Every Marina has its ugly duckling—a wooden launch, a skiff or a houseboat—tucked into a slip among the sleek sailboats and cabin cruisers. Boat people know better than to assume that the owner of such a vessel is impecunious or antisocial. More likely, the ungainly boat is making a statement.
In Small Craft Advisory: A Book About the Building of a Boat (Atlantic Monthly Press, $21.95), Louis D. Rubin Jr. examines the mystique of such homely vessels. "What is the particular attraction," he asks, "that workboats and other such utilitarian craft hold for me?"
What, indeed, compels a 65-year-old English professor with rudimentary nautical skills to go to a boat-builder with plans for a 24-foot wooden "stinkpot"—a workboat with a stand-up forward cabin, a through-the-roof exhaust pipe and a stern cockpit barely deep enough for two chairs?
For answers Rubin looks to his boating past, beginning with his childhood, which he spent in Charleston, S.C. The Cooper River waterfront of the late 1930s and early '40s, he tells us, teemed with unglamorous craft: trawlers, shrimpers, freighters, tugs, crab buy boats, launches and passenger ships of the Clyde-Mallory Line. To a bookish, middle-class youngster in class-conscious Charleston, the grubby waterfront was more appealing than the pristine docks of the nearby Carolina Yacht Club. The commercial wharves, Rubin writes, "seemed to fuse two discrete realms of my experience; it was the stuff of literature and the imagination, and yet was not self-consciously picturesque or quaint...."
Once launched on the perilous drift called life, Rubin tried to steer a course between the shoals of career (as a novelist, book publisher and academician) and avocation (as a boat owner). Judging from Advisory, he has been more successful at the former. His boating stories are mostly cautionary. His various old tubs stall out in coastal waters, drop propeller shafts, run aground or sink ignominiously at dockside. For Rubin, the simple act of turning a boat's ignition key is fraught with anxiety.
Surprisingly, Advisory doesn't dwell much on the actual construction of Rubin's retirement boat, the Algonquin. This takes place in a rarely visited boat shed on Harkers Island, N.C., where a taciturn geezer with a half century of boatbuilding experience follows Rubin's design for a "wide-bodied, fat-fannied craft that would come and go in comfort." When we do get a glimpse at the emerging hull, the boatbuilding vocabulary entrances. Rubin writes, "The area that curved upward and inward to attach to the stem, known as the 'loggin,' was intricately shaped and fitted: first the garbit plank, then the second plank, and so on to the chine."
One reason for the relative lack of construction detail is hinted at in the author's account of his own pitiful efforts to construct window screens for the Algonquin in his home workshop. (He cuts up about a cord of wood trying to match the irregular window shapes and winds up having to stuff weatherstripping into the gaps.)
The landlubber may wonder how anyone can take pleasure in the endless overhauling, salvaging and refurbishing that boat ownership entails. Rubin himself, it seems, is given to wondering aloud if he has both oars in the water. "To my taste," he writes, "there are few conditions more satisfying to the body and soul than being installed in a comfortable deck chair in the shade, in company with a good book and a good cigar, aboard a cruise liner anchored in the harbor or alongside a pier at a tropical port on a winter day...."
No sailing purist he.
These light touches notwithstanding, Advisory is a serious, insightful book. By the time Rubin gets the Algonquin in the water, he has deftly rationalized his lifetime of boating misadventures. He comes to see his hours on the water as a palliative for a lifelong fear of being in the water (he cannot swim) and the boats themselves as talismans for the risks he has not taken in his life.
The humor and shoptalk give Small Craft Advisory its buoyancy, but it is the analytical passages that ultimately keep Rubin's briny memoir afloat.