by Louis N. Carreras
Every year for about six years I made an annual pilgrimage from Massachusetts to coastal Maine to teach a marine carving course at the WoodenBoat School. The courses tend to be intense, with long days full of hard work, camaraderie, and stories. So many stories in fact that you’d think that we’d all run out by mid-week. But, there we were one Wednesday evening after dinner sitting in the cellar barroom of the Irish Pub telling stories. The group was about half students and half instructors. The theme that we all seemed to be following was weird tales about boat owners. Builders and yard owners normally have dibs on the best stories; they just get to see the worst foibles and idiosyncrasies. It was kind of a round robin though, and my turn finally came.
Carvers get some odd requests too. Guys at boat shows who’ve had two too many drinks asking if you’d carve a figurehead of their wife, but with large breasts, and the like. But, that wouldn’t match up against some of the solid gold goodies that were being trotted out that night. So, when it came to be my turn I simply settled for sharing an unsolved mystery.
A number of years earlier, when I was just starting out as a carver, a friend who owned a yard called me with a commission. The owner of a lovely ketch wanted a fancy M carved and gold leafed in the bilges of his boat. Taking a pause I asked him if he was sure that it was to be carved in the bilge. “Yep. Down as low as you can go he said. But, still visible from the cabin when the space is open. He wants a fancy Zapf Chancery one in bright gold leaf.” Taking every job seriously I went to the yard and investigated the bilge. The M needed to be low in the bilge, but visible when you looked for it. Eventually, I settled on a spot, measured the angle at which I’d be carving and went to the shop to plan. Whenever I carve something directly into a hull I do a practice piece to be sure of my final cuts into the hull.
About a week later I finished the job and collected the princely sum of $90 for the work. I also left the yard with a mystery, because the yard owner had no more an idea than I did as to the meaning of the letter M, or the positioning. And there you have it. The mystery of the Golden Zapf Chancery M, and I have no idea of why it was carved there.
There was a brief quiet followed by chuckling, and then one of the yard owners from Mount Dessert piped up: “ I know that boat, and I can solve your mystery. The boat is in my yard right now. The owner is looking to sell, and I asked him about that M. He told me that six years ago he was going through a terrible divorce, and got taken for just about everything he owned. He managed to keep the boat because she just wasn’t interested in it. His wife’s name had started with an M so he had the M carved where it’d get wet, dirty, fouled, and where he could watch it, and enjoy the process because it was going to be the only enjoyable thing he got out of the marriage.”
Not intending to, and with an unexpected assist, I had just won the informal “who can tell the best story” competition for the evening and had a mystery solved.