The sea casts a wide net, calling to a range of personalities with disparate experiences and expectations, quirks and foibles. This diversity of personality is as obvious in boatbuilders as it is in those who use their vessels to answer the call of the sea.
Among builders I know and think well of, racing master Reggie Fountain is drawn to speed, risk, competition and the limelight, pushing the envelope — and thereby risking his life — at well over 150 mph. Kurt Krogen, with his artist’s soul, loves the tranquility and solitude of ocean passages at hull speed in his namesake displacement trawlers.
Hunt’s Peter Van Lancker, who created one of the world’s finest rough-water brands through ingenuity and tenacity, builds boats that are much like him, dealing with heavy weather as if through alchemy and charming their owners in the process.
John Dorton, who ran MasterCraft for years, perfected the art of targeting millennials with his high-end, tricked-out, speckle-hulled, speaker-bedecked wakeboard boats, luring them, if only for a few hours, from their video games and iPads to the outdoors and open water. Randy Hopper’s Ranger bass boats deliver what seems to me to be a satisfying if curious blend of blistering speed, hours on end of solitude in pursuit of bass and the thrill of the hunt, all in a largely contemplative setting.
The Healey family builds Vikings for clients who are at the top of their game and with the means to pursue marlin in 40-knot, 5,200-hp, 70-ton boats with the sea buoy 100 miles astern. And like the Healeys, Grady-White owner Eddie Smith has been building high-end boats for decades, and with a multigenerational cult following of owners who appreciate Bentley-level care and handling. All of these brands necessarily reflect the ever-evolving demands of the markets they serve, but they also reflect their builders’ psyches and ambitions.
The sea compels us for as many reasons as there are types of boats, and for most of us its allure is irresistible and indefinable. The most obvious appeal of the sea is that it’s not the land. On the water, you are wholly reliant on an inanimate object that for any sentient being takes on a life, personality and character of its own (more on that in a bit). Although land is static, the sea is dynamic, alive — in a perpetual state of flux, as Heraclitus pointed out. Your backyard is in the same position relative to the house this morning that it was last Labor Day. But on the boat, the scenery, water depth, current, sea state and neighbors change continuously, invigoratingly and simultaneously.
Study the wake behind your boat at 20 knots. See how the bow parts and displaces tranquil water in its path, and how the water then reconstitutes astern into a state of equilibrium as the means of its disruption passes. The same force that controls the speed of an ocean wave — gravity — controls the shape of the wake you leave behind. Wakes are endlessly fascinating in the way the sea re-collects itself, in accordance with the laws of physics; in relation to the depth, shape, beam and speed of the hull; and in consonance with a beauty that only nature can conjure.
I think the wake itself, its form and not its function, is as much the appeal to Dorton’s wakeboarders as anything else. The Viking’s huge wake cresting 100 or more feet astern reflects the 4,000 or 5,000 hp driving some of those boats, and for that reason alone is a source of both pride and fascination for the owner. On the other hand, the Krogen’s low-input, low-output wake is equally a source of satisfaction for its owner, reflecting its efficiency, fuel bill and minimal impact on the ocean’s ecosystem.
Even in these days of electronics that tell you where you are to within the width of your helm seat, it’s eminently satisfying and a source of pride to navigate safely from Nantucket to Newport. With a couple of large-screen displays showing the ocean’s bottom in 3-D, every rock on the coastline, ships still hull-down and even terns working over a school of stripers three miles away, not much is left to the imagination of the modern cruiser. There’s not as much anxiety, either, since situational awareness is so much better than it was just a few decades ago, although the wise sailor stays a little anxious, anyway, always on guard, always expecting and prepared for the unexpected.
For most people, irrespective of personality type, relaxing and working out the kinks that accumulate ashore is a big part of the attraction and the justification for the expense of putting to sea. In fact, the simple act of stocking up, starting up, casting off and getting underway begins the transformative process. Although you may well have a destination, at some level that detail is subordinate to the delight of simply being out on a boat, perhaps out of sight of land, lightly rolling and pitching, swaying and heaving, as attuned to the boat’s motions as to the wave patterns that create those motions.
Parable and metaphor are two of the most impactful and directly instructive means of teaching and learning, since we are personally so involved in filling in the blanks implicit in the story and being at sea is a metaphor on a loop. Do I meet the next wave head-on, boldly and directly, taking into account the relative attributes and merits of the boat and the wave? Or do I shift off my base course long enough to take the wave broad on the bow, taking a little longer to overcome this obstacle but saving myself some abuse and discomfort? How much do I play the judo expert and maneuver the boat to absorb and deflect the strength of the wave?
Am I skilled enough to keep running into the evening, and will the boat allow me to do so safely, with minimal risk? Or should I make for port and tie up before sunset, recognizing my limitations and those of my passengers and the boat? There are risks and rewards of continuing on when seas build, and one has to determine where risk and reward meet equilibrium in these particular circumstances. How these decisions are made I have no idea, only that I have made them thousands of times with a wide range of outcomes.
A sea voyage, whether from Cape Cod to Liverpool or from Portland to Bar Harbor, raises all of these questions, and as in life itself, at sea we are always analyzing and evaluating, meeting with success and disappointment, reaching port unscathed or with a few nicks and scrapes to show for our efforts. Buying a boat is much like a birth, with all the attendant dreams and promise, and selling it, when of necessity, is not unlike a death, with its finality and loss and jarring ending. In between are memories, accomplishments, failures, challenges, rewards and the other stuff of life itself.
For the steel- or fiberglass-boat owner, the material from which your vessel is made is likely to be more a pragmatic than aesthetic concern. Steel and fiberglass only seem to have life to the degree that they look like wood, which once did have life, or to the degree that they take on the shape and form of what we think of as a lifelike object. The owner of the mahogany Gar Wood speedboat notices that each hull and deck plank has a different grain pattern, of varying color, and may well have come from a different tree than its mates. That differentiation at the plank-and-frame level, however subtle, animates the boat as a singularity, which is to say as a person.
The person who loves wooden boats and happens to own one is therefore twice blessed, with a boat that can take its owner to sea and is made of wood, making it a living thing. Such a boat in itself is both the voyage and the destination, satisfying the Type A and Type B within us, regardless of which predominates. A boat lets the inwardly focused, socially shy and usually shorebound musician or scholar put to sea and become an in-command, adventure-seeking Ahab for a few days, bringing balance and restoring focus and resolve, perhaps making the person a better cellist or archeologist.
Of course the sea is not all metaphor for air-breathing mammals such as ourselves. Going to sea is an act and reality in itself and on its own terms. But like all mysteries, we benefit from being offshore in ways we don’t begin to understand or even think about, and that is as it should be.
I hope my columns these last eight years have helped you find and better understand the boats that make this transformation, restoration and sheer delight possible.
Eric Sorensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 2015 issue