‘Far From Perfect’: Authenticity at the Wooden Boat Festival (via Crosscut.com)

We recently stumbled across a lovely piece from the Seattle media site crosscut.com about authenticity. It stems form the author’s reflections exhibiting his self-built boats at the Port Townsend (WA) Wooden Boat Festival. He reflects on that tension we all, in the classic / traditional boat world, feel between the desire to have a boat that is “authentic” to its heritage but is practical and/or economical. I have excerpted some bon mots from it; it is well worth reading all the way through.

Here’s the principle: An authentic product is something that you, its creator or user, believe in. It may be as minor as a deck cleat or as monumental as a bill passing Congress. If you can’t believe in it, it’s no good.

Most of the boats in the festival are likewise. They’re not pure restorations or replicas; they’re practical, almost living creations that are full of their owners’ hearts and ideas and failures.

As long as you obey the laws of physics, you can build or restore a wooden boat exactly as you want… Your boat will not be ideal or perfect, but you’ll come to terms with this reality and view it as a tangible record of your character and skills at the time. You’ll have built yourself into the product of your work.

What could be more authentic than that?

I certainly found the piece spoke to me, especially as I wrestle with such tensions with my own boat. Excellent bit of philosophy.

2 Comments for “‘Far From Perfect’: Authenticity at the Wooden Boat Festival (via Crosscut.com)”

Peter Belenky


The article discusses the problems of historical authenticity in terms of avoiding (or accepting) anachronisms, but it skirts the larger question. The goal is aesthetic harmony, which is defined in terms of purpose and personal sensibility, but time and materials are not the only issues. For instance, if one’s object is a perfect recreation of an antique, one may have to face the fact that antique workboats were built on the cheap and not always by master craftsmen. While employing only materials and techniques available in their time, traditional boats were often incongruous and justly scorned by master yacht builders. Even among masters, aesthetics commanded no agreement. L. Francis Herreshoff was an artist, but his father’s boats, though ruthlessly efficient, often have a slightly unrefined look, with stems either too straight or too constant in radius of curvature. Aesthetics may be a matter of scale (as Jonathan Swift illustrated). A boat that looks perfect from 20 feet away may be seen on closer inspection to have a clumsy (or historically inaccurate) carving of the stem head or fiber-epoxy fillets on bulkheads, instead of rivets on bent frames. A boat that has all the details right can still be a hodge-podge.

So yes,the pursuit of authenticity requires both dedication and recognition of limitations, perfectionism and compromise. Above all, however, it demands study of value systems beyond one’s own. The measure of authenticity is how well one recognizes what is or would have been important to some other person or group. The degree of flexibility you maintain in meeting that standard is your own.


Thanks, Peter, for this thoughtful comment. I fully agree with your fundamental point about recognizing the value systems at play. I would argue that traditional workboats, even if they used “primitive” materials and techniques, were actually generally well-built – remember that this was a matter of livelihood. The results may have brought scorn from outside observers, but often this was due to their narrow-mindedness as opposed to objective performance issues. The boats also tended to be well-tuned to the task and local environment at hand and not at all well-designed for broader conditions. Judging them as generic boats applying to a variety of contexts is not fair, nor is disappointment if modern interpretations fail beyond the same contexts. So, in short, we are in agreement.

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