My dreams, of late, have been filled with boats.
She floats upon the river of my thoughts, to paraphrase Longfellow. I had not thought of her in a time, perhaps too long a time. But when I close my eyes, even before slumber encroaches, the blackness behind my lids is an expanse of water upon which gently sways a living craft.
There are wooden boats so far back in my genetics itís no surprise they drift slowly but gently into my sleep. My ancestors on this continent before the advent of the Great Sadness fashioned dugout canoes large enough to hold three dozen men. The forebears who came from Nova Scotia felled cypress, sawn into wide planks, to create vessels they would call bateau and pirogue. And my relations from French-German regions of Europe constructed exotic sailing vessels to cross entire oceans, pushed along elegantly by parchment-colored sails.
Sadly, I fell by the wayside. Like Rabbit, I disobeyed my duty and in my haste fell and split my lip. For a time I explored native waters with a composite boat, a thing so cold as it never knew the life of living wood. Forgive me for being esoteric Ė what is in my nature is beyond my control, just like the things that infuse disharmony in my bones.
Old wooden boats reflect the genesis of the word vessel to describe such crafts. For not only do they provide passage across a limpid substance covering nine-tenths of this planet, they also hold science, art and magic all between their gunwales. Now and then you can see them, battered and paint-bare, but there they are. Boats that seem to float more from habit than anything else.
In my dreams, wooden boats as yet unbuilt waft between century-old cypress trees standing on green-black water far in the basin. Most prominent among them is the skiff. Iíve come to think of it that way: The Skiff. A boat that remains unbuilt, insubstantial, ghostly, but I can discern every detail of her construction. I carry in my waking moments every sweep of her bow, every curve of her stem; I know her planking and her scantlings, her half-breadths and her sheer. There is the advantage over children and puppies and kittens and even ourselves: We can see and predict what a good wooden boat will become, within a small margin of error.
The skiff is wide and of considerable length for a flat-bottomed boat by necessity. She draws only four, maybe five inches of water depending on what I haul in her besides my dreams and expectations. Her plywood is painted white on her exterior, but her rub rail, stem, transom and most of her interior has been lovingly brushed with varnish thick with oils and suspended solids to resist the elements. But her frames are old cypress, felled long, long ago, and her rails and stem hard oak. Her sides are high, her bow sweeping enough to make for a dry ride. She is, in a word, the perfect vessel for me.
The necessity of wooden boats, for someone like myself, is the quest to touch living Creation. So much of the world we live in by happenstance or devious design insulates us from all but our concrete and steel existence. Artificial rock and steel buildings, concrete streets and sidewalks, glass panes and the constant barrage of noise. Wooden boats, by their very nature, are like a magnet at polar opposite: They have the uncanny ability to repel insulators. Manufactured boats that roll off an assembly line are perfect and symmetrical, their hulls smooth and unblemished. But though no artisan worth his draw knives would bring into this world a vessel twisted and askew, no wooden boat is exact along a dividing line of its halves. None is precise. Just like a living thing.
When I built and launched my first boat more than five years ago, it wasnít the shiny varnish or the purr of an old Mercury outboard that I remember most. It was the way, when I pushed the throttle forward, she seemed to awaken from preexistence; there was a squat and a wiggle aft, and then, as if she realized for the first time this was what she was built for, what she had always been intended for, she pointed her nose at the horizon, lifted herself up, and was suddenly grace and art and science and magic moving across the water.
The boat that is drifting through my dreams will do the same, one day. There are pieces of dark cypress put aside for her frames and stem. Long, straight pine lumber stored to construct the building form upon which she in turn will come into existence. The necessity of wooden boats, after all, is not popping out of a mold, but of careful conjoining, piece by piece, into a whole that will be unlike any other even the same craftsman will construct again. Individualism, you see, is not lost on wooden boats or their builders.
I close my eyes. There is the skiff. Long, elegant stem, not blunt and nearly vertical like most around these parts. Her cheekbones are wide and flared, her haunches sturdy. I donít know when sheíll move from that ethereal world of water to the corporeal one, but so long as she floats upon the river of my thoughts, she exists as surely as I do.