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by Tom Pamperin - Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin‎ - USA

Part One - Part Two

I grew up landlocked, and spent my childhood among tall pines and rock-studded rivers far from the sea. For years all my dreams were of not sailing. Then I moved to the east coast, where my back door opened onto a marshy tallgrass finger of the Atlantic. From the dock behind my house I could watch the sun rise over the open ocean and hear the cry of the wheeling gulls, and I expected to develop a mysterious and satisfying communion with the sea. But the sea felt like sandpaper and tasted like salt and smelled like low tide, and the gulls were no different from the ones that inhabited the landfills and parking lots back home. Barnacles covered everything that wasn’t already covered with slime, and packs of horseshoe crabs scuttled hideously along the shore like monstrous ravaging trilobites. My wife would wander the beach for hours looking for water-worn glass and colorful pebbles. I would wander the beach for about ten minutes and wonder where all the trees were. Then I’d go eat breakfast.

Gradually, though, I learned to love the sea. I even became an open-water ocean swimmer, because once when I was wandering the beach on a military installation late at night some MPs came to arrest me and I swam away instead. The MPs gestured angrily and shouted at me and swept their big spotlight across the waves trying to keep me in sight until I swam far out into the open sea, out of sight of land. I kept swimming for so long that it became a habit. Not far from my house there was a big bell buoy a mile offshore and I would swim out to it and back every night. I always swam in the dark because it was easier to ignore the sharks.

“You only swam in the dark a few times,” Jagular interrupts.

“Quiet,” I tell him. “You’re not in the story yet.”

“And there weren’t any sharks,” he says.

“There might have been sharks,” I insist. “Besides, you haven’t even been built yet. Just let me tell this part my way.”

“When does the part about me start?”

“Pretty soon,” I tell him.

“Good,” he says. “That’s the best part.”

Anyway, there was a big bell buoy a mile offshore. And MPs. Maybe not a spotlight. I did a lot of swimming, though. Sometimes I swam two or three laps between the shore and the buoy, but they were slow laps. And I still wasn’t a sailor or a boat builder.

I did grow up building stuff, though. I would help my brother with whatever he was doing. He built a roll-top desk and I helped him carry it into the house. He built a canoe and I helped spread glue on the thin wooden strips until I got bored and went inside to watch TV. My brother built an airplane and my sister and I crashed it into a cornfield. The plane wasn’t too bad once we flipped it back upright, but I cut my leg open on the instrument panel and had to get fourteen stitches from a veterinarian. Everyone walked around for days after the crash saying “Thank goodness no one got hurt.” I would point to my leg and say “No one got hurt?” but everyone ignored me.

Somehow we managed to do some sailing, too, even landlocked as we were. We started in winter. In northern Wisconsin all the lakes freeze, and people haul small houses out onto the ice and spend the winter inside them drinking and pretending to fish. My brother built an iceboat instead, a long tapered wooden box that balanced on three metal skates, the front one theoretically steerable. I helped paint it. The second time the iceboat fell apart, we built another one. After that one got stolen we got smart and built a two-seater so we wouldn’t have to take turns sailing anymore. Immediately afterwards we hit a long streak of warm snowy winters and our iceboating was finished for good. 

There’s nothing dumber than iceboating anyway. Once I watched an ambulance haul away an iceboater who had crashed into a pressure ridge at fifty miles an hour. The boat broke in half at the forward bulkhead. The iceboater broke in half at the left femur. Then, too, it’s not really winter in Wisconsin until someone’s truck or snowmobile goes through the ice, and we weren’t sure if the iceboats we were building would float. And good conditions were rare anyway because we needed bare ice; snow creates too much friction. In all our years of iceboating we managed maybe ten days of sailing. We might as well have taken up surfing.

But the romance of the sea proved inescapable, so I moved back to Wisconsin and started building a fat contented-looking yawl in my dining room one day while my wife was away at work. I started with the mizzen mast because it was the only part of the boat that would fit in the house. I ended with the mizzen mast for pretty much the same reason. Actually I didn’t even finish it. On paper the mizzen mast was made of straight lines. In reality it wasn’t. 

Eventually I dragged the partially assembled mast out to the derelict shed in our backyard -- the carriage house, our real estate agent insisted -- and started spending my time reading about boats instead of trying to build them. I read books by Webb Chiles and Robin Lee Graham and Joshua Slocum; I read books by Bernard Moitessier and Tristan Jones. I read Fastnet, Force 10. I spent days dreaming of the lonely limitless sea where I would wear bulky cable-knit sweaters and drink hot tea and wake up each morning with flying fish flopping on the deck and albatrosses soaring overhead. I’d pull out my battered sextant for a noon sight every day and carefully draw circles and LOPs and running fixes and other cryptic marks on the chart. Then I’d look at the clouds and glance at the compass and test the wind by licking my finger and holding it up to see which side felt cool, and I’d stare with squinty eyes at all the lines on the charts and wonder whether it would be better to round Cape Horn or submit to an undignified slog through the Panama Canal.

Between books I started going to auctions and bidding on leaky-bilged deep-keeled ocean cruisers, boats whose best days were so far behind them even I could barely convince myself they’d ever existed. My brother, with a firmer grasp on reality, suggested that it might be better to start smaller, maybe a quick-build beach cruiser with a flat bottom and plywood sides. I’ll build one, too, he promised. We’ll each pick a design and build them together, finish them in a couple of weekends. Temporary boats, he said. Just until we decide what we each want for our real boat.

“I’m a temporary boat?” Jagular asks, looking over my shoulder as I type.
“We’re all temporary,” I tell him. “Some of us are just more temporary than others.”

I did my best to make Jagular as temporary as I could, actually, wanting to move on to my deep-keeled ocean cruiser as quickly as possible. I tried to buy cheap luan plywood for the hull but misread the stickers at the lumberyard and brought home some better stuff by mistake -- five plies, no voids, glue that looked like it might be at least water-resistant. To make up for my mistake with the plywood, I used a cheap polyurethane adhesive that even the manufacturer refused to claim would hold up to full immersion. And I built Jagular from a set of almost illegible drawings photocopied from the pages of Phil Bolger’s book Boats With An Open Mind. Chapter 22, design 542 -- the Pirate Racer.

Pirate Racer! As I read the name I could almost hear the tropic breezes stirring the coconut palms overhead; the crying of the seagulls, the roar of the surf; booming cannons and ringing cutlasses, tattered maps and shining pieces of eight; fair winds, long passages, and endless horizons. No matter that design 542 was a small flat-bottomed skiff hardly big enough to fit two adults aboard in even the calmest conditions. This was the boat, I decided.

That’s the boat?” my brother says when I show him the plans.

“That’s it,” I tell him.

He looks at the drawings again, shakes his head. “Well,” he says. “It should be pretty easy to build.”


The photocopies are blurry, but even if they weren’t, the instructions would be impossible to read because the original plans were printed on sheets of paper the size of a kitchen table, and in the book the drawings have been reduced to the size of my hand. I guess at a lot of the numbers and make the rest up. But with my brother helping -- well, with him building and me helping -- we get the shapes mostly right, and the hull comes together quickly in his garage: sides, bottom, decks, bulkheads, and a layer of six-ounce fiberglass cloth over the bottom for leakproofing. Pretty soon I’m finishing the boat in my own driveway.

“By guess and by God,” I tell the boat as I trim each ill-fitting piece and jam it in place. “That’s the way the old-timers built their boats. No worrying about measurements and so on.”

“Uh-huh,” the boat says. “You’ve read the plans, haven’t you?”

“Plans, shmans,” I tell him. “Good builders never pay much attention to the plans.”

Good builders, no.”

I don’t bother to answer; there’s too much work to do. I build the mast out of a couple of two-by-fours glued together -- even make it kind of round. Well, round-ish. I build an eighteen-foot spar called a yard to hang the lateen sail from. I build a mast step and mast partner. I install cleats: halyard cleats, yard cleats, leeboard cleats, lots of cleats. I stand around watching while my brother turns a twenty-dollar tarp and a roll of carpet tape into something more like a sail. I build the leeboards, big teardrop-shaped slabs of plywood that, in theory, should help my boat move forward at an angle to the wind rather than just sliding sideways. One fin-shaped board on each side of the hull, tied on with rope so each board can be lowered and raised as needed. I cut circular holes in each board to hold enough lead to make them sink when they’re lowered.

Once the leeboards are ready, I buy a bucket of old wheel weights from a tire store and fire up my little single-burner backpacking stove to melt some lead. I throw a bunch of weights in an old pot and set it on the burner, trying to hold my breath and avoid touching anything, hoping there’s no moisture in the pot to make the molten metal spatter explosively. It’s a legitimately dangerous operation. I should be wearing leather gauntlets, a heavy apron, a face shield. Instead I’m wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and trying to stand upwind of everything. Lead, I know, is incredibly toxic. It’s also incredibly heavy. Too heavy for my little stove, it turns out; the entire set-up is tilting, the pot slumping sideways as the burner collapses beneath it.

“You probably should have used a bigger stove,” the boat says, watching my backyard foundry crumple and spill long dribbles of molten metal across the driveway. I ignore him, too busy pouring what’s left of the lead from the pot into the leeboard holes to answer. There’s not enough to fill them. I throw a few more chunks of lead in the pot and set it back on the mangled burner for a few minutes, then try another pour. No good. The new lead refuses to mingle with the old.

“Assimilate!” I shout at the lead, poking it with a long-handled spoon. “Stop clinging to your own separate identities so selfishly and defer to the greater good. Unity! We must have unity!”

But it’s no good. The new lead stays shiny and new and entirely separate from the old lead. I wait a few hours for everything to cool down and then pry off the new lead, which has formed thin disks on top of the old lead without sticking to it. I throw the shiny disks of new lead into a corner of the shed and stare at the leeboards with their half-filled circles. I’ll have to remove the first pour and try all over.

I tap the lead circle with a hammer -- a dull thud. I hit harder. Nothing. I pound. Still nothing. I go looking for a bigger hammer. I thump. I pound.

“You wouldn’t think it’d be that hard to knock a four-inch circle of lead out of a piece of plywood,” the boat says. 

I jump up and down on the lead. Nothing. I jump harder. The little circles of lead stay firmly stuck to the leeboards. I pound some more. The half-inch plywood bends and cracks and takes on a curved shape like a giant palm leaf gently curling in the sun. The lead stays firmly fixed.

I buy another sheet of plywood and make new leeboards, melt and pour more lead. Install some cheap half-round moulding strips for rubrails. Build a rudder and tiller. And so it goes. Finally, though, there are no more pieces to add. Nothing else to buy, no more supplies to gather. It’s time to paint.

“How about a nice bright blue?” Jagular suggests. “Something tropical, like a fishing boat from the Bahamas.”

“A Pirate Racer is like a Model T,” I tell him. “You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black. Now don’t bother me. We’re launching tomorrow and I want to get at least two coats of paint on.”

“We’re launching tomorrow?” the boat says.
“Yep,” I say, dipping my roller into the tray to reload. “We’re meeting my brother at Bear Lake. And you know how anytime two boats are sailing together, it’s a race? Well, my brother’s boat is twelve feet long, you’re fourteen and a half. And in sailing, length equals speed. We’ve got an extra twenty-five square feet of sail besides -- we’ll be sure to win.”

“Uh-huh,” Jagular says. “Isn’t that a water-based latex paint you’re using?”

I pick up the can to read the label. “That’s what it says here,” I tell him. “Why?”

A moment goes by before the boat answers. “Never mind,” he says.

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