Primitive Boats

vertical sail oar

“That boat’s too primitive.”

I’d been at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival for barely an hour when I overheard my neighbor make that comment about my boat. The man was sitting atop his 45-foot motor cruiser, Great Escape, looking down at the other dozen sail and oar boats lining the east end of the dock. Truth be told, he could have been referring to any of us.  

He was an older gentleman, though doubtless not old enough to be Donald Holm, who in 1974 wrote Cruising the Northwest: A Practical Guide for the Pacific Coast Boater.  I read it a few months ago, hoping to get a feel for the good old days in Puget Sound.  The book turned out to be less a cruising guide than a crotchety memoir of the construction of Holm’s dream ship.

What really surprised me about Holm was his verdict on boats like my friends’ and mine: “I really do not have much empathy with those tortured souls who must go primitive for reasons of aesthetics or ego, and eschew the use of engines or electronic aids.  As far as I am concerned, such people belong back in the eighteenth century and have no place in modern small-boat voyaging.  Philosophically, when you start to go primitive, where do you draw the line?”

In the past, I’d experienced the Festival as a place where all boaters were welcomed on their own terms, respected for the effort they put into their craft and travels. With that in mind, I determined to befriend or, at the very least, gain the respect of Bob by the end of the weekend.

sail oar at dock

I started by introducing myself and asking him more questions than I wanted to know the answers to.  Bob was polite, but reserved.  Yes, he loved his cruiser.  He supported his boating habit by working as a real estate broker.  No, the cruiser had never had any major problems.  Case closed.  There was nothing more Bob cared to say.

The next morning he saw me striding down the dock and tentatively raised a questioning finger.  I was tickled: Bob wanted to continue our conversation.

“Did you actually sleep on that thing last night?” he asked incredulously.

I bit my lip and nodded in the affirmative.  That “thing” was my prized Row Bird, a seaworthy, fun boat that I treat as almost a living creature – much as he probably treats the Great Escape.

Conversation was getting me nowhere with Bob, so I tried to set an example of good seamanship instead. I kept my eighteen-foot craft as ship shape as possible;  I stowed my gear thoughtfully in the fore and aft flotation tanks; I rolled my cockpit tent up diligently each morning and stowed my sleeping bag before leaving Row Bird.  I even hid the ugly, but functional, bailing bucket behind my centerboard trunk.  Still, Bob persisted in giving me the hairy eyeball.

As visitors came and went, more and more people crowded the dock that separated the big boats from the small.  We were messy and lived in.  There was sand wedged between the strakes of our hulls. Boots and well used charts littered our decks, and despite our best efforts to keep things neat, each morning it looked as though our boats had regurgitated all our gear. I was surprised – and maybe Bob was, too – but people seemed more fascinated by the open, honest style of the sail and oar crew than by the bigger boats nearby.   Bob observed from a distance, although I couldn’t tell whether he was intrigued or dismissive.

By the third day, Bob hadn’t visibly warmed much, but when I asked him if he was able to charge my phone aboard his cruiser, he gladly obliged.  Hours later, when he returned it, there was a twinkle in his eye.  Bob’s electrical capability had momentarily put Great Escape in the lead for best boat.  We both smiled.

“Bob,” I said, “both our boats are perfect for what we want to do.”  This time he nodded in agreement.  But in our hearts we each knew that ours was the best boat, no matter what.


17 thoughts on “Primitive Boats

  1. Hi Bruce, if you choose your sailing paths as well as the course you selected with the commodore, you’ll always come home pleased. I enjoyed talking with you at the festival about your boat, and with a couple of your friendly oar/sail neighbors. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice Great Escape. Thanks for writing the Terrapin Tales, hope you continue.

  2. Somehow, I was too busy looking at the “Primitives” to notice the gas-aholic toy-worshipper. I’d love to see him confront the challenge of reproducing his boat for himself. I suspect it is a task beyond his imagination. I would have focused on the satisfaction of sailing in a boat for which you did so much of the work on your own … with your own two hands.

  3. Good post! I’d be much more inclined to check out your sail and oar boats, for certain.

    I know large cruising boats have their place and I don’t knock others for liking them. My grandparents always had a Sea Ray in the 30-40 foot range when I was a kid and I had plenty of fun aboard. But until I’m too old to sleep on the floor of my Sea Pearl or under a tarp or tent on shore, when kayaking or canoeing, I’m sticking to the more primitive stuff. It holds a greater romance and connection to the elements for me.

  4. Hi Row Bird,

    I fish in upstate New York using a fiberglass copy of a Ben Reno row boat. We also in the past had owned a wooden Pilgrim row boat, a competitor of Ben’s in the early 1900s. I have fished extensively out of both boats.

    I recall, while fishing for trout in Keuka Lake with a Seth Green hand line rig (from the late 1800s), a covered motor boat trolling with down riggers and two portly gentlemen drinking coffee and watching for a strike. One looked at me and then turned to the other, and spoke amid the digital beeping of their fish finders. ‘What’s he doin’?’ The response was, ‘That’s the old way!’ While I have not embossed The Old Way on the wine glass transom, I have been tempted. And certainly, the boat is The Old Way in my mind.

    Keep on rowin’

  5. Enjoyed reading your article, and appreciate your all inclusive perspective.

    However, I understand but do not like these lines drawn in the sand when it comes to what one prefers over another’s preference. “To each his own”, for me, also means no need to denigrate what someone else likes. I, for example, do not like NASCAR, country music or reality TV. But neither do I sneer at or look down upon them. I happen like bigger cruising boats (I drooled over m/v Griffin!), but at the same admire and appreciate simple craft.

    I have worked in the film and TV/video industry for 25 years. It’s different now, but in the “old days” film people always looked down on video people, and video people always thought film people were arrogant. TV people were a whole different animal and could not be trusted.

    In boating I see people drawing similar lines. Wood boat folks think their boats far superior to fiberglass boats. Power boaters think sailors aren’t smart enough to get a power boat, and sailors think power boaters are rude and wasteful.

    Yes, I generalize. But in generalization there is at least a modicum of truth. I just wish people could be comfortable liking what they prefer, and respecting what others may like.

    – Darren

    1. There is something in what you say. There’s a boat for every purpose and if you’re out on the water having fun, that’s what really matters. You’ll see a story in the coming weeks (I started a year ago and never finished) called Fun Boats which, I hope speaks to that. Thanks for giving the issue such a thoughtful response.

  6. Best post evAr!

    I love and appreciate how your reaction was the civil path and leading by example. Unfortunately I do enough of that at work. Being called primitive would have probably swollen my pride to unexpected levels, and my humor would have gotten the best of me… out with me loin cloth and smear meself down with the grease! Where the bevs at!? Let the dancing begin! Woohoo! (Curmudgeon would have been graciously invited to dancing and beverages)

    Great post, again.

    1. Well, I wasn’t perfect either. By the end of the festival, a lot of my stuff just got crammed in one corner of the cockpit. It seemed that people should see how I really live, not just spiffed up for the show. At one point we almost raised my sleeping bag with the main halyard, but somehow I got the feeling it was crossing a line of indecency!

      1. It is very important for sailors to dry out the sleeping bag when the opportunity presents itself! It could be a week of soggy sleeps otherwise!

  7. I had an interesting conversation myself with someone who was truly baffled why I would suffer through the inconveniences of my own primitive boat. I couldn’t disagree with a single one of his observations about the limitations and the sacrifices needed. And yet somehow I still prefer it.

    1. I observed that “someone’ having that conversation (or was it delivering that rant?) with several of the Sail and Oar Jihadi (including Bruce). You were all more polite and constructive than he deserved. Better to be a little bit crazy and have a good time than “sane” and an annoying grump!

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