On building a boat

I just returned from a nine-day boat building workshop in Den Helder (a port town to the north of Amsterdam). During the workshop, I worked with L (at the start of his boat building career) and A & M (two experienced boat guys) under the leadership of Bert, a 70-year old master boatbuilder for whom this was the last workshop. I was definitely the least-experienced guy there. For most of the time, it was also in Dutch, which resulted in an  “immersive” experience.

The process began with a weekend of “lofting” (uitslaan) a life-size drawing of the boat’s dimensions from the designer’s scale drawings. This step…

Lofting. Note the heavy bronze whales used to hold the batten (lat) in place.
  • Helps you understand the scale of the final boat in two-dimensions
  • Uses some pretty sophisticated drafting and scaling techniques (the drawings need to show the boat from above, side and head-on), which allow everyone to see if the lines are where they should be (so a double-check on transcription errors). Here’s a nice video on lofting from a great YT series on boat building.
  • Allows the boat builder to make forms (malen) that are used to cut wood to the right shape.
The boat (upside down) is taking shape, with the bottom and two sets of planks set on the frames (still set into their forms).

A few weeks later, I came back to help with building the boat (a Shelbourne Dory, btw). In the meantime, Bert had made forms from the drawings that we used to make the frames (spanten) of the boat, i.e., gluing strips of wood with epoxy to make thicker, curving parts, in seven sections. The frames determine the shape of the hull, so that step is really important.

I won’t go into the many many steps, occasional corrections, and interesting conversations that peppered our nine days of building. Instead, I want to give some “meta” thoughts on the process, which I started to take very seriously while reading Shopclass as Soulcraft [my review], i.e.,

  • “First-hand learning” takes place when you set your hands on the topic and do it yourself. In our university classroom it’s common to have fourth-hand learning (textbooks tell you about what others have done).* First-hand learning is far more powerful, in terms of feedback and muscle memory, and I use it as often as possible when teaching.
  • We all had different levels of experience, which is troublesome if there’s some formal hierarchy, but (blue collar) workers of all sorts have known for centuries that everyone — from apprentice (me) to master (Bert) — can contribute, that teaching leads to learning and insight for everyone, and that team work is much more about helping than skills.
  • Goals help everyone stay focussed. We had a boat to build, and everything that advanced that process was welcome. In the office, it’s sometimes hard to identify any goal, let alone decide how to organize around multiple goals. The growth of bullshit jobs as well as the malign influences of social media and polarized politics has undermined teamwork in offices, to the detriment of mental health, productivity and cooperation/collaboration with outsiders. “Teambuilding” exercises are no cure for these ills, as they are designed to be “inclusive,” which means that nobody is challenged, no mistakes are possible, and the output is nebulous (yay — we built a sand castle). A boat needs to float and nobody gives any fucks about whether its builders felt “validated” in the process of making it.
Everyone can contribute to a clear outcome.
  • Teams need a leader, to help direct, reconcile and decide among different perspectives and techniques. Leadership does not mean wielding the hammer of discipline as much as bringing out the best of people, to advance to the goal. Team leaders need to know who can do what, which requires first-hand observation rather than third-hand data (e.g., student evaluations that tell you how the teaching went), let alone fourth-hand data (summaries of those evaluations by “experts”). It’s pretty clear to me that Bert learned far more about my work skills (after 60+ hours of working together over nine days) than my old boss learned about my teaching in five years. Annual evaluations are kinda useless when you’ve not even observed my teaching for one hour in five years!
  • The casual side of “work” was indirectly helpful. People wondered in and out of the shop (it was used by many boat people), asking questions, giving suggestions, and just encouraging us. Lunch and coffee breaks (totalling about 90 min/day), gave everyone a chance to step back, refresh, and see the work with refreshed eyes. Breaks were very useful after things went wrong, as it’s sometimes better to reflect rather than bash on. Breaks were also the time that we would tell stories and discuss topics ranging from politics to money to relationships to boats and sailing. They gave us insights into each other’s lives and perspectives — the basic ingredients to friendship and sympathy — which resulted in the sort of camaraderie that one can see among any workers in the trades, factories, teams, and so on. Big groups, like big companies, cannot build those relations due to prioritization of output and efficiency. The Luddites were right.
  • Who needs to drive to the gym (!) when you’re doing physical work all day. There’s a limit to one’s endurance (I can understand why manual workers want to retire in their 50s), but there’s also a benefit of using your body and your mind together, often achieving flow.
  • In the end, we made a boat together. We started with plans and logic, balanced precision and adaptation, and kept our eyes on the prize:
The boat (not named) as we left it. It still needs a lot of finishing (seats, floorboards, rudder, etc.) but it’s well on its way to the water!

My one-handed conclusion is that we (office workers) definitely need to do physical team-work if we’re going to see the best of our fellow humans. Yes, we have weaknesses. Yes, we make mistakes and sometimes fail to live up to higher principles. But those faults are not nearly so “toxic” when they can be weighed against other aspects of our humanity.

*I can’t find a good reference for “handed” learning, but my memory of what I heard is (roughly):

First hand: You do it yourself (learning by doing).
Second hand: You watch someone else do it (learning by observation).
Third hand: Someone tells you how they did it (learning by imagination).
Fourth hand: Someone tells you how someone else did it (learning by abstraction).


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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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