How to Build a Boat
1 Dear Phoebe . . .
Grab a chance and you won’t be sorry for a might-have-been.
—Arthur Ransome, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea
AUGUST 16, 2016
Looking back, I suppose that at the time the decision to build you a boat must have seemed like a really terrific idea. Did I pause, even for a moment, to consider whether your daddy—a soft-handed, deskbound modern man with few tools, limited practical abilities, and an ignominious record of DIY disaster—could possibly master the necessary skills?
More than two years on, it’s hard to remember. But I do know that in the weeks and months after you were born I found myself in a strange, unfamiliar place. Oddly, perhaps, I wasn’t worried about the challenges of raising a child at my age. But, as I paced the floor night after sleep-deprived night with this inexpressibly precious new life in my arms, my mental compass swung wildly from emotionally charged elation to morbid
musings about your future and—as a father, for the second time, at fifty-eight—my chance of playing much of a part in it.
This wasn’t an entirely unfounded concern. In February 2012, after suffering mild chest pains while running, I underwent a wholly unexpected multiple coronary artery bypass operation in a hospital in Dubai, where I was working as a journalist. So much for a lifetime of not smoking, always eating and drinking sensibly, and exercising regularly—obsessively, some might say. Rowing, running, swimming, triathlons—all had played a major part in my life, and in my idea of who I was. But none of it, it seems, had been sufficient to defuse the ticking time bomb of familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic defect that starts lining the arteries with gunk from an early age. This perhaps explains why Bert, your maternal great-grandfather, died in 1946 with a coronary thrombosis at the age of fifty, despite years of rationing that would have severely limited his intake of heart-stopping foods. Thanks to a South African surgeon and the modern miracle of statins, I already have more than a decade on him.
Undergoing bypass surgery hurts more than somewhat, and for months afterwards. Having your chest cracked from throat to sternum and yards of vein yanked out of your legs is, I guess, always going to sting a little. But though unforgettable, a bypass is also survivable, especially if you go through it when you’re fit and youngish, which, at fifty-six, I was. So perhaps there was a point to all that rowing, running, swimming, etc. Twelve weeks later, I was back in England and—cautiously at first—running in the late-spring sunshine along a Suffolk riverbank. It was one of those days when it really did feel good to be alive.
But it was your appearance, two years and two months after the operation, that really gave me the opportunity to make the most of my new lease on life. It was also a kind of second
chance. I have a son, Adam, from my first marriage, and he has two sons of his own—you know them as your nephews, seven and eight years older than you. They know you as Auntie Phoebe and me as Granddad Jonny. Modern families.
The good news for you is that this time around Daddy plans to be much better at the whole fatherhood thing. I was an immature twenty-one when I married Adam’s mother, and a not-much-more-mature twenty-six when he was born, in 1981. I remember pacing the floor with him in my arms—just like you, it was the only way he would sleep—but I recall very little else from those days. His mother and I split up when he was about two, and Adam spent most of his early life overseas with her. I’m ashamed to say that at the time that seemed like some kind of liberation. Apart from the occasional holiday, I saw very little of Adam until he came to live with me in England when he was fifteen.
At some point in the thirty-six years since Adam was born I must finally have grown up, because from the moment I first met you the thought of not seeing you for a single day, let alone for months on end, was inconceivable. And the thought of having turned my back on my two-year-old son all those years ago filled me with deep shame and regret.
But alongside the massive dose of unconditional love that flooded my entire being the day you were born, and can still unexpectedly move me to tears without warning, I became aware of another new sensation—fear.
I’d never feared the bloke with the scythe previously—not while struggling to keep my head above water mid-Atlantic, or even while going under the surgeon’s knife in Dubai. But now that my life was suddenly and utterly about something other than merely me, fear him I did—especially after it dawned
on me that, if I lived that long, I’d be seventy years old by the time you started secondary school.
Sorry, darling—kids can be cruel. But you, I already have no doubt, are going to be smart enough, and tough enough, to deal with all of that. Though if you prefer, I’ll happily drop you off round the corner from the school gates.
At what age do children begin banking memories they retain for life? Experts are—surprise—divided on the question; guesstimates range from three and a half to six years old. Either way, I know that one day, and sooner rather than later, I shan’t be there for you. How, then, to reach out across time to remind you that you had a daddy who loved you unconditionally and who wanted nothing more out of what was left of his life than to equip you to make your way through yours with wisdom, courage, compassion, and imagination?
I could, I suppose, have simply written you a letter, or recorded a video for you to watch on your smartphone when you’re older. I rehearsed both in my head, many times, but struggled to strike a tone located acceptably between flippant brave face and sentimental self-pity.
And then, out of the blue, it hit me—I would build you a boat.
I know—obvious, right?
The idea came to me during your first few months, as I paced the floor of our apartment overlooking the Stour at Mistley with you asleep in my arms—or, rather, facedown on one of my arms, with your hands and feet dangling and your soft little face cupped in my hand. For a long time that was the only way you would go to sleep—like a tiger cub, Mummy said, draped over the branch of Daddy’s tree. I miss those nights.
Even in my addled, sleep-deprived state of existential angst, I could see that for a deskbound freelance journalist with no
discernible relevant skills, and a small tiger and a large mortgage to support, the decision to build you a boat was not dictated wholly by common sense. But since when, countered my inner contrarian, had it been necessary to secure approval from the dull bureaucracy of sound judgment for plans laid by the heart?
A boat. During that particular long night the idea seemed to sum up everything I wanted to tell you about life, love, history, your story, independence, resilience, true beauty, courage, compassion, adventure . . . indeed, the crazed mind demanded to know: What invaluable lesson could possibly not be learnt in such a classroom?
In the morning, over breakfast, I tried to explain it all to Mummy. Busy with you, she made a sterling effort to keep half an ear on what I was saying, though even as I spoke I could feel the perceived rationality of the night evaporating in the light of day. But no matter. From the moment the idea first struck me, there was simply no getting away from it.
I think one take-home from this might be something like, “Don’t do things only because they are easy to do or because they have an apparent practical purpose.” Or, perhaps, “Don’t make seriously major decisions when the balance of your mind is disturbed by extreme sleep deprivation.”
Either way, if the seed was sown by existential angst, it was fed and watered by a linocut on the cover of a small book that had sat for years, barely noticed, on the shelf behind my desk. You’ll know it by now—indeed, you’ve probably improved it with some judicious crayoning. Boy Building a Boat, one of eight illustrations for a 1990 reprint of a Rudyard Kipling poem celebrating the ancient art of the shipwright, was carved almost thirty years ago by James Dodds, an Essex boatbuilder-turned-artist. It shows a boy working on a small
clinker-built boat on a shingle beach—a beach just a few miles from where we live, and where you took some of your first steps.
Saw in hand, the young shipwright has raised his head from his task, pausing to gaze at a passing smack, all canvas aloft, as though daydreaming of the adventures that will soon be his aboard the boat he is creating.
Boy Building a Boat had seemed harmless enough, a charming addition to a collection of books, prints, and framed nautical charts that spoke to Daddy’s lifelong fascination with the sea and our tide-scoured east coast. But as I sat and tapped at my keyboard, chipping away at the mortgage, I increasingly found myself pausing midway through a sentence to gaze at it, indulging in some daydreaming of my own.
It’s not that I’m dissatisfied with what I do for a living. After all, being a freelance journalist may have its challenges—late nights, too much coffee, mercurial commissioning editors, and unrealistic deadlines, mainly—but it isn’t exactly coal-mining. One doesn’t, usually, have to scrub ingrained filth from one’s hands after a day’s work, and there is very little likelihood of being buried alive or succumbing to poisonous gases—I keep no caged canaries on my desk. Generally I work in the warm and dry, sipping coffee, nibbling biscuits, and often talking to inspiring people who have done some very interesting things. So, yes, I like my job as one of life’s observers. But . . .
Quietly at first, the small picture began to speak to me—and the part of me that late-life fatherhood had rendered susceptible to magical suggestion, as well as to existential foreboding, was listening, intently.
“Could you do this?” it seemed to whisper. “Could you, with your soft hands and your digital, screen-framed existence, create something
as perfectly beautiful and yet utterly functional as this, wrought from the wood of trees that sprang from the earth long before your grandfather was born?”
That, I thought, was a good question, striking at the heart of what it meant to be a modern human being in the Western world, increasingly divorced by technology from the ways and skills that shaped our predecessors. Here’s a fact, freshly trawled from the Who Do You Think You Are? pond of amateur genealogy: I am the first man on my mother’s side of our family not to have earned a living with his hands (if you discount two-fingered typing and all-but-forgotten shorthand, which, frankly, I think you must). Over the past six generations there have been a docker, a couple of printers, a grocer, a leatherworker, and even a carpenter—Edwin Wilson Sleep Ismay, born in 1834 and your great-great-great-grandfather. And your even greater-great-great-great-grandfather, John Johnston, born in 1778, was a shoemaker.
For me, however, working with my hands has meant nothing more physically demanding or creative than changing the ink cartridges on my printer. I’m not alone, of course. Which of the everyday things that surround us could any of us make? The table? Crudely, perhaps. That glass bowl? Unlikely. Light bulb? iPad? A boat? Forget it. We point, we click, and stuff we neither understand nor really need magically materializes on our doorstep. Boy Building a Boat, on the other hand, conjures up an age when people actually made things.
So yes, I decided, not only could I do it, but I should do it. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the single most sensible and appropriate gift I could offer you.
I want to bequeath you the sea, my darling girl, for you to love it, as I have loved it, for its beauty and its drama and the
pulse-quickening promise it holds of what lies beyond the horizon. Perhaps the greatest attribute of the sea is that it is not the land, a place scarred and hemmed in by all the empty noise and hollow things of modern life. To consider the sea, however, is to free the mind to roam an unbounded terrain over which so many human beings have passed before, on their way to joy or tragedy, triumph or disaster, yet without one ever having left a trace. As such, the sea is the sworn ally of imagination.
And what better way to introduce you to this special, contemplative place than through the gift of a boat? Not a boat that can be bought, or mass-produced, or made out of plastic, but a traditional wooden boat, which your hopelessly ill-equipped daddy has made just for you, in defiance of his lack of ability, in an age when so few of us can make anything.
It will be both a gift and, for me and for you, a life lesson—a thing of inherent beauty that, in having no real purpose, has many. And in the improbable act of making that boat, no matter how crudely fashioned it might turn out to be, I hope to equip you not only with a joyous plaything, but with a reference point, a timeless sanctuary from the chaotic tumble of pressures that is modern existence. Perhaps it will help you to see that success need not be defined only by fame or fortune, the narrow parameters of our shallow, digital age, and that from time to time it is not only permissible, but perhaps vital, to do things solely for their own sake, and to attempt to achieve things that appear unachievable.
Now, I realize that’s a lot to ask of a mere “thing,” but what an astonishing thing is a boat, as I hope you shall discover. It is my hope that in its graceful lines and timbers, infused with love, sweat, and, quite probably, more than a little of your daddy’s blood, you might divine a set of ideals and a promise
of possibilities that will help you—and, perhaps, if it has been made well enough to stay afloat that long, your children after you—to navigate a fair but bold course through life, respectful of the achievements of the past, skeptical of the promises of the present, and excited by the possibilities of the future.
Okay, it’s true, I do want you to learn how to tack, tie a bowline, read a chart, steer a compass course, take a back bearing, reef a sail, and all that stuff—but as much as a means to broadening your horizons as for the sake of mastering the ancient skills required to travel from A to B with nothing but the magical assistance of the wind. Although I can’t wait for the day when you discover for yourself what sheer, unadulterated fun that is.
What if you should reject the sea and all that sails upon her? That too will be just fine—this is, after all, your life we’re talking about, and you must live it as you see fit. In that case, think of the boat as nothing more than a metaphor for my hopes for you: that you should grow up with the courage to extend your reach beyond your grasp, to believe that you can achieve anything to which you set your mind, to understand that it is better to try and to fail than never to try at all. As for the boat, give it to someone who might love it, or maybe plant it in the garden and fill it with earth and flowers. Or potatoes, if you prefer.
It would, however, be remiss of me not to put in a word on behalf of adventure, in which a boat can be a most reliable partner in crime. True adventure can teach us so much about ourselves and the world around us, and yet in an age of easy travel and packaged experiences it grows ever harder to experience. Unless, of course, one has a little boat, and a couple of nearby rivers on which to sail her. Just saying. Oh, and if I were limited to offering you just one piece of advice, it would
be this: at least once in your life, take a small boat and row or sail it out of sight of land. Why? You’ll see.
Daddy has a passion for boats and adventurous boating not dimmed in the slightest by two failed attempts to row across the Atlantic—the first undone by moral collapse in the face of solitude, the second by the tail end of a hurricane. Indeed, before your arrival in April 2014, I was toying with the idea of a third-time-lucky encounter with the Atlantic, so thanks for saving me from that. But now nothing could be further from my mind. I’m home and dry, rescued by the love of your mother and our overwhelming love for you. I’m done with testing the patience of the sea, Conrad’s dispassionate “accomplice of human restlessness.” And besides, how could I live with myself if I went and died, prematurely depriving you of your daddy in the course of some harebrained, self-serving maritime adventure?
And so, by way of relatively sane compromise, I decided I would build you a small wooden boat, a thing of beauty and purpose, rooted in the traditions of the east coast where we live, in which you and I might one day set sail on a great little adventure of our own, an unforgettable voyage of discovery to be treasured until the end of our days.
I’m not sure when we’ll cast off—when you’re four? Five? Mummy will definitely have something to say about that. But whenever it is, as I embark on this quixotic mission to build you a boat (or, possibly, a heavily overengineered vegetable planter), I know that, like that boy building his clinker-built boat on a shingle beach, I shall be sustained in the months ahead by daydreaming of that magical day.