Lit Bits

TIN CANOES & OTHER MADNESS: The Genius of Robb White

Robb White

How could I have lived so long without discovering this man? He is such an improbably entertaining writer, and all he wrote about, pretty much, is boats, the water surrounding them, and the life that is in it. Hats off to crew member (and erstwhile Boréal shopper) Nat Smith, who handed me a copy of White’s first book, the only one published in his lifetime, How to Build a Tin Canoe (Hyperion/Theia, 2003), and promised me I would like it.

Some of you are clucking your tongues now. For Robb White wasn’t exactly flying under the radar. He was published in a few boat mags--WoodenBoat, Maine Boats and Harbors (before it changed its name and stuck Homes in there), but mostly in Messing About in Boats--and also in fancier comics, Smithsonian and Natural History. Even worse, his father, Robb White III, was a popular writer in his day, author of many adventure novels, some titillating memoirs, and a few TV and movie screenplays. Though of course I wasn’t aware of him either.

What Robb White (IV) was mostly was a boatbuilder, plus a few other things on the side--a schoolteacher, tug-boat crew, a construction worker, a biologist. He built small light boats from wood harvested on his property in Georgia. Rowboats, outboard skiffs, and small sailboats. To his credit, he always recognized the superiority of sail. “A sailboat,” he once wrote, “is certainly the most wonderful invention of mankind.”

Canoe cover

In spite of a perfectly respectable pedigree--that famous-writer father of his and a mother with some Yankee blue-blood--Robb White enjoyed a perfectly feral childhood. As a boy he roamed the pine woods of inland Georgia and the Gulf coast of the Florida panhandle as leader of a band of cousins, younger siblings, and other hangers-on, including one girl, Jane, who eventually became his wife. They caught critters out in the wild, cooked them and ate them (recipes are included in the text), and like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, answered to no one.

Robb’s younger sister Bailey once wrote of him: “No matter what my brother had on his mind, it was worth your while to throw yourself in with it. Though you might be scarred for life, you would never be disappointed or bored.”

Robb White took to building boats at an early age, so as to float out into the middle of Georgia ponds to make catching the fish in them a bit more interesting. His prescription for creating the eponymous tin canoe, his very first boat, was fairly simple. Remove a 16-foot sheet of roofing tin off a chicken shed, fold it in half, fasten the ends to some bits of wood, then stomp around in the middle of it until it takes on an appropriate shape.

It’s best to do your stomping, he notes, on some nice soft grass.

Hoping to be exposed to more sophisticated vessels, Robb joined the U.S. Navy as a young man, but was assigned to shore duty, working in a kitchen at the Roosevelt Roads base in Puerto Rico. He made the best of it. Down the coast a short distance from the naval station he found a beach bar where master-class Puerto Rican boatwrights were hanging out drinking beer, playing dominoes, pissing against a wall, and building traditional sailing skiffs. He spent all his spare time there, inhaling their knowledge.

“I watched and learned a lot from Julio and the others,” he later wrote, “but I never was allowed to really participate and they never got to see how well I could chop and carve and drive nails. I found out later that these men weren’t discriminating against me because I was a sailor-boy or foreigner at all. There was just a rigid tradition in their art that young poots like me weren’t allowed to touch edged tools to wood. They also believed that derision fostered the development of humility and character. I was just too young for boatbuilding--or dominoes. I should have been glad, because I found out later that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was with edged tools and the masters wouldn’t have marveled at all the miss-licks I made with the axe and the crossgrain splinters I pulled up with the knife and machete. There was one thing I could do, though: I could pee higher on the wall than any of them.”

Soon Robb was building his own boats nonetheless and selling them to men at the Navy base. Later, when he mustered out and moved back to Georgia, he couldn’t help but keep on going.

Robb in shop

Robb White in his shop

You can read all about these and many other misadventures, interspersed with jokes rude and subtle, philosophical asides, some genuine wisdom, several interesting recipes, and much random nautical lore, in both the Tin Canoe book, and a later compendium, Flotsam and Jetsam (Breakaway Books, 2009), published after Robb White passed away in 2006.

One of my favorite tales, The Slave’s Recipe, involves an escaped inmate from a mental hospital with a fondness for porno magazines who takes up with a tugboat crew Robb was working with. Through various improbable convolutions this leads to Robb getting hoisted off a tugboat by a Coast Guard helicopter to be held in a New Orleans jail on suspicion of murder.

His experience may prove useful for those in similar dilemmas: “I don’t want to issue no prejudicial statement, but it’s not good to get locked up in a New Orleans jail even if you aren’t the right man. I was lucky and able to stay single because of my age and the ferocity of my response to proposals, which was taken as comical by the old hands in the jail.”

And yes, there is a recipe, for peach cobbler cooked up tugboat style in a frying pan.

Shoal draft

Now that's shoal draft!

My other favorite story, of course, involves a sailing vessel, a so-called felucca “bullet” that Robb built himself. It’s the closest he comes to boasting outright in describing his creation and his use of it. You realize first how sophisticated Robb’s designs are, as he describes a complete sailing rig--mast, spars, and sail--that weighs little more than 5 pounds all up. Then there are the “Bernoulli-principle venturi bumps” alongside the dagger board case that suck water out of the case when the boat is moving, so as to dramatically reduce drag.

Not to mention the retractable rudder, which is mandatory for severe shoal-draft sailing: “This one works by a little cable to the tiller. Pushing down on the tiller pulls the rudder blade down, and when it comes time to cross a bar, a lift of the tiller lets the rudder float up and decreases the draft of the boat instantly to three or four inches. The rudder is balanced with a good bit of blade ahead of the gudgeon holes when it is down. That lets it act like a keel so it pulls the center of lateral resistance back and you can feel it eliminate the weather helm when you push it down. One hand on the tiller, the other on the dagger board… the sheet in the teeth… look out, chickens, here I come.”

You realize also that Robb is a wizard boat-handler.

“Reefing,” he writes of the felucca, “is so quick that the time the boat is luffing is too short for it to drift back on one of those close together oyster bars I have been working in. One cute trick when close hauled is to snatch the halyard loose, drop the butt of the yard to the thwart, catch the top of the horizontal batten with my hand, and using that grip as the sheet, ease, close hauled almost dead upwind to the landing place without having to luff up or leave the tiller.”

Someday, if I’m lucky, I may be able to understand what the hell he is talking about, much less do it myself.

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