Wade Tarzia

Sep 30, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

K.R. Copeland Interviews Educator/Sailing Enthusiast, Wade Tarzia

K.R. Thanks for being with us, Wade. Most people attribute their lifelong passion for the ocean to early childhood experiences. Tell me, at what age did your passion begin, and could you describe your first recollected oceanic experience.

W.T. Sorry, long answer, because things are complex! My first experience of the sea is almost my first recollection of anything.  It is an image of horror. My father took me with some of his friends to fish off a bridge somewhere on the coast north of Cape Ann and south of Maine.  I leaned over to indulge my first study of the sea.  I am watching someone’s fishing line disappear into the water below, and he is reeling it back to check his bait.  And then ….a horrific creature leaps out of the water and grabs the bait. It must have been a scalpin, and in fact that may be the earliest word I recall ever hearing, in someone’s rough male voice.  It has cartoon teeth, the sawtooth kind, and the bulging eyes of nightmare.  It took that bait and hook in one snip of its teeth and was gone, but since time slows down in such moments as the memory records in faster increments, its face hung there staring at me for the longest moment.   Someone cried out in amused disgust.  I had no words at all.  I don’t think I have ever since looked into the sea with unalloyed joy.  And that’s good, it’s realistic.

Now, as for the ‘lifelong passion’ part, hmmm. My father grew up on the banks of the Merrimack River in Haverhill, MA, a starving Italian Huck Finn.  So all his childhood tales were about building crude rafts and boats from lumber discarded behind the shoe factories, and having adventures on the river with his deaf cousin Dante (with whom he had to invent a language of home-signs and semi-articulated grunts and hoots that only he and my dad understood — sailors must be inventive, or inventive people become sailors when they can, who knows?).  Back then “you could walk over the Merrimack on lumps of shit; it’s miracle I’m still alive,” he told me.  He also left home at age 16 (he and my granddad did not get along) and sometimes made his living sailing rich men’s sailboats for them (“while they went below with their women”), and that’s how poor kids get great sailing experience, subsidized by the rich.  My childhood was much more regulated and protected, though.  I heard his stories without being allowed to mimic any of them.

But the seed started growing with the TV documentaries of Jacques Cousteau, and his book, The Living Sea. I loved that man and his life (and when from a radio announcement I heard he’d died, I shocked myself by suddenly crying in my car driving home from work).  My father briefly tried Scuba diving at that time.  I got to breathe from his air tank during my severe asthma attacks, when my parents reasoned if I breathed purified air it would help. Imagine the odd romance of that, lying in bed gasping for breath, turning blue, seeking relief from Jacques Cousteau’s invention!  I would try to be an oceanography major briefly in college because of him, until the calculus course killed that.

Eventually dad bought an old cabin cruiser for weekend jaunts with other families who had small power cruisers, but by then I was 15, had a motorcycle, and a lot of independence.  Powerboats had no romance for me — not the things of passion.  But when my parents divorced, my mother rented an apartment on a New Hampshire lake, and then I started rowing for hours, day and night (as better explained in my Sea Stories essay, “The Small Atlantis”). At the same time I was reading the heroic fantasy adventures of Fritz Leiber and Robert Howard, many of which put their heroes sailing the seas, so I can peg the date of the real sea passion to the age of 17, in 1975.  It was then I wanted a sailboat, but had not the means or the imagination (I’m so sorry to say) to get one or build one.  Then came college, and all my scant resources had to focus there.

K.R. So, if not at age 17, when did your sailing adventures (bought, built or otherwise) begin?

W.T. My step-father had a Maine lobsterboat and as a kind of hobby (I hesitate to use the word for an obsession) a charter-boat and commercial fishing license when he wasn’t building houses.  I was the “first mate” for one summer after grad school, and my duties were to help with the boat operation, gaff fish for the customers, clean the fish, and mop up customer vomit.  We also fished for Bluefin Tuna, and then my duty was to cut up chum (sometimes crate-loads of rotting fish) for bait to drop overboard to lure the tuna to the hook.  I spent the summer of ’83 doing that, and I made enough money to pay for the gas to see my girlfriend.

But I never regretted it — I learned I could handle a bad storm and long rolling vomit-inducing days without adding to the steaming heap myself. I loved cruising standing over the waves on the tuna pulpit with a harpoon in hand for hours (The one time I was near a school the captain was saying, “Throw!  Throw now!”  And I was saying, “Just a little closer!” and the tuna sort of gave me the finger and slid slowly under the surface.)  I learned I enjoyed taking care of “my boat,” putting her right and clean at day’s end.  And I learned I could feel so dirty with sweat and rotten fish guts splattered all over me that I could revert to priorities, stripping naked on a Gloucester dock and showering off with a hose — only the dim light of dusk between me and the tourists promenading. (I like to think I added my bit to Gloucester folklore).  These were all good things to know besides lovely scenes: the good clichés such as sunrise at sea and dolphins playing around in our wake, of course, and the surprise of whales surfacing all around us one day and blowing when the engine needed repair and we were drifting quietly with our heads stuck in the bilge.

I also had a first-hand encounter with ecological issues.  I listened to the sports fishermen talk about the loss of the haddock fishery (which has now returned) and the declining size of cod over the years.  They spoke of the draggers cleaning out the sea (a common accusation standing between the different “ethnic groups” of sea-users).  Bluefin tuna were still to be had, but the sheer enormity of the commercial operation was an eye-opener and led to the sad situation we have today.  I mean, here we were, a small operation, and our competitors had airplanes circling around spotting tuna from the sky.  And yet all of us had sonar fish-finders, an ultimately destructive technology, I now think, second only to the draggers (whose steel nets can alter the very morphology of the sea bottom, irreparable for perhaps a million years).  And the Japanese, waiting at the dock, paying by the pound by the temperature of the carcass, relieving it of head and tail with a chainsaw, trucking right to the airport, and in 24 hours it is sushi in Tokyo.  I’m not blaming anyone for liking fish, but even when I was naive it was clear what industrial technology was doing to this resource.

After that summer I taught a year as slave-faculty (adjunct) at a community college, and then I had a career job as a technical writer for Pratt & Whitney Aircraft –proving that things could be done with degrees in anthropology and English — I ordered my first boat in the heady days of my first middle-class salary.

I had Lowells Boat Shop, a 200 year old dory shop in Amesbury, MA, make me a small sailing dory-skiff.  Its lapstrake construction (overlapping riveted planks) harkened back to ancient Norse ships, and I finally I owned a piece of the romance!  I had thirsted after a boat with lapstrake construction ever since I started the post-divorce routine.  Get out of high school on Friday, work a couple of hours at my part-time job in a curtain store (with no interior decorating genes, I believe I was hired as a quasi-body guard for the female manager, as I had nothing to do but vacuum the floor 5 times a night  and eat donuts).  The nice old woman safely in her Buick at closing, get on my beat denim jacket, pull a helmet over my shoulder-length hair, and ride my motorcycle to where every wild teen should go on Friday night — the library.  There pull out books on medieval history and Viking ship construction and just leave the world of the living (I spent long hours with the dead, as Mr. Casaubon realizes too late in the novel Middlemarch.)  Then drive to my mother’s and sister’s apartment for the weekend, hang out, and pick up where I left off in Swords of Mars.

That routine led to straight to the Lowell dory as soon as I had a few paychecks from Pratt & Whitney behind me. My father visited the shop frequently during its construction and gammed with the boat builder, and he welded me up a trailer for it.  He had a mast and sail from his ex-boss’s boat (dad was a little vague about that), so we cut it to fit.  Now, for sailing lessons all I had were a handful of fantasy stories and a head full of notions.  Dad told me a few things, but teaching was not his great skill; he thought all you need do is show a boy some tools, or a boat, make him watch you work and hand him wrenches and screws, and it would all come together eventually.  He did give me an old sailing manual Learn How to Sail! with a photo of author Commodore O’Day in his elite white yachting clothes standing in his race boat, and a bunch of diagrams of wind and sail angles.  So to close the circle I dropped the boat in the lake where my mother had had her divorce apartment a decade ago, where I had learned to row, and I sailed with my then-wife aboard.  I know now all the hideous assumptions and mistakes I made, and would make for years, but with the stories of Fritz Leiber’s fantasy heroes in their sea adventures, and Mr. O’Day’s advice, I brought the boat out and back again somehow, and that was that, I have not gotten sailboats out my system since.

Someone invented a proverb that resonates in the small-boat world: the boat that you use is the best boat.  An awful lot of people are discovering that they did not use their 35 footer as they had imagined, but a 15 or 20 footer kept on a trailer ultimately turns out to have been the best boat, used often, and some people have had real adventures in them, adventures attainable by us common folk, when we can escape the narcotics of couch and TV.  I am happy that Swan brought me a little way into that world — a world of relative quiet, of efficient wind power, a need to develop some skills, and also a world of required patience since sometimes Nature says, “Sorry, no, you can’t go there as you had planned, not unless you turn on a motor.  Are you going to turn on a motor?  Is that what you are made of?  Go ahead, my dear, make a decision, tell me who you are.”  The decision to buy a motor (sometimes good for safety) and if bought, when to use it, is a subtle crisis for the sailor and the modern environment!

My sailing life turned to outrigger canoes at one crisis point (another story), and I could not pay attention to that 24 year old wooden dory.  I donated her back to Lowells Boat Shop, which became a nonprofit heritage organization from which you can still order a dory or rent one on a Sunday.  The Swan floats there now at her mooring where she was born — all’s right in that little world.

K.R. You mention utilizing motors for safety purposes, in spite of environmental concerns. Have you ever been in a situation that required you to do so?

W.T.   Well, a sailboat over a certain size usually needs a motor to maneuver in tight spaces or get home if the wind dies, (and some sailors are not able to do extended athletic rowing because of age or illness) but it can be small and efficient (4 cycle or even electric, but electricity is made somewhere and usually by fossil fuels).  A five-horsepower motor can move an efficient sailboat hull, even a pretty large boat.  And if you intend to go up a river or past a tidal race, you need some power (for a comparison, a human rower in top condition can generate at most one-half horsepower, and for long stretches 0.2 horsepower is more likely.)  But the need for a motor is as much a function of our modern life of weekends, Monday mornings, and clocks in general. If you only have a weekend free, you must to be back Sunday night, and so the most dedicated-to-wind sailor will sometimes have to use a motor (my sailing day is set by sunset — if I do not leave Lighthouse Point parking lot by sunset, they will tow my vehicle).  Otherwise, you could do as sailors used to do: anchor to wait for the tide to turn or the wind to shift or freshen, and do some chores, catch a nap, or spin some yarns in the meantime. The social reality is otherwise.

My complaint is with our crazy American way of thinking, with its focus on BIG and FAST and NOISY.  A planing powerboat lifted off its wave to break its “hull speed” limitation uses about ten times the fuel per unit time of a power boat content to motor slowly within its hull wave.  It is a problem in philosophy and ideology that becomes a problem for the environment.  (Look at the car commercials — we are hardly out of the American car manufacturer crisis, and they are already back to extolling SUVs and fast cars again?  Oh, come now!) The small sail/paddle/row boat represents the opposite philosophy. You do not go as far, but then, what does it matter if it takes you a day to go 40 miles — your speed creates your world, and 40 miles passed slowly is in a way the same as 120 miles done quickly.  (During my folklore fieldwork trips to Ireland I have traveled by bicycle for over 3,000 miles, and have also tried rental cars.  Guess which method provides the most complete experience?)

I’ve never been in situation where a motor was needed for safety, though I could imagine some situations — a squall line is approaching and you could reach a safe place with a motor, etc.  Or your sailing rig is damaged and motor is needed to get home before dark.  But the technology on a sailboat often can be negotiated with. The other day my deck gear tore out and I fixed it temporarily with a piece of rope — one of the joys of simple technology!

But lots can happen that a motor is no protection against. For example, the boom can smack you in a windshift.  If you treated your boom like a beloved family member who sometimes loses his mind and does crazy things, that would be OK.  A veteran sailor I know tells the story of hearing something odd, and his instinct was to duck whenever that happens, and the huge boom on his boat swept by in a near-decapitating stroke after some hardware broke.

Once my whole boat hit me on the head, and I suppose motors have some stake in this story (I wrote humorously about in an essay still available on-line at Proafile magazine, “My Bloody First Day with a Crabclaw”).  A power boater towing a water skier cut me off rather rudely, and I stood up to douse my sail just as a gust caught us and knocked my outrigger canoe down.  The outrigger float swung 180 degrees across the sky and hammered me on the head as I bobbed up from the water. That was the first day I had worn my life vest instead of sitting on it, so now I always wear it.  I woke up in a pool of blood, floating with my foot crushed between some gear.  (For such a “slow” sport, bad things happen terribly quickly and all at once)  The guy who had gotten in the way brought me aboard, and I scared the crap out of one of his passengers, a 3 year old boy, who thought his dad had hauled the living dead out of the lake. The fellow’s boat wouldn’t start, so these other guys motored up and offered to take me to shore.  I had to swim to their boat because of the wind, and they kept throwing me a rope and missing me, so I had to swim some more.  The wind then brought the two boats together with me as the sandwich meat.   (The Monty Python guys could have done this as a Coast Guard training film).  Finally the second rescue boat drives off, they failed to raise their outdrive soon enough and rammed it on the lake floor, damaging it, so again I had to leap overboard and swim to shore throwing thanks and apologies behind like cheap candy.  By the time I met the ambulance ashore, I was tired of being helped so they had to trick me inside and slam the doors.  The EMT suffered motion sickness when the AC was not turned on, so I traded puke for a touch of hypothermia by the time we came to the ER.  So, the afternoon left many people’s wreckage in my wake, my blood deposited on all our vehicles (the waterline of my boat was stained brown until I repainted).  The day was sunny and beautiful, and though the water does not suffer fools gladly, it gladly accepts our holiday sacrifices!

K.R. Wow. You’d think having one’s head smashed between two boats might sway a person away from sailing. So, what keeps you going back for more?

W.T.  Luckily, most days are not like the ones that make tragi-comical anecdotes!  But a more satisfactory answer is this: this small-boat hobby is ill-described by the word ‘hobby’.  Even when not lived 24/7, it sure seems to engage a lot of life.  Though many people have been doing-it-themselves (as the venerable Popular Mechanics Magazine suggests), the DIY (do-it-yourself) movement has been getting some attention recently through events such as Burning Man, journals such as Make Magazine, and sites such as Instructables.Com.  These are all great things but are just the outward symbols — I think — of a resistance to and sickness from an industrially produced world which for all its wonders seems to subtract inventive/problem-solving qualities from the general human.  The DIYers are trying to get it back, or to go down fighting, I don’t know which.   I feel strongly that the small-boat micro-culture is an expression of this movement.

I recently got to a true veteran of boat design and living, Jim Brown, and he said it best while we were chatting. It went something like this as I was showing him my little craft when passing by his Virginia homestead: “It’s just a small boat, Jim, but I cannot adequately explain what it means to me. The word ‘hobby’ isn’t right.”  He smiles because I need explain nothing. “No, Wade, it’s not a hobby, it’s a life.  There’s nothing to compare to designing your own boat, building it, and going to sea in it.”  He was kind to attach my little experience to that of the deeply involved, but I certainly feel that way.

And that’s just what it is.  No matter the size, your whole body is involved — and I include the mind when I say the body.  The dreams, the imagination — these lead to the classic ‘napkin sketches’, the notes and illustrations you draw during interminable committees whose results will be forgotten in a few months.  The basement workshop and its smell, its controlled chaos, and things that start forming into the pieces that might last for years.  Don’t forget the blood split, always a little.  The sketches represent hypotheses, and those tested, the parts become theories.  I learned as much science in my workshop as I did in university — that is not to blame my educators but rather reflects my personal failure to learn science through lecture and text — in that area I am a physical learner and it came late, but not too late.

Then that day you pull the car and trailer back into the parking lot, and walk down to the launch site zipping on your lifejacket.  You cannot help seeing the whole picture now — the boat is waiting, and it is you and yours like no other thing in your life is, except for your children.  Brown in his memoir Among the Multihulls tells the story of his friend who felt that birthing a boat was a man’s attempt of doing what only a woman can do.  Maybe there’s something in that.

So you stop and look at your boat, and yes the cliché is true, it is so small against the panorama of just a bay, never mind an ocean.  But the seagulls are small, too; there they are, evolved for what they do, confident and beautiful.  Small does not mean insignificant, and if the boat is not as evolved as a sea creature, the laws of physics and engineering insure that the kinship is evident.  The lines of bird and fish, you’ll find them on a sailboat.  When traditional waterfolk in Indonesia and the Pacific decorate their canoes, you often find the motifs of birds and fish on them.  I think of birds and fish when I think of the small sailboat/canoe/kayak community.  These people are amazing.  You don’t notice them so much because they make so little noise and take up so little space, use so little energy (wind and muscles, though I confess we burn some gas towing to and from the shore!), and they are some of the most capable and interesting people I’ve met.  Go pick up a periodical like Small Craft Advisor to get a feel for the philosophy of this micro-culture — it has a bit in common with environmentalism, and since they pass relatively slowly along the coasts, they certainly witness much in the world (the on-going, self-supported documentary of British coastal culture and habitat, Keep Turning Left, by sailor and video journalist, Dylan Winter, must be seen in this regard).

And then there is the personal experience of humanity, hard to explain.  When I brought my first boat to the salt water, I will never forget the feeling of leaving earth. I know how silly that sounds, but if the next cliché is ‘the sea as outer space,’ then so be it.  We humans are not adapted to either, but we are beautiful like the seagulls in our technical adaptations, and there we go, where our bodies are not adapted.  I hope it is not all arrogance and desire to conquer (I dislike those “The Right Stuff” allusions), but rather delight and curiosity.  The space-suit or the boat becomes our skin, and the skin does divide out from in.  That’s OK, the here/not here helps us self-define.  When I pushed my boat off that day — despite my previous experience as a fisherman’s mate — I felt a little scared. The wind tightened the sail, we/I moved away, and only my own creation, the wind, and what little I knew about the wind would bring us back.  Just a little bay cruise, no ‘conquest’ but a survived experience (ha, ha), a sense of, “I was there, I saw the world, and I had a hand in that moment.”  There is nothing else like it except …. the other things like it.

The ‘safe cozy home’ themes in some popular science fiction come to mind as an analogy, particularly the TV SF series, Firefly.  Here are a bunch of collected characters living aboard their ramshackle spaceship, and yes the adventures are fun, but some of the most touching moments on the show are when the crew are gathered around the (wooden!) table in the little galley, eating and talking, all that is good in the human condition collected in that little bit of enveloping metal, with a scary space to cross and sudden death outside to define this life.  Being on a small exposed boat can participate a little in that feeling.  Hard to explain — maybe you just have to be there….?  There are some great events out there that will help you feel that way.  The Everglades Challenge race (www.watertribe.com, six days, 300 miles, Tampa to Key Largo), The Texas 200…. small boats, great people (many DIYers), and just enough organization and deadline to inspire you to get out and DO.  (I failed the Everglades Challenge twice — it can be, er, challenging–  but what the hell, I’m going back when I can, and I’ll meet there others who also failed, fixed what didn’t work, and came back to test yet another hypothesis.)

Our lives are too short to not live the world by imagining, building, and doing. I wish someone reading this, who has not done so, could get the idea they can and ought to.  Who am I?   I built that first boat in my post-divorce apartment bedroom with low hopes for a lot of things, no money, no workshop,  and few tools (I had a few power tools but the real workhorses were a simple drill, a handsaw, a jack-plane, a hammer, a screwdriver), and no great carpentry skills (two simple blanket chests and a few children’s toys behind me before that boat). It was really crude, but ….it worked.  I went out and came back with it on wind power for 4 years until I built a better one.  Forgive yourself, repeat (as I learned from Richard Feynman) “What do you care what other people think?”, resist the forces overt and covert that will try to keep you in the conventional environment too much.   Do something!  A few weeks ago a guy asked me a how much I had spent on my outrigger sailing canoe.  I had recently estimated the costs for building and using both of my tiny boats over a dozen years to be around $10,000.  Amortized over a dozen years, not too bad, I thought, and very cheap therapy.  His eyes widened. “Damn, why not just buy a jetski?”  I was speechless.  I was like Uncle Toby in the novel Tristram Shandy, who could explain his war-wound only by bringing out military texts and maps of the old battlefield — I blush to say I needed some time, a word-processor, and an interview just to begin to say what keeps bringing me back to slow rides in simple boats.  — W.T.


Wade Tarzia is a professor in Arts & Humanities at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, CT.  His academic interests are anthropology and folklore, he writes essays and speculative fiction when laziness is surmounted, and his little adventures consist of bicycle-touring/folklore-interviewing in Ireland, and farting around among small (usually wooden) sailcraft.

Autumnal 2011, Hinterland

About the Editors

Casey R. Skinner grew up along the Kuskokwim River in a rural Athabascan village in Alaska fishing for king salmon and mushing her sled dog team. She now resides on the shores of Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska. Casey's a poet, a naturalist, a dog-lover, has two birds, and a stubborn bulldog named Gus.
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