For about six years, I made an annual pilgrimage from Massachusetts to Maine to teach marine carving at the WoodenBoat School. The courses tend to be intense, with long days full of hard work, camaraderie, and stories. So many stories that you’d think that we’d all run out by mid-week. But, there we were Thursday 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 have dibs on the best stories; they get to see the worst idiosyncrasies of boat owners.
It was a round-robin story session, and my turn finally came. Carvers get some odd requests – 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 golden goodies trotted out that night. So, when it came to be my turn, I settled for sharing a mystery.
Some years earlier, when I started as a nautical woodcarver, a friend who owned a yard called me with a commission. The owner of a lovely ketch wanted a fancy M carved & gold-leafed in his boat’s bilges. Taking a pause, I asked him if he was sure that he wanted it in the bilge. “Yep. Down as low as you can go, he said. But still visible from the cabin when the hatch is open. He wants a fancy Zapf Chancery M. 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 cut something directly into a boat, I do a practice piece to ensure my final cuts will be exact.
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. The yard owner had no more an idea than I did about the meaning of the letter M or the positioning. So, there you have it. The mystery of the Golden Zapf Chancery M, and I have no idea why he wanted it there.
Polite laughter followed the story. And then one of the yard owners from Mount Dessert piped up: “I know that boat, and I can solve your mystery. The boat’s in my yard right now. The owner is looking to sell. I asked him about that M. He told me that he was going through a terrible divorce six years ago 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 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 the only enjoyable thing he got from the marriage.”
Not intending to, and with an unexpected assist, I had just won the informal “who can tell the best story” competition and had a mystery solved.