No Gripes!

The Year 1 Boatbuilding & Restoration students now are focused intently on planking their boats. To be a complete boat builder, one must learn to love to plank. For a smooth-hulled, carvel-constructed boat, such as a Beetle Cat, rough cedar boards must be shaped very precisely so that there are no gaps appearing where two adjacent planks are joined or where the planks meet elements of the backbone. Because the boat’s hull is a complex but fairly curved shape, planks must be milled on their surfaces, beveled on their edges, backed out on the inside, steamed, bent on, twisted—and even coaxed by argument and assailed with invective—to fit the keel rabbet (for the garboards) and the underlying frames (for the other planks) and to attach to the stem at the front and the transom aft. Mastering the art of planking is the very heart of boatbuilding, and fitting the perfect plank involves the deft avoidance of griping griefs.

So that we can grow more proficient, our boatbuilding involves intense and continuous physical and mental effort. As we steadily push the envelope, a few grumblings may occasionally be heard. Sometimes a carp surfaces about the weather, especially when a northwest wind barrels down Narragansett Bay or the temperature drops to 10 degrees (minus-2 with the wind chill…). Sometimes a crab crawls out unexpectedly—like a hateful sap pocket in a cedar board that seemed flawless before milling. As we share adversities, such plaints can help all of us bond more closely, realizing hidden strengths and solving problem after problem. Yet, while the whingings ebb and flow, for the first-year students at IYRS, there are no gripes!

One of the most satisfying aspects of boatbuilding is the gradual building up of a new way of speaking about boats. There is in fact a language that begins to emerge, expedited through hands-on experience, and acquired the way one might learn a language by living in a foreign country. The vocabulary of the language has been compiled in René de Kerchove’s 1948 encyclopedic dictionary of useful maritime terms and phrases (together with equivalents in French and German). We were introduced to this reference early on, and the 1961 Second Edition lives over Joel Senger’s bench in Restoration Hall.

Cover page of René de Kerchove’s encyclopedic dictionary of useful maritime terms.

 

From de Kerchove, we learn that the term “gripe” has at least three maritime meanings. The first refers to a sailboat’s tendency to head up into the wind when sailing close-hauled. It’s believed that a slight griping (or weather helm) is helpful, as it establishes a “touch” for a helmsman that enables the sensing of small changes in wind direction, wave patterns or amplitudes, or boat speed. On some modern catboats, like the Laser, griping can be regulated by sail trim and the distribution of body weight fore and aft or by hiking out. In contrast, the Beetle Cat is notorious for having a strong gripe, where the tiller pulls very noticeably away from the helmsman when sailing upwind, and this gripe is more difficult to regulate because the sail controls are more limited and the crew is confined inboard.

The second definition refers to a temporary eye (or loop) in a line (or rope). The term gripe draws its derivation from the term “grip,” so it is sensible that the eye provides a way of holding the line so that it doesn’t slip through one’s hands or from a holdfast, like a piling, a spar, a cleat, or another line.

Diagram of a stem-to-keel joint, where a gripe (hashed) and knee are used to fasten the stem to the keel. Diagram following Greg Rössel, Building Small Boats (1998; p. 84).

 

The third definition is the one most relevant to boatbuilding, and it too evolved from the term grip. In this sense, a gripe is a structure (also referred to as a forefoot) in a boat or ship that connects or helps to strengthen the connection between the stem and the keel. It can be joined together with a knee to comprise a complete stem-to-keel joint (see the diagram). This arrangement is needed when it can be difficult to find the right curvature in a single piece of wood, say from a hackmatack (Eastern larch) root, to fashion the stem so that it bends right to the keel. Coronet, the 131-foot wooden-hulled schooner-yacht that was first launched in 1885 and is now being restored behind the IYRS campus, has a gripe, as seen in the figures (before and after restoration of the stem-to-keel).

Gripe in the forefoot of the classic schooner yacht Coronet: pre- (on the left) and post-restoration (on the right).

 

Most of the boats being restored at IYRS this year, including the five Beetle Cats and the Anderson Cat (the latter being worked on by the second-year students) do not have gripes (see the figures). (The A&R Dinghy also under restoration by the second year students [not shown] does have a gripe.) In the IYRS Beetle Cats, a stem encompassing twenty 3/16” laminates of mahogany is glued-up, bent around a bench mold, and fastened directly to the keel.

Stem-to-keel joints IYRS restorations in 2021:  Beetle Cat (on the left); Anderson Cat (on the right). Note the “dutchman” in the latter’s forefoot made out of locust to repair natural checking in the live oak stem.

The absence of gripes in the catboats may be due to the physical sizes of the boats, the materials of construction, the presence of maststeps or framing support, or the use of other means to strengthen the stem-to-keel joints, including resorcinol (now epoxy) glues and silicon-bronze fasteners. Whatever the reasons, and apart from the occasional seasonal grousing, this year at IYRS, the first-year students have no gripes!