Mid Watch

You get a sort of meager slumber. Night-Ops rumbling above, General Quarters can sound any time; and up you’d rise to your assigned station. You don’t bother shucking off your shoes; you might not have time to put them back on. That was Operational Readiness Inspection.
Given that as a background, you’d think that a quiet anchor watch in a friendly harbor would be a piece of cake. Not so when the anchor, solo, is holding loosely on shingle, and the skipper and rest of the crew have flexible ideas of what constitutes a watch. Four hours you’d say (except for the two dogged watches). Perhaps if you’re more familiar with bells, it should be eight bells ( two bells in each hour). These days you might pull out a phone or tablet and spend the time with music playing. Not so then; things that played music did not fit in a pocket unless they were a harmonica.
Inevitably, your mind wandered to things best left unexamined. Why did I agree to come on this stupid cruise knowing that I’d catch the mid-watch? Then the sound of oars and loud voices came to me over the water. “Hey. Pipe down. Everybody’s asleep…except for the anchor watch.” “Ahoy Psyche! Is that young Westerly? Do you want a bottle? We have one more drop, and we’ll be chumming the fishies!” I thought this one over before answering quickly. ” It’s Wes, and I assume that you’re the crew that shut down the Twin Dolphins tonight.” The reply- ” We are. So, you want the bottle?” I jumped into the skiff, let off the painter, and rowed out to meet them.
A companionable two hours of conversation and sipping killed off the balance of the watch. The crew that shut down the Twin Dolphins rowed back to their schooner and me to the ketch.
As I was climbing on board, a groggy Cap’n emerged on deck. ” I thought I heard voices…is that rum I smell?” My reply: “Sure is Cap’n. In the middle of the mid-watch, I rowed out to meet a bunch of rum-toting drunks. We drank all their rum, and only now am I reporting back for duty.”
He blearily looked at me. If he weren’t just fresh from his bunk, he’d have pulled out his pipe and done his little routine of filling it, lighting it, puffing on it, and then pointing the stem at me. Being it was 4:30 in the morning, he just grumbled, ” the mid-watch can do strange things to the mind, but providing rum doesn’t count as one of them.” Before he noticed, I quickly deep-sixed the empty pint of rum over the side.

The Good Boat

The little sloop Pussytoes was to get rechristened. Around the boatyard, we snickered. Who’d want to sail the on the Pussytoes?
A discussion got underway about renaming boats. Spinney put his toes into the water first with an authoritative ” Can’t do it on a Friday, or a Sunday -for obvious reasons!” then Bob chimed in, ” need to unstep the mast and add a new silver dollar onto the mast step.” Winslow nodded sagely and pointed out that the proper libation needed to be poured to Neptunas Rex. At this, Spinney, a church deacon, laughed. I just finished the new banner on the bench. At last, my father-in-law the Cap’n chimed in with the authority of a deep-sea mariner ” Safest to do them all and don’t forget the champagne.”
Thursday at apparent local noon ( as determined by a noon sight shot by the Cap’n) the Pusseytoes sloop got christened the FIZGIG. The honors were done by the bubbly miss Christine a bit of a fizgig herself. She was lighthearted, frivolous, silly, and flirtatious. At age twelve, she captivated the entire yard crew, and not a one had a word to say about who’d sail on the FIZGIG.

Robinhood’s Barn

To get somewhere by “going ’round Robinhood’s Barn” was a favorite saying of the Cap’n and his family. If I wanted to take the scenic route somewhere rather than the direct route, The Cap’n told me that I was going ’round said barn to get there.
It wasn’t just in terms of directions to or from places that this expression got used. Taking too many steps to do something would also earn you the saying – delivered in a lecturing tone. I like to do my research, gather my materials, and plan my work. So sometimes, it was confirmed that between inspiration and execution, there were several weeks. It’s still true – there are at least six projects in the shop that I work at fitfully. To me, it’s just wisdom to be prepared, but to the Cap’n, it was procrastination.
Periodically, I’d be annoying and ask the Cap’n for directions to the proverbial barn. He’d merely stand there, Stuff his pipe, light it, puff puff, point the stem at me, and remind me that standing around talking was not getting the job done. It went on like this throughout the years I knew him; the interplay between us about the barn and its location became a set piece in our discussions. Family members would roll their eyes when we got started.
The Cap’n was famous for running down a bargain when looking for replacement hardware for his boat Psyche. We’d chase around every marine supply store in the area before winding up at his favorite salvage marine outlet. Of course, I accused him of going ’round Robinhood’s Barn to get where he knew he was going anyway. He’d waste so much gas and time that it was hardly practical in terms of cost. One day I went into the shop and hurriedly made a crude sign with “Robinhood’s Barn” and a large arrow carved on it. Placing it in the back of the car before one wild expedition for used fittings, I waited until he went into the his favorite salvage store. Taking the sign and the stake I had put it on to the driveway, I pushed it into the ground.
I stood by the car, waiting for him to come out with a Cheshire cat grin on my face. When he came out, I enjoyed watching the double-take expression on seeing the sign. Showing the practiced abilities of an old Master Mariner, he smiled at me and said, “well, there you are, Wes. You wanted to know where it was!”
I use the expression to this day and always have to explain what it means. But I still have no idea where Robinhood’s Barn was.


Boat shops, and woodworking shops in general, are often full of patterns. You frequently build variations on similar forms. It’s easier to have templates available for these frequent repeats than starting over fresh every time. A carver’s shop is no different. I have a couple of gallery walls filled with examples I’ve carved over the past thirty or so years and numerous patterns for items I need regularly. The carvings themselves can be assemblages of pieces. The great carver Grinnling Gibbons created his massive works through assemblage, and where relevant, I do too.
The photo shows a maquette of an eagle with an applied banner. The design I based this on was a decoration on the paddle box of a very elegant 19th-century paddle steamer.

Several years ago, I carved this eagle from scrap wood. It has three pieces: body plan, head, and the attached banner. Could this be done in one piece? Yes, but it’s more straightforward and sturdy in three. A small model like this can be used with a pair of proportional dividers and paper patterns to get you pretty much any size eagle you need.

The second photo shows the small eagle with a duplicate I am working on for a house sign. Included are the patterns and prep work on the banner that has to lay across the caved eagle’s body. Patterns are lovely for layout, but a model is better for trying to get the flow of contours for things like banners or drapery.
The term bricolage is a French loan word for creating work through the assembly of various parts. While working on boat and ship portraits, I am a bricoleur combining model parts with individually crafted wooden components, paper, plastic, or metal. But even while crafting this sign, the technique creeps in.

Items like models, patterns and proportional dividers are as important to your carving as sharp gouges and knives. They form part of a shop production culture that continues to flourish not because it’s some historic affectation, but because it simply works.

Bad Jobs

If not golden, silence can be precious, especially when trying to find a way out of a bad design problem. As they like to say – “back in the day” – we used to layout lettering by hand. I was never good at it, and it was the part of carving that I least liked. As soon as computers came on the scene, I eagerly discarded the tracing and graph paper for a nice word processing application. But as I said back when it was by hand.
One particular week I was laying out a transom banner with a flowing font; the letters joined by graceful ligatures and flourishes. I had tried explaining to the client that the banner would be an illegible scrawl from any distance. But he was firm in his resolve. So there I sat, attempting to make the unintelligible both readable and stylish with my very inadequate skills. At that moment into my shop walked my nephew ( by marriage) Douglas. In the vernacular used by an English friend of mine Douglas was a “carker” – a whiney little brat who couldn’t shut up ( actually the term “bloody” usually preceded carker if Douglas was not around).

About eleven, precociously bright and with a mouth that was always moving, he was annoying. Today I was his babysitter, so I had the pleasure of his company while the rest of the family was in Portland shopping. I distracted him for almost an hour with a piece of wood and a plane as he practiced some plane craft. But now he was bored, and wanted to know more about what I was doing. It was not a good time.
Into the shop walked the client, spying the layout on the bench he started asking about progress. While we were talking, Douglas walked over and, grabbing the drawing, proceeded to turn it upside down and then back right side up. Smiling, the client asked Douglas what he thought of it. I was now flinching. Douglas was eleven, a motor mouth, and small for his age, but he was bright and didn’t like condescension. Flipping the drawing around, he plainly stated the obvious: ” This font is terrible. For identification purposes, the Coast Guard won’t like it. But if you turn it upside down, it’s a nice abstract design. I’d go with a nice font like Palatino on this, simple, elegant, and very legible.” The client was flustered; having your illusions shattered by a plain-speaking eleven-year-old was never pleasant. The client stormed out of the shop, and I had lost the job.
Sitting there, I took in the design I had sweated over, thought about the balance in the checking account, and pulled out my wallet and handed a dollar to Douglas. Douglas stammered out: “Uncle Wes…I am so sorry. What’s the dollar for?” Douglas had absorbed all my idle chatter over the past week about the design. He had also unknowingly relieved me of one hell of an unpleasant commission. ” Douglas, you did well – simple and elegant is good. I loved the way you capsized the design to look for a balance.” the kid seemed to glow, and for once was he was silent.
Another carver got the job after me and had similar issues. Sometimes you are just lucky when clients walk away. Douglas enjoyed an ice cream cone on me when we saw the completed banner gracing the client’s boat down at the harbor.

Lobster Yacht

Spinney knew that keeping a small boatyard working during the winter months is not easy. It depends upon contracts signed during the warm season, repair work, and fortuitous restorations of “Boneyard Boats” with well off owners. This winter’s major project was a lobster boat to Lobster Yacht conversion- new transom, some new frames, finish carpentry in the cabin, engine restoration, and all associated work. Work proceeded despite the heavy snow that blanketed the boatyard.
As work proceeded into the cabin area, Bubastis, the nut-brown yard cat and queen of all she surveyed, got forcibly ejected from the nest of old blankets in the bow that she had appropriated as a throne room.
Following her eviction were several days of hissing at Spinney and any who came near. Dead mice showed up on workbenches and Spinney’s desk. Notably, she dropped one ripe rat to cook on top of the woodstove. This last caused the shop to be vacated and aired for most of one afternoon.
A deputation of workers visited Spinney to complain. None dared suggest that Bubastis depart the yard for Spinney’s home. She’d only wander back in a day or two. Nor did any suggest treats, toys, or new beds from the pet store; she’d turn up her aristocratic nose at them.
Nora, Spinney’s sister, came up with the idea. As a kitten Boo ( her kitten name) had slept in the Avon boxes that Nora got when she was selling cosmetics. Nora suggested an Avon shipping box and the old blankets from her former boudoir in the boat’s bow.
The next day a very nonchalant Spinney dropped the old shipping box by the lumber rack. About an hour later, Nora swung by and discarded the old blankets into the box. She casually kicked it under the rack. No-fuss or attention was made. About an hour later, Bubastis wandered by, briefly investigated the box while all in the shop carefully ignored her.
The next morning there was a line of dead mice by the shop door. The queen had accepted the new throne. All was right in the world.
A few weeks later, the Yacht owner stopped by to evaluate the progress on his boat. Perched on the bow was Bubastis surveying her domain. She condescended to allow him to scratch her ears. “My,” he said, ” I bet you run this yard just like you own it.” In the office, Spinney muttered, “She damned well does!”

Bristol 27

A friend owned a Bristol 27. A boat that could be comfortable for two on extended cruising but wasn’t something two people could liveaboard. Yet most of the year he, and his wife did. Whisper provided compact and sublime living space. She wrote copy for cruising magazines and guides. He was a retired mariner who’d never swallow the anchor.

But ashore, they’d tumble every October. That was how I met them. 

I had been finishing an interview next door when I noticed their “garden”; a collection of plastic clothes hampers with bags of topsoil plopped into them. Out of this unlikely potting grew a profusion of tomatoes, lettuce, and other crops. Being interested in gardens, I stopped to speak to them. Soon, we were discussing tomatoes and peppers over coffee. They shipped the hampers aboard the Bristol during the summer as an onboard garden. As soon as boating came up, the conversation grew to include Coastal Maine, boatyards, builders, and favorite designs.

Next spring, I worked alongside them as their deadline for cruising season neared, and I joined them for the shakedown cruise of the season. It began with a lovely clear day and a brisk southwesterly breeze. We were just east of Sequin when things picked up, and the sailing became an exhilarating experience. Then the crashes and sounds of breaking crockery started. Being the nonessential crew member, I was sent below to deal with the crisis.

Ashore, I had noticed that they were not the best organized of housekeepers, but that didn’t bother me. Their shoreside establishment was to them more housing between cruises than a home. But when I went below on Whisper that day, I discovered that their shoreside habits came along with them while cruising. A box of dishes had fallen from the chart table and shattered. As I swept up the shards, the boat suddenly heeled in a puff of wind, and I tumbled over, landing on broken dishes. That set the standard for the cruise. Getting from my forward berth to the marine toilet at night required running an obstacle course of supplies for the cruising season. Preparing breakfast at the tiny galley was a challenge because the stove seemed buried with unpacked food boxes. That was the cruise in a nutshell.

The article that she wrote contained none of this. There was a photo of the skipper at the wheel, then one of her studying a chart. And one of me on the foredeck with the spinnaker pole. No mention made of havoc below. Reading the article a second time, I inserted commentary that I felt added realism to the experience. But that sort of thing doesn’t sell magazines.

I went on day sailing expeditions with them afterward. But no cruises. We’d plan excursions at the mooring, but I noticed that little ever was stowed below. 

There’s a saying among sailors about everything being “shipshape, and in Bristol fashion.” Whisper added a new meaning to that saying.


<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">It's not my most technically astute piece. It's just common pine, and it was done early on in my box making phase. The little box with the sloop on it kicked around for a while. I took it with me to a Salem Maritime Festival one year to fill out a table, and it and a similar box sold to a North Shore ( in Massachusett's that means along the coast north of Boston ) art teacher who said she liked them because they had a story.<br>It took me a while to think about it because it had been a long time since I had carved the scenes for the box lids, but there was a storyline involved. The little sloop is close to a disastrous jibe, and in the tempest, it is sailing in it will probably lead to a knockdown – the sort of scenario that haunts every sailor's dreams. But careful seamanship might still save the boat from disaster.<br>So all contained in one carving is a small dynamic story. You are entering the story in the middle. But from the waves and sky, you can conjecture the beginning. You can see that depending on the abilities of captain and crew, the outcome will be a disaster or a victory. To some extent, that outcome is yours to imagine.It’s not my most technically astute piece. It’s just common pine, and it was done early on in my box making phase. The little box with the sloop on it kicked around for a while. I took it with me to a Salem Maritime Festival one year to fill out a table, and it and a similar box sold to a North Shore ( in Massachusett’s that means along the coast north of Boston ) art teacher who said she liked them because they had a story.
It took me a while to think about it because it had been a long time since I had carved the scenes for the box lids, but there was a storyline involved. The little sloop is close to a disastrous jibe, and in the tempest, it is sailing in it will probably lead to a knockdown – the sort of scenario that haunts every sailor’s dreams. But careful seamanship might still save the boat from disaster.
So all contained in one carving is a small dynamic story. You are entering the story in the middle. But from the waves and sky, you can conjecture the beginning. You can see that depending on the abilities of captain and crew, the outcome will be a disaster or a victory. To some extent, that outcome is yours to imagine.

A comment made to me about this carving a few weeks ago got me thinking about how and why I carved it. My style changed based on what clients wanted in their boat and ship portraits – more pacific treatments of boats effortlessly sailing on calmer seas. But I think I’ll print a copy of this picture to hang in the shop to remind myself that other approaches and techniques work and that they tell stories.

Sailors English: cumshaw

The word Cumshaw derives from a Chinese word for “grateful thanks.” Cumshaw was a late 18th or early 19th century add to a sailor’s vocabulary picked up on voyages to China. It can reference a gift or payment for a service. I know that some people refer to it as a bribe. But the way I learned of it from my father and other mariners, it was a sort of lubricant between cooperating parties. Sometimes cash is exchanged, but often its goods or services. I need something, and you need something. We reciprocate after agreeing on the value of the goods or services we are exchanging. Something closer to a grateful gift than a blatant bribe.
I learned about this early in my life. I was my father’s weekend and summer apprentice at his primary job site, and a host of other smaller jobs that he always seemed to be asked to do. He had come ashore the year I was born after years at sea. There was little about marine power plants that he could not fix, and he put that knowledge to good use repairing and maintaining anything that needed power. This Included commercial power plants, apartment house heating systems, propulsion systems in fishing vessels, and anything for which he could find a service manual. Among my earliest memories are those of days spent handing him tools as we worked on fishing vessels, and re-tubing old boilers.
Lots of this was just straight pay for the job. But, by age nine, I had my sea legs because Nick Carreras and his son were out on those charter fishing boats we maintained. We rarely paid. Cumshaw.
Deep-sea fishing was the closest Nick Carreras was going to get to the sea, so we did lots of it. When things got bad at home, my father would tell mom that he was going down to the hiring hall and look for a ship; if he did, he never found one. Instead, we’d head out on a boat for a day of fishing — fair or foul weather.
As the years went on, my father worked his way into a working supervisory position for an owner of multiple offices and light industrial buildings. Now he could be all over the City. New York then was still THE premier seaport, and mariners from all over the world came ashore there. Where ever Nick Carreras went in New York City, there seemed to be a network of former shipmates or other mariners who had swallowed the anchor. They all established their curriculum vitae by mentioning which lines and ships they had served on, when and curious things about the ports they had visited. The particulars of their lives at sea set serious business could proceed.
More lucrative were the connections with the businesses located in the buildings. My father and his crew of workers maintained the buildings. But, as any New Yorker will tell you lots of little, and not so little things were optional and open to negotiation. My father was a master at this sort of negotiation, having learned the basics in the Merchant Marine. Now he set about polishing those skills in his home city. By the sixties, a pattern developed. My father left the house dressed for business in a tailored suit, silk tie, diamond-studded cuff links, and diamond pinky ring. He drove a late model car; he came to prefer Caddy’s then T-Birds. Once at work, he’d make the rounds, descend into the basement, and change into khaki shirt and pants. Then he was ready to commence his daily work routine. At the end of the day, he’d change back into the suit and drive home.
Almost every day had some time dedicated to checking in on some of his outside clients: Haberdashers, Jewelers, dentists, butchers, shoe stores, and more. Periodically, you’d hear, “Nick, could you do ( add the name of service here).” My father would take note and schedule the service for a Saturday, Sunday, or evening. When I was visiting home in New York, I’d participate in these activities. I never heard mere filthy lucre mentioned. Most of these were old established relationships, and they and my father understood each other. “Nick, drop by sometime, I have something new in stock that would look great on you.” “Nick, I have a brooch with rubies that would be wonderful for Mimi ( my mother).” everyone involved understood the quid pro quo.
You could fall off the cart with my father. Haggling was one way to do this, not keeping your word was the other. It was also not all economic. It could also be about years-long relationships. Once, I asked my dad about what he’d receive from a particular job we were doing – “it’s just a favor,” he replied.

When My Dad died, I was the one who went through his papers. The tax documents told one story, the Italian shotguns, bespoke suits, hand-stitched shoes, and other things told another. Via the informal economy, my father had done well. His actual annual income from his job was very modest.
The foundation for this life had been laid down just like a ship from the keel up. His first voyages as a teenager on the Dollar Steamship lines had taken him around the world. Before he turned twenty-one, He’d been on two round the world cruises and several shorter passages.
My father introduced me to the term cumshaw at about age nine; about the same time, I began to pick up Spanish curse words from him.

Cumshaw. It’s a useful word for a sailor.

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