A musing on the melodious differences each department prefers when building boats.
A lot of first-time visitors to our yard are surprised to see that I don’t spend much time in the office. I walk the yard all day, making sure that I know whom we have assigned to what and how each project is progressing. When people ask why the owner of the company is in the trenches, I simply point to the name on the building. While cruising the yard, I hear the crew’s radios and Bluetooth speakers blaring playlists from an assortment of musical genres. Music and boating have been joined at the hip since men first went to sea, christening work songs like “Blow the Man Down,” “Spanish Ladies” and “Drunken Sailor.” I recall sitting on Dad’s Chris-Craft under the sheds on the south dock when I was in my teens, listening to 8-tracks of Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey and that silly Spike Jones while lending a hand as he worked on those leaky old 8-53s. To this day, when I hear the American Song Book, I think of the old yard, my parents and how they loved “their music.” Years later, when Marty and I had our own company, FM radios blared in our shop on different channels. Marty, whose love of music is unparalleled, used to insist that everyone tune into the same channel or turn them all off. I concede that it can all collide and become a distraction, yet it is a curious editorial on the preferences of each trade set.
So much of boatyard service work is painting. It takes a special genetic mutation to prep for eight or more hours a day, and the sheer boredom of sanding creates a cavernous void in the skulls of the spray crew. During my hitch on the crew, the late, great, Dave Lioce and I would make up vulgar lyrics to top-40 songs to get through that boredom. My father would walk by and just shake his head, realizing that the family legacy would eventually rest on the shoulders of an idiot. These days, that cranial vacuum seems to be exclusively filled by reggae music. The whine of the DAs in the hands of Bernard and his crew is drowned out by Toots and the Maytals, cranked to 11, and the long block rhythm is held steady by a Marley metronome on 2 and 4. Revolution against the oppressors: High Build and 545. When I ask if they can turn it up a little more so people in Atlanta can enjoy it as well, they just smile through their bloodshot eyes. I can’t seem to figure out why reggae makes their eyes so red. Must be the Awlfair.
Out on the docks, the varnish crew has the Sirius Blues Channel cranked. Clarke and the boys are in at first light to get the weather window. Seven a.m. is a little early for blues in my book, but not for this crew. Evidently, Muddy Waters is an early riser as well and when he spells M-A-N-chile, it’s as if he is speaking directly to the natural-born-lover brightwork boys. Ain’t that a Man! Open E, Stevie Ray and a tack-rag: That’s how we prep that cockpit bulkhead. I watch in amazement as they stop in mid stroke on a toe rail 1015 build-up to steal an air-guitar, Albert King riff from the sky. By nine o’clock, Robert Johnson and Buddy Guy are up on the bridge, stripping handrails with T-Bone Walker. Looks like rain after lunch, boys. They call it Stormy Monday.
Headed in from the docks, I walk through the welding/machine shop. Three cords, the truth and a heliarc. Classic country reigns here, by God, and the boys will tell you, with pride, that Hank Williams worked as a shipyard welder before he went on to become the Hillbilly Shakespeare. These guys are the real thing: hard work, common sense, God and country. As Brian welds a bell-crank bracket and Bill tacks up a cupronickel raw-water elbow, Merle is “rollin’ downhill like a snowball headed for hell,” from an old Channel Master transistor, burnt from weld spatter with a coat hanger antenna and I can’t help but pause to count my blessings. “We need to hang these parts on those Kitty-Cats tomorrow, and we’re staying till we get it done,” they reassure me. “Turn up that Patsy Cline!”
I walk across the yard to the new hull shed and realize that I should have grabbed some engine room ear protection from one of the boats in service before visiting our boat builders. Planking saws and electric planes accompanied by guitar and drums at 186,000 miles per second. Anthrax, Korn and Iron Maiden scream through Bluetooth remotes under an inverted hull, creating a cold-molded speaker box that rivals the acoustics of Red Rocks Amphitheater. It makes me want to grab a hammer and hit something (or somebody). I suppose that’s the point—grab a hammer and bang it out! Flip sees me coming and switches stations to the Sinatra channel for a minute to humor me. The Hullbillies know that the old man loves Ol’ Blue Eyes.
In the north shed, I walk up the steps and into a hull nearing completion. Inside, our aging boomer brush crew is prepping for final interior satin. Thunderclap Newman fittingly rings out with “Something in the Air,” followed with Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “Fresh Air,” warning me that the guys are tuned into Deep Tracks and way down in their 400 gold. “We’re kicking everyone out at 2:00,” says Geoff, “and that goes for you too, boss.”
“Got it,” I reply.
At 2:30, I walk by again and notice the salon door is bagged off. “White Bird” from It’s a Beautiful Day is soaring through the Visqueen. “Turn it up, boys,” I yell out. “I’m tripping.”
From the new boats, it’s a short hop into the lower wood shop. Classic rock with table saw accompaniment. Bob Seeger’s reflective “Against the Wind” is an anthem for our seasoned crew of veteran carpenters. They’re older now and still running…… running for the NSAIDs. Mike stops milling a mezzanine bullnose with his noisy half-inch Porter-Cable just long enough for Don Felder to rip that nasty guitar riff on the last verse of “Already Gone.” A few minutes later, the smell of freshly machined Burmese teak mixes with Neil Young’s “Old Man.” Mario and I smile at each other and sing out in unison, “Take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you.” If only the Millennials could grasp that.
Climbing the stairs to the wood shop loft, I hear jazz rising out of the sawdust from the joinery boys. This is not that smooth-jazz, Spiro-whatever crap you hear when you’re on hold with your internet provider. Coltrane is killing it on “My Favorite Things” when I walk over to check on cambered vanity veneer work at Tyler’s bench. This is serious joiner work and it requires serious music to get it done. As Paul removes the clamps on a book-matched, quarter-sawn cockpit wing panel, Miles Davis’s “Venus de Milo” provides the inspiration for final fit. I walk away with a proud-papa grin on my face as O.P. enchants us with Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” signaling the dreaded handing-over of the pieces to the painters. For the carpenter, it is akin to sending your child out into the world, hoping he or she comes back unscathed.
My phone rings, and it’s our office manager, Josee. “Mr. Jones is here to see you,” she says. I walk into the office and hear my favorite James Taylor composition, “Secret O’ Life,” drifting from behind her desk. Josee and Estelle are terminal James fans, and they have selections of his music for all occasions. Until recently, I was unaware that he released a soundtrack for dental surgery, but I think I remember hearing it (under a nitrous cloud) when Dr. D jack-hammered that crown post into my jaw last week. Mr. Jones comments on the lovely music in the background but the girls don’t turn it up. One does not “turn up” James Taylor, unless, of course, it’s “Steamroller Blues.” After a brief meeting, I sneak into my office to jot down a few notes from my conversation with Mr. Jones. The Reverend Al floats sweetly upon the air from my desktop speakers. No, not that Reverend Al. Hell no! I’m talking about the greatest melodic soul voice ever, from way back in my days on the bottom gang. Al Green serenades the room with a tom-tom backbeat on “Let’s Stay Together” and it takes me back to a simpler time. Cain’t nobody sing like that no more! Maybe I’ll sit here for a few more minutes, just long enough to savor “I’m so Tired of Being Alone,” and then it’s back to the boatyard music jungle. Arriba, Andale! There’s some Mariachi Sol De Mexico coming from that Garlington deck job on the south dock. Better hike over there and check on Miguel and Emilio. Buen trabajo y buena música. Adios, amigos!