Best kind of work is hands-on

Posted May 06, 2010, at 9:25 p.m.

On and off last winter, I began forgoing extra work hours on Friday mornings and slipping off to the docks instead. Not even to be on a boat on the water; no, I was excited just to do volunteer winter maintenance on the wooden boats in port for the winter.

I sanded things, then varnished them. Sometimes I shoveled snow off the tents covering the spars. I helped take things apart, put them back together, loaded ballast, repainted wood and sanded some more. And I really, really enjoyed myself.

At first I was met with some bewilderment, to say nothing of deep suspicion, as to whether I actually had a life of my own. “So, you’re here to help out?” the full-time sailors and boatwrights asked me. “You don’t care what you do?”

“No,” I said. “I just like being around boats, and I like being in workshops.”

There always has been something both comfortable and comforting about workshops for me — the smell of sawdust, the bursting toolboxes, the grease and grit. But it’s more than just the sounds and scents of familiarity that I love. Taking time out from the abstracts of offices or classrooms and working with my hands is impor-tant to me. In my day to day, I spend a lot of time with books. Being able to solve a physical problem and fix concrete things — making something that’s broken work again — is the kind of immediately useful activity that I need to keep me, if you’ll pardon the pun, on an even keel.

As Kenneth Grahame, author of “The Wind in the Willows,” wrote, “There is nothing absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

My love affair with workshops and boats began early. At 16, I got on board a tall ship— the schooner Lettie G. Howard — as part of an Outward Bound program. I was smitten. Since then, some of my best summers have been spent on the Maine coast, living and working on old wooden schooners, breathing in the scents of salt air, tar and sawdust.

It was on a high school semester at sea that I first experienced a real, immediate application of what I was learning in class. The bulk of my math class involved navigation. Our exam? We navigated. I’ll never forget what the captain told us when we asked him, nervously, what would happen if we messed up and ended up in, say, Greenland, instead of Boston.

“Then you’ll have a longer school year,” he said with a wink.

Later, of course, I discovered that they were checking us with a GPS they kept tucked away (what can I say, I was naive). But the impact was the same: My actions had immediate, concrete results. I wasn’t studying for a test or an abstract measure of my intelligence. I was studying for the course of an actual vessel, a ship that was my school and home.

The irony of my penchant for workshops is that I’m not particularly handy. If you show me how to do something, I can do it, but I’m not that great at just “figuring it out” for myself. People tend to underestimate the kind of brainpower needed for mechanics, carpentry and the constant maintenance that boats require. You need confidence, skill and creativity to be good at the kind of work that boats demand. But even though I don’t excel at structural reasoning, I can still appreciate the basics.

As a college student, whenever I felt overwhelmed, I would go down to the Hudson River with sandpaper in my pockets, ready to volunteer wherever I could. Sometimes I was able to let my mind wander while doing satisfying, productive work on the riverboats. Other times, I got the chance to help out on more difficult projects, challenging my mind to think in new, often mechanical ways in the physical realm. Either way, the boat world was my refuge.

There’s something about going down to a boatyard at the water’s edge and losing the skin on my knuckles to a good project that has always been inexplicably satisfying to me.

Boats taught me about small communities and about sustainable environments. They taught me about making do with what you have and finding multiple uses for everything you own. They taught me the value of my sweat and made me realize what I was capable of.

But more than anything else, they taught me that when I have problems that have my hackles up or my soul feeling rumpled, it’s good to sit down with some sandpaper and a paint can. Though my stints on the docks this past winter were short, I always returned to my daily world of work, school and commuting better prepared to keep my mind clear and head straight on my shoulders.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. E-mail her at meg@margaret-adams.com.

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