Daddy. Why do you build boats?


My son asked me this question today and my reply was, “Well Harry, because I like to and because…..”  And he walked away completely satisfied with my answer but leaving me entirely unsatisfied with my answer.  To a kid, liking something is reason enough to do it.  End of story.  For an adult, you have to like something enough to take time away from your family, stay up late, argue with your spouse, occasionally sneak time, spend hard earned money, and a plethora of other sacrifices to do it.  Boat building is a no-brainer for me given the sacrifices listed above, but my son left me feeling like the Hoover Dam with a valve opened just enough to let a drop of water through.  I had more fantastic reasons as to why I build boats.  Some reasons he would understand and some he might not.  Hell, I don’t even understand them all.  In summary, I build boats because it makes me feel like more of a man, I love the art, history, and romance of the wooden boat (stolen from the introduction to podcasts on, and let’s be honest, I like the attention.

I have worked in a cubicle or an office for the better part of 2 decades now.  I work in IT.  It is a challenging job that requires a ton of mental energy every day.  It also requires zero physical energy with the exception of moving a mouse around, stroking the keyboard, and an occasional walk to the printer or water cooler.  There is something about manual labor that makes a man just a bit more of a man.  I am not talking of the “man” as far as taking care of the family or holding a door open.  Those things span all men.  Here, I am talking about the raw, primeval, working man.  The man that comes home from work with a sore body from banging nails or hauling lumber all day.  The man whose hands are calloused and muscles are tight not from a gym workout, but from the work he did all day yesterday, all day today, and will do again all day tomorrow.  In my wood shop, I can capture a little of that.  When I look at the clock at 11pm, covered in sawdust and sweat with a sore back crawling on the floor cutting bulkheads from sheets of plywood with a Skil saw and convince myself to do just-one-more hour of work, I feel good about myself.  I feel like I am accomplishing something.  I feel like a man!  I feel like a boat building man!


I am not going to go into the history of boat building.  This blog and my attention span is not long enough for that.  Let’s just say that there is evidence of boat building as far back as 900,000 years ago.  There is a boat in a museum in the Netherlands that is believed to have been built somewhere around 8000 BC.  It isn’t an advanced concept really.  There is a body of water that Johnny Caveman need to cross.  Johnny notices that a tree floats but isn’t terribly stable on its own.  Johnny runs with those concepts.  Over the 100’s of 1000’s of years since that first boat, we have evolved.

“The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting-place. It is for that reason, perhaps, that, when it comes, the desire to build a boat is one of those that cannot be resisted. It begins as a little cloud on a serene horizon. It ends by covering the whole sky, so that you can think of nothing else. You must build to regain your freedom. And always you comfort yourself with the thought that yours will be the perfect boat, the boat that you may search the harbours of the world for and not find.”  –Arthur Ransome “Racundra’s First Cruise” 1923

Where the earliest boats were basically a hollowed out half of a tree, today wooden boats are made with metal fasteners, advanced glues, and various techniques to make the wood do what we want it to do.  Either way, the wooden boat is alive.  Wood is a fairly unpredictable material.  The grains and fibers in the wood can twist and bend, expand and contract when exposed to varying temperatures and humidity.  Whether that exposure takes place before, during, and/or after the construction of the boat helps form the characteristics of the boat.  The wood lives and breathes with its environment and with the builder. As the pieces come together to form the craft, all those living elements are forced to work together in unison.  Time and care is taken to make sure the boat is safe and sturdy.  After all, at some point in the boats lifespan, a person’s life may rely on that boat holding fast and staying afloat.  When that boat takes shape and is floated for the first time, there is no other feeling in the builders heart and mind that quite matches it.  In addition, like any living thing, that boat must be cared for and tended to else it will die from neglect.  The beauty of the boat is that when cared for properly, they are something that can be passed down from generation to generation.  As the boat reaches it’s new care providers, it is the job of the previous owner to pass along some stories of the boat.  Who owned her, who sailed her, and where she’s been.  These fables would not exist without the boat and the boat’s original builder and care giver.

skiff“Oh, that old skiff?  Yeah, I built it 5 years ago,” I stated proudly as I loaded my Bolger Pointy Skiff into the bed of my pickup truck.  The man I was speaking to seemed mildly impressed, but not the normal impressed I usually get and love.  Unbeknownst to me, the man I was speaking with was John Stuart, the owner of Arborvitae Woodworking in South Yarmouth, MA.  As we talked about my skiff, a truck rolled up beside us with the most beautiful dory skiff on a trailer behind it.  The boat looked flawless with wooden spars and cleats and all the brass accents.   I was in awe.  John grinned at me, introduced himself, and said, “Yeah, that’s one of mine.”   Sheepishly I joked with him about how dumb I felt gushing about my plywood skiff and we both had a good laugh.

A frequent reaction I get from people young and old is, “You built that?!”  That question makes my heart smile.  The thought that something is so pretty to look at that a person actually can’t believe that it was built by me, is the ultimate compliment.  When folks just stand and stare at one of my boats, I love to imagine the thoughts going through their head.  For many people, the wheels start spinning on how they have always wanted to build a boat of their own.  They start thinking of the space in their house, or the tools they have, or how they are going to convince their significant other that it is a good idea.  For others, it is just an awe-struck gaze.  There seems to be nothing made out of wood that provokes that gaze quite the same.  I have built a couple pieces of furniture in my day and people compliment them, but nothing brings out that adolescent sense of amazement and freedom quite like a handmade boat.

So for Harry, “Because I like to build boats,” was a suitable reply to his question.  For me, there is so much more to that reply.  Building boats is pure satisfaction from start to finish and beyond.  That overwhelmed feeling that a builder has when first starting to write down lumber and supplies necessary for the project is instantly defeated when the pencil traces that first line on a piece of lumber.  As the project progresses, the boat begins to take shape and take on its personality.  Finally a day comes that you walk into your shop the morning after applying that last coat of finish to find a completed boat.  Then comes launch day and from the minute you leave the driveway until the boat is floated, you get gazes from drivers by, and questions from the folks at the launch ramp.  All of which you are more than happy to accommodate.  No carpentry is quite like boat building in its ability to conjure images of adolescent joy and freedom in both the builder and the observer.

Why do you build boats?  Please comment below.

Thank you for reading.



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