I was planning on being an artist. I took art classes during my last two years of high school, got my bachelor’s degree in art in 1975, and in the years that followed, continued drawing, and sculpted a couple of clay busts. Portraiture was the direction I was headed, but I got sidetracked by backpacking and bicycle touring. I eventually grew tired of lugging a heavy backpack and while on a bike tour from Seattle to Los Angeles and back, I got hit by a car in Salt Lake City and then repeatedly run off the road on California’s Pacific Coast Highway. That left boating—I wouldn’t have to carry anything, and the “roads” would be a lot wider. I read books on boatbuilding by John Gardner and Pete Culler and decided to build a Chamberlain-designed 14′ Marblehead dory skiff to cruise north along the Inside Passage. According to a note I made in a journal I was keeping at the time, I started construction on July 12, 1978.
I knew that it would take me a while to build a traditional plank-on-frame boat; a skin-on-frame kayak would get afloat faster and give me experience on the water while I was building the skiff. I studied Chapelle’s chapter on Arctic kayaks in Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, cursorily, and drew a kayak of my own design that was a mishmash of elements I’d picked out of the book. I’d watched my father build a fuselage-frame rowing wherry and designed my kayak for that method, using plywood frames and stems with longitudinals screwed and glued to them. I tacked a canvas skin to the frame and waterproofed it with tan Gacoflex, a liquid neoprene coating.
I launched the kayak on July 20, 1978. It wasn’t anything special, neither fast nor stable, but it got me on the water. I launched the dory skiff on a rainy afternoon on February 24, 1979. I christened it GAMINE after a winsome character played by Paulette Goddard in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film, Modern Times. The following year, in the summer of 1980, I fulfilled my dream of cruising the Inside Passage.
My kayak lasted a few years before the skin succumbed to mildew. By that time, I had learned a lot more about boats and could appreciate all the knowledge and skill that went into the design and construction of traditional craft. I tore the rotting skin off my kayak and took a chainsaw to the frame—an acknowledgement perhaps, of my lack of understanding of the wisdom carried by old boats. I turned my attention to building reproductions of Arctic kayaks and plank-on-frame working boats to see what they could teach me.
That blank book in which I recorded the dates of my beginnings as a boatbuilder starts with an entry dated November 1973. It has several sketches for silk-screen projects I was exploring for a serigraphy class I took during my junior year of college. A few pages in, I had sketched my left hand. Beyond that were drawings developing a system for perspective on the spherical surface of the Earth. A rough portrait of my mother is on the page preceding the spread with my first notes about my kayak and dory skiff. All of the drawings beyond that, without exception, have something to do with boats.
The last entry in the book, dated March 31, 1980, contains this note: “The gunning dory [a boat I built for my father] is coming along well. Sanding, oiling, sewing, and rigging are all that remain.” The lure of building boats had hijacked my career as an artist. Today, here at my home, I have 17 boats that I’ve built. I may be reaching the point that I have enough of them and can devote some time to drawing.