Beating to Quarters

What skills or lessons have you learned recently?

Crafters and artists are constantly in motion learning new skills, altering perspectives, and looking for the next project that excites them. Tradition is fine, and working in a tradition laden with favored designs and techniques is also great. But boredom can set in and, with it, a creative staleness from doing the same old thing time and time again.

For several years I’ve been working on developing my skills in boat and ship portraiture. Although I’ve been doing the basics for years – your standard catboat, sloop, or little one-design sailboat- I’ve been tackling larger and more ambitious sailing vessels. The fundamental challenge is to carve a convincing portrait in about an eighth of an inch of relief carving.

This is easier when the wind is coming over the stern or aft quarter of the vessel but toward the viewer. Being a bit “chicken,” I avoided portraying ships as they might be viewed from aft, sailing away from the viewer. This year I created a design and tackled the approach.

The portrait was called Sloop of War and portrayed a small vessel of the Napoleonic Wars era that I imagine as Beating To Quarters to engage the enemy.
I have not solved all the technical problems with this approach, but that’s the beauty of new things. There is always more to learn and master.

Star Bright

Mr. and Mrs. Claus arrived on Harold Sprague’s lobster boat on Saturday. And the Cap’n officially decided it was time to decorate Psyche for the holidays. But, of course, as Able Bodied crewman and son-in-law, it was I who would do the brunt of the decorating under the direction of the Cap’n’s wife, Cora.

“Wes, hang the swag right at that rubber thingie.” Cora usually did not associate with the boat and meant the winter rub rail.” ” OK, but if I hang it there, it’ll be washed away on the tide.” And so it went until the boat was tarted up with swags and decorations. It was a fun enterprise, now, but come January, taking it all down would be a more painful issue, alone with no help in the snow. Still, at the end of the effort, Psyche looked attractively decorated. And stood out among the other boats in the cove with forlorn wreaths hung unimaginatively on their bows.

I fortified myself by imagining a giant cup of hot cocoa with a large marshmallow melting on the top. Maybe even a triple threat of treats on top.

At last, the Cap’n emerged from the shed with his favorite decoration, and the reason he moved the ketch to the float at this time of the year; was the lit and decorated star ornament hoisted to the masthead every Christmas season. But, of course, it needed refurbishment every year – check the bulbs and wiring, and renew the spruce covering.

So the entire family stood about and ceremoniously watched and shivered in the cold as old bulbs were replaced, the electrical connection was tested, and the whole contraption sent aloft.

Later that night, the star stood out brightly in the dark of the cove, almost as the star must have over Bethlehem. We sipped our cocoa with marshmallows and felt pleased with ourselves.


Lofty aspirations at sea start with basic jib tending. “Watch that luff.” or  “We’re coming about. Time to shift the jib soon.”“Ready About!”

Plain language as we reach the buoy and are ready to moor the boat, “go forward and dowse that jib.”

Sometimes just a bit of anger when the crew is tardy with the sail on a heaving foredeck.

Soon it’ll be mainsail, halyard, and sheet.

On Tattoos

I do not sport a tattoo, and by force of habit will never put an arm or chest under the needle. Why? I had a Merchant Marine father who wore a large one on his right arm and firmly discouraged tattoos. Once again, you ask, Why? According to my father, tattoos were used by police to identify suspects. And being so many people either have unique designs that are easy to spot, ” it has the names and dates of the last Rolling Stones Concerts.” Or have the same dozen designs, ” he had a big Harley-Davidson tattoo on his right arm.” You become easy to either identify or misidentify.

From his history as a seaman visiting hundreds of ports, my father believed that police were reductionists; you have that tattoo; therefore, you did the crime. While disagreeing with my father on many issues, I had a high opinion of any statement he made regarding seamen and life at sea. The Carreras clan has always been salty and wet, and our oral tradition on things maritime is strong.

I do not object to tattoos for others; they can take their chances being pulled in by the police in Samoa as suspected pedophiles, thieves, or drug-addled purveyors of disputed political platforms. But until they enact legislation banning the darned things, it’s an individual choice.

As you can see, I have no strong opinion on the matter at all.


It’s interesting to examine where and when we pick up items of speech, the words and turns of speaking that pepper our conversations. We pick up some from literature and some from individuals we interact with.

Dudgeon was not a word in my family’s vocabulary for expressing anger or upset. I was living along the coast of Maine, and my mother-in-law introduced me to it. She was the main entry point for new vocabulary items like being “highly permuched” for being very pleased with oneself. Living in Maine proved a revolutionary period for phrases and terms I’d utilize continuously.

My history teacher in high school made a significant contribution when he told me that if I didn’t start working harder, he would “grease your skids.”I had to go to my merchant marine father to find out what he meant about greasing my skids. My teacher had started as a shipyard worker, and to hurry the launching of vessels, the skids under them got greased to make them slide into the water quickly. He was offering to fail me rapidly unless I worked up to expectation. I was soon expelled from school, but the expression stayed with me.

I picked up a bunch of Royal Navy terms from a favorite professor in grad school who instilled them with the Pussers rum we drank at gatherings.

I think my speech would have turned out to be boring without the occasional interference and influence of others.

On Style

We were at a tavern in the Seaport district in New York. I had just won a bet on recognizing a carver’s work based on their tool cuts. It was an easy win; the carvings I had identified were by a carver whose work I was familiar with. Carvers have habits like everyone else, ways we like to do eagle feathers, eyes, or our taste in how fancy the volutes are ( those carved spiral designs that you often see on violins, columns, or holding up figureheads). See enough of this, especially if it’s your professional interest and you recognize the style.
Of course, the most carving is anonymous. Whether in stone, wood, or other media, most of us and our carvings will be nameless. An occasional mentor of mine had trained in France before the Second World War and told me that daily, hundreds of feet of exquisite trade carved molding and detail were produced in his master’s shop. All of it was destined to be nameless.
So yes, I can recognize the styles of Samuel Robb, Bellamy, Rush, or Skillin in many cases. But museums are full of unattributed work. Some of this is happenstance; the carver was in a small harbor and attracted little notice. Or, in the case of Bellamy, he was located in space and time when his work attracted attention. Bellamy also developed a distinctive and unique style that captured much attention.

Friends who’ve been with me on visits to the Peabody Essex Museum or the Mystic Seaport have to stifle yawns if we pass a particularly lovely piece of carving. Then, my whole demeanor changes, and I begin to discuss the style and execution of the design. Then, getting deeper into the weeds, I discuss if the carving represents a particular regional style. Please don’t laugh; when it comes to volutes on billet heads, there is a regional difference between, say, the Chesapeake and New England.

I imagine two old ships carvers in the 19th century getting snookered and getting into a fight over the curves on a volute to the disgust of their wives. The marine trades are full of passionate people.

Surreal Dream

A Flashback Friday presentation from 2019

I’ve had some doozies of lucid dreams in my time. But, about six months ago, I had the most extreme case. ****Spoiler alert John Haley Bellamy is the Dean of 19th-century American Shipscarver ( IMHO). Dali was my favorite Surrealist and habitue of New York growing up. So I wondered what would happen if Dali and Bellamy ran into each other. So – A Surreal Dream.
I was sitting in my usual spot at the Rienzi coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, and joining me that night was John Halley Bellamy. John was down from Kittery for his first trip to the Big Apple. He wanted me to fill him in on who the local shipscarvers were, the best time to visit the Empire State Building, and the Guggenheim directions. We were pouring over one of those little accordion maps of the city that hotels give you when in walk Salvador Dali. Dali siddles up and starts praising Bellamy for being an early Surrealist. “My only dispute with you comes in the calculation of spirals and curves you use; I’ve always preferred logarithmic spirals; you, on the other hand, use something that looks like it’s part of an ellipse? Bellamy, admiring Sal’s logarithmically twined mustachios, takes time to twirl his mustache ends into a number seven Copenhagen curve and replies, ” I started in a boat shop, so I used ships curves.” They happily spent the next ten minutes discussing how to simplify for emphasis, stretch proportions, and play with conventions. For once, I was without words.
After an hour or so, Dali said he’d pick up the check. So he and Bellamy wandered out onto McDougal Street. Dali suggested they head to Paris and visit. Pablo – “Not really a Surrealist, but an interesting artist…”
Pondering my next move, I noticed the signed credit card receipt – I quickly pocketed it and walked out with a signed Dali.

Mahan and the Mermaid

 If you read the “about my stories” page on my blog, you’d see that I love and appreciate sea stories. These generally have the approach of TINS – this is no shit. In other words, ” I heard this from my buddy, who served aboard the USS Pig Tail when it happened.” Sea stories do not have the classic “they lived happily ever ending.” More likely, they end with everyone heading off to the Blue Anchor for an evening of carousing.

Well, to each his own. But each genre has a perverse “you just know this didn’t happen” take on things. For example, visiting the Unseely Court for fairy tales and mermaids for sea stories. So there is a sort of connection.

Mahan was married to a mermaid. It seemed unlikely that a stunning daughter of the sea would pick Mahan, the Navy’s most unkempt and alcoholic Bosun’s mate. When we first heard about it, we figured it was an alcoholic hallucination. But in fact, that’s what the marriage certificate said. Mahan was seen every month driving to the pet store to get the twenty-pound bags of Miracle Sea to add to her required bath water. On the few occasions that Stella was seen in social company, she was always in long green sheathlike dresses that seemed as though it was actually “her” rather than clothes. Her tiny feet seemed an afterthought and not natural. She always hung on Mahan for support and had a way of flipping her legs about that didn’t seem normal. The other Navy wives and girlfriends thought she was odd, used no cosmetics, and loved the seaweed salad at the harborside sushi restaurant. But Mahaan was smitten, and Stella was smitten with Mahan.

Their families did not get along. Hers objected to her marrying a member of her people’s age-old exploiters. And his family found her background too “fishy” and improbable. Being of old Irish stock, the Mahan family knew about the “special” people of Ireland and wondered aloud why he couldn’t marry a proper Irish Sidhe and not some watery tart.

Stella and Mahan felt confident that the families would reconcile when the children came along. But the grandmothers to be argued endlessly about whether the birth should happen in the hospital or nearby harbor. Mahan, his father, and his father-in-law sensibly left the delivery location to them.

Then they laid a course for the Blue Anchor, bought multiple rounds for the house, and left birthing to the ladies.


The Prison Point Bridge runs like an arrow across what once was Miller’s River. The water had, long ago, been filled in for railroad yards, an old glass factory, and a slaughterhouse. I was freshly back in Boston from Canada.

It was November now, and the last warm touches of October crimson had fled from the oaks in the parks. I arrived in Boston last week with my cat, a guitar, and a pack. Finding housing had been a chore.

A lead took me to a rundown Single Room Occupancy on Temple Street. The proprietor was a little shrimp named Bernie, who initially insisted that he had no rooms available but invited me in for coffee when he saw my cat. Over coffee, he explained that he ran the house primarily for his old Merchant Marine buddies and a few selected others. Unfortunately, his friends were beyond their “looking for a ship” days and needed homes. Bernie provided this for as low a price as you’d find. After coffee, he led me to the door, but as I left, he said, ” Hey, Carreras? Did I ever ship out with your dad? Nico, Nick, or some such?” I replied that my dad had been a Dollar Steamship Lines sailor and later American Presidents Line. “Carreras, come on back; your dad was a shipmate. I got a room at the top, but it’s warm.”

It was too warm. All the steam heat rose to the crows’ nest I occupied, and I had to leave the door and window open all winter. My cat loved this. He became a frequent visitor to all the rooms in the building and soon filled his scrawny kitten body out to a full muscular cathood from treats. Since he cleaned up the building’s rodent population in a week and terrorized a few small dogs in the neighboring buildings, he soon won the title of Grey Menace. No mouse, dog, or bare toe was safe from the Menace. The Grey Menace introduced me to the other tenants. If I was searching for him, he was with Jay, Tom, or Alfred.

As Bernie said, the residents were old sailors. The list of lines they had sailed for was long and glorious. But few had much to retire on, and none had family that wanted them for an extended stay. One described the situation, “Well, Carreras, we’re on the beach permanently.” A few worked as “lumpers” at the fish pier, helping to unload fish, but most just picked up odd jobs around the Haymarket. They cleaned the market stalls and replenished their food stocks with what they could scavenge.

On occasion, you’d get one of them talking; they’d transport you to pre-war Japan, China, or the Caribbean. They spoke of the ships they served on, what years, who cooked, and if the food was good. They did not recognize the urban landscape the way a landsman would. Most of us see our cities from the inside out. 

Even if you grow up in a coastal town, the sea is a fringe. Not for them. It was a view from the docks. They recognized ports not by the landmarks you’d expect but from the harbor and its entrance, the navigational features, wharves, piers, waterside districts, and places they frequented.  

Later on, when I learned sailing and coastal navigation, I realized how valuable this perspective was. A port looks entirely different from the water than from the pier. Distances are different. You go around to a location by the long path of roadways. On the water, you go over to the other side.

Perceptions are different; the optics of what you see and how you perceive it can vary daily and by the time of day.

Next time you take a cruise, whale watching, fishing trip, or harbor cruise, practice this alternate way of looking at your world. Your old and familiar will be different and new.

A change of perspective is a good thing now and then.

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