Kevin Walsh
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Fat Guys
Building Boats

Amateur Hour
by Kevin Walsh

The Physics of Ineptitude

I am a giant of a man whose masculine stance girdles the teeming, trembling earth. The manly hairs on my forearms bristle and glisten with a noble surety, an iron-clad confidence in their ultimate superiority over the wispy, feathery flax draping the spindly arms of lesser men. I smile with pride over my newly hatched little boat. It is a little skewed, yes, perhaps not the finest example of marine joinery that has been brought forth to brave the sea, and the paint is ragged here and there, and okay, it looks as if there is a slight bias of the stem to starboard, but no matter, that will be more than offset by the port bias of the skeg and so I rock, I roll, I rule! 

Ah, the stories I could tell were not my sense of humility a bit less firmly ensconced in my, um, sense-of-humility holder. Okay, who am I kidding? It has been a tortured, painful and agonizing journey. It is clear to me now that I am not at all of the same breed as the many denizens of this site who manage to knock out a boat a week without breaking a sweat. Having had only an hour to apply here and there to the effort, this mighty little lapstrake dinghy, all of eight feet in length, has taken eighteen precious months of what is rapidly shaping up to be my sole remaining life on this earth to finish.

I know this will cause some consternation among the more religious boat-natterers out there, but while I wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world, I'm not at all sure that I would take on another project like this one again. For one thing, I don't think my body could take the punishment. When I began this work, I had no idea how difficult, how physical manual labor could be. As you read this next bit, please imagine the words being mellifluously caressed by a narrarator's voice, deep, sonorous and hypnotic, because this is what I once, in my foolish innocence, believed:

[Cue soothing music.]

The exercise of craftsmanship is a quiet, almost meditative experience in which miniscule, single-atom-thick layers of wood shavings are painstakingly removed from a pliable and willing specimen of fine wood that very nearly quivers with the delight of being selected for the singular honor of becoming an immortal piece of your finely-wrought sailing vessel, a vessel destined to be cherished, loved and admired for centuries to come.

As anyone who has built a boat knows, this vision, as most such are, is laughably inaccurate. In point of fact, boat building, at least for me, is much more like a Buster Keaton movie in which everything, and I mean everything falls down, blows up, or otherwise disintegrates while every effort of the earnest hero to set things right serves only to magnify the pre-ordained and ultimately disastrous outcome. I once read that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Outer Mongolia would eventually result, through the little-understood forces of chaos, in a hurricane in the Caribbean. Personally, it is my conviction that these butterflies in Outer Mongolia, or all butterflies everywhere for that matter, could have their wings pulled off and forced to spend their days wearing silk smoking jackets, puffing fine Cuban cigars and drinking cosmopolitans while they labor over the New York Times crossword puzzle and there would still be hurricanes in the Caribbean.

Still, the phenomenon as characterized aptly describes a typical wood-working session for me, where the forces of chaos have moved in, made themselves at home, toasted up some English muffins and are even as I write this making long-distance phone calls to some butterfly in Outer Mongolia. In a wildly optimistic expression of hope that someone might still be reading this, I offer as an illustration to my point (which I'm sure I had before it got lost in a labyrinth of incoherence) a brief description of a typical wood-working day at Kevin's house:

It is late on a Monday afternoon in Gilbert, Arizona. It is unspeakably hot. Driving home from work was a test of survival, and I am now dehydrated to that familiar point where my kidneys resemble sun-dried California raisins (the yummy, sweet kind.) The stress of work is combining with the stifling heat to gel my brain, already dangerously pock-marked and cratered from a terrifically fun youth, but which now causes me to forget where I left my shoes (on my feet) and where my left hand is at any moment in time (I saw it fluttering around a minute ago somewhere back there, but I'm sure it will be back soon, as it's almost dinner time.) 

I stand exhausted in the vestibule of my home having barely survived the commute, and I spend some moments searching for something that will chase away all the stress and the unbearable discomfort of an hour spent in an amazingly as-yet uncombusted atmosphere super-heated to 115 degrees and getting hotter by the minute. Then it comes to me, and I head for the shop. Nothing relieves the stress of a high pressure day at work and the slow roasting of a ride home in the desert like a relaxing hour in the un-air-conditioned garage breathing microscopic mahogany particles suspended in a delicate bouquet of epoxy fumes.

I open the garage door, and the bunched up heat punches me in the solar plexus. I gasp at the sudden assault and step forward. My toe gently nudges a teeny-weenie, very tiny bit of discarded wood, which ever so softly leans against a neighboring bit of somewhat larger wood, which has, unbeknownst to me been engaged in a finely choreographed balancing act on its edge and, like a monstrous boulder teetering on a ridiculously narrow finger of rock in a Road Runner cartoon, it slowly falls against a much, much larger length of 2X10 Douglas Fir, a plank some eight feet in length. This plank has been leaning stoically in its place for some months, quietly bearing the horror of seeing its brethren being chopped, ripped and otherwise dismembered with much the same patience exhibited by a death-row inmate who waits quietly while his block mates are led one by one to their fate. And now, the judicious application of a modest amount of kinetic energy has given it one last, desperate opportunity for vengeance, an opportunity not to be wasted, and it leaps at the chance.

The plank leans forward and, with the inevitability of Judgement Day, it falls. If the plank were only one inch shorter, if I had only removed that bit of end-wood where that particularly twisty knot marred an otherwise fine piece of lumber, things might - MIGHT- have worked out alright. As it is, I stand helpless in the face of impending doom -- the plank might well have been painstakingly measured, cut and honed for what is now clearly about to happen. The end of the plank strikes the shiny, silver end of a bar clamp carelessly left on the table saw, at the precise point in its structure that will cause it to flip into the air with a breathtakingly graceful parabolic arc. Time slows down now, and my heart sinks as I watch the clamp turn end-over-end, enraptured in this, its' wholly unexpected virgin flight. The meaty business-end of the clamp hits my forehead, a stone thrown by David at the glaring Goliath bulls-eye between my eyes. The stars come out, and the rubber bands that articulate my arms and legs are instantly cut and I collapse like a bag of hammers onto the garage floor, all pain, all uncertainty, all stress blissfully banished from me with the cool, gentle fingers of blessed, cleansing sleep.

I wake up slowly, gingerly feeling the second chin growing between my eyes. Aside from the pain, I am rested, refreshed. I get up and brush the sawdust from my shirt and leave the garage. My son sees me and remarks, "Gee, it was quiet out there. You must have been concentrating pretty hard." Yes, I agree, I was. 

And so it has gone for eighteen long, painful months. Slowly, like a glacier running full out for the sea, my boat has come together, bit by bloody bit. And now I stand before you, my brethren, my fellow denizens of the garage, a proud and accomplished man, whose pain, whose agony has been washed clean by the powerful astringent that is accomplishment. What the heck, the plastic surgeon tells me that if you kind of half-squint your eyes and the room is dark, my face doesn't look nearly so lopsided any more, and I did see this plan of a sweet looking sloop with such lovely lines...