14 May 2011

Building a Boat

Every morning, since arriving in Mui Ne, I’ve walked along the beach and looked out at the lovely boats and thought that I really should find out where they are made and go see the builders in action.

And then one morning, just two coconut-tree lots down from the hotel, I noticed some construction activity going on beneath the canopy of the palm trees. Although I had walked along that stretch of beach several times a day for over a month, this was the first time that I’d noticed something other than coconuts.

And much to my great pleasure, there stood a boat workshop! I walked over and said hello to the guys and expressed my delight in finding them. I asked if it would be ok to walk around and look at the work they were doing; no problem.

It was absolutely amazing; a mini boatyard, out in the open, where they were building a beautiful, seafaring vessel with nothing more than very basic tools. I would need to document the work so asked if I could come back the following day with my camera.

Returning the next day, it was immediately obvious that the man in charge was a master craftsman. I watched in wonder as he and his crew worked on the boat with the minimum of power tools. They had a hand built-table saw and an electric drill and that’s about it. These were plugged into an electrical line that ran down a coconut tree and off to some unknown location. Everything else was done by hand.

I walked around the boat to get a better idea of the construction techniques. I watched as they bent the side boards to fit, marked them, removed them, and then lined the edges with drill holes. Into these they placed sharpened dowels which would be used to secure one plank to another on the sides of the boat. It took three people to achieve this next step; one to align the dowels/holes, another to hammer the top plank down with a large mallet, and the third to use other tools to insure a water-tight fit.
In the following days I would visit the guys to check on the progress and inquire about the launch date. Each time I was able to see another bit of incredible work. One day the boat was upside down as they sawed off large wooden plugs that are used to secure the inner cross pieces. After that, they painted the underside. Another day they had started to paint the interior and to build the removable inner planks that would cover the engine and hold. And finally, they told me that the boat would be launched the following day at 11am.

Not wanting to miss an early launch, I arrived at 10am to see another boat with four or five men, pull up to the beach. I assumed they were there to collect the new boat and I was right. I looked over to the new boat and saw that they had just started to paint the eyes on the bow. How could they set it off in an hour with wet paint?
I asked again about the time it would hit the water. Altogether, three men looked up at the sun, gauged what time it now was and reconfirmed that it would be at 11:00. It wasn’t until several days later that I realized that whenever I had asked about time, they looked up to the sun, even if they wore watches.

With that settled, I said hello to the new arrivals and my boat builders explained who I was. By this time, the master builder had left the final painting and engine hook-up to his crew and was involved in building another boat. I took a few more pictures and sort of tried to stay out of the way.

A couple of young teenage boys said hello, eager to practice their English. I asked why they weren’t in school and they assured me that they had afternoon classes and would soon be off. When they got bored with watching the workers, they ran off into the coconut grove to run around.
The guys who had arrived on the boat wandered around and helped where needed. I brought out packets of cookies and they offered me tea. About that time I turned to check on the young ones only to see one of them starting to scale a four-story high coconut tree. I was concerned. I looked around. No one else was concerned. And actually at their age, 13 or 14, I would have been doing the same, being a tree-climbing enthusiast in my younger years. Except that trees in California had branches to help the ascent. I tried not to look figuring if he fell there were plenty of people around.

Not much later I heard the tree-climber call out to his friends below. I looked over but he was out of sight, somewhere up at the top. His friends kept busy arranging fallen palm fronds in a pile below the tree. He called out again, they stood back, and down came the first coconut. I never did see him come down but the next time I looked he was up another tree. This went on until they had a large pile of coconuts. They brought several over to the boat crew and then headed down the beach presumably to sell them to a restaurant or hotel.

A woman arrived with baskets from the market. I said hello and found out that she was part of the new boat group. In these situations I never really know who are family and who are friends and it doesn’t matter. What I really love about the Vietnamese culture is that everyone works as a unit, things are done together, food is shared together. A whatever-is-mine-is-yours attitude. That, and the feeling of camaraderie in situations such as the one I was watching.

I found a log to sit on, camera at the ready should they suddenly make a dash to the sea with the boat. Soon the woman brought her baskets over to the bow of the boat where they were loaded onboard. At first I thought she had been to the market and would sail back with the new boat. But the baskets were filled with offerings that now were carefully arranged on the prow; small bowls of a sticky rice concoction and carefully assembled fruit. Another dish held small crabs, I think. On the ornamental piece at the very tip of the prow, one man placed flowers and incense. All this occurred while the finishing touches of attaching gas lines and checking the engine happened at the back of the boat.

Finally, it was done. One man stayed in the boat and tossed handfuls of rice around the inside and o to the ground around the boat.. Then everyone gathered, the offering foods were taken down, and they sat in a small circle and ate. They invited over but I felt it was a personal time for the group and did not want to intrude.
And then it was time to load the boat onto the two-wheeled tow bar and haul it down to the water. I believe they said it weighed a ton. Some pulled and some pushed and others cleared the way. When they hit the small slope that led to the water they started to run. The new boat splashed into the sea. Some of the guys splashed water onto the sides of the boat while another dropped the rudder.

Three men remained in the boat, fired up the engine and were off, heading over to the port of Mui Ne. The guys from the other boat got in theirs and followed the new boat. The chief builder watched until it was almost out of sight, grinning, obviously pleased with his masterpiece. I high-fived him as he came up from the waters edge.

I wanted so much to tell them how special the experience had been for me; how fantastic they were at what they did, but I couldn’t. When I say I spoke to these folks it was in my very limited Vietnamese combined with a lot of sign language. I certainly didn’t have the language required, but I did have a bunch of great photographs. The next day I burned CD’s for both the builder and the new boat owners. I took them over to the coconut tree boat yard where they were gratefully received.

It was one of those truly magical experiences.

The next boat should be finished in about a week; I may just still be here when it makes its maiden voyage.