Material World

Building silly boats out of silly things.

July Telltales
Steve Haefele

I just finished a book by a fellow who had earned a good buck in the real world before he decided to cash it in and build a boat. He had received no heavenly message or flood warnings; he was not prematurely gray; he was simply acting on a vision of building a sort of boat that no one else had dreamed of. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I built my yacht design career by catering to boat design dreamers, but the ones that fancy themselves as boatbuilders are a particularly troubled lot. Consider this fellow’s choice of materials — wine corks — 165,321 of them!

It couldn’t have been long after primitive man figured out that fire was warm and rocks made good hammers that some poor, hairy sot got the dumb idea to build a boat. I can imagine this dimwitted fellow sitting on a primordial swale picking lice when the bloated, stinking corpse of a mastodon drifted by. While he may not have imagined oars or a sail, he realized the potential. Long before Archimedes’ principle explained the finer points of displacement, humans were fashioning boats out of the silliest things that happened to float.

Thor Heyerdahl proved this, of course, by building what was essentially a 45-foot balsa doormat. Kon-Tiki was little more than nine logs strapped together with hemp — hmm, a “smoking” gun, perhaps? — a bamboo deck and a mast whittled out of mangrove bushes. Just building such a “boat” wasn’t enough, and to make his point, Thor sailed/drifted her/it across the Pacific, spawning a book and a film that served as the inspiration for other dreamers to attempt similar feats of insanity. A few years back a group of academics set their minds to sailing a 40-foot tar ball across the Indian Ocean. Their creation ended up on the bottom 30 minutes after the launch party. More recently a fellow assembled 12,500 2-liter plastic bottles in the shape of a ship and christened it Plastiki — how original.

A cadre of rock-headed hippies made a more serious effort in the late 1960s. Demonstrating their contempt for society and sensible boatbuilding practice, they chose cement as their creative medium. True believers still promote it as a lightweight, low-maintenance alternative to fiberglass. I am reminded of an old friend and fellow expert on marine matters who once admitted to me in a weak moment the horrible guilt he felt for his promotion of the wonders of the ferrocement boat. He confessed to me that he was quite certain that his efforts had likely caused the divorce rate to soar in the coastal United States.

The truth is that when born-again boatbuilders have their way anything can happen. If Noah’s ark had been Noah’s and he had not been held to a higher standard, he would certainly have thumbed his nose at gopher wood and built the ark out of materials that were cheaper and more plentiful. Can you imagine 300 cubits of dried animal feces and fur balls lashed together with woven animal hair? Like the fellows with bottles and bottle stops, he might have then shared his method in a book — The Wonders of Noah’s Self-Sustaining Ark — and encouraged a legion of hapless dreamers to follow suit.

I was ranting about silly boats in cork, cement, tar and dung with a boatbuilder pal of mine who pointed out that, even considering the screw tops he had twisted during lean times, he had likely popped at least 165,321 corks in his career. He suggested that he would much rather have assembled them into a boat, written a book and sold the movie rights than deal with some of the dreamers he had built custom boats for. Perhaps he has a point. Are born-again boatbuilders on to something? Has anyone built a Kalik Bottle Clipper? Hmm — I can supply the materials!