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Cruising and the nature of work

A new year brings new musings, and a chance encounter with a rather good radio show gave me occasion to think of the very different skills I am acquiring as an aspirant cruiser, versus the sort of skills that I have acquired in order to pay for our sailing enterprise in the first place.

Sailors do a lot of work, first to ready the boat and then to keep it in good order underway. It is home, castle, saferoom and transport, and the sea is a harsh mistress indifferent to the fate of even the stoutest vessels. So we sailors work and toil in conditions of frequent shortages of money, parts, the proper tools or easy access points. We contort, squirm and sweat, and often we have to jury-rig (a nautical term) a solution that must endure until we tie off to some distant dock. We must be resourceful, creative or rich. Sometimes and rich.

And yet it doesn't seem like work to most sailors of my fellowship. Part of that, I think, is that even more than on land, the relation of cause and effect, problem and solution, the fault and its repair, is quite immediate on the sea. You fix the thing, if you have the will, the skill and the spare, and you resume operations, with perhaps an extra ounce of rum in the evening's sundowner...assuming you're not on watch.

I have earned my living as a writer, publication designer of the desktop variety and, at various times, a marketer, a publisher, a media producer and so on. The last job I had that could be described as "working class" was as a bicycle courier at the end of the 1980s, and while that kept me fit and certainly honed my navigation skills, it was a stop-gap, a rent-payer, a commission job, and not a career, although I know of people, very lean people, who've done it for decades.

Everything in my social milieu suggested that white-collar, or at least "creative", was the way to go. Nothing in my experience, even having an ex-Merchant Marine sailor for a father, suggested that I should learn a trade or master at least one hands-on craft.

Getting a century house in 1997 and an aging sailboat in 1999 changed all that, primarily because economy and a lingering sense of unfounded pride led me to the "do it yourself" ethos. Now, this is easier for people who've inherited most of their furniture...I can't yet dovetail together more than the most feeble of carpentry projects...but I have had to learn plumbing, wiring, framing, drywall and insulating for the house, and winch maintenance, rigging, sail repair, engine rebuilding, more plumbing, wiring, soldering and fibreglassing for the boat. Throw in the various things steel boat owners need to know, including the somewhat occult topics of galvanic corrosion and isolation, and I am becoming, almost via osmosis, "handy".

I wasn't handy growing up. My late father wasn't particularly handy, or I would've noticed inheriting a less modest set of tools, or would've possessed memories of less haphazard maintenance in my childhood home beyond putting in the occasional light fixture or fuse. But I have to be handy, now and into the future, if that future includes going offshore. Pots of money for "marine labour" won't help me in the middle of the sea. Cruising sailors beyond the reach of a mobile phone have to understand and in many cases be able to repair (or work without) most parts of their boat's systems. And yet the gradual acquisition of whatever modest repair, diagnostic and related "trades" skills has not been onerous in the least, despite its dread necessity. It's been..engaging. Stimulating. Fun. I seem to have a knack, or at least, the ability not to lose fingers or eyes. Yet. The beer at the end of the day isn't for "stress relief"'s because I earned it, and I am thirsty, and it is time to rest.

Coming to a necessary mechanical aptitude post-youth does evoke a certain pride and sense of accomplishment less common in my experience as part of a corporate or otherwise digitally-mediated process. Perhaps I sense the presence of the ghosts of my ironmonging, mining and otherwise callused ancestors, but hauling out engines, grinding steel and not often injuring myself in the process is both new and exciting in the way that a really bang-on InDesign layout job just...isn't.

So a philosopher-mechanic's ponderings on the joys of work-smeared hands found in me a great resonance.

Thank you, sailing lifestyle, for the pleasure of random labour. It is not, and will never be, without its frustrations, but I have discovered a tinkering, improving and repairing instinct I barely knew I possessed, the need to do much more than keep a bicycle greased hardly existing in my life before my late 30s.

I'm passing on the links should readers wish to hear them and to understand the above ramblings.

And here's a transcript of a book made free by the first interviewee, a fairly impressive fellow named Seth Godin.

I found the second interview, about the longing for work involving the hands and the value that our increasingly "digital" and, some might say, decreasingly physically competent, society puts on mechanical skills and how this can affect our personal sense of volitional "agency". This is not airy-fairy speculation, but rather the ideas of a fellow who left a Washington thinktank directorship to run a one-man motorcycle restoration shop...and then wrote a book about work and personal satisfaction


bljones said...

Spot on about taking pride in learning, and more importantly, implementing constructive skills. As a slightly reformed intellectual snob, I find I take much more pride in the stuff that I have built rather than the stuff I have thought. As I look around my home, my cars and my boats, i can see the learning curve; my earliest projects were done with minimal tools and even less skill- as time passed, skills improved and tools were acquired, the fit and finish has improved and the time invested has dropped dramatically. I realized that "good enough" wasn't, and if I didn't have the time and money to do it right the first time, when would I have the time and money to do it again?
Ovver the Christmas holiday, i received an unexpected but pleasing compliment. My father, the guy I have always held up as my unattainable benchmark for home handymanhood, complimented me on a piece of furniture I had designed and built, then asked me to make him one. Huh.

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

Rhys said...

BJ, thanks for the comments.

Crew of s/v Island Bound said...

Well said. I too have found inner-pride in my adult life while taking care of our sailboat. Great blog...I look forward to reading more!