An old mariner once shared with me, a curious piece of vernacular about a crew’s relationship with their vessel.
He said “nowadays, people say that they ‘serve on a ship’. But in ancient times no one served on a ship – they served the ship.”
This was presented not as small talk, but as a kernel of wisdom.
I respected the man greatly and so listened intently, trying to extract the wisdom of it.
Boats have names, and are often identified as feminine, but these days most folks regard vessels as things.
In past generations though, they were held in much higher regard.
A boat was not a what, but a who.
She had been built by hand, with care and concern not only for those who would sail her, but for the legacy she would carry. You see those who built the ship hoped that if they built her well, and fate was on her side, that the ship would outlive them.
To a shipbuilder, each vessel was like a daughter.
Ancient mariners would step aboard a ship with reverence, knowing that the vessel they stood on could carry them across the sea, and more importantly – bring them back home again.
The ship was their lifeline, she was a floating oasis of safety in a harsh and shifting abyss.
Not surprisingly, seafarers developed strong beliefs about their vessels.
Some may have given way to superstition (who among us isn’t the slightest bit superstitious about Something now and then?), but in many cases, at the heart of a superstitious maritime compulsion, you’ll find some maintenance or preservation ritual that helps keep the vessel afloat.
The captain of a great schooner once told me, that “a wooden boat is the closest thing to a living thing that man can build”.
Sure, the world is now full of assembly line built boats, popped out of moulds and given numbers instead of names, but to those of us who have had the good fortune to get acquainted with a wooden vessel - a boat is deserving of so much more.
The old mariner told me once again: “back in the old days, you didn’t serve on a ship. You served the ship”.
“You put your life in her hands each and every time you went out into the big blue beneath her sails and between her rails.”
“The wind and the waves could be gentle, or they might have a whim to treat you otherwise, but the ship was your sanctuary.”
“If treated right, she would deliver you from the call of the deep and bring you home safely.”
It’s a kind of give and take – a psychoanalyst might use the word “symbiosis”.
We take care of the ship, and she takes care of us.
Within all maritime cultures of merit, there is always a strong emphasis on stewardship.
We take care of the ship, not only because it’s our job, or because at the moment we are floating on her, but because she, like us, has a soul and will live on from here.
Many wooden boat owners care for their vessels in the same way one might treat a horse – knowing that while the horse may be theirs at the moment, one day the horse will be in another stable.
They don’t own the horse, but rather are entrusted… with the horse’s safety and care.
In the case of the horse, it is noble to care for the animal, keeping in mind it’s future well being.
I would submit that it is equally so for a boat.
So as you look at your gondolas, I encourage you all to consider that they are not just things. Each gondola is, in the words of that schooner captain “the closest thing to a living thing that man can build”.
Serve her well and she will, if she finds you worthy, return the favor.
- Gondola Greg