This piece was a love letter to the Dolphin Club, the old waterfront swimming and boating establishment – old in San Francisco years – at the very end of Fisherman’s Wharf, next to Aquatic Park. The folks of the Dolphin are lovely and real, friendly and egalitarian, comprising old red-diaper radicals and young dot-com moguls. I cooked for the Tuesday night festivities over many years when I lived on the Bay. I miss those guys.
Tuesday is boat night at the Dolphin Club. Ten or twenty people show up at six or seven to maintain the fleet of lovely little Whitehall pulling boats. The time passes easily with small woodworking chores and the group specialty – five to ten workers laying varnish on a single boat.
Varnish is not paint. Paint is its own surface, a foil for light. It conceals what’s beneath. One thinks of the cautious military dictum, “If it moves, salute it; if it don’t, paint it.” Paint is surface by fiat, a chosen color to hide and hopefully protect the material beneath. A can of paint is an opaque barrier waiting to occupy area. Indoors, it’s decoration; outdoors, it’s a stopgap.
Varnish doesn’t cover but becomes. Wood beneath varnish takes on another identity. It doesn’t become “wet wood” but is transformed, intensified. Varnish is wood’s transubstantiation: it is lifted up to another level of being and speaks for the life of the tree, the hand of the woodworker, the edge of his tools. Vanish can’t disguise. But at its best, it can make a simple plane of wood vibrate with color and assume a depth that didn’t exist before the varnish met and became part of the wood.
It’s also hard as hell to put on well. It’s fussy, reluctant stuff, something like the snot of angels, and it is unforgiving. The varnisheer strokes smoothly under a frown of concentration, “flowing” the viscous gel onto the wood, dreading holidays and curtains (holidays are pitifully dry patches you only thought you brushed; curtains are the wavy gravity droopings of too much varnish in one vertical place.) Drizzles, sprinkles, stray brush hairs, airborne dust, a sneeze or a pet can destroy an hour’s work.
Varnish is a sect of marine religion with many priests and many professions of faith. Each priest worships his One True Varnish – McCloskey Man O’ War, Z-Spar Flagship Grade, Epifanes, Interlux Schooner, Regatta, Awl-Spar and the fallen prophet Callahan’s Chiltered Varnish. Each priest’s altar is attended with time-hallowed rites but all agree on one tenet of faith: layer after layer after layer, fine-sanded between coats, building up a translucent shell that is only a whisper by micrometer but a deep well of light by eye.
Now consider our subject: a twelve foot boat constructed of overlapping planks copper-riveted to steambent wooden ribs. Literally thousands of corners, edges, cusps. One soul might sand it in a day or two. He might varnish it in a day, and take another day to sand and a day to varnish again. And again. A scourging task.
But there are many of us. In two hours of pleasant chat and busy work we can surround a boat like bees around a queen and sand every surface or, as we do this night, varnish them. Under the line of bright floodlights varnisheers with a more oblique perspective on the far-side hands’ work, call out holidays and curtains. Cautions pass back and forth, the work progresses and we complete it without any cheering or toasting (it’s only one coat, remember). We do a gentle clean-up – no dusty sweeping after the varnishing has started – and it’s time for our Tuesday night communal dinner.
After we finish I step across to the other end of the workshop to have a little gloat.
Early in the evening I’d done a small task for another Whitehall. One of its inner, longitudinal oak ribands had been refastened with a dozen new screws. These weren’t household screws. They were shaped and machined from adamantine silicon bronze – more like fine jewelry than a ten-penny nail. The wood was prepared for each screw with a narrow boring for the screw shaft and threads, a sloping countersink seat so the screw’s head would lay flush, and a bore-hole above it a hair wider than the screw head. My task was to plug the holes over the screws. With a plug-cutting bit on the drill press I made oak plugs, rolled them in glue and tapped them into the holes, lining up the grain of the plug with the grain of the surrounding wood. When the glue finally set, the plug above the wood surface would be shaved flush with a wood chisel.
I know this sounds obsessive. Landsmen take jobs like this as a proof that sailors are nuts. “They start with rust-proof, everything-proof screws, more expensive than Kobe beef, and then fool around for hours, putting every damn screw in a little wooden tomb so it doesn’t show. A waste of good beer-drinking time.”
But here I stand, looking at the line of protruding plugs I’d made. Those fussy little plugs bring the strange structure of the entire boat into focus for me.
The plugs were flat necessity. They didn’t cover the screws. They covered the hole. What landsmen might not recognize is that every line in this self-contained world of curves and corners was designed to angle water aside. Never to hold it. Whenever fresh water lingers longer than a few minutes, it brews a culture of microbes that attack the cellular structure of the wood. Dry rot. And dry rot creates its own punky home and culture to spread. The wood loses its strength. Holes over the screws, even in the tiny cuts of its screwdriver slot, would inevitably diminish the boat’s integrity. The oak plugs, expanding and contracting at the same rate as the oak riband, aren’t decorative but prophylactic. The matrix of this whole boat is so fragile and so interconnected that a little patch of rot might destroy it.
Every part of making this perfectly shaped little cockleshell was fussy, antiquated, odd. And yet every step was as imperviously practical as the silicone bronze screws.
Because the job was no less difficult than constructing a concrete eggshell. How do you build such an insubstantial structure and expect it to retain its hydrodynamically perfect shape? The white cedar strakes between the boater and the Bay are a hair over a quarter of an inch thick – a little thicker than tongue depressors, but not as thick as a lead pencil. A six-year-old could pick up either end of the twelve foot craft, and yet it is as rigid and faithfully true as an axe handle.
The antiquarian boat I was servicing (I stood in the old literal sense of the word bosun, the “boat’s swain”) was a triumph of low-tech, a beautiful benchmark of old fashioned fashioning.
Long, thin cedar planks are whippy, limp things. You can wave them like noodles. But when they’re bonded together in a complex shape, all those damnable little edges and corners – so wickedly difficult to varnish – make them rigid. The steambent locust-wood ribs aren’t as thick as your little finger. They’re stiffer than the cedar but before you steam them into arches they’re just more noodles. They don’t make shape; they merely lock the relative position of the shape-holding planks together.
Low tech. Quarter-inch cedar strakes can’t be nailed together. They’re too thin for screw-threads to grab hard. No, these are held by ancient copper rivets and washers, clamping from both sides. Rivets are the only items that will work. You don’t see fastenings like this on cars or washing machines. Oddly, you still see them on airplanes (whisper-thin sheets of aluminum riveted together).
The Whitehall’s shape is both form and structure. It’s braced by the deceptively simple seats. Shapes of mahogany like the transom and bow clamp that seem decorative are structural knees. The lyrically swooping rhythm of the cedar strakes that might appear profligately decorative are practical (but no less beautiful) strength. Ancient tech, antique boat, unexpected complexity.
Chairs are scuffling, china and flatware are tinkling out in the boat shed space. Time to eat.
But there is the sleek body of the just-varnished Whitehall glowing gold under the lights. A new thing that isn’t new.
Our notion of natural creation is a hidden process, a belly growing while life assembles itself in the salt-water dark. I waited nine long months for my granddaughter to get all made. Then there she was, better than I expected, familiar and strange at the same time, with my daughter’s chin and maybe my forehead and other subtle hallmarks of Us. Gloria Zinnia is the way we reproduce ourselves.
Yet here is the Whitehall, both beautiful and familiar.
I begin to think that Dr. Frankenstein got a bad rap. He assembled life in the open, starting with old parts and ideas, putting together the strongest pieces he could find. Bad luck that Igor picked the weird brain from the row of brain jars. The good doctor stitched them all together in the air, not inside any mysterious belly. The doctor didn’t try to hide the joints; they were staked out with workmanlike stitches. He insisted, a bit crudely, that it take on life with a gigajolt of electricity from the storm. His method of creation was new from old. Perhaps that vessel of his hopes laid on the castle slab was, for him, a remarkable beauty, gleaming under the lab lights, lyric with the rhythm of the bandage strakes, wrapped and wrapped, not unlike the rhythm of these cedar strakes.
We breathe new life into these old boats, steaming a new rib now and then, riveting the structure with fresh fastenings, firming up a riband with new screws, cutting out dead wood. We’re dutiful Igors trying to pick the right brain jar for John Belinski, our boatwright.
A fresh thought appears. As we said in New England, “Light dawns on Marblehead.” The varnish is not boat vanity but part of its structure. Paint hides. Varnish reveals. I remember some dry rot we cut out of another boat. We knew where it was because the varnish showed its dark, microbial stain like evil. Our fussily laid-on varnish glorifies the wood, but only as an aside. It isn’t covering as much as revealing. We are expecting evil and planning for it. We’ll know it when we see it.
I hope I can do the same for Gloria, to see the missteps when there’s plenty of time to correct them.
It seems nearly impossible but these lithe, youthful boats are old. Several were built before 1900, several in the 1930’s. They retain youth because we expect occasional failure without alarm. There it is: we fix it.
Maybe Dr. Frankenstein had less hubris than we assumed. Maybe he knew that his method of creation was not organic but provisional and synthetic, so he made his stitches plain enough to reveal incipient rot in time to cut it out. Perhaps he was more aware of his shortcomings and the damn near infinite number of things that can go wrong. His little gloat over the castle slab, before the storm and the gigajolt, might have been less smug than our Dolphin Club varnish pride. And I wonder whether John Belinski sees the integrity of his creation as bravely sound or just temporary, good enough for now, since age and rot are inevitable.
I don’t get my barbecued salmon right away. I walk through the kitchen and onto the dock. The Dolphin Club has a real catbird seat on the Bay – Alcatraz and Angel Island directly in front the dock and off to the west the whole span of the Golden Gate Bridge. I look at the bridge for a bit, appreciating how beauty grows naturally (but not organically) out of structure.
But now it’s time to eat. Creation is a hungry business.