While I was working with John Leyde on this issue’s Reader Built Boat story about building a skiff with his grandsons, I was particularly struck by why he had come up with his plan for the skiff in the first place. As he put it in an email to me: “With winter coming on, I found I was projectless.” There’s no question that building a boat with his grandsons was an inspired idea that would strengthen the family bonds and give the boys something to remember for the rest of their lives. But what surprised me was the sense of anxiety suggested by facing the future projectless. When I write “projectless” on my computer, the word gets a jagged red underline from the spellchecker, and Google won’t turn up a definition for it, but it is, in fact, a word. When I searched for it on the web, I came across the full text of an impenetrable academic treatise on creativity, which had, squirreled away on page 137, this lovely phrase: “the precariousness of projectlessness.” That scholarly affirmation that the impulse to take up projects could be linked to anxiety made me wonder about my own history of filling my time with boatbuilding projects that often go on for months.
I do recall that anxiety played a role in building a boat for my father. Not long after I’d built a dory skiff for myself, I convinced him to let me build a gunning dory for him. For several years he had owned and maintained a 27′ Tumlaren sloop, but he didn’t want to split his time between two boats, so he sold it for the sake of the gunning dory. The summer I started building it was the summer I had planned to row and sail the Inside Passage in the skiff I had built, but I was fearful about taking that ambitious voyage. It would be my first solo cruise ever, and I had never done anything but daysailing. Building the gunning dory was an ostensibly face-saving way of backing out of it. I could immerse myself in the gunning dory project and avoid spending an idle summer nagged by thoughts of what I had intended to be doing. (By the time I had finished the gunning dory the following spring, I’d spent enough time sailing my skiff to feel more confident in its abilities and mine and embarked on the Inside Passage adventure.)
When my kids were young, much younger than John’s grandsons, I built a small Greenland kayak for each of them, even though they certainly didn’t need kayaks and had never expressed any interest in either boatbuilding or paddling. In spite of that, I felt a strong urge to build the kayaks. I should mention that Nate was then just 3-1/2 years old and not to be trusted with edge tools, and Ali was just 9 months old and preoccupied with language acquisition. I had my hands full with working a full-time job and being a father, but I stole precious time to build a 7′ Greenland kayak for Nate and a 5′ kayak for Ali.
It’s clear now that I built their kayaks as much, if not more, for myself than for them. I was new to child-rearing and a lot of it was difficult. Some was even scary. When Nate was an infant, he came down with croup and one evening struggled to breathe. I was terrified and raced him to the ER running red lights, tears streaming down my face. Worry and uncertainty just came with the parenting territory. I had been building boats on and off for 12 years then and always felt at ease and competent in the shop, even with the most challenging projects. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that building those two little kayaks for Nate and Ali was an avoidance strategy, in the way building the gunning dory had been, but I think it was a way of restoring my confidence and peace of mind. (By the way, my kids, now 26 and 29, turned out just fine.)
I currently have 15 boats that I’ve built scattered in and around the house. Many of them haven’t been used in years but I can remember why I built each of them. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I can remember the intentions I had for them.
I built a King Island kayak thinking I’d cruise the San Juan Islands with it. I paddled it a few times and then put it on a rack under the eaves where it gathered dust and cedar pollen. I built a decked tandem lapstrake canoe to paddle down the Missouri River. I drove past the river’s headwaters without the canoe and collected a bottle of water as a reminder, but I never returned with the canoe to paddle the river. Even with many of the dreams I had for my boats unfulfilled, I have no regrets about building any of them and don’t the time spent on as time wasted.
I don’t consider myself an anxious person and I think having a steady stream of projects for my entire adult life has played part in that. The news has been especially troubling these past few months and it only seems to get worse. I don’t have a boat in the works but I’ve been able to take refuge from current events by making a spinnaker. While I’m under the soothing spell of thinking about it, cutting out the pieces, and sewing it together, I’m safe from the precariousness of projectlessness.