Boatyard Pests

To the uninitiated, my title of boatyard pests might seem to refer to the two-legged variety that makes life hard for folks just interested in getting on with prepping their boat for the water. But no, it refers to insects.

Honestly, I’ve spent most of my life not thinking about Greenhead flies. But working one summer in a boatyard here in Massachusetts put me wise to the facts: they won’t go away on their own. For those not from coastal areas infested with Greenheads, I can personally assure you that No-see-umms, Blackflies, and Mosquitos are benevolent neighbors to have. As you drive along the coastal roads, you might notice the big black wooden boxes on poles in the marshes. Those boxes trap and control the population; greenheads are not too susceptible to chemical controls. They seem to laugh them off and get back to the serious business of bitting you.

The female Greenhead has a mouth designed to take a divot out of your leg and suck the blood with pleasure. The fly will shrug off a hit, swat, and slam. As my co-worker, David informed me: ” you can’t be too nice to them; try to brush them off, and they just get mad.” He then showed me the certified effective manner of disposing of one as it lands on you. You grab it, roll it between your fingers, crush it and drop it, leaving the corpse as an example to its siblings. You may be queasy about the crushing part, but I assure you that these large horse flies are hard to kill, and after you have several nasty and painful divots cut into arms and legs, the desire to be benevolently human to your fellow-creature fades.

I had wondered for a while why a boatyard would stock an entire case of spray-on oven cleaner – name brand at that. David informed me that it was ” the best way of loosening up old crudded on varnish.” Applied liberally, then left for several hours and then rinsed off, it does make old varnish easier to scrape off. But there is a second use for it. It’s an effective means of terminating the odd yellow jacket colony hidden beneath the seat of a boat you need to clean up. Not much hurts, like getting stung a dozen times by yellow jackets out for a junket and feeling mean. Spray that nest down with oven cleaner, run like hell and watch the fun. Reapply as needed.

There’s a lot to be said about getting along with other creatures. But greenheads and yellow jackets are the psychopaths of the insect world. Go figure!

The Rangeley Boat

I was almost 19 before I had that adventure with boats that most coastal brats have at an earlier age: having possession of a stable, able, and adventurous small craft to create mayhem. It was a seventeen-foot Rangeley Boat. The Rangeley Boat could handle almost any challenge an adventurous 19 years old could throw at it. 

Designed for use on the lakes of Maine, the Rangeley could handle a week’s worth of camping supplies, numerous teenagers, or powered by an outboard be your ticket to exploration. I still recall its graceful bow, the green paint on the hull, and the carefully varnished interior. 

But, this story is not about that boat or my adventures in it. It’s about Old Woodsman fly dope. For those younger than fifty, the current fly dope with a similar name is probably instrumental but does not contain the same active ingredients. Said active ingredients could leave you reeking in the woods so severely that if you collapsed, the odor would guide the rescue party to your corpse. Also, no self-respecting fly wanted to settle on you. But, then, that was the point. Old Woodsman probably contained ample amounts of pine tar, botanical oils, and who knows what else. For sure, “in the day,” everyone in the north woods had a bottle and hoped that it would never leak in their car. The smell persisted.

Much more valuable products that are probably less carcinogenic have come along, and I don’t think I ever spared a moment to think about the old stuff. But, early one spring, I was perusing the annual MaineBoatbuilder’s Show in Portland, and an unexpected odor wafted towards me from a back corner of the show. Curious, I walked down the row towards the fragrance. In front of me appeared a beautifully restored Rangley Boat. The varnish was bright, the lines beautiful, and the memories savory. Around it was a group of students from one of the many boatbuilding programs that dot the coast of Maine.

“We don’t know why it smells that way. The smell stayed through all our restoration work. No matter what system of removal we tried. We figure it must have been some preservation technique.”

The reek was pure Old Woodsman. Over the boat’s long lifespan, gallons must have been spilled in it because no amount of restoration would ever remove all that smell. 

But, the new owner would have to use very little bug dope.


President Clinton’s “reinventing government” left me among the non-employed. I was in my mid-forties with a profession (Anthropologist), that needed more than five words to describe its purpose. Not fitting convenient job descriptions I soon became one of the long-term unemployed. Desperate to pay my bills, I followed a newspaper ad to the local United Parcel Service hub and soon found myself loading trailers for five hours a day.
Contrary to expectations, I found that I enjoyed both the physical labor and the work’s directness. Goal? Load that trailer.

Gone were the endless meetings over turf and program trivialities—no more settling inter-office disputes. In the government, I had started to create an entirely new program. I was “in the field” lots doing honest work with traditional craftspeople and looking for innovative ways to present them to the public. But success is a dangerous thing. Two years on, I had an assistant, staff, contractors, volunteers, and interfaces with other governmental and non-governmental agencies.
When we were “reinvented” out of existence – I rejoiced. Summer and fall of boatyard work took five pounds from my waist and eliminated the physical signs of stress. The only problem was that these jobs paid no benefits, and my family needed a healthcare package. UPS provided this and much more.
I was a bit of an enigma to my fellow workers. They were amazed that I had run an entire federal program ( small, of course) and now happily loaded parcels and towed freight around with them. After all, what was preferable loading tons of valuable packages on their way to meet people’s needs? Or- shoveling tons of verbiage into one more idiotic “Position Paper” destined for some GS-14’s waste bucket only to find the program canceled at the whim of a politician?

Forms and Procedures

Just out of Boot Camp and knowing almost nothing about how the Navy worked, I sat by as sailors and petty officers senior to me decided how to explain on a log sheet their idleness. My impression of the workday was that it had been full of BS, coffee, and some very random work. It was my introduction to Gundecking. The first-class petty officer introducing me to the mysteries of fixing logs without getting caught was the erudite bosun’s mate John O’Toole. John deliberately shunned anything that might get him a rocker under his crow and transform him into a chief petty officer.
The current term derives from the Royal Navy: the Midshipmen, officers in training, would take their noon navigational sights of the sun, scurry below to the gun deck, and “fix” the position of the ship in the ocean by cheating. Gundecking became the modern Naval name for this sort of report fixing.
By the time I came along, Gundecking could be an art form in the hands of a master like O’Toole. Most Gundecking is the simple checking off of boxes on reports for maintenance or inspection. More elaborate needs could require Quiji Boards, modified game spinners, and critically the Magic 8 Ball.
Modern Gundecking (pencil whipping in the non-naval services) is complicated and compounded by the sheer bureaucratic nature of life in either the military or civilian life. In the years since I was discharged I can only imagine the absurdities introduced by computers. Everything has a checklist, report, protocol, diagnostic formula, or decision tree. Procedural paperwork can get in the way of effective performance, and you become enmeshed in meaningless BS that builds resentment. Perhaps that’s why the verb “to Gundeck” is offset by the adverb “gundeckable.”
It had to have been an officer or senior Non-commissioned Officer like O’Toole who derived this term because, as we all know – problems always move up the Chain Of Command, and shit drops down. By the time you become a senior in any organization, you should either know all the tricks or have an intuition for them. Remember, that pencils, Magic 8 ball, Quija boards, and game spinners have been around a while. If only to protect yourself (enlightened self-interest), you better figure out how gundeckable the reports and inspections in your organization can be.

Please bear in mind that the general principle dates back to Bronze Age sailors. There are thousands of years of received sophistication going on here.

A few years ago, I looked into the open drawer of my financial advisor’s desk. His Magic 8 Ball was right there. I rapidly confirmed from the Honorable Discharge displayed on the wall that he was a Navy Veteran.
Think about that next time your advisor says: “hold on. Let me check on that answer”., and opens the lower desk drawer. Here are a couple of guidelines: If he or she has any of the following on their wall: Plank Owner Certificates, certificates showing that they are Pollywogs, Shellbacks, etc., or pictures of their last ship, get out fast. Another sure warning is if they start every story with “Now, this is no shit,” – this TINS warning is especially dire, being that it’s the traditional start of any Sea Story. Of course, you should also check the premises for signs of Quija boards, spinners, and the Magic 8 Ball. Full disclosure forces me to admit that one sits on my desk at work.

Is there an actual cure for Gundecking? Probably putting less of an emphasis on forms would help. Putting a greater focus on actual performance, pride in the job, and professionalism would be critical. But, until that happens, remember your best defense is knowing or learning the angles yourself so no one would even consider Gundecking you.
I leave you with these words from the immortal petty officer first class John O’Toole: “luck is what you stumble upon in life. Providence is what God plans for you, and planning is how you thread your way between the two without getting crushed.”

Sacrilegious Roulette

In the sixties, I hung out with an interesting cast of characters. We sang folksongs, played guitar, held forth loudly on topics about which we knew little, and held in contempt those who we knew were not as cool as we.
We amused ourselves with simple, sometimes stupid games. One of the games we enjoyed playing was called sacrilegious roulette. It was best played by candlelight after all higher thought processes had gotten shut down by beer.
The rules were simple: we sat around in a circle and blasphemed. The first struck by lighting won. Many of my friends were Boston College dropouts, and had a Jesuitical knowledge of what was deemed blasphemous. one of my friends had even lost his “vocation” as a Jesuit. It was the former Jebbie who came up with the most astounding blasphemy. But, we remained unsmitten.

One day while driving to Newport, Rhode Island, for the Folk Festival. We were playing a particularly vicious round of sacrilegious roulette when we suddenly blew a front tire and swerved off the road into a rock outcropping. The car was a wreck, but the five of us were not hurt.

We all agreed that we had played our final round of sacrilegious roulette. Fortunately, we had come out with a draw.

A Cat’s Work

A cat’s job in the shop is to supervise the careless human. Remind him when treats are due. Stay clear of the jagged edges of tools. And to display just the right amount of cheek to keep him in his place. Eventually, I’ll find some inconvenient ( for him) place to nap until mother calls me into the house for dinner.
A cat’s work is never done!

Ice Out

My friends from points south look at me like I’m crazed. ” Ice Out comin’ soon!” Huh? “Ice out!” The look I get is one of pure pity. Those crazed New Englanders…so depressed by their winter that they’ll seize on any slight sign of spring. OK, it is true that south of New England, they don’t get excited at tiny flowers in the brown woodlands. Their lush southern springs explode with green and colored blooms—they kind of smile condescendingly at our northern spring.
But that’s because they haven’t been to a full-tilt boogie Ice Out Party.
It is true. Here in New England, spring can be a bit dour. So we have to make up for it. What is an ice-out party? Lots of hard cider, local beer, friends and neighbors, and an icy pond where the ice has finally broken up.
Mind you, I said, broken up, not disappeared. After enough cider and beer, dancing, and food, some fool begins to strip and runs out to the pond. The proper technique is to holler at the top of your lungs and take the plunge. Once one is in the water the lemmings, I mean other party-goers, discard parkas, anoraks, and other winter accouterments and begin to frolic like polar bears. The rest of us stay warm by a fire and cheer them on. If this is done right, sometimes at about two AM, the local police or constabulary show up and disparage the public nudity and general rowdiness. The following day everyone feels braced for the last several lousy weeks of New England spring before things finally warm-up, and everyone can put away their heavy woolens and L.L.Bean jackets.
New England Spring – it ain’t for the faint of heart. And you thought Mardi Gras was wild!

Introducing The Cap’n

I had been dating Georgia for a year before she introduced me to her parents. Cora, her mother, was sweet but strong-willed. When you met her husband, Georgia’s father, you understood why strong-willed and charming went together so well. The Cap’n was at best taciturn. Despite having swallowed the anchor and come ashore at the close of the Second World War, he acted as if he was still on the Bridge of his last command. Cora was a sweetness to his taciturnity and strength to match his power. Cora did not cling despite seeming to lean on the Cap’n. There was nothing queer or odd about their relationship once you understood the power dynamics of that family. Life with the Cap’n was always a test of wills.

He was continually dissatisfied with Georgia’s selection of a male associate and did not bother to hide it. I was just the most recent. He pretty much ignored me for as long as possible.

Early on, I learned his signature move. He’d fill his pipe while looking you in the eye, slowly light it, puff it to life while weighing you and finding you wanting; then he’d point the pipe at you and tell you how it was going to be. I imagined that he’d refined this tactic over the years serving on many merchant vessels. The wall above his desk was almost littered with the various Master’s Certificates ( he called them tickets), commendations, and photos of his old ships. Later on, he confided that his first passage had been in a sailing vessel carrying stone to Boston – If I recollect correctly, the stone was for building the tower on the Boston Custom House. He was age nine. Besides schooling, his career was at sea until he swallowed the anchor and came ashore at the end of the war. Then he became a bare-knuckled salesman for a soap company. He prospered.

After the initial contact, he avoided me or ignored my presence. That only changed the evening that Georgia delivered the news that we were engaged. Then a look came into his eyes that foretold a storm. I was once again weighed, measured, and found wanting, but he realized he was stuck with me. He decided I needed completely immersive training in coastal life. Psyche, his thirty-four-foot ketch, was to become the classroom for the essential parts of the tuition: teaching me how to hand, reef, and steer. Despite having served in the Navy and done “Blue Water” time, I was a total noob on a sailboat. He told me at the start that I was Ordinary Seaman material, and the idea was to make me into an AB- an Able Bodied Seaman. An AB could handle sails and ropes, reef sail as needed, and steer by the compass or the wind. Sometimes I just felt as though I had returned to Navy boot camp.

In his eyes, I had a further handicap; my Dad was a marine engineer. Engineroom and Bridge see things differently. On the few occasions that my Dad and the Captain got together, Georgia and I always hoped that they might bond over the shared experience. Never happened. They were formally civil, but not a bit more. To the Cap’n, it was an additional item that I had to overcome.

The Cap’n began to take me around. I acquired a fundamental familiarity for every boatyard and marine goods store in the area. I met ninety percent of the five hundred year-round residents in Town and the surrounding area. I was studying anthropology, so an ethnography of the Town began building in my mind. Georgia was thrilled. Nothing could be better than Wes getting over those silly ideas of being a professor and settling down in coastal Maine in her eyes.

The true love of his life, the thirty-four-foot ketch Psyche, became the focus of my education afloat almost at once. It was not just sailing. I rapidly became the maintenance crew helping to put the masts into the mast steps every spring ( this was called “fishing ” the masts in); I also had the pleasing duties of sanding, scraping, varnishing and painting. I had a bit of basic marlinspike knowledge ( rope splicing and the like), but the Cap’n took fault with my long splices when he found that my Marine engineer dad had taught me. I learned the truth of the old sea aphorism my father taught me: “different ships, different long splices.”

After a few years of this, the marriage faltered, and the relationship came to a slow, grinding halt. But not due to the Cap’n. Wes was not going “home” to live on the coast of Maine. Long festering ideas of how a marriage should operate and many other issues caused a final breakdown. Neither of us could cling to handy fictions any longer. Cora was upset; she wanted us to succeed. The Cap’n filled his pipe and glared.

I had learned to hand, reef, and steer. I had learned a lot about coastal life, and I now write about it. Yet Georgia and I had failed to learn much about marriage. She had been eager to have me bond with the most important man in her life. In error, I had agreed. And done everything I could to make that happen. It seems like most of the marriage had been spent on her father rather than on Georgia and me. In her later marriage, and in my current marriage we both demonstrated that we had learned the lesson.