the technology of cameras, sailboats, cars, etc. There's just something about an innovative machine that I love. Of course, I've never owned a gun or an aircraft, because they don't do anything I actually need to do or like to do, unlike cameras and sailboats. Well, okay, I might like flying if it weren't so bloody expensive (besides, the physics are sooo much more in your favor if you screw up sailing.)

A machine that is designed to do a task and does it well brings me pleasure the way a logical argument does, and there is a beauty in efficiency. There is also the pleasant surprise of an unorthodox approach, even if it doesn't work. I love those periods of transition, when engineers don't know quite what they are doing and have to try new things, make mistakes and try again.

What fascinates people about the history of warfare? The expression of naked power weapons have, the drama of the battle, the human tragedy that always accompanies war, certainly. But also the purity of purpose wars give people and the innovation they spur.

Racing also has this purity of purpose, which is why I like the racing aircraft of the 1930s, and racing sailboats of any era. A machine that is clearly purposeful has a beauty mere decoration could never achieve, sometimes the severe beauty of pure logic, sometimes the more organic beauty of a shape that moves smoothly through air or water. But there are other emotions tied up in any object, related to its purpose.

The shark-like form of the ME 262 allowed it to reach higher mach numbers before experiencing compressibility problems than any other aircraft of the time, but its engineering purity and beauty can never be completely divorced from its purpose, which was to kill people in defense of an odious regime. I recently ran across a picture of a Japanese Zero fighter with American markings. It had been captured and used to test against American fighters so that American pilots could work out better tactics. It seems to me that I had a different emotional reaction to a Zero painted the same way as an American Navy fighter, dark blue with white stars. Take away the menace of an aircraft with enemy markings, and it was easier to appreciate the beauty of its lines.

Stripped of the semiotics of the warlike Japanese state of the 1930s and '40s, it had the sleek efficiency and friendly feel of the Japanese cars I've owned. Not that having the WW II Japanese markings made me consciously think of the Bataan Death March or the rape of Nanking, but symbols tend to be entangled with emotions on an unconscious level.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Worst. Presidents. Ever.

by John MacBeath Watkins

I see in the latest Sienna poll of historians, Andrew Johnson has again been named the worst president ever. He was certainly a not-very-able man placed in an impossible situation, and since he lacked either wisdom or statesmanship he was both unwilling and unable to make the best of it. But for a president who really lacked integrity, I say look to Warren G. Harding. And for one who seemed intent on deliberately sabotaging his country, James Buchanan is tough to beat.

George W. Bush made a fair showing, as fifth worst. He's always seemed more feckless than evil to me, but he was willing to follow the advice of Darth Cheney, our most evil vice president ever. Surely someone who got us into a war we didn't need to fight and made torture the official policy of the US government deserves a high place on this list of dishonor.

I wonder how his reputation will be looked back on in the future. It seems to me that the better we are at fixing the problems he caused, the better his reputation will look in retrospect. But if in the future, our presidents claim the right to arrest American citizens and hold them indefinitely without charge, if torture becomes routine, if presidents ignore congressional subpoenas, Bush will be remembered as the father of these policies, and of the downfall of the republic.

If these policies are reversed and viewed as beyond the pale by future presidents, these will be aberrations, and he won't move up the list of bad presidents. If, say, a President Palin were to embrace these abuses of power, and their practice became standard with her successors, Bush will be remembered as the man who started the destruction of the republic.

Romans kept the dream of returning to a republic alive long after Caesars had become standard, but they were never able to return to it. Through history, democracy has been the exception rather than the norm, and kings, emperors and tyrants have been far more common. Should this become true again, we will have to speak of 1776 as the beginning of the American rebellion, rather than revolution.

We are at a juncture in history where we can abandon the idea of America and become just another tribe, or return to it and by example challenge the power of tyrants as we have for two centuries.