Getting to Know You - Getting to Know All About You

If you do not commission your own boat she will never really belong to you. If you do not celebrate the rite of passage that takes her from the unfeeling hands of her builder, she will always dance to another man's tune. If you are not the one who lifts her out of her comfortable cradle and lowers her into the real world of the water in which she will live, then you are cheating her and you are depriving yourself, as fathers often do, of the joy of birth.

Commissioning is the only way to know a boat. It is the central thread that binds safety and comfort and pleasure into a managable assemblage. Commissioning your own boat is so important that I am willing to use poetry, prose, argument, coercion, deceit and even the truth, to move you to monkey wrench and screwdriver.

I have had two sea boats, vessels in which I have made ocean crossings. The first I did not commission. She came to me finished, tuned by another, with all accoutrement installed. I was too impatient and I knew too little of commissioning to start a process which was both a mystery and, in those early days, I considered unimportant anyway.

Learning your boat comes one of two ways. The first is by blunder and by chance. By this method I hustled Unlikely V twice across an ocean and survived only because the boat was a better man than I. Or, as with Unlikely VII, I blindly stripped the hell out of her and learned, before I had to, how the thing functioned.

Both ways work...I am mute (or not so) evidence of that. But let me impress on you that my survival on the first crossing was all luck. Half was the luck I was born with and the other half was the luck of having, quite accidently, acquired a boat which was better than I deserved. (My Dad used to say we all get better than we deserve. If we got what we deserved, he would add, we would all hang.)

In Unlikely V, I had taken to me an unsinkable Molly Brown. She was a Westsail 32, designed by a century to withstand not only the wind and the seas but the brutish caresses of her amateur suitors. In the course of two Transtlantics I managed to destroy three engines. I blew out sails as if they were Kleenex. I fouled pumps and filters and managed to reduce six heavy duty deisel batteries to a gasping, wimpering absence of amperage.

She had, as all new boats do, an unstoppable leak into the main cabin from above. Much later, while I was properly and carefully commissioning VII, I discovered that hause pipes are not to be trusted. The starboard bunk had more of the Atlantic in it than I sailed over. Had I laid serious hands on V, at least one of my crew could have avoided the prunish complexion he developed. Most of the debacle with V derived directly from my lack of knowledge of the systems and the processes which made my boat work. The only way to master these systems is to dive in with enthusiasm, curiosity and ignorance, so that when disaster knocks, you will, at the very least, know which door to answer.

You have three choices. You may master your boat at the dock surrounded by comfort, advice and spare parts. You may initiate the mastery a thousand miles at sea surrounded by ocean and your own sense of inadequacy. Or you may not survive not mastering her at all.

Unlikely VII was a different story. Upon her delivery I engaged in a wrestling match with the builder to determine who would commission. Nothing he did was right. Nothing he did could be right in my eyes. He was completely ignorant of the sea and possessed an ego as big as the Ritz (and t least as big as mine) which prevented him from recognizing his ignorance. I had learned my lesson well from V and had developed an unassuagable itch to commission VII myself.

I found fault in everything he did, even if once in a great while, by accident, he did something right. By a process which led to mutual emotional exhaustion, he agreed, generously, to allow me to spend my own money and my own time and take over the commissioning. If I ever build another boat, I will first determine how many dollars the builder is allowing for commissioning, and then take the boat (and those dollars) uncommissioned. I will do the job myself rather than redoing what he did badly and doing all those things he failed to do at all.

In commissioning myself I learned the most important lesson a sailor must know. We simply cannot bring the slothfull habits of the shore to sea with us. In the comfort of your own kitchen a new appliance demands very little of you. The manufacturer has deleted all possible interplay between you, as a reflective, sentient being, and the hundred pounds of iron which, you have been promised, will hum away energetically with no mortal intervention. Generally (and suprisingly) it does just that.

The manuals which accompany the appliances are an elegy to our disappearing mechanical eptitude. They are a variation of:

1. Plug cord in outlet. 2. Push button. 3. Enjoy the fruits of the labor of the machine. (No Luddites we)

And whether everything works perfectly or not, you are forbidden to 'remove cover' at the risk of warranty destruction. You have been demoted to pure user (poor loser?). Your only option is to call the 'Service Center'.

Thus have two hundred years of Yankee ingenuity been negated. In the process we have been reduced to our present infantile state of intimidated mechanical idiocy. Our normal human inclination to tear into things inanimate (and animate) to discover their secrets and correct their flaws, has been interdicted by the peddlers of ease and sloth.

The problem for the shoreperson turned sailor, is that his 'service center' may well be two months and two thousand miles away, and upwind at that. His curiosity and his self confidence has been assassinated by the assumption, implicit in contemporary consumer marketing, that automatic is better. We have been cast out of the delicious Land of Tinkerdom. We have been mechanically castrated and before we may take to the sea, we must regain our two most precious jewels.

Automatic may be more complicated, more expensive, consume more power and use up satisfying gobs of engineering, but, at sea at least, it certainly is not better. The best device ever invented for controlling inanimate objects is your mind, and the best idea ever thought of for the manipulation of these objects is the curious position of first finger and thumb. Automatic on a sailboat is wonderful for how your head should work in an emergency. Everything else should be non-automatic, repairable, and have a warning that declares, "Fool around to your heart's content".

All new boats should come with a Waranty that promises that there is nothing on board that is beyond your capability and your curiosity. Deepsix any device which you are forbidden to fix or instructed not to investigate. If these devices promise such heartbalm and ease that you simply cannot do without them, then you must carry three. Then, as one by one they go unrepairably out of whack, you may toss them overboard.

In order to commission your own boat you must first overcome the Fear of Fixing. You have been unconscionably programmed to dispose of, rather than to repair. You have been demoted from maker to user, and all against your will.

There is no need, in fact the contrary is true, to carry this demotion on board with you. On your sailboat you must reach the highest level that man can achieve in relation to machinery; that of maker/fixer/user. If you can not become that triplet, then don't go to sea


The maker/fixer/user (mfu) must first understand thoroughly what it is he must m,f and u. That is what commissioning is all about. It is not merely the process of preparing a boat for sea. It is much more subtle. Commissioning includes the process by which you prepare yourself with the knowledge of installation, function and design, required to remake and repair all of the stuff you hope to use a thousand miles at sea. Only then may you may start to prepare your craft.

You must be able to fix quipment which becomes unusable. That which becomes unfixable you must be able to remanufacture and, should you fail to repair or remanufacture, then you must have the knowledge to slip into a redundant mode or, in extremis, learn how to do without. If this protocol cannot be applied to the objects and the systems which have become necessary for either your comfort or your safety, then over the side with the ones you can not m or f.

This is precisely why you must commission yourself. Someone else's knowledge of how your steering system is installed is of no earthly use to you when he is in a warm movie theater munching buttery popcorn, and you are three thousand miles away, on a lee shore, at night, in thirty knots of wind and your steering cable goes boiing. Of no use at all.

There is no higher creative act than making a sailboat. Coitus is generally unconcious, success sic transit gloria, making money gets boring, and writing, such as this, little more than an act of high ego. Most of the things we do and make are full of fraud and self. If you approach the building of a boat from the muck and mire of self, you are sure to foul it up. Pride invariably goeth before a leaky boat. Muck and mire await.

There is no better path to making a great sailboat ( 'great' means something that works elegently, 'elegant' means actions made with least wasted effort) than to join forces with a naval architect. If you are one of the blessed of this earth who can afford his and the services of a naval architect, then you will find that the commissioning process begins at that first magic moment when you and your architect take a blank piece of paper and draw a line.

That is the beginning of understanding, the first intimation of the numerous casks of knowledge that you will have to stow away as your craft takes shape in your mind and then on the ways. All things, good and bad, descend from design. The idea is the act and the act becomes the boat. Michealangelo (or somebody) described the process by which he created a sculpture. "I take a block of stone", he said, "I picture the form in the stone and then I chip away the excess".

The making of a boat is similar. From among all of the possibilities inherent in your 40 feet, you and your architect abstract those that please and those that serve. All else are chips of stone scattered on the office floor. If you try to retain too much form in a sailboat, function will suffer. If you demand too much function, form becomes distorted beyond the orginal, elegant and workable idea.

It is with abstraction and design that your commissioning begins. The more knowledge you have of your boat before she is built, the less you will have to learn, and redo, as she is handed to you from her builder. However here is the rub, for, as has been suggested, it is between blueprint and delivery that most commissioning problems arise.

It is quite possible to sit daily with your architect and watch his mind fit your requirements into form and function. Unfortunately, in the the actual building process, it is not that easy. In the physical construction of your boat you are dealing with a builder, probably not a sailor, who is motivated by the need to make a profit. In addition you are confronted by his workmen, most certainly not sailors, whose primary concern is the reduction of pain in labor. Who then is concerned about your boat?

Unless you are dealing with that rarest bird, a builder who puts boat before bank balance and who has had much personal experience of the terrifying powers of the sea, then, between blueprint and delivery, no one holds the boat as his first concern. Their other worlds are too much with them and you really can not expect, from the builder or from his crew, your own brand of monomaniacal compulsion for perfection.

An interior decorator once created a three room apartment of exquisite balance, charm and delicacy. All depended on the most careful choice of wall colors and he went to great pains to describe to the painting foreman just the right shade of "rose, like the first blush of an early summer flower" and "lemon, pale as the tinge of the fruit itself" and "azure, like the color through three feet of the purest water" After he left the foreman called out to his men, "OK guys, red here, yellow there and blue in the other room....and make 'em light".

You, too, will receive from your builder 'red, yellow and blue'. You will get only an approximation. It will be close or distant, depending on your luck but never less than once or twice removed from the blueprints and specifications you handed him.

In most things we construct 'good enough' is an acceptable operating standard. In the sea 'good enough' isn't. But since commercial builders of boats are landpeople, 'good enough' is the best you will get, if all goes well. If all does not go well, you could (and many do) inherit danger and dismay. The commissioning process deals with the sea change that is needed to loft 'good enough' to 'best possible'. The sea will settle for no less.

There are no weak links in use in the sea. All links are equally weak in the face of the profound forces of which the sea is capable. Your boat survives a bad storm by an accomodation of inadequacies, by a subtle balancing and shifting of unbearable forces between structures too puny to stand alone. The balance must be perfectly tuned. The tuning is the commissioning.

Walter Gropius once said that architecture was not so much a matter of how things are built, but rather a matter of how things are joined. It is at the joinings that elegant engineering is melded into aesthetics to create a great work. If this is true on land then how much more so at sea? A boat is a small place, the length and breadth of which can be swept in a single glance. All the joinings jostle each other and compete for your attention. Unless this bringing together is pleasing, the boat will fall apart in your mind.

More important (to your safety if not to your soul) is how the seperate parts are physically joined. The compulsion to compromise and to settle for 'good enough' is strongest when a workman is faced with the need for thought and care (the two rarest and most painful elements of labor) in bringing things together. The joining could be as simple as the tightening of a clamp or as complicated as the joint between hull and deck. But simple or obtuse, there, at the joints, is where you look for trouble. A hose will rarely break in its length, it will break where it is connected. A deck will not leak through its surface, it will leak at its seam with the hull and your marine head will resolutely dispose of your wastes until the little piece of plastic that connects the handle to pump expires.

If you ponder on the places on your boat where things come together, and then reflect on how frequently you have had trouble start at those places, you will understand that commissioning is primarily a matter of seeking out all these points of contiguity. The seams in your sails give way long before the fabric; your spreaders do not break, they break off. Lines snap where they are fastened, cables give way at the swedges, electronics die at their connectors and your engine oil leaks away through seals designed by ten thousand hours of engineering to prevent leaks. On a quiet night, if you listen very carefully your boat plays a cacaphonic fugue of clicks and rips and cracks and zips. These are the sounds of tortured and failing joins.

So attend to these vulnerable linkages made weaker yet by fallible and lazy workmen. When you are through surveying the potentials for separation you will find, to your suprise, that your commissioning is mostly completed.

Look to the hidden places where 'good enough' is carefully covered with neat headliners and ornamental paneling. Any place covered over is suspect and the more difficult it is to remove that cover, the more suspect it should be. The blemishes to a boat are hidden in the ‘attic ’ like the blemishes to Dorian Grey's face. So look into the attics and root deep in the cellars of your craft for the bad stuff you know is there. Have no pity and do not be lazy. It will be a hell of a lot simpler to get at that 'impossible' place during commissioning then it will be to get at it on a dark and rainy night, in thirty kn............etc. etc.

I am beginning to sound, even to myself, somewhat canonical on this subject of commissioning. Maybe I stress it a bit much. All ill commissioned boats dont sink, they are just not much fun. But since I really can not imagine why any one would go through the agony and the dollars to build a boat which was not fun, I will continue to preach the chapter and verse of commissioning well and commissioning yourself.


And now, good friends, once more into the bilges!