THE FAIR SHEER LINE OF A HALF-FINISHED SAILBOAT has gracefully waited in my shop, now for several years. The sheer is that curve running from bow to stern just where the deck meets the side of the hull. A “fair” curve is one that runs true, with no bumps or hollows, with the line of the curve itself appealing to the eye in a way that can’t be quantified or put into a formula. Only by practice, experience, and encounter does one properly judge a fair curve; I am still learning this myself.
Like every artifice and manufacture of man, a wooden boat or ship is a dream made tangible. The mind imagines what may be, and the hands work the tools and materials to match the imagination. I have often run my hand along the deck of my half-finished boat, following the sheer, and sometimes caressed the rounded edges of the bow stem; not so much to claim it as my boat or even to feel pride in my workmanship. It’s because I am always amazed at how something that was once only an idea now has concrete substance. Well, at least partially so. Indeed, I feel a responsibility to the boat itself, to bring it completely from imagination into solid reality; to not leave it in the realm of unfinished dreams.
But there is more to it than that, of course. The boat has become for me a sort of benign Moby-Dick upon which I have piled, not my rage and hate, but my longing for joy, for meaning, even for transcendence. I know no work of my own hands, not even something so wonderful as a wooden boat, can actually grant me these things. So the boat has become a poem, even a prayer, in wood and glue and metal and varnish. I expect to finish the boat someday soon, and sail it on some quiet bay somewhere.
I AM NOT MUCH OF A SAILOR, but I hope to be someday. After a few lessons on sailing dinghies, and a couple of jaunts on larger boats, I believe I understand why more than two centuries after steam eclipsed the age of sail men will still go out on the deep moved only by the wind. A sailboat slips almost noiselessly through the waves, the only sounds the rush and gurgle of water against the hull, the sigh of the wind, the luffing and rippling of sails. In a strong breeze the shrouds sing. Even in a light breeze there is a feeling of being carried and moved by an embracing power. You do not harness or capture the wind. You watch the clouds, the sails, and the water’s surface and try to gauge just how you will shift the tiller to slip inside the stream of moving sky, and then feel as much pulled as pushed toward the line where sky and water meet.
How odd that being transported by a force over which you have no control can feel so exhilaratingly free. No boat can sail directly into the wind. We tack ourselves onto the edges of this power and harmonize our direction and desire with the will of the wind, or we do not move at all. But when you do move within the streaming current of the air you feel a release and a letting go and it’s as though the particles of your senses were now all aligned with True North and exactly where you go becomes almost superfluous; that you are going and going beyond the horizon toward something new and wonderful is more than enough.