Toward the Beautiful

Auk plan from Iain Oughtred

Beauty matters. Why? It is mother and father to excellence, for one thing. Choosing the beautiful alternative is usually wise (though the roar from the broken hearted is not to be ignored). But there is a deeper mystery. Francis Bacon wrote, There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion. That is true, isn’t it? An unexpected or asymmetric element energizes the whole.

I have been building a small boat designed by Iain Oughtred whose boats are Celtic and Nordic songs in wood. I sent payment to him on the Isle of Skye and promptly received six sheets of exquisitely drawn plans for the “Auk.” I also bought his book, “Clinker Plywood Boatbuilding Manual,” which is well written and profusely illustrated. His methods do not require expensive tools and years of boatbuilding experience.

The hull is constructed upside down. One begins by cutting molds shaped like scallop shells. They are set vertically, equidistant apart. The first plank (the garboard strake) is fastened to the forward stem and to the keel, a backbone of sorts that stretches from the bow across the tops of the molds to the base of the transom. The second strake overlaps the first and is attached at its ends to the stem and the transom. The port and starboard sides of the hull are identical, each with eight overlapping strakes that have been shaped around the molds. With the first saw cut, the boat begins to deviate slightly from the ideal of the plans. The second strake must overlap the first; it will be affected by the shape of the first. The plans guide, but the reality of the boat dictates. No two boats will be the same.

Hundreds of decisions combine in the eventual boat (is a curve sufficiently fair?), (which wood to use for different parts?), (which finish?), (is that enough sanding?). You, the builder, become involved in subtle ways—the feel of tools in your hand, the smell of epoxy and the peppery smell of sawed yellow cedar, the reaching curve of the bow—as you shape the boat, the boat is shaping you. You are receiving the buoyancy you build.

In anything beautiful, the flaws and strangenesses are the brush strokes of the painter, the maker preserved. We feel the unique within the whole, an integration of our deepest and most opposed realities. We step away refreshed.

There is nothing we do that cannot be done more beautifully.

Auk ready for interior work