'Far From Perfect': Authenticity at the Wooden Boat Festival

Step onto the docks at Port Townsend's Wooden Boat Festival this weekend, and you'll find yourself surrounded by authenticity. Or so it seems. Our architecture critic, a serious boatbuilder himself, looks at what that elusive concept really means. 

Crosscut archive image.

Traditional mast and rigging on a small gaff-rigged sailboat.

Step onto the docks at Port Townsend's Wooden Boat Festival this weekend, and you'll find yourself surrounded by authenticity. Or so it seems. Our architecture critic, a serious boatbuilder himself, looks at what that elusive concept really means. 

The 35th annual Wooden Boat Festival opening Friday [Sept. 9] in Port Townsend is an ideal and troubling place to ponder the complications of the word “authenticity.” Ideal, because there will be some 250 wooden watercraft from cedar-strip canoes to the heartstopping 84-foot schooner Martha jammed into the harbor, all swirled in an atmosphere of delirious festivity. Troubling, because authenticity turns out to be a deeper issue than you imagined, and you can’t predict where the first stirrings of a craving for it will take you.

I’ve been prowling the festival for 10 years. Thanks to the inspiration of what I learned there, four years ago I completed my first sailboat — a 14-foot sailing dinghy accurately named Far From Perfect, and registered her in the ’07 show. This was where I had my first authenticity scare. In the final flurry of construction I realized I’d forgotten about deck cleats, minor morsels of hardware that secure the dock lines. I pawed through a drawer in my shop and found some plastic cleats salvaged from a kayak. Well, why not?—they were large enough for a lightweight dinghy and seemed perfectly functional.

After my boat was settled in her slip at the festival, I had time to walk around, and after a few hours came the sudden quake of realization: Far From Perfect sported the only plastic cleats, in fact the only visible plastic anything, in the entire show.

I hustled to the bronze hardware booth, and after learning that even the smallest cleats cost $26 each, suffered through the next two days in silent polycarbonate embarrassment. After I returned home I figured out how to make traditional-looking hardwood cleats on the bandsaw. And thought further about the faux pas of the plastic cleats.

What, really, was wrong with them? Had I violated the spiritual integrity of the boat? It used other materials, such as a Dacron sail, that didn’t exist when its 19th-century forebears entered the world. So did most of the other modern boats in the festival. Who wants to cruise Puget Sound today without an electronic depth sounder and a marine radio? You’d be a knucklehead to dismiss the last century’s progress in safety and seaworthiness.

No, all I’d violated was the culture of the wooden boat revival, which I was only beginning to enter and understand. This distinction formed the first marker on my inquiry into authenticity. Here’s the principle: An authentic product is something that you, its creator or user, believe in. It may be as minor as a deck cleat or as monumental as a bill passing Congress. If you can’t believe in it, it’s no good. The plastic cleats were all right in the beginning, because they functioned adequately, but as my understanding deepened, I couldn’t accept them. They did defile the boat’s spirit.

After Far From Perfect, I started work on a much more ambitious boat, a 19-foot cruising sailboat complete with a cabin. It continued my fitful journey out of the crippling labyrinth of perfectionism, my exploration of the nature of craft, and my inquiry into what constitutes “integrity” in work. All these shoots and tendrils curl out of one core question: What does it mean to live an authentic life?

I named the new boat Nil Desperandum (“Nothing to Worry About”) and launched her barely a month ago. From 50 yards away she has the traditional air of a boat built a century or more back. This might seem at first a mark of authenticity, because endurance through time without bending to the superficial breeze of style is a component of what we think is “authentic.” But look closer: There’s a plywood hull with a fiberglass-and-epoxy skin, Dacron sails and lines, an electric outboard motor, and of course a depth sounder. In the continuum of nautical tradition, this is a mess, a conglomeration of centuries. But it represents what I think is necessary for good sailing today, and what I want my boat to look like.

Most of the boats in the festival are likewise. They’re not pure restorations or replicas; they’re practical, almost living creations that are full of their owners’ hearts and ideas and failures. (Nil Desperandum is also far from perfect.) You don’t buy a wooden boat and then hire somebody else to work on it; you maintain it and continuously build on it yourself. And unless you’re a careless slob — in which case you and your boat will soon meet a dramatic end — this is where you discover the essence of authenticity.

So many products today just feel inauthentic. The quality is dubious, they serve a contrived purpose, or the campaign to get us to buy them is a charade of smoke and mirrors. I often think, despondently, about all the people who work to design, manufacture, and market commercial crap. How is it possible to feel authentic when your working life is dedicated to the production of things you know are useless or fraudulent? And we’ve all done it, even if only at the edges. In my quarter-century as a freelance writer I’ve certainly accepted assignments that seemed of no value to society, or that required a voice that was not my own. Gotta pay the bills.

Seeking absolute authenticity in one’s working life is a form of perfectionism, even if you call it, more nobly, idealism; and, like other kinds of perfectionism, it is doomed to failure and likely to produce unhappiness. We all compromise in our work, we all follow orders. Quit in an idealistic huff every time the boss asks for something you don’t agree with, and you’ll quickly build a résumé of two-week tenures, rendering yourself unemployable.

But I think that the key to a satisfying life is to keep working toward a position of greater authenticity rather than away from it. This is where wooden boats enter the picture.

As long as you obey the laws of physics, you can build or restore a wooden boat exactly as you want. No boss dictates the degree of integrity you may bring to the work, nothing limits the time you may choose to invest in a detail like a homemade mahogany deck hatch instead of a commercial plastic job. (Let’s see . . . about 30 hours.) Invest enough care and passion in this avocation, and the balance will tip away from that other, less meaningful (even if income-producing) work. Your boat will not be ideal or perfect, but you’ll come to terms with this reality and view it as a tangible record of your character and skills at the time. You’ll have built yourself into the product of your work.

What could be more authentic than that?

  

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