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A spiritual union of boatbuilders

I recently accepted an invitation from my Patagonian neighbors to visit their daughter, who is living on the island of Chiloe across the Gulf of Corcovado, which separates the island from mainland southern Chile. I’ve known Monica since she was a young girl, so it was a pleasure to visit her, her two daughters and her husband in their home outside the small seaside city of Quellon.

Boatbuilders set up shop on the beach on Chiloe, an island off Chile.

Monica’s husband, Israel, is a woodcutter, and I spent a few days with him out in his cutting area, bringing wood out of the bosque with an ox team hauling a biloche — a large sled on skids — then loading his truck with firewood to sell in town. Israel told me he had recently cut a timber 12 meters long for the keel of a boat being built on the beach in Quellon Viejo. Well aware of my boatbuilding background, he asked whether I would like to go see the project.

We drove along the black-sand beach, and I could see the boat standing on her keel, hull painted red, from a long way off. We climbed aboard, and I could see she was all set to accept an engine and drive train, a rudder, some controls and go to work. About 100 meters down the beach was another cluster of boats abuilding, so we walked down there.

At the shop on the beach were a half-dozen boats — a spectrum of sizes and in various stages of completion. The setup reminded me of our own beach shop at Gannon & Benjamin on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. Amid a pile of shavings, fitting a plank, was an obvious boatbuilder. You can always tell them; you just can’t tell them much. I introduced myself to Cesar Omar Tavie, and as is usually the case, there was an immediate connection in the camaraderie of boatbuilding. Within minutes we were discussing the challenges of hand-building traditional wooden boats in an age of plastic and electronic gadgetry.

Cesar put down his tools and stepped away from his project to give me a bit of his time. He showed me around his simple operation, and we sat down on the aft deck of a 12-meter fishing boat under construction for some palaver. He has been doing this his entire 50 years, except for a 10-year stint as a commercial diver in his 20s, when he made enough money to put down some on the beach property for the shop and his house. He has four other carpenters and keeps busy building wooden boats for the discerning watermen who prefer a solid hand-built wood hull to anything else. He has just finished a 10-meter boat that is painted and being launched as soon as the balance is paid. The boat cost 15 million pesos (about $30,000) and took four months to complete. He uses only Mercedes marine diesels, which are very reliable and whose parts are accessible and comparatively cheap.

We discussed the common challenge of finding good materials, although he lives in an area with good resources — so far — and the importance of practicing considerate resource management and salvaging and recycling used resources as much as possible. The challenges are the same the world over.

As we sat talking, I let my ken take in the beautiful bay surrounding us, full of shellfish farms and the cages of the recovering salmon farming industry. These are the primary industries here. In the distance to the east, clear as a bell, the high, snow-capped cordillera of the Andes and the Corcovado volcano 200 kilometers away stood tall and brilliant against the deep-blue Patagonian sky. It was hard to imagine, on such an idyllic day, how this scene can blow up into the dark, cold rage this bold, isolated coast can become in a matter of hours. The people who venture forth into this stark reality have only their faith, experience and a stout vessel to allow the possibility of safe return.

A decade ago, I boarded a small coastal cargo boat before dawn in a tidal river about 100 kilometers to the south. The captain had brought the boat up into the river on a rising tide in the pitch dark of a moonless night a few hours earlier. As we rode the ebb back out to the sea, I marveled at the skill of navigating in a shrinking channel three boat widths wide and with no navigation aids.

As we looked back on a darkened coast with nary a light, much less channel markers, I wondered aloud at how this was all done. In the first light of dawn, the captain grinned, tapped a swarthy finger against his temple and opened a well-used, worn, polished wood box. There was a beautiful ancient bronze compass — his GPS, passed to him by his father, who had received it in his time from his father. I remember thinking of the things we have buried under the new age of electronics and artificial intelligence.

Knowing full well how a boatbuilder feels about time wasted, I encouraged my new compadre to get back to his tools. On my T-shirt he noticed the marine rail logo of our own shop on the beach on Martha’s Vineyard. He told me he had been looking for just such a mechanism for his own shop. I gave him a synopsis of how ours worked and how we had had to cob the system together from scraps and salvage just to come up with a working rail. He nodded and grinned in appreciation of just such a treasure hunt, and I could see the wheels start to turn. I easily imagined that the next time I visited, I would see a marine rail on the beach in Quellon Viejo.

Seaver Jones divides his time among his woodshop and home in Futaleufu, Chile, life aboard his restored vintage motoryacht and boatbuilding at the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway on Martha’s Vineyard.

May 2013 issue