A DORY will always be for me Plato’s ‘heavenly idea’ of a boat, the primal pattern for all boats.
‘Nothing is here of Europe.’ A dory is a Yankee institution. It is as local as a boat well can be. Most of the dories along our stretch of coast were built by the Perkinses at ‘Gunkit.’ Their boatyard in the cove which bears the family name must have been a father-and-son affair for generations. The general lines of their craft have persisted, and to this day the local lobstermen install their single-cylinder motors in what is still the Ogunquit dory of the '90s. These dories seem to handle as well under power as they did under sail, and take naturally to their new job. The motor when running pulls the stern down so that the rail is only a few inches above water, and lifts the bow correspondingly to meet the oncoming choppy seas that prevail thereabouts. The shape of a boat, her lines, and in particular the sheer away from the bow, will tell you what kind of water she is meant to sail in. There is, for example, no mistaking the nature of the seas off the west coast of Ireland once you have looked at the bows and the build of an Irish curragh.
The routine dory was perhaps fifteen or sixteen feet over all. Her bow was cut away and there was a slight overhang in the stern. The frame was inordinately heavy for so small a boat, but those dories had to stand a good deal of rough weather and rough use. They were clinker-built — that is, the planking was lap-streaked like the clapboards of a house, presumably to give added rigidity to the whole fabric — and an ordinary dory was too heavy for one man to haul out on a beach or up into a slip in the rocks.
We usually painted our own boats, and greatly enjoyed doing so. Before painting they had to be caulked, a matter of filling up open seams, in the case of a boat as small as a dory, with wicking and white lead. Caulking is a delicate job, and the amateur is apt to pound too hard and spread the seam wider apart than it was when he went to work. As for paint, the Ogunquit dories came from the shop in two colors. The twTo upper streaks were painted one color and the lower planks of the underbody another color. The Perkins standard was a colonial-yellow top and a not-too-dark green bottom. We stuck to this year after year. The fishermen allowed themselves some license in the matter and frankly went in for aesthetic experiments — black and red, yellow and black, slate blue and bright green. When their invention flagged they lapsed into battleship gray for the whole boat. The result was that a fleet of twenty dories moored just offshore was a colorful sight. They asked, by inference, why we let so much of life go by in drabness, and were a protest against all unimaginative dreariness of living.
We made few changes in these dories as delivered. We took it for granted that the Perkinses knew their business and that behind each of the familiar gadgets there was a good and sufficient reason. We did, however, venture one improvement — at least we thought it was such. The boat had, in its original form, a shallow stern seat — not more than eight or ten inches in depth. No fisherman ever sat in this seat, nor did he make any other use of it. It was with him a conventional or vestigial bit of shipbuilding. We extended that stern seat until it was two feet, and even three feet, deep. There was always a good-natured scramble to see who should get it, for it approached the dimensions and the comfort of a de luxe steamer chair. I have sat, loafed, read, relaxed, slept on many different kinds of chairs, settees, benches, lounges, and berths, but I have yet to find any place to sprawl out so perfectly fitted to the half-reclining human form as this elongated stern seat in one of our dories. True, we needed ideally a few coats anti sweaters to fill in at the small of the back and to make a pillow for the head, but these were usually right at hand.
It was the purest physical pleasure to curl up on that seat and let the water and the clouds and the world go by. Those dories took the waves well, and there was no pounding of the stern such as in less sensitively built boats. No matter how it lifted and sank again, the stern of a dory never slatted the water when it settled down. The tiller lines ran either side of the boat along the rails and played just by the head of anyone lying out in that stern seat. Their shuffling motion was proof enough that someone was on the job and earing for the vessel’s course.
If we were not feeling up to the mark, this was the only possible place in the boat to which we could retreat. We got used to taking an occasional bout of seasickness in our stride. We did not go through the familiar palaver about not being sick but merely ‘a little headachy and bilious today.’ When there was no other way out, we were unashamedly seasick, had no pride about it, got the sour, messy business over as soon as possible, and went back to enjoying ourselves. We innocently supposed that the trouble originated in our stomachs; we did not know that its source and seat are the semicircular canals. Not that one is in a position to discuss the claims of the disturbed semicircular canal versus the upset stomach when one is really seasick. Such things don’t matter at a time like that; for the moment nothing matters — even death wouldn’t matter. But be the locale of seasickness what it may, there were occasional bad half hours anchored offshore in a heavy chop when the insidious smell of aging clams and the general sloppiness of dying fish underfoot suggested a retreat to that stern seat.
I always felt that the fishermen around the harbor looked at our luxurious stern seats with a certain amount of moral disapprobation, though they were silent on the matter. In this as in other kindred matters they had a way of making us feel their disapproval of many of our mores — most conspicuously so, perhaps, when on Sundays, dressed in their stiffest and best, they walked up and down the fringes of the beach, looking with halfenvy and half-contempt at the near-naked garb and wholly wanton ways of Sabbathbreaking bathers. They might not be very godly themselves, but they did not approve of such goings on.
Thus some hint of this want of ethical consent to our way of life was felt in the fugitive glance which they let fall on our stern seats. Perhaps they grudgingly admitted to themselves that summer people must be granted liberties with the moral law which they dared not allow themselves. Certainly we tried, from time to time, to convince them of our right to such liberties. What we did in the summer could be offset in our own minds by the reassuring thought of what we did the other ten hard-working months of the year. On vacation most of us speak solemnly — as one might whisper about a grave illness — of the terrible pace and the heartbreaking nature of our business or professional work back home. On this basis we justify our entire letdown during the summer months; indeed we eventually have our doctor’s word for it that nothing less than just such utter relaxation can save us from a total breakdown, if not an early death.
All of us who go to the country or the seashore for our vacation have tried this familiar line of argument on the ‘natives.’ I do not know what luck you have had; I can only report that my briefs in behalf of the cult of conscientious idleness had very little effect on the jury at York. They sat and listened in silence, occasionally squirting out a stream of tobacco juice from one corner of the mouth, or knocking the ashes from the bowl of a pipe, as though to suggest that I conclude my unconvincing remarks and come to order. In short, even to this day I have never felt that I have succeeded in persuading any Maine native that I ever do anything but loaf and have a good time. Was not that extra-long stern seat in our dories sufficient moral giveaway? What we brazenly did in that stern seat spoke so loud — as Emerson has it — that the fishermen could not hear what we said about the hard-bottomed, straight-backed chairs in which we sat from September 1 to June 30. It was no use — the fishermen knew that that three-foot stern seat needed only to be tilted up to become a greased slide down which one skidded into moral ruin.