The Minimalist Boater

by Guest Columnist Bill Sandifer

A Call to Yardarms:

Seems frivolity of late has taken a back seat to angst; the claptrap of terrorism, corporate scandal, and recession have turned moods malignant. Rather than shoring up the economy, I suggest we shore up our psyche instead. And what better way than loosing the dock line and leaving cares ashore for a bit. My boats have been ignored for too long, so I'll use this opportunity to reconnect with the community of boats and boaters, a recollection of easier times: the foundations of my minimalist boating.

My father rented a patch of land on a small South Carolina millpond, dismantled a tumbled-down country store, and built himself a cabin from those ancient timbers. I spent my time in a variety of borrowed wooden fishing boats, no outboards or trolling motors in a pond chock full of cypress knees that would take out shear pins in wholesale quantities. Paddles were motive force and we learned the strokes. One bright spring day, my best friend and I decided a boat race was in order but were short one craft for the competition. A search of all the nooks, where fishermen kept their boats chained, yielded not a single open Yale. At the end of the line, however, was one hazy outline resting about a foot beneath the surface. Eddie and I tugged, heaved, and landed that tired fish. The wood had rotted through in a few places, was soft in others but looked repairable. We scrounged a bit of ply from my father's building site and patched the boat. I got the short straw and the spawn of Neptune. A brief countdown and we were off. Eddie and I were well-matched, his father a serious fisherman who had provided him with many opportunities to rise well before dawn and lend an arm to get to the headwaters where the big ones lived. We were both thrashing, staying neck and neck until I began to lose ground and gain water. The old boat we had patched was not happy with being summoned from the aquatic afterlife and was in process of sinking, tired seams separating from the demands of the race. As Eddie pulled away, it didn't take me long to compute the rate of water acquisition. A quick hail for help ended the competition, Eddie being the decent sort. He maneuvered alongside, saw my plight and took me aboard. The old green boat didn't take long to return to the bottom, no more than a couple hundred feet from her initial resting place. We counted the morning a success, because it had given us adventure at a cost of some free scraps of ply, straightened nails, and a bit of sweat. The return on investment would do a corporate ledger proud. Thus was born the inverse proportion theorem, the foundation of minimalist boating: The amount of fun is inversely proportional to the amount spent. By definition, we had had one hell of a good time.

The return on investment has not diminished with age. There's still comfort in plying the quiet backwaters. The search for alternate methods, materials, and motive force has revealed a world of interesting concepts and people. I don't remember when I discovered Phil Bolger, but his "Open Minds" book gave me many hours of pleasant reading. When I caved in to the lure of the Web, I discovered Jim Michalak and other spirits free from the straits of convention. This is not to speak ill of conventional boats and boaters, only conventional attitudes that tend toward exclusion. I've met many everyday folk who delighted in my odd craft. That's been one of the most satisfying parts of this whole trip, the people and the chats. A power boater gave way to my blue and yellow inflatable sailing across Beaufort harbor, a matching windscoop adding panache as a mini-spinnaker, the boater and his passengers grinning as we eased by their bow. We were minimal, color-coordinated, and made great progress downwind, arriving at the dinghy dock fresh and ready for beer at the BackStreet Pub, not a stroke necessary for our arrival. Banjeau, my work-in-progress shantyboat, did double duty as a camper while on her trailer. "Prairie Chicken," her nom de plume in current Conestoga incarnation, provided cozy quarters for my daughter and me as we drove from North Carolina to California. A local in a small Wyoming town inquired about my "duck blind." He figured it was about the most luxurious one he'd seen. "I don't understand," intoned a serious river boater and fishermen in Oregon, gazing at the Chicken and a nearby ply creation similar in concept but sleeker in execution. His aluminum river boat bristled with horsepower while the Chicken's profile eclipsed her 15-horse Johnson. We talked design and why his float had such a strong upturned bow - a cultural chasm bridged by curiosity - boating voyeurism.

Kindred spirits

Coffee brewed in the Chicken's small galley one morning at a campground in eastern Washington, when I heard a couple engaged in a hushed discussion. "It's a boat," said she. "It's a camper," said he. I hailed them, "You're both right." A warm chat ensued about odd things, and all went away enriched. Boats and dogs of questionable heritage are great ways to meet people. 

A quiet cove near St. Michaels

St. Michaels, Maryland, just off the Chesapeake, was the probably the most incongruent of the Chicken's travels. Host to wealthy boaters and neighbor to the Chesapeake Maritime Museum, St. Michaels Marina provided five days of relatively inexpensive lodging compared to the $257 a night accommodation offered state agency staff attending an environmental conference. Nestled between a corpulent Bayliner and a sleek charter sailing catamaran, we relished the attention of the local bartender cum historian who provided us with lore, and a crew member from "Principia," an incredibly beautiful, if anti-minimalist, classic motor yacht slipped nearby. Unused to high cotton, we felt a bit awed. It was a wasted emotion. There were those who snubbed, but the majority exhibited curiosity and warmth, drawn to this ungainly interloper. And, as if to underscore the whimsy of fate, upon return from an afternoon of exploring the river, we were greeted by two couples who were curious about the awkward craft bashing through the gathering chop of an approaching storm. We chatted as the Chicken was lashed to shore. The flow of conversation narrowed to a common heritage - beyond Southern, beyond regional, to the same small South Carolina town, the same high school. Standing before me was none other than one of the revered upperclassmen that every freshman goggles at as he skitters to class, frightened of his own shadow. The passage of time had erased the unfathomable chasm between frosh and senior, and an easy, delightful recollection ensued. Plans were made for breakfast and a tour of his absolutely gorgeous 40 foot Sabre. Once again, the odd harvest of minimalism had provided.


Visit Bill's website:
The Minimalist Boater