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Originally published May 3, 2013 at 9:59 AM | Page modified May 3, 2013 at 12:09 PM

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The rewards of small boats

No mechanical contrivances intervene between the natural forces acting on the boat, and the human mind and muscles at the controls.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Looks so tranquil and relaxing. Did my first course last fall, this article and the... MORE
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ROWING CONTRARILY against the tidal current of American culture, I am here to argue the case for small boats. What I won't do is thrash through the obvious — that small boats are less expensive to buy and keep, less hassle to maintain and less harmful to the environment. We all know this. We know it is equally true of houses, yet it doesn't move us to build smaller ones.

Small boats offer rewards that reach deeper than these practical concerns.

I should start by showing you around my boat, Nil Desperandum, which means "nothing to worry about." Sam Devlin of Olympia designed it. While building it, I adopted the name as a bluff, trying to avert sleepless nights. (Didn't work.) Just under 19 feet long, this is a real cruising sailboat with a cabin and sleeping accommodations for two. There is room inside to sit up but not to stand. The head is a breadbox-sized plastic potty in a secret compartment. Outside, the cockpit has room for four friendly adults, but if the wind kicks up I will rather urgently order three of us to scrunch together on the windward side to keep the mast pointed at the sky and not at the salmon.

N.D. sports a gaff rig, a four-sided mainsail popular a century ago. Only two devices aboard would cause a 19th-century sailor any bewilderment: the small gasoline outboard and the depth sounder. Apart from these, there's nothing built into the boat that's any mystery or bother: no plumbing, no galley, no electronics. To navigate, there's a chart and compass. No mechanical contrivances intervene between the natural forces acting on the boat, and the human mind and muscles at the controls. I steer by a tiller directly attached to the rudder, not a wheel sending messages through cables and gears. Tighten the jib a smidge? I tug in the jibsheet by hand, rather than cranking a winch.

For obvious reasons, an amateur boatbuilder like me is wise to think small and simple rather than large and ambitious. What isn't so obvious are the benefits of nautical minimalism that appear after the boat is completed and out on the water in everyday use.

A small boat places its skipper and crew in the arms of the marine environment as much as in a life-sustaining cradle. Every small change in the water and air affects us, not necessarily to the good, so we become acutely aware of the ecosystem in its entirety. A kayaker, who enjoys a profoundly intimate relationship with the water, may even feel merged with the watercraft, and the boat-person becomes a kind of honorary sea mammal: a creature of the water, not on it.

There is, of course, a limit to the intimacy a human in a small boat will want to have with the marine environment, based on prudence and tolerance for risk. I have a lot of the former and not much of the latter. I do not dream of sailing Nil Desperandum to Hawaii, nor even across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In general, large boats are safer than small boats in big water. But you scale your adventure to the practical capabilities of your boat. Our mostly sheltered Salish Sea offers a world of variety and an ideal small-boat environment. If you have to run for cover, you're rarely more than two or three miles from some form of shelter. Nil Desperandum has a retracting keel, and if I needed to, I could drive it onto a beach. Try that with a 40-foot yacht.

THREE SHORT stories that illuminate a range of relationships with small boats:

Al Williamson commutes daily from his Bainbridge Island home to his Seattle job as assistant manager of the West Point Wastewater Treatment Plant adjacent to Discovery Park. Rain, fog, cold, early-winter darkness — weather doesn't deter him from his 23-foot aluminum skiff unless it's "a really bad day," in which case he'll reluctantly take the ferry.

Williamson at first will tell you that his reason for small-boat commuting is efficiency. "On a day when I have flat water I can make it in 8 ½ minutes," he says. "The same trip can take two or three hours by ferry, counting the waiting and driving."

But press him further and it's obvious his small-boat commute isn't really about saving time.

"I've been doing this for 30 years. I'm on my fourth boat, seventh or eighth motor. I do it year around. I've seen just about all the conditions you can see out there, been rescued a few times.

"The best part of my day is the commute, without a doubt. It gets my mind off whatever hectic stuff we have going on here at work. Sometimes in summer I'll throw the hook out and catch dinner on my way home. Sometimes it's so beautiful I don't quite want to go home; I'll just pass Eagle Harbor and keep on going for a while."

Heard a story like that from an Interstate 5 commuter?

Melissa Denny bought her 15-foot sailboat Dance Me in 2009 and didn't tell her husband about it for three months.

The Port Ludlow couple already owned a medium-sized sailboat, a 33-footer Denny's husband, Skip, then lived on during his workweek in Seattle. But Melissa craved the independent responsibility of having her own boat, and even more, the internal credentials of being able to maintain it and sail it competently by herself. She parked Dance Me at a friend's dock, booked sailing lessons with another friend, and hatched a plan to sail out and surprise Skip in Port Ludlow Bay as he headed toward home some Friday evening. But he kept working late, "And I thought, I don't know, maybe getting run over in the dark by my own husband isn't a great idea."

After three months, she finally took him to see her boat. "He just started laughing," she recalls. "He said, 'I knew you were hiding something. I just didn't know it was a boat.' "

The next September, Denny sailed Dance Me to the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend, and although it was among the more modest boats in the show, people heard about her story, and a steady stream flocked to visit. "I think it just tweaked people's curiosity, especially women," she says.

Denny's story might be taken as a feminist parable. Or it could be a more elemental illustration of something about small boats that attracts us all, regardless of gender. It's increasingly difficult to feel independently competent about anything in our overcomplicated civilization today. We don't understand our computers, our cars, or the income-tax code. We need a cadre of specialists just to cope with everyday life. But a small boat, whether propelled by oars or paddles, sail or a small motor, remains a pretty simple system, within an ordinary person's reach to learn everything there is to know about it. That's rewarding far out of proportion to the boat's restrained cost.

Dave Robertson builds small boats for a living, and he has no desire to graduate either to larger boats or a larger life. At 65, he's finally convinced of the value of right proportions.

Robertson built his first small boat, an ultralight dinghy for his 30-foot sailboat, in the 1970s. Other boaters began asking for copies, and Robertson built them as a sideline while still working "massive hours" managing a steel mill. In the 1980s his father left a small inheritance. Robertson recalls saying to his wife, "We can either use this to buy a new car, or use it as collateral on a new life." They incorporated as Gig Harbor Boat Works in 1987.

Robertson was launching his boatbuilding enterprise, perversely, after a good many others had concluded that small boats were unprofitable.

Mass-produced fiberglass boats first appeared in the 1950s, and for the first couple of decades, small ones swarmed the market. They sparked the populist explosion in recreational boating. But then the small-boat market began to saturate, and manufacturers figured out that it was better to build a small number of large boats than a large number of small boats. The larger the boat, the more it will accommodate profitable complications.

You'll often hear boaters, sailors especially, paying theoretical tribute to simplicity. A popular adage, ruefully deployed by owners who've just traded up to something bigger and now find themselves marooned in the marina on Saturday, wrench in hand: "The time spent sailing is inversely proportional to the size of the boat." It's remarkably prescient.

Ed Monk Sr., one of Seattle's most respected boat designers of the 20th century, talked a game of simplicity. "He felt that if you didn't put it aboard, then it didn't weigh anything, it didn't take any room, and it never broke down," his son, Ed Monk Jr., once said. Yet Monk's reputation rests mainly on motor yachts of 35 feet and up, which illustrates the commercial boatbuilder's eternal conundrum — and the values our culture has chosen to celebrate.

But Dave Robertson had scoped out a niche, and he appears to have thrived by staying within it. His company today employs five people, four of them family members, and builds about 70 boats a year. There are nine models from 8 to 17 feet, most available in rowing or sailing configurations or both, and base prices range from around $1,300 to $10,000. Although these are simple boats, designed for maintenance with a minimum of fuss, Robertson does not feel bound to tradition. Among other innovations he's designed is an ingenious lever-and-pivot rowing system that allows a rower to face forward.

"What I stress with all our boats is the best balance between simplicity and versatility," Robertson says. "I don't want to oversimplify to the point where it becomes a toy."

At the same time, he doesn't want any more to do with larger boats.

"I've sailed to Hawaii on a 50-footer, and I've sailed Gig Harbor Bay in a 10-footer. The bigger the boat, the more it masks the feeling of being on the water. If you're sailing a small boat, you ease the mainsheet a couple of inches, you feel the boat drop in a groove. In a big boat you can be sailing poorly and not recognize it. Unless you've got an identical sister ship right next to you, you don't know if you're sailing well or not."

Robertson admits that a good part of his love for small boats is his craving to be in complete control, not an uncommon tic of character among small-boat enthusiasts. "If I'm on a cruise ship," he says, "I'm crazy because they won't let me drive."

ABOARD A SMALL boat, of course, we're never in absolute control. When things go south, they can do so quickly and frighteningly, if for no other reason than that the forces in the environment are so much larger than the boat.

Last September I was sailing Nil Desperandum from Whidbey Island to Port Townsend. As we were crossing the Puget Sound shipping lanes, the wind died. I started the electric motor I then had on the boat. A few minutes later it died, too. With container ships plying the two half-mile-wide lanes at 20 knots, this was a for-real emergency. At that speed, a ship covers a nautical mile (1.15 statute miles) every three minutes. And there was a long, dark speck on the northern horizon.

I used our handheld VHF radio to notify the Coast Guard of our position, then my wife, Patty, and I grabbed the emergency paddles we keep stowed in the cabin. A 2,000-pound sailboat does not cheerfully submit to paddling, but fear is a mighty fuel, and we were able to nudge the boat across the lanes. It took 45 minutes, though, and it was just luck that the speck had been a ship turning north, apparently, toward Vancouver.

A small boat teaches humility, which is no bad thing. It might be the most important quality to build on as we renovate our attitude toward the natural world, which I believe is the most pressing issue of the century we're now in.

A large boat addresses its environment with confidence. The larger it is, and the more powerful, the more its confident bearing bleeds into bravado and arrogance. I see a lot of attitude on luxury yachts, where swoopy, look-at-me styling trumps common-sense physics. With enough horsepower you can push through anything — until the day the ocean decides it's seen enough of this nonsense and demonstrates what power is all about.

The small-boat experience may leak into other arenas of interaction with the world. In "Small Is Beautiful," the radical economist E.F. Schumacher wrote: "When a thing is intelligible you have a sense of participation; when a thing is unintelligible you have a sense of estrangement." Increasingly I think this applies not only to systems of human devising — my boat and that tax code, again — but also to the environment. When we begin to see ourselves as participants rather than spectators, we'll begin solving the problems.

Although I enjoy navigating against it, I remain a product of my culture, and OK, I admit I sometimes drift into daydreams of larger boats. Wouldn't it be nice to have a cabin one could stand up and walk around in? Wouldn't it be more notable to have built a majestic schooner than a cute little sloop? Yes, and of course.

But "majestic" is by definition something that stands apart, and there is something inherently more satisfying in belonging: a rightness, a completeness, a good fit. And the more gracefully we fit into something, whether a boat or a particular place on Earth, such as Puget Sound and the land around it, the more likely we are to give it the care it deserves.

Lawrence W. Cheek, former architecture critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, is a freelance writer. Greg Gilbert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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