Tuesday I ran through some composition rules for my students, including “don’t run rays out the very corners of your painting,” and “don’t cut off corners with diagonals.” On Wednesday, I broke both those rules. Not only did it work, but I knew it would from the first lines. I assume it’s because the closed corner acts as a fulcrum for the radiating rays of the hull. It just goes to show that no rule is inviolable.
This is my last opportunity to paint schooners in drydock at North End Shipyard, because the Isaac H. Evans is the last boat on the docket. Starting with the American Eagle, and moving through Heritage, Grace Bailey, and Mercantile, I have painted each boat as it came through.
The Isaac H. Evans is the first boat I’ve seen here being caulked with oakum. I don’t know how old the technique of using combed hemp to plug the joints in boat is, but both “caulk” and “oakum” are words dating to the early 15th century.
Oakum is most notorious for its role in forced labor in Victorian England. Recycled from old tarred ropes and cordage, oakum was “picked,” which means the filthy fibers were unraveled and separated. In 1862, the amount required ranged from 1 to 1.5 pounds per day from children in workhouses to 3-6 lbs. a day from prisoners who had been sentenced to hard labor. It was odious work, hard on the fingers.
Today’s oakum is made of virgin hemp and saturated in linseed oil, making it gentler to handle—or so said the oakum roller for the Isaac H. Evans. That doesn’t mean the crews have it easy. The boats are carefully inspected by the Coast Guard while they’re out of the water. Captain Brenda Thomas of the Isaac H. Evans had just found out she needed more plank replacement than she expected, and when I left at 6 PM, she was still working when most of her crew were gone.
Even without these surprises, the amount of work necessary to ready one of these boats for the season is staggering. The captains are not striding along the quarterdeck issuing orders; they are right in there working with their crews.
While eating their lunches, two people talked about whether they preferred Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series or C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. It was the spirit of the day, history overlapping the present, reality pressing against the barrier to the mythic past.