Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Boat Of One's Own

Dimitry Orlov, my favorite collapse commentator, posted a piece about how the economic downturn had caused people to abandon what were considered luxury items ie: yachts and horses, the very things that would be helpful when fuel ran short. He mentioned horses for farming and sail for transport.

Maybe not just yet I mused; I was more thinking of the bargains made available by this fire sale.

I used to live in the very horsy town of Woodside with a woman who had two horses housed in a barn at the bottom of the driveway. We could saddle up and ride for miles through open space preserves linked by throughways on private property. Sometimes, on long rides, we did talk about horses as transport should the usual means shut down in an earthquake, say. I was confident, though, that we will not be seeing any abandoned horses in Woodside. The population is too wealthy and insulated with assets. If they manage to hang on to their land, horses are as easy to keep as dogs and one more wouldn't hurt.

As for sailboats, a quick look on Craigslist, showed that boats were for sale in abundance quite a bit below their value. If I were in need of a home it would be possible to live aboard a sailboat, as Orlov did (with his wife and cat), but I wasn't and I didn't want to pay slip fees either. Catherine was intrigued by the idea, though, and so was another friend, just to have a boat to escape to.

I had fond memories of teen years spent on my parents sailboat sailing the Bay. In the summer we invited a friend or two and were on the water nearly every weekend. My father skippered and my mother entertained. At the end of the day the wind would pick up and we would enjoy some real sailing. Any snacks remaining would fly across the deck, a cherry tomato squished against the white fiberglass, yellow chips littering the cockpit and once wine spilt a purple streak; it was all part of the fun and easy to wash up with a hose afterwards. I hadn't thought about those years at all until now and nostalgically recalled a carefree sensibility and an optimistic outlook for the future along with the salt spray and sunshine for I had escaped, temporarily, my only worry—homework.

Though I had been second mate and was handy with the jib, I had never learned to sail solo. Something about that tugged at me. I didn't want the responsibility of a big boat, but I did want a small one to call my own.

Orlov argued that even a small boat could be useful and a guest writer mentioned folding boats and fishing. Now I was really intrigued. How come I had never heard of a folding boat before? A folding boat could be kept at home in a space little bigger than one needed to house a surfboard. It could be tied to the roof of the car, unfolded in ten minutes and be both rowed and motored. You could even get a sail kit for it. I found one for sale on Craigslist—the Porta-Bote. This seemed too serendipitous and I started to obsess over it, spending hours online researching—secretly—as though visiting a mistress. Catherine frowned upon any large thing coming into the garage. I would have to find a place to stash it unobtrusively.

So heavily did I fall into this obsession that I had to ask myself what was up with this boat thing. Was it a mid-life crisis or what? I was experiencing an unfamiliar emptiness that was both freeing and left me feeling unanchored. My 50th year had been filled with a sense of accomplishment at having got my book out. I was now wondering what the second half of my life would be about or if it had to be about anything. I had no goals, no visions to aspire to, no long-term projects and for a week or so no clients. As I finished out my 50th year, my trip meter seemed to turn over to zero. I felt like a teenager facing the beginning of summer listlessly looking around for something to do—something to affect or try on. Colleagues who were also seeing empty days organized their own closets or took up crochet. Some had their meds adjusted.

For me a boat easily fit into my collection of human powered vehicles, yet was something new that I hadn't tried before as an adult. And here it was entering my consciousness as a post-collapse survival tool, the context by which I justified my investments of time and money. But was a boat a survival tool or an expensive new toy? It was not as though I could commute in a boat as I would on a bicycle.

Orlov spoke of a future of nomadic sailing farmers migrating between one source of food and another as they tended to permaculture plots planted in different climate zones to hedge their bets against the impact of global warming. This vision raised the hair on the back of my neck. I did not like having to work so hard for my food and then have it threatened by such uncertainty. It was enough just to tend to one garden. Our recent double-digging project to amend our clay based soil with sand and compost had taken three weekends. (But, oh, how it is paying off.)

Much as I had studied the twin forces of fossil fuel depletion and ecological devastation, it was seldom real to me in a visceral sense. It comforted me to know what was coming, but for all practical purposes was more a game I played as one would play at being explorers as a kid. It gave me a context for my low tech hobbies and helped me overcome the fears that did seep into my comfortable life.

It was also a tool of resistance to the constant pressure of technological life, requiring us to learn yet one more computer based networking system, software or hand held, electronic gadget. Playing at collapse in order to hone survival skills was my emotional hedge against the superiority of techno-geeks who at any given time seemed to have more up to date information to reach more clients, do things faster, and make better money—all with an iPhone.

But fishing meant killing something with your bare hands. I skipped that vision until I read an article about how Russians, looking for free food, would catch crayfish from local waters and keep them in the bathtub. The crayfish would try to escape. This made me laugh. Well maybe I would learn to boil crayfish and learn to fish too.

A boat of one's own, I concluded, was a sort of think tank vessel for a future that would transcend our immersion in electronic technology; be it a future that called for finding food, fetching cargo from a bigger boat, getting around in a flood after extreme storms or to cope once sea levels rose. It was also a hands-on activity not found much in my media intense leisure pursuits—hours of first run movies, TV and youtube clips.

I knew when the boat obsession still surfaced no matter how many hours I trolled youtube for music videos of girls kissing (and all the lesbian scenes from three season's of Grey's Anatomy), that I had best allow this boat thing to follow its course.

Exploring an aspect of our physical geography that was largely ignored by the combustion engine populace barreling down 101, suddenly had a great deal of appeal to me. It had been a long time since I had been to the water's edge and that seemed odd when we were surrounded by water. In a parallel universe sort of way our waterways were a secret world.

One Saturday morning, I drove down to Shoreline Lake where REI, the sporting goods store, was having a kayak demo day. I went early, was given brief instruction on how to get in a kayak and hold the paddle, tried out several different boats and had a good time for an hour and a half for free. (It is always best if obsessions remain free; that way it doesn't become all about shopping.) The physicality of being in the water focused me. I could smell the Bay and see the Santa Cruz mountain range at the same time. Kayaks though were pricey things like carbon fiber bicycles.

My friend Bart, a fellow collapsnik (and my editor at the Energy Bulletin), upon hearing of my boat fetish told me about his two folding kayaks. I invited him to lunch and we put one together in the garden. Called a Featherweight, it was an ingenious tent like structure made in Canada. The kayak, I was told at the REI demo, is something you wear as opposed to a canoe, which you get into. Bart's turquoise kayak lent itself well to boat as outfit and I was amused by the concept of dressing up in a long narrow tube and lowering yourself into a watery canal in order to experience a physical journey that would not be interrupted until it was completed. Bart was animated and happy as he told me about his kayaking experience, and invited me to come with him.

"I get tired of always thinking of what we must avoid in order to save the world," he commented as we packed up the kayak. "I'd rather have people pursue something that brings them joy." His advice reminded me that there was no harm in doing something simply for pleasure.

Meanwhile for a boat of my own, I was still drawn to something you get into and sail. The Porta-Bote on Craigslist, slipped from my grasp as did the next one and the next. The competition was indeed stiff for the older ones, so cheap were they at under $500. When a buyer beat me to a 6 a.m. listing I responded to at 7 a.m., I realized it was hopeless. They must be using specialized search software.

I searched for other folding boats, discovering a detailed photo blog belonging to a man who had built his own from a plan available online. It was adorable and even had a sail. I was poised to buy the plan (for $22.50, half price!). Then I realized it had taken the guy six months to build his and would probably take me two years. Maybe I should first try my hand at building a non-folding boat. It surely would be easier. Happily, this led me to a whole subculture of amateur boat builders enamored of small wooden boats built from plywood. Known as "instant boats" they were put together with tape and glue or "stitched and glued" with epoxy and wire. Or just plain nails and glue, which seemed more my speed, resembling as it did, a bookcase construction.

The most instant of these boats, built from a single sheet of plywood, could be made in a couple of weekends. Even children were building them, supervised by parents attempting to provide an alternative activity to video games. So popular was this challenge of using only one sheet of plywood to build a boat that it had its own discussion groups. Plans for the "one sheet skiff" were being shared for free. But I still couldn't quite grasp how it was done. What the heck was a chine or a gunwale?

I visited all my libraries searching for books on building these "instant boats". There were two, both over 20 years old. I joined another library in another county because it had new boat building books in abundance. Each one had a sticker pasted across it informing me that it had been paid for by an entity concerned with "building our science and technology resources". I was tickled that here in Los Altos, a bedroom community of Silicon Valley, boatbuilding was considered a concern of science and technology. Might someone else be worried that high tech was blotting out skills we might need someday? What next? Blacksmithing?

As more boats eluded me on Craigslist, including an El Toro sailing dinghy, I realized that building a boat myself would actually be the better journey, not to mention costing very little. The skills I would learn would extend my knowledge to a new set of building parameters, as well as fulfill my sailing urge. I had already learned to read the one sheet skiff plans and could pick out the easy ones from the difficult. I lulled myself to sleep at night visualizing how the pieces would go together. And if the boat didn't fit in my garage I could always sell it on Craigslist. I had, after all, proven that the market was there.

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At 8:58 PM, Blogger Fonk said...

What a strangely timely post... I, too, have found myself obsessing about boats lately. We don't have a ton of water here on the Front Range of Colorado like you do there in the Bay Area, but there are some nice reservoirs and rivers nearby that make for some nice water recreation. I'm looking to either get a kayak for myself, for solo exursions, or else a canoe or pedal boat for my whole family.

I think for me it might also be some nostalgia driving the desire. Back in Minnesota (where I grew up), being on the water is just part of the culture, as there's water everywhere. People are always out on fishing boats, speedboats, sailboats, canoes, etc. It's been quite a long time since I really experienced that, and am looking to experience that sense of peace one gets from being out on the water again.

Your info on building boats now also has me intrigued...

At 9:02 PM, Blogger AK said...

Kayaks and bicyclists seem to go together well. We also one of the few animals that swim and walk, but I know what you mean about the nostalgia.

I've heard that Minnesota is a boaty kind of place. So is Bangkok, once known as the Venice of the East. Would that they had stayed with that model...They are quite the boat makers too over there.

At 10:49 PM, Blogger Fonk said...

Interesting (and strange) fact about boats - Do you know which state in the U.S. has the highest per capita rate of boat ownership? Arizona! Just seems bizarre to me...

At 2:22 PM, Blogger Kiwi25 said...

Spooky, I was doing a search on sails for my porta bote, and got a link to this article..which was inspired by MY article which was on Orlov's blog. Funny how the world goes round.
I bought my porta bote for $100 with a set of oars.. its the really old double ended type. Almost a miracle to find one in my home town. So keep looking..the power of the Universe will find one for you...:-).

At 9:24 PM, Blogger AK said...

Kiwi25, nice to meet you in person, so to speak. I love the double ended portabote, much sexier than the newer ones. A toast as the world goes around.


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