When we build boats, we're trying to build boats that are beautiful and functional in their own way. Some are work boat finishes, some are varnish queens - it runs the gamut, really. It's pretty rare to have a really awful looking boat. While my students are building boats, they are all way, way too critical of their own boats, but when exhibition finally rolls around, they are amazed at the ooh's, aaahh's, smiles and slack-jawed awe by the visitors who have come to see their work. I think this is a great thing as it really helps build their pride in what they have done.
However, at the exhibition this year and at the WoodenBoat show at Mystic, I was disturbed to hear a refrain that I hear all too often.
"That's too pretty to put in the water!"
You've GOT to be kidding me!
The following quote is probably the best response to those who say that the boats are too pretty to put in the water -
A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.
The canoes and kayaks, rowboats, sailboats and motorboats that were built were to go places and do things. While some rare boats certainly deserve to be put on display or held by museums, for the most part, boats are meant to be used. Careful maintenance and repair can extend their lives, but boats - particularly wooden boats - have a finite lifespan.
The cedar strip and fiberglass canoes and kayaks that were built in my class were certainly built to be used. What people don't know is that they're really much more durable than they might be led to believe. I've dropped my canoe, banged into a metal railing with it, scratched it on rocks and gravel and other such indignities that a small canoe will be subject to. But you know what? I know how it was built and as such I know how to repair any damage. Usual maintenance for this kind of boat is a wet sanding and a fresh coat of UV filtering varnish. Maybe some new cane for the seat or a little polish of the brass or bronze bits. When freshly refinished, many people would assume that the boat was new.
Nick Schade of Guillemot Kayaks was up at the WoodenBoat School last year with one of his kayaks. As we prepared to go out for a paddle his shop assistant commented on how beat up the bottom was. He commented that he uses his boats and will clean them up like I described above once in a while, but that he built the boat to have fun with. From the scratches it was obvious that he did have lots of fun with it.
Still, just because you have fun with your boats, doesn't mean you don't cringe a little when you hear the formation of a new scatch.
Skin boats are a slightly different kettle of fish - they're still remarkably durable, but you do have to utilize some care - really sharp things are a problem, but for the most part, are surprisingly durable as a video in a previous post shows. I've been amazed by the durability of these boats to take a beating and not show it. I've launched my kayak on beaches with barnacle-covered rocks and debris, I've watched rocks deform the skin as I've passed over them in shallow water. I've not had a leak or a significant scratch even though I don't "baby" the boat.
So, build a beautiful wooden boat or skin boat - and use it!