Monday, February 18, 2013

That Old Hawsepipe is Getting Smaller Every Day...

 Hawse-pipe: A ship’s hawsepipe is the pipe passing through the bow section of a ship that the anchor chain passes through.

In this modern age in which we reside, we're very accustomed to technology and innovation that make improvements in the way that we all work and live. Advances in the way materials are manufactured and increased knowledge in how things work have created new jobs, made our lives safer and given rise to specialized occupations.


Today, there remain very few trades where the traditional skills are still passed on from a master to an apprentice. In fact, with modernization, many jobs have been made irrelevant or at best, greatly lessened in their perceived value.

Trust me, I am no Luddite.  I have a sensible appreciation for all the new-fangled stuff that comes along. I just wonder occasionally, if we have not perhaps lost sight of what the word "progress" really means. 

This affinity for the traditional approach may have a great deal to do with my upbringing. I was raised in a theater family; my father was a scene designer who trained under the old masters. His graduate work entailed drafting the illustrations for Arnold Gillette’s “Stage Scenery” and researching details for an updated edition of Oscar Brockett’s “History of the Theater” --classics amongst theater students anywhere. My father pressed me into service at age eleven or twelve; teaching me to paint drops and flats with dried pigment and animal glue… three and four-color wet blends that left little room for error, (or bathroom breaks)!

These old-school techniques were taught by the master painter over the course of years to his pupils; who in turn, passed it on to their students. At the time I figured it must have been for the sake of free child labor on my dad’s part. I now realize that my father wanted me to experience the gift of these old masters. As the years went on, while I worked in professional theater and film, this realization hit home harshly. Nobody knew what these methods were, nor did they have any use for them. Only a few of the senior Charge Painters remembered the traditional practices. They’d patronizingly call them “old-school” and shrug off any suggestions that referred to the use of a supposedly out-dated option. Soon, very soon, these traditional scenic art styles will have disappeared.

My recent career as a medical assistant and childbirth professional brought this paradox into crystal clear focus. Modern technology and advances have raised our standard of living to outstanding heights, however, just because we can do something—does that mean we actually should do it? I participated in many new procedures which aided in deliveries and eased the patient’s discomfort… and yet I witnessed far too many unnecessary cesarean-sections and interventions in childbirth than I’d care to recall. There is an unquestionable need for balance and good sense in this particular field as progress duals with conventional wisdom.

I can see the same story playing out in my current occupation--in the maritime world. As a relative 'nautical neophyte', I make no claim to pass judgement here. Rather, I witness with a fresh perspective, the battle between innovation and traditions.


Last year, Jeffery spent several months helping to re-caulk the entire hull of a 114' 1943, ex-patrol boat from Canada. This turned out to be one of the largest regional caulking projects of the last decade. Jeff was hired on to compliment a rather prestigious roster of old masters. The scaffolding was full of sort of a  'who's-who' in the shipwright world. Including a relative 'young pup' among the seasoned old veterans-our Captain Tim. 

Jeffery lucked into what amounted to sort of an intern corker position--he had caulked seams with Todd on our boat and possessed his own corking mallet and tool kit. He also had a fair working knowledge of caulking from his background as a ship's carpenter... They hired him on because they respected his workmanship and for his reputation as a good carpenter on Zodiac and Kwaietek; but for all comparative purposes, this was his "apprenticeship." 

Jeff would return from ten-hour days, sore and aching; his wrist  soon bandaged up from carpal tunnel symptoms...yet he would extol on the days activities. He was learning again, just like in school. His aptitude and enthusiasm impressed the old guys so much so that they were passing on little tips, spending extra time showing him some trick or another that they'd developed over their years of working on these old wooden boats. 

Eventually I became involved with this massive project as an oakum spinner, (the pine tar-soaked hemp substance that was used to pound in between the wooden frames). The demand for spun oakum supply was so great that the corkers couldn't keep enough on hand.

Juliet and I showed up to the shipyard one afternoon, to receive our tutelage on how to spin oakum. The staccato tap-tap-tap of mallets on frames could be heard from blocks away. I watched for a while, transfixed by the synchronized formula of the corkers routine. They worked as one and yet individually; stretching out the strands of oakum and twisting it together between their finger tips as they fit it into the grooves...always just slightly ahead of the caulking iron and rapping mallet.  I could finally understand why my husband had been coming home with cuts and bruises on his finger tips. (He eventually wrapped his threading fingers in electrician's tape to relieve the pain of a mis-fire with the mallet).

We met the elderly shipwright who was to instruct us in the art of spinning oakum. He patiently demonstrated how to stretch and spin the fibers without tearing the strands. I quickly found that what looked like an easy, monotonous task was in fact, a rather tricky technique. I also learned that old corkers are very particular about how they like their oakum to arrive. "spun like cotton candy" seemed to be the best description. I won't say that the old masters are divas exactly, but I will allow that they do exhibit some very diva-like characteristics when it comes to their trade!

oakum arrives compactly rolled in these bales.
the oakum is pulled apart in the way wool is carded.

The separated strands are carefully stretched.
the elongated strand of oakum is spun against the knee.

It was a humbling experience to work under the supervision and parameters of these old masters. They did not suffer second-rate products happily. The senior corker was a rather fussy gentleman who had pretty strict requirements of his oakum. I balked at what I perceived as micro-management, but gradually began to appreciate his criticism. He was after all, making the effort to help me improve my skills.  Eventually, I got the hang of it, and received some perverse satisfaction upon hearing that the old guys out on the scaffolding were specifically requesting my bundles of spun oakum.

These shipyard elders did not graduate from some prestigious wooden boat school, they did not have business cards printed up that said "Master Shipwright" on them... they built their resume year after year on boats so old and varied that many now do not even exist. They don't advertise in the yellow pages, never send out brochures and wouldn't know how to set up a website to save their lives. They work constantly--from word of mouth referrals. They practice their arts quietly and without apparent concern that they are a dying breed.

I wonder what will happen to the "old-school" techniques when these old guys retire?

Don't get me wrong. I am not promoting rote tradition over new advances. I am extremely grateful for the invention of roller-furlers and GPS units. I think it important to remember that there are many conventional skills which we should not lose in our race for the "next best thing". Celestial navigation and marlinspike seamanship being among the forefront.

Those who have worked their way up the hawsepipe are becoming fewer and farther between as the maritime industry favors  academy grads. The experience that is obtained inside a simulator program is vastly different than one can obtain in the actual environment. Maritime academies are crucially important to our profession, yet I wonder if sometimes, hard-won experience and that old-timey wisdom are being overlooked in favor of "progress"
Again, it is a nuanced balance that we need to seek in this quickly changing maritime world. Both are very important.

I'm very grateful for my exposure to the traditional maritime skills that still thrive on tall ships. Our involvement on the schooner Zodiac has given us a vast skill-set and appreciation of many of those time-honored ways of doing things. I learned how to navigate on paper charts before a chart to interpret weather patterns, how to feel a ship begin to respond by sensing it in my feet....I've been taught how to parcel and serve, splice a line and tie a zeppelin knot.--all from old salts who have lived this life. I've even found a new home for my scenic art skills as a varnisher. Believe me--the amount of bright-work onboard the Zodiac gives me ample opportunities to keep my old skills alive!

I appreciated a recent article by Mario Vittone, "The Illusion of Experience" 
The author quite eloquently addresses the issue of neophytes assuming the old school trades. This is one of the unique hazards of training up replacements for these old masters: The penchant for assuming oneself an expert too quickly.
One cannot really consider oneself a professional after just a few lessons. One should really not put the word "Master Shipwright" on their shingle immediately upon graduation from wooden boat school. It is critical to keep some perspective and no small amount of humility on hand when assuming the role and responsibilities of a traditional craftsman. Lives depend on it.
I get a great deal of satisfaction when we're able to pass these techniques onto the youth that come aboard every year. Perhaps one or two of these young people will be inspired to continue on the maritime traditions. 
Young sailors learn to parcel and serve the shrouds

In turn, as these young sailors begin to appreciate the skills that they're obtaining, it is incredibly rewarding to watch them confidently sharing them with our passengers. The cycle of learning continues and the traditions of our past become part of our everyday methodology.

This is by far, one of my favorite things about being a tall ship sailor.

So, here's to keeping the old ways alive and part of our modern way of living- with care, humility and respect.

“Science and technology revolutionize our lives, 
but memory and tradition frame our response.”

~ Chris

1 comment:

  1. Amen!

    Well thought out and well written!

    s/v Eolian