I have a fair number of boats in my fleet and some are getting on in years. The oldest of the ones I’ve built is a Chamberlain gunning dory I built for my father in 1980. The oldest of all of them is an English river wherry bearing an oval brass plate that reads: T. Cooper & Sons of Shrewsbury, Boatbuilders, Shrewsbury. Dad acquired it perhaps 40 years ago and believed it was built around 1890. Dad may have told me where he found the wherry, but at the time it was just another boat in a garage crowded with racing shells and I didn’t pay much attention to any of them.

Getting Beneath the Surface

An easier way to see underwater is through a different kind of plywood box with a window, used at the surface. When I was kayaking the south coast of Menorca in the Mediterranean, there were some fishermen wading in the shallows, bent over with their faces up things that looked like oversized megaphones, with an opening at the top to fit around their eyes and a window on the bottom. I never found out what they were looking for, but I was intrigued by the method. The devices they used are called bathyscopes or aquascopes, and they’ve been around for quite a while, perhaps almost as long as window glass has been.

Hooper Bay

Over the following decades, I continued to build reproductions of Arctic kayaks. I was drawn to the sleeker and faster Greenland types, learned how to roll them a dozen different ways, and enjoyed paddling them in storms with water washing thick across the decks the deafening roar of the wind in my ears. The Hooper Bay sat under the eaves of my parents’ house for year, dusted green with the pollen of the cedar trees. When I had a house of my own, I kept the Hooper Bay alongside the garage. The canvas covering grew speckled with mildew, and the paint cracked. Eventually I removed the skin, leaving the lashed latticework frame bare.

Anchored in Jeopardy

I’ve had only four anchorages go wrong (so far). In the middle of a night aboard my dory skiff, I had to sit up in my sleeping bag and row across a cove to get into the lee of a shifted wind; that morning I woke up stranded by a low tide. During an overnight outing in our Escargot canal boat, anchored in the upper reaches of a tidal river, the four of us aboard spent a noisy sleepless night when the river current accelerated with the falling tide. On my solo in that same boat on the Everett sloughs, I slept well enough but lost my best anchor to a submerged snag. Those anchorages were merely inconvenient and uncomfortable. My worst anchorage could have been deadly.

Suitable for Framing

here’s an interesting exhibition of art at the Georgetown Historical Society in Georgetown, Maine. Some of the pieces on display are an unusual pairing of abstract painting and wooden boat models. The disciplines of art and boatbuilding have very different goals, one purely aesthetic and the other quite practical, but both require thoughtful attention to . . .

Bishop’s Wake

athaniel Holmes Bishop III was born in Medford, Massachusetts, on March 23 1827, and died in Glens Falls New York, July 2, 1902. In his time, he was quite well known for books he had written about his travels in small boats. I first heard about him, quite by accident, in the spring of 1982. . . .


I made my first crossing in 1965, when I was 12 years old, and while it didn’t shape history, it shaped me. I had bought a flat-bottomed skiff from a kid who lived a block away from the home in Edmonds, Washington, where I grew up. I paid $15 for it, a few weeks’ worth of my allowance. I don’t know who built the boat, probably some a penny-pinching amateur, because the plywood that made up the hull was textured and meant for house siding. The boat was too heavy for me to cart the half mile from home to the shore of Puget Sound, let alone drag over busy railroad tracks to get to the beach. Dad let me keep the boat at the Edmonds marina alongside his 27’ Tumlaren sloop. He also let me use his 5-½ hp Johnson SeaHorse outboard on one condition: I had to stay close to shore.

What’s in your PFD pocket?

The PFD I’ve been using for the past several years is the Guide model from Kōkatat. It does much more than keep me afloat. It has a top-loading electronics pocket on the right, a side-loading, stretchy mesh pocket on the left, and small top-loading pocket on the inside of the left side; all of the pockets have rings sewn-in to anchor tethers. The two lash tabs on the front of the PFD and one on the back provide places to mount gear on the outside of the PFD. There are retroreflective patches on the front and back for night search visibility.

Standing Water

The shapes moving across the surface could hardly be called waves. There were no discernible patterns, only random mounds and hollows that changed so quickly that the water couldn’t keep pace. Waves heaved upward in tall steep-sided pyramids that turned into ropey fathom-tall columns of silvery water suspended for a moment in midair. Spike waves. When they fell, they slipped downward, intact for a moment, and then disintegrated into white froth.

Testing One’s Metal

It wasn’t until I moved to Washington, D.C. and landed a job at the Smithsonian Institution that I learned I could do more with metal. I was hired by the National Museum of African Art as an exhibits specialist, part of the crew making display cases and installing artifacts. For a few weeks I assisted contract workers brought in to make mounts to support the objects that would be put display. They used brass rod and flat-bar, annealing it to make it pliable and joining pieces with silver solder with an air-acetylene torch. I learned a lot watching them work, and after they left I did much of the mount-making for the museum.

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