By Lawrence W. Cheek
I was recently gifted a copy of The Year of the Boat, by my good friend Claire Acord. The author, Lawrence W. Cheek, is the architecture critic for the Seattle Post Intelligencer and is a neighbor of Claire's on Whidbey Island, an artistically inclined suburb of Seattle, Washington. My hardbound copy of his book is signed and addressed to me. I feel a kinship with Lawrence, not just because of the personalized signature, but also since he understands the travails of building a handcrafted boat.
Lawrence had built a boat before, a kayak kit. He’d also taken a class in strip-planking another kayak. He was possessed of confidence and a romantic dream when he ordered plans for Sam Devlin’s Zephyr. The Zephyr is a simplified plywood version of a Delaware duck hunting boat called a melonseed. Sam designed it for the amateur builder and Lawrence insists he is just that person.
The culture of wooden boats has instilled on our imaginations a romantic vision of fine craftsmanship, which allows little room for error. Thus, amateur builders often fall in a trap constructed of their own expectations. Lawrence runs headlong into this cul-de-sac when he, early on, names his creation Far From Perfect.
The story of Far From Perfect is mostly about how imperfect the boat really is. The word “perfect” crops up too often for the name to be off-handed humor. I silently begged Lawrence to not belabor the subject, but he can’t help it. The dinghy becomes an obsession with perfection and a chronicle of errors.
The Year of the Boat is written for the first time builder. Lawrence Cheek wants a novice to understand that the process of becoming a craftsman is not simple or easy. With his elegant prose, I wish he’d spent more time explaining the pure joy of the process.
Wooden boat building can be a metaphor. We often attach meaning to a beautiful vessel, well beyond it’s practical worth. But, after an exhaustive search for meaning, Lawrence finally comes around to dollars and cents. He tells us his hours spent on the project are four times those projected by the plans, which I can understand, but his material expenditures are a whopping $4175. He could have built four Zephyrs, there must be a clerical error.
In my photo archives, I have a picture of Far From Perfect. My friend Joel Bergen also built a Zephyr and he and Lawrence launched their boats together one afternoon. Far From Perfect is the red hull with the varnished decks. Looks pretty darn good from here.
If you were thinking of building your first boat, I would recommend reading The Year of the Boat. In this book, you will find wisdom, frailty, humor, despair and beauty.
A metaphor for life, if you will.