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Go ahead, give that boat a love tap; it’s a sailorly thing to do

2012 April 2

As an English Lit major, I read the epic tales of John Steinbeck from The Grapes of Wrath to Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men to Cannery Row. In novels that championed the common man, Steinbeck wrote of courage and struggle and, most of all, about humanity and the meaning of life. Being young and full of life, and being preoccupied with sailing, beer and girls (not necessarily in that order), I found his books heavy going and often depressing.

It wasn't until many years later that I discovered, to my delight, that Steinbeck was a boat guy.

Never mentioned in those dusty college courses was his expedition to what is properly called the Gulf of California, the long thin sea bounded by the peninsula of Baja California on the west and the Mexican mainland on the east. Explored centuries ago by Cortez, I have sailed and raced to it, across it, and around it many times. But it was in preparation for a bareboat charter in the Gulf of California that I reread his Log from the Sea of Cortez.

It was 1940 and he had just finished his monumental The Grapes of Wrath. Tired out from the effort and under attack for earlier controversial novels, Steinbeck badly needed to get away. With his friend, Ed Ricketts, later immortalized as Doc Ricketts in Cannery Row, he set out on a boating expedition to the Sea of Cortez to collect and research invertebrates, resulting in a 600-page logbook that was as much a commentary on mankind as it was about the various species the men found.

Having just worn my feet, ankles and knees to the bone walking two huge boat shows, one of Steinbeck's riffs on man and boats resonated with me.

"A man builds the best of himself into a boat-builds many of the unconscious memories of his ancestors. Once, passing the boat department of Macy's in New York, where there are duck-boats and skiffs and little cruisers, one of the authors (Steinbeck) discovered as he passed each hull he knocked on it sharply with his knuckles. He wondered why he did it and, as he wondered, he heard a knocking behind him, and another man was rapping the hulls with his knuckles, the same tempo-three sharp knocks on each hull. During an hour's observation there, no man or boy, and few women, passed who did not do the same thing. Can this have been an unconscious testing of the hulls? Many who passed could not have been in a boat, perhaps some of the little boys had never seen a boat, and yet everyone tested the hulls, knocked to see if they were sound, and did not even know he was doing it."

I thought back and realized that I, too, unconsciously knock on hulls. These days, it might be considered merely a test to see if the hull is fiberglass, wood, metal, or another of the scientific babble of materials used to build boats. But it's more than just a wonder-if-its-wood moment.

I realized that I often pat boats too as if they were human. Usually my own boats, because I feel no more comfortable patting other peoples boats than I would patting their spouses.

We are not alone in thumping and patting our boats. As I walked the boat shows, I saw what Steinbeck saw. Even in the most casual passing, people would let their fingers trail along the sides of a boat, much as children with a stick can't resist running it along a picket fence. As they stood considering boats, their hands were in motion, touching the varnish and gauging the rigging and playing with the lines.

It is, in many ways, the primeval urge that Steinbeck understood. That before committing to a voyage onto those frightening seas, man needs reassurance that his vessel is sound.

But it isn't just at boat shows where we touch boats. Walk the dock in a marina, and it's hard not to reach out to a curved bow as you pass. It is as much in our DNA as eating and breathing.

Had Steinbeck known what was in store, he might have stayed in the Sea of Cortez. He went home to disarray: his marriage fell apart, the world went to war and he moved away from California. On the positive side, he wrote the highly acclaimed Cannery Row and East of Eden, of course, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But one evening in 1948, his friend Ed Ricketts closed up his laboratory on Cannery Row and, crossing the tracks in his ancient Packard, was killed by the evening train, thus ending their plan to return to the Sea of Cortez. Twenty years later, Steinbeck passed away in New York, leaving a wealth of fiction and non-fiction, but the one that lingers in my mind will always be The Log of the Sea of Cortez.
Said Steinbeck: "A horse, a beautiful dog, arouses sometimes a quick emotion, but of inanimate things only a boat can do it. It is very easy to see why the Viking wished his body to sail away in an unmanned ship, for neither could exist without the other."
She Who Must Be Obeyed has long threatened, once I fall off the perch, to load me into the sailing dinghy that is moldering in our yard, build a bonfire, and send me off onto our lake.

In that case, I guess I'd better go rap on the hull of the dinghy, just to make sure it's ready for the voyage.