Saturday, December 8, 2007

the Nina, the Pinta and the Rancho Bernardo

Scrimshaw II

"What are you making for the kids this year?" my wife asked about a week ago at breakfast.

Total blank. I was cracking walnuts to eat with chunks of Korean pears; I'd forgotten all about making gifts for the grandkids. "Little boats," I lied. "In fact, I'm working on them right now."

I continued to crack walnuts with the blade of my pocket-knife while I told her about Duke Haliburton and how he'd persuaded King Charles of Spain to out-source the transportation between Mexico and the Philippines, back around 1665. She gave me a suspicious look.

"Seriously. Duke Haliburton convinced crazy King Charles that out-sourcing would save him a buncha money. Then the Duke hired some Chinese guys to sail back & forth between Manila and Acapulco..."

"Chinese guys?" Her eyebrow arched up the way it does when she's on to me.

"Sure. It was a lot cheaper than building a galleon..."

"I suppose these chinese guys used a Chris-Craft."

"Don't be silly." I crunched my way through a couple of chunks of Korean pear. "Chinese guys sail junks."

"So... you're making the kids Chinese junks?"

"Right!" Whew, that was a close one.

"Three of them?"

"That's how many Duke Haliburton hired. Cost him twenty pieces of eight a month, each. For which he charged King Charles something like a million dollars."

That got a smile. "Things haven't changed much." Then she gave me that look: "I don't suppose you remember the names of those Chinese junks."

"Ah... the Nina, the Pinta and... uh... the Rancho Bernardo."

At which point she said something rude.


From that morning to this, I've added half an hour or so of Basic Boat Building to my breakfast schedule. As the little boats took shape my wife stopped making jokes about it.

Every kid knows walnut shells make perfect boats. In fairy tales. In real life they need some ballast, which I provided in the form of lead BB-shot, glued to the bilge before I started construction.

Small hull needs about eight BB's, bigger hulls can use up to twelve.

To make the decks I took a pair of scissors to some scraps of cardboard; the same stuff I've been using for gussets in my airplane rib experiments.

I made the sails out of a coffee filter, gluing on the battens. Straws from a whisk-broom provided the yards and booms; the battens are bristles from a defunct paint brush.

For masts I'd planned to use toothpicks but the only round ones we had were colored and the flat kind didn't look right, so I split some aircraft spruce with a razor-knife and turned the splinters into spars.

As you can see, the fleet isn't quite ready to get underway but they'll be sailing in formation under the tree by Christmas morning.


Every sailor does this sort of thing. The generic term for it is scrimshaw, which I wrote about last Christmas.

Junks are a bit easier to model than other types of sailing vessels because they don't have much in the way of standing rigging, although their running rigging is wacky enough to confound Confuscius. Oddly enough, the junk rig is superior in almost every way to the square-rig, something no Westerner will accept until they've actually used one.

-Bob Hoover