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.

Special Orders

Plum Island sunset -copyright, L.N Carreras

Woodcarvers sometimes get strange requests. But they are usually the sentimental type of thing, specialty designs of various sorts. Well, I know one carver who has a kind of specialty in erotic sorts of things, but this story is not about her designs.
I tried to break into the occult carving market by doing runes sets for people telling fortunes, only to be priced out by Chinese mass-produced junk. However, the shop owner in Salem did save my card and referred to me unique clients with special needs.

This was how I received a small series of annual commissions for boxes of a particular type. While dimensions varied yearly, they always needed to be made from hand split, hand sawn, and planed ash. In addition, the ash had to be fastened with wooden pegs. The hinges and lining were of a hide they provided for this purpose. Finally, each box was carved with specific runes on each surface. I received the orders in September; delivery was always the final week of October. The commissioners were pleased because the orders were repeated for several years.

Then one year, a new order came in from another group for oak sticks of a certain length, taper, and thickness. Each was inscribed with an old word in Glagolitic that I found impossible to translate. I felt odd about this order, and after completing it, I told them that I would not accept future orders of that kind. That was OK, they said, and the following year it was a specific type of crucifix they wanted. Crucifixes and stakes? The next year they sent along some small bottles with a design for a wooden holder. The text was something in Latin, and I suspected that the bottles were for Holy Water. They said they were so pleased with my work that they would mention it to their friends.

And oh, did their friends contact me; there were particular orders for Samhain and special orders for Beltane. And then came the orders from cults, sects, and rites from Africa, India, and Micronesia. It got so turning them down was difficult. There’d be pressure, a sort of do it, or misfortune might befall you. “Oh, Mr. Carreras, you over billed us on our last order. We took the liberty of reducing your payment. We hope you are satisfied.”

It was the damned Ouija boards that tore it. Having had a terrible experience with one in the sixties, I put my foot down and flat-out said no. As of three years ago, I refused all orders of the occult. Yes, they paid well and on time, but they were much more demanding than my nautical customers.

Then the little box with the doll arrived by FedEx. It was then I knew that I had to take action.

It pays to keep up your dues in specific organizations. Working in boatyards, carving eagles, and other significant work associated with the deeps stood me in good stead. A trip to the harbor, a few poured libations to Davy, Neptunas Rex, and the other deities of the port, seas, and oceans took care of things. Those powers of the depths resented flatlanders horning in on a dues-paying member. So cease and desist notices were sent.

I know this hasn’t turned out well. And I know that science refuses to believe that it’s a war of natural orders, But Ian, yep, the Santeria, Voodoo, and a few other groups found out that you don’t mess with the sea. That town in Idaho that became a ghost town, I feel awful about that.

I am very sorry now that I have started it. Evidently, the Olympians are trying to get everyone to the peace table. And I hear rumblings that some think It was all my fault for trying to do what I shouldn’t have.
But while the big guys are duking it out, most people think it’s just Climate Change.

I guess that’s good for me; I’d hate to change my name and move at this stage of my life.

No Dunking!

Dunk as to get wet in the water, pushed off the float, or just plain immersed is something I avoid. Now it’s one thing to pass from a Pollywog to Shellback when you cut the Equatorial Line. The water is at least warm. But here in New England, immersion is a bit more of a thermal treat – if you are a polar bear.
I remember the lectures on hypothermia from the Navy.

It’s preferable to stay dry.

Lazy Bones

Bubba Gray was having a meltdown. His wife and the business manager wanted him to accept a contract to restore an old rum runner, and Bubba was saying there was no way on earth that the cursed thing was coming into his yard. Lazy Bones had famously killed its owner, his lover, and two mobsters in the thirties when it brought Canadian whiskey into Maine harbors. It had spent thirty years in a shed, and according to Bubba, it was there the damned boat remained. His wife quietly argued that he either accepted the contract or found another way to extract the yard from eminent bankruptcy.

It wasn’t just that the Lazy Bones seemed to have been cursed. It was spectacularly cursed. On launch, the boat had rolled on its builder and crushed him. The reputation of having been christened in blood followed the boat. But an uncanny ability to disappear in fog, outrace the Coast Guard and slip into small harbors undetected had made it a money maker. The owners had wept when Prohibition got repealed.

 It seemed to drift from owner to owner, with no one holding it for more than a season. Its pattern of unfortunate accidents followed it too. It crushed one against a float in Bath. He slipped and fell into the water; the boat swelled against the float, breaking ribs, collar bones, and an arm. The wife of the next owner quietly committed suicide in the cockpit. The following day, she was found with her scarf tightly around the wheel. 

The boat did not age well; rumrunners like the Lazy Bones are not cheap to maintain. But, it’s like they always say, “if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.” So the boat was stowed in a shed screened behind years of old furniture, trunks, and household goods.

All this time, Lazy Bones was out of sight, but not mind. The boat was just infamous enough that it enjoyed a life in the town’s folklore. Tours of the waterfront always included retellings of the story of the Lobster racing boat Devil, and the Lazy Bones. According to rumors, these boats were seen on Halloween, racing in the harbor against low banks of clouds.

Against this background, the boat’s restoration began at Bubba Gray’s little boatyard. A canny business woman Evvie Gray charged entry to where the Lazy Bones restoration work was getting done. A natural storyteller, she wove threads of the boat’s history and lore into a powerful tale. Soon photos of her standing with the boat appeared in papers Like the Boston Globe and even the LA times. She re-did her wardrobe to be more dramatic for the Yankee Magazine spread that featured her and Lazy Bones against the background of the yard. 

It was a purely commercial decision on her part that she take the boat on a grand tour as soon as all work was done. And when a Las Vegas casino offered her a residency with Lazy Bones, it was again a purely commercial decision.

Divorce was not that common in town then. But the news that Evvie Gray was divorcing Bubba came as no surprise. Bubba was the only one genuinely surprised. The yard folded not long after; without Evvie struggling to keep it going, Bubba failed in a year. But he seemed happier just working over at Allen’s larger boat yard on the other side of the harbor.

Evvie milked the Las Vegas deal for all she could and wound up taking a position with a developer creating new concept ideas for casinos. And you can see the Lazy Bones on display at a museum of cursed and damned boats; it’s evil only latent now.

Some say that the boat’s evil caused the break up of the marriage, the closure of the boatyard, the ruin of bubba Grey, and even the fall of Evvie Gray into a ruinous Las Vegas lifestyle. All of this is open to interpretation, as is the history of the Lazy Bones. I can only comment on what I know; most of what transpired was human nature and failings.

But supernatural explanations, curses, and misfortune sell more tickets and makes the heart race on a cold dark Halloween evening.

The Devil

I

You’d be hard-pressed to find any family of seafarers, fisherfolk, or plain coastal types without some horror tale on the water. It just goes with the territory; salt water envelopes most of the world and is dangerous. 

Lurking beneath that calm tropical paradise you’ve vacationed in are currents, tides, rips, rocks, tidal flats, and reefs – these might all be known hazards, but that doesn’t mean that they are less deadly. Circumstances and bad luck can be the dividing line between inconvenience and tragedy. And that’s just the stuff you can make plans to avoid or correct.

There’s just a ton of stuff you can’t plan for; rogue waves, sudden squalls, engine failures that put you at risk on lee shores, collisions with unseen objects, and illness at sea. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It’s no wonder that hidden in every sailor is a tiny little superstitious knot. It might not be as apparent as a refusal to sail on a Friday, no bananas on board, or not whistling while you set sail, but it’s there. But without a doubt, the most dangerous element at sea will always be the human element.

Where I lived on the coast, it was considered bad luck to change the name of a boat. But, if you did, many boatyards followed procedures that seemed more like heathen rituals than practices you find in any of the local Baptist, Congregationalist, or Methodist church.

Libations would be poured to Neptunas Rex and Davy Jones. Coins under the masts would be added to, carefully put back in the exact locations after repair, or eliminated in exchange for a completely new set, and of course, the boat would be thoroughly cleaned fore and aft. Sometimes this would not be enough.

II

One of the Allens from over to the cape purchased a very smart lobster boat third-hand. He did this against his wife, father, and brother’s wishes. He’d been thrice warned.

The boat had started life as a workhorse lobster boat built by a well-known builder out of Boothbay. She’d worked the waters of the mid-coast for years as the Hattie Carroll. Then, about 1974, she’d been sold to a New York City Banker who had her gutted and fixed up as a fancy boat to tour clients around during the summer; what we call a lobster yacht these days. 

Then, without any to do, he’d had a signmaker slap some vinyl letters on her, and her new name was ” The Cheek Of The Devil” in a fancy script. The boatyard had suggested that a bit of ceremony would be nice, but he wanted what he wanted, so he got it. No ceremony, but it was the talk of the harbor. Using the Devil in a boat’s name was not typical and not thought lucky.

He didn’t enjoy his boat long. A fire started offshore, and all aboard went into the bay. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been enough floatation devices aboard for all the guests, so he yielded his floatation vest and drowned. 

The boat survived with severe fire damage but was salvaged and put up for sale.

She lay in Spinney’s yard for two years before being sold. I wouldn’t know if the reason was the fire, the owner’s death, the name, or a combination of all three. But sit in the back of the yard, she did. To locals, it was the Devil when someone referred to that boat. That should have been enough to discourage any local from buying it. 

History and name suggested that nothing but ill luck was involved in that boat. Wash it in a bathtub of holy water from Saint Jerome’s, pour libations all day long, and do whatever hocus pocus you wish, and none of that would help. My father-in-law, the Cap’n, put it succinctly enough when offered the boat at a bargain rate, ” I wouldn’t allow any of my kin to sit in its shadow, much less step aboard.”

III

The Devil sat there until Jacob Allen went looking for a cheap boat with fast lines that he could pour a high-power engine into for lobster boat racing. The Devil fit the bill. And over a long Maine winter, he worked to rebuild the boat into his dream of a fast racer. 

During the spring, his trial runs seemed to indicate that he’d be a contender in any race he entered. Unfortunately, Jacob was not the type to go full speed ahead, only at a race. He’d run circles around other lobster boats in the local harbor gang he belonged to. Jacob took pleasure in almost swamping small craft he considered to be in his way. Jacob wasn’t well-liked.

Jacob was known to infringe on the territories of nearby lobstermen and was closely watched until, one day, he was caught. The first time you get caught, you will likely pull your traps and find a half hitch in your line. It’s a warning that your trespass has been noted. Do it again, and the penalties will go up. 

The Devil proved as successful as Jacob believed it would, and victory was frequent. Now I do not know how plush the prizes are these days, but back then, it was peanuts. You raced for the joy and pleasure of it. Jacob also raced because he loved to rub other skippers’ noses in how fast the Devil was. In a family of quiet Mainers, he inherited all the ego.

IV

I was helping out at Spinney’s boat yard that September hauling out summer people’s boats, and overheard Spinney talking to my father-in-law, the Cap’n. They both agreed that Jacob was heading for a fall. they quieted down when I walked up, but it was common knowledge that Jacob had been robbing traps, and something was bound to happen.

Things get slower as the weather gets colder; lobstermen spend more time repairing and making new lobster pots ( or traps), repairing their gear, and taking care of their boats. But on Halloween evening, the blast rocked the entire harbor as the Devil blew up with Jacob Allen aboard. The official report said Jacob had ignited a puddle of gasoline while starting his boat. A death by misadventure, I guess. But knowing people understood that Jacob Allen had been a scrupulous man in caring for his boat.

Murder was suspected but never proven. There wasn’t much of the Devil or Jacob Allen left for an inquest, just the mutterings of people about the enemies he’d had and someone finally canceling a grudge hard.

At the coffee shop in the morning, there were comments about how the boat had been ill-fated from the start, and then, more quietly, someone muttered that the Devil had certainly known his own.

Better With Age

The concept of being wet takes in a bit of territory. On the coast, you can be “wet from birth,” meaning you grew up on the water. Sometimes I’ve heard people described as just being all wet. The meaning here is that you weren’t smart enough to come in from the damp weather. Sometimes I’ve felt that I’ve been both all at once. I was born a part of a seafaring family and spent my youth growing up helping my Marine Engineer father. But as a sailor in a boat with actual sails, I can’t compete with those “smart as fresh paint” wise guys who’ve owned their sailboats since before puberty. One is not quite the equivalent of the other.

Then, I developed my penchant for carving boats these days rather than sailing them. I had hit the point where scrambling fitfully over centerboard trunks and going forward on heaving foredecks to tend fitful jibs no longer appealed. Knees and hips had aged.

So now I carve and once in a while pontificate on the activities of my peers. I actually may be improving with age, without ever leaving the dock.

Fall Arrives

With September absconding with the warmth of August, I should have been back in Boston. But there I was helping the Cap’n prepare Pysche for the winter layup. Unfortunately, the Cap’n was a bit of a frostbiter and wouldn’t truly yield to the cold until later in October, “there are lots of crystal clear sailing days into October, Wes!”

Of course, my practical and cold-averse wife suggested trips north as long as “Daddy” could get out for a sail. But, I was the one going out and getting frozen fingers and toes – that’s why it’s called frostbiting. So, no, Georgia would stay home and promise to keep the woodstove going and have hot chocolate or hot spice cider ready.

We sorted and packed everything that should not stay aboard through the winter months in September. There would be no multi-day long coastal trips and much you’d expect to need for those went ashore. We put on a heavy-duty rub rail at the waterline because the ketch spent the winter in a tidal gut that didn’t freeze up, but the hull needed protection from passing ice. The engine would get winterized when the Cap’n called it quits. Then we’d stip the sails for storage in the little lazarette below and cover the boat for the winter.
By then, I was approaching mid-terms and preparing papers. I was typing, reading, and attempting to keep my cat, the Grey Menace, out of trouble. There was a mountain ash tree in front of the cabin, and after the berries ripened, they sometimes fermented. Fermented berries meant drunken birds, and drunk birds meant great fun to the Menace. As a result, he was frequently confined to the dining room window, where he watched the birds cavorting without his assistance. To him, this unfair and arbitrary punishment made him more than usually interested in attacking passing ankles or bare toes. Finally, tripping the Cap’n on his way out with a bucket of wood ash got him summarily dumped outside. Now the Menace was in his element and began to stalk a drunken robin only to have the robin unexpectedly turn hunter and counter-stalk the cat. A loud yowling signaled that the robin had won the match and a chagrined cat retired to perch by the stove.

Sometime around the middle of October, the Cap’n would call it quits. At that point, you’d expect to be done. But a canny owner knows to double-check and check again. So as the fall rains and storms whipped through our area of the coast, we spent time going out and confirming that everything was secured.
Then the Cap’n and Cora would slip into their winter round of square and line dancing evenings, and my crewing services were no longer needed.

As winter approached, I’d take the little skiff out one final time, row around Pysche, and say goodbye to the cove until some snowy middle-of-winter trip brought us back with a growling cat who hated the snow between his paws; but adored evenings curled up in front of the fire.

Cribbage, Lights List and Coastal Pilot

The broken cribbage board and the Coast Pilot Take me back to the days when I learned to “Hand, Reef, and Steer” aboard the 34-foot ketch Psyche. The lovely thing about the ketch rig is that you have a wide choice of sails and sail configurations. Pick the right combo, and the boat will “wing on wing” before light air leaving you to enjoy the sail. The less fun part of the ketch rig is gaining the experience to choose correctly. The knight in the Indiana Jones movie said – “Choose, but choose wisely.”

Among my duties aboard were to swing the lead line, go forward on a heaving foredeck to take in jibs, reef, steer under the Cap’ns instructions, and heave the anchor up ( no, no capstan chanteys). I also mess cooked, went for ice, was first off with the lines, and had a plethora of additional duties. Look, I was chief cook, bottle washer, mate and buffet server.

At night I was required on demand to play cribbage with the Cap’n. Playing cribbage was not an optional duty. His daughter, my first wife, was not thrilled by the game, and thus, I was required to play. I developed a robust distaste for the game. And that’s why the broken cribbage board will stay that way. 

I’d like you to consider that for many years I could not recall the name of the game or could not force it past my lips. I still can’t remember the rules. Only in recent years have I been able to push those two syllables past my lips. I do not consider this a detriment, because by now you have realized that I loathe the game.

The Cap’n didn’t want to talk. He didn’t want to play some other reasonable sailor’s game:

  • No Acey-Ducey.
  • Cheaters Monopoly ( and I don’t mean the wimpy civilian version).
  •  Or Craps.

He wanted to play cribbage, night after night after night.

One night on deck, the question arose about identifying the navigational lights we saw from the various lighthouses along the coast. That conversation lead to my introduction to the Lights List and Notices to Mariners. The next day the Cap’n introduced me to the Coast Pilot, a publication that lists important information for mariners regarding the harbors and waterways along the coast.

Over the next two trips, the Cap’n pulled out his worn 1941 edition of Bowditch, a sexton, sight reduction tables, and away we went. I eventually got good enough that I did not calculate our position as somewhere near Washington, D.C., when we were near Sequin.

All these instructions gave me a solution to the cribbage problem. I found that if I begged off playing because I had to study the Coastal Pilot or Lights List, my wife had to play cribbage with the Cap’n. Unfortunately, this “evasion of my duties” didn’t help my deteriorating marriage . 

Things came to a head just before I left to return to school one summer. I played my educational card once too often and got accused of selfish behavior. Too damn true! I self-righteously refused to give up my navigational studies for mere cribbage. I maintained that I was taking the high road to self-improvement. My wife seeing through my ploy, clocked me with the cribbage board. That night I played cribbage.

Somehow when we separated, the broken cribbage board wound up in one of my boxes. It went undiscovered for years but gradually found its way into one of the family game boxes; forgotten.

A few weeks ago, Matilda and I visited Shelbourne Falls with a few of our kids. In one of the used bookstores, I found this copy of the Coast Pilot, and all the memories came pouring forth: Psyche, my first marriage coming undone, piloting, navigation, and of course, cribbage.

I am reminded of an anonymous quote: A smooth sea never made a skillful mariner. However, I hope by now that I am at least somewhat skilled in life, if not too wise.

Sloop of War

Small vessels of the Napoleonic War era below the rate of the frigate were frequently termed Sloops of War. It didn’t matter if the ship was rigged as a sloop, a brig, snow, or an actual ship rig. A frigate was generally ship rigged ( square-rigged on all three masts) and had at least 28 guns on a single flush deck. 

So the handy little flush deck Sloop of War I’ve carved here is almost a pocket frigate. With twelve guns, she will not stand against a larger ship, say a Frigate, but is armed well enough to do some severe damage as a Privateer, dispatch, or reconnaissance ship. Fast and able ships like this served the British, American, and French navies throughout the era.

About the carving:

This was lots of fun to carve. I modeled the Sloop of War on several illustrations but modified things until I had the sail plan and view I wanted. The carving was executed in eastern white pine. After most of the carving was complete, I decided on a mixture of painted color and bare wood for the sort of contrasts I wanted. The sea combines crushed stone, blue ink, and acrylic paints. The quote is a favorite Horatio Nelson quote that is both era-appropriate and matches the scene.

Sailing before the wind is a challenging position to carve. It needs a bit of hollowing in the sails for drama, but it can be tricky to express. Remember you are trying to get this sense of depth and movement in 1/8 of an inch or less of carved depth.

I’ve been developing this carving style as an homage to nineteenth-century sailors’ dioramas and ships’ portraits. It’s not modeling, nor is it flat portraiture. It’s a sort of hybrid.

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