Tag Archives: rowing

Touching the Divine

PortGamble“It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul.”

—George Yeoman Pocock

From time to time I have touched the divine. I know this beyond a shadow of a doubt, though in our skeptical, narcissistic, secular materialistic age, I would be hard pressed to convince anyone of that fact.

But they have happened. They are as true as anything I know.  And one of the reasons I believe them true is that they are so unexpected: a smile from my love; the laughter of my children; the forever view from from the top of Mt. Adams; playing second trombone in the Walla Walla Symphony during a performance of “The Planets”. . .

. . . and rowing — rowing last Sunday morning across Port Gamble Bay on water smooth as whale bone to the music of a thousand birds.

But alas, as Robert Frost writes:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

It didn’t last.  But on my drive back home, I realized that those moments of near perfection shared one thing in common.  Beauty.  That seems to be the trigger.  For me, beauty in all its many forms and guises can rip the veil between this world and the next, just for a moment.

“And how does God speak to you?”
“In the language of everything that is beautiful.”
― Mark HelprinA Soldier of the Great War



The Tao of the Trombone


The other day I realized that I’ve been playing the trombone for nearly 50 years.  And during that time, it hasn’t just been my musical instrument of choice, but a teacher.  It began shaping me when I was ten-years-old, and continues to do its work even now. In our age of distraction, it reminds me every time I sit down to play or practice that the rewards from music-making increase the more time and attention I give to my horn. I can’t play for five minutes, flit onto something else, and have any hope in maintaining my chops, let alone improve them and my technique.

In other words, devoting myself to the trombone has taught me the value of discipline and delayed gratification, the value of hard and persistent effort over not just days and weeks, but months and years. I’ve learned that even mediocrity takes effort. And finally, I’ve been taught the joy of being part of a collective effort – a duo, trio, quartet, combo, band, orchestra and so – sublimating and blending my individual contribution into a large whole can at times produce something that is transcendent.

The goal is beauty. How many other activities can claim that?

In part, I suppose, I believe in God because of music. When I’ve been playing my trombone, I’ve had moments where I’ve been part of something that has been close to perfect.  At those rare moments, I’ve felt something akin to an electric charge race up my spine and been nearly overwhelmed with joy.

I suppose some scientist could explain my feelings away, dismissing it as a byproduct of some hormone or another triggered by something or other.

Bullshit, I say.

I’m convinced that those feelings are God-inspired, and in some strange mystical way, at those moments, I’m within shouting distance of the outskirts of heaven.

What I’ve also discovered is that music isn’t the only way to get there.   I’ve had the same feelings of joy rowing in an eight-man shell, racing across Lake Washington’s bone smooth water in the pink light of early morning, oars rising and falling to a cosmic rhythm. It is still a mystery to me how playing a trombone can be like rowing a Pocock-built racing shell or climbing a mountain.

I have some ideas, but there’s also joy in contemplating the mystery.







After 17 months, Gracie is done. finishedwherry

And here’s what I started with:



Unlike the celebrations and inaugural launches I’ve seen on YouTube, the inaugural launch of Gracie was low key as fitting a high functioning introvert like me.  Just Sandy and me. No marching band. No champagne. I backed my truck up to the boat launch at the Port of Kingston, pulled her off the bed extension and set her gently in the water, locked in the oars, responded to a few comments from  some fisherman, took a few photographs, and then I was off, pulling out into Appletree Cove.

It was a big moment.  And yet I felt terribly out of sorts. On one hand, I had been working hard to get her done and out on the water before summer was completely  gone. But “done” meant I had to say goodbye to a routine that had become as anticipated as a greeting from an old friend.  When I wasn’t working on my boat, I was often thinking about what I was going to do next, and when I was about to attempt something I’d never done before – and I had plenty of those with this project – I was wrestling with how in the hell I was going to do them without committing an error so egregious it would ruin everything.  The project was very nearly all consuming at times, but more importantly, it was real, unlike so much of what I do.  In other words, it’s hard to sink your teeth into web-based training courses, but my boat was something I could quite literally bite, and I certainly breathed enough of her dust when I was sanding to make darn sure she was part of me in a way that wasn’t particularly healthy.

Enjoy. It’s a fairly common word with a less commonly used worked, joy, buried inside.  But that’s the word I would use to describe every moment of this project. It was a joy from start to finish, and now I’m experiencing a different kind of joy when I take it out on the water.

Why “Gracie”

20150810_152651Here’s why.

Prep work for fiberglassing the interior of my wherry was slow and tedious. But I wanted to do it right, so I didn’t mind. I was extra careful vacuuming the interior, making sure I captured every bit of dust and debris.  The instructions were clear about the best way to lay the fiberglass out, so I grabbed Sandy, we went upstairs, stretched out the cloth on the carpet, and then I carefully rolled it up into a long tube.  Then it was back downstairs into the garage. I snaked the cloth through the bulkhead openings, and sliced the cloth so it could lay on either side of the bulkheads. Once I was done, the cloth hugged the bottom of my boat like a pair of yoga tights.

Perfect. Ready for glassing.

I mixed up the epoxy, made sure my spreaders were handy, and started at the bow.  Everything was progressing just like I expected, but as the cloth began to turn opaque to completely clear, I noticed something that made me curse under my breath. There it was, starkly visible against the beautiful mahogany-colored grain of the Okume wood.  A black dog hair.


By now, my gloves were sticky, so I pulled on a new pair, grabbed needle nose pliers, gingerly lifted up the cloth, and snagged that nefarious hair.  Mission accomplished. I smoothed the cloth back in place, resumed spreading epoxy, and then stopped once again, cursing more loudly this time.

Another dog hair!

I repeated my previous actions, wondering what I’d done wrong. I’d been so careful to vacuum the interior. How in the heck did dog hair get inside???. . . oh, crap.  It hit me like a rotten apple in the face. I was a complete moron. We picked up the dog hairs when we spread the cloth on the carpet upstairs.  And that had certain implications that made me feel sick to my stomach.  I wasn’t dealing with just one or two random hairs, but hundreds…thousands….

I took a deep breath, peeled off my gloves, fired up the shop vac, and proceeded to vacuum the cloth and the interior of the wherry once again.  It was all I could think to do.  Once I was done, I resumed fiberglassing.  I came across more dog hairs, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I got the ones I could; left the ones I couldn’t get at.

And by now, I was even kind of laughing about it.

I love our black barrio dog, Gracie. Sandy saved her from certain death, and she’s been the best dog, best friend I could ever imagine.  And someday in the not too distant future, she’s going to die. But she won’t be forgotten.  Not by me. Every time I hop into my wherry for a row, and notice a black dog hair forever preserved beneath clear varnish and epoxy, I’m going to think of our Gracie girl.  And who knows, a million years from now, some distant ancestor may dig up my fossilized wherry, and discover black dog hair forever preserved, like a mosquito in amber, and wonder how the heck a canine with no hands managed to build and row that boat.

So, it was fate.

My wherry just had to be named after our black dog, Gracie.





Back working on Gracie

Finally, wherrythe temperatures have warmed up enough to begin working on my wherry again.  I finished sanding the first coat of epoxy on the interior last Sunday.  Except for adding the rails, my wherry is complete (I’ll buy the Piantedosi sliding seat rig separately and it will just bolt in place).  Now it is just a matter of finding the time to apply three coats of epoxy, at least three coats of varnish, and then primer and at least three coats of paint to the exterior hull.  There will be sanding in between each coats, so I’m probably 9 weekends away from being done. Not that I’m complaining As weird as it sounds, I am enjoying the detail work, sanding the nooks and crannies as smooth as I can get them, running my fingers along the surfaces to check how everything feels, while imagining those moments soon to be when I’ll be out on skimming over water smooth as glass.

A Wherry called “Delayed Gratification”. . . or maybe “Ruby”

The world seems to be going to hell.

Reason enough, I decided, to build a rowboat.  A wherry to be specific, from a kit supplied by a company called, Chesapeake Light Craft.  Here’s a photo of what it will look like when I’m done:


I must confess I’m old enough to remember a few other times when the world seemed like it was going to hell.  There were the assassinations and riots of the 60’s. I was playing touch football with my friends when Bobby Kennedy was shot.  We stopped the game for a moment and listened while somebody’s mom told us the news, and then went back to our game. During the 70s, the atomic bomb-carrying B52s that regularly flew low and menacing over my home town were an ever present reminder that hell was just one stupid mistake from becoming a reality.  Ronald Reagan dominated the 80s, and I suppose that was enough to make it hell for some people, particularly Manuel Noriega.  I wonder if Manuel is still alive in prison somewhere?

Fast forward to now.

The Middle East is once again in turmoil (not that I can ever recall it “not” being in turmoil), and the list of “bad guys” seems all too familiar. Take your pick: Russians, Iranians, North Koreans, and certain members of certain college fraternities. And though it isn’t politically correct, certainly some flavors of Muslims should be on the list, but not all Muslims, only the bad ones who go around beheading people, though there seem to be good Muslims, the Saudis, for example, who do that, too. Of course, they’re on our side, and don’t support, at least overtly, all those mobs of dark-eyed, scraggily-bearded men, shaking their fists and shouting death to America, death to Israel, and death Mickey Mouse.  Okay, maybe they don’t want Mickey Mouse dead, but they don’t like Las Vegas, and that’s close to the same thing, right?  Add to this witch’s brew the crisis called global warming (or climate change, if you prefer), the budget deficit, the ongoing disaster that is healthcare in this country, antibiotic resistant bugs, overweight and diabetic dogs and cats, the fascist gym teachers who force kids to play dodge ball, the disparity between rich and poor, the national scandal caused by those tens of thousands of gay-owned bakeries refusing to make wedding cakes for  fundamentalist Christians (or is it the other way around and maybe it isn’t thousands, but one or two?). . ..and on and on.

This is my long-winded way of saying it is all very confusing because virtually everything I’m supposed to be freaked about is outside of my control.  In response, I’ve decided to do something that some might consider absurd: build a wherry. More to the point, I’ve decided to build something that I hope will be beautiful, which maybe is even more absurd.

I certainly don’t expect my wherry-building to change any of the issues that NPR, FoxNews, and the long list of bloggers, experts and professional bloviators seem to think I need to care about. But I think it’ll change me – just a little bit. That’s what I’m hoping, anyway.  And it may change some of the people who want to help me out or stop by to have a beer and watch. You’d be surprised at how many acted like kids at Christmas when I told them what I was doing.

In the meantime, I’ll be posting from time to time about my progress and what I may be learning along the way. If everything goes as planned, I expect the wherry and a draft of my new novel will be done right about the same time.

Of course, in my world, things rarely go as planned.