one more schooner

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Yesterday I woke up slightly nervous, with a bit of a pit in my stomach, like I used to get as a young girl on the first day of school. I was so excited to meet Henry.

I’ve been wanting to meet the man who built the green and white schooner, the Leah Caroline, that sits in the bay as you drive into Trinity.

It’s Henry Vokey’s, Martha told me. He built that one a few years ago. It was meant to be his last, but he’s taken up another one. He’s well into his 80s now.

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I’m not sure why I felt an immediate need to meet him. I can’t recall another time in my life where I’ve ever felt the need to seek out a stranger just to say thank you! Thanks for following your dream and inspiring me with your story; thanks for not giving up, for giving life to those tiny bits of budding potential in your brilliant brain and bringing it all to life. Thank you!!!

So, he might think I’m a bit crazy, I thought, but what the hell.

Not too long after this, I had his number and was calling him up to ask for a visit.

I first saw Henry sitting down in a cozy chair, surrounded by a living room full of a dozen miniature models of boats, all with a name, all once just a dream that snuck into a man’s mind during a single night’s sleep, all to eventually became giants of a reality out at sea.

Every detail of each miniature boat was just as precise and in place as the actual boat–every rope rallied in and hung gently on the sides, every stitch sewn with superior precision, every wooden piece sanded, painted and polished.

I told Henry why I came and admitted, in response to one of his questions, that I didn’t know a lick about boats–not where the bow or stern was, or what a double mast was and that this was actually the first time I’d ever heard the word “schooner”. We got to laughing with each other right away.

We chatted as he shared pictures of himself and a few of his greatest accomplishments, like becoming a Master Boat Builder and receiving the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador, which is the highest honour of the province and recognizes individuals who benefited, in an outstanding manner, Newfoundland and Labrador and its residents.

Would you mind taking us to see your current boat?, I said hesitantly, not wanting to overstep any boundaries or intrude on what might be a very personal and private endeavour.

Not 5 seconds after he opened the thin grey door to his well-worn working shed–the moment I laid eyes on his current boat project–I was helpless with tears.

It is so beautifully overwhelming to see the ribs of a boat laid bare, each plank cut and sanded down to smooth, curved wood, placed together like the broad belly of a whale, a strong backbone cemented straight through the center of it all, from bow to stern. It was so incredible to look through the planks, a work in progress, and see through to the other side of the boat as it sat there, all naked and bare and becoming, like a newborn baby fresh out of the womb, so vulnerable and reliant and full of unknown potential.

It felt quite holy to see the raw, unfinished wood of the boat in its natural state–unpainted and propped up by wooden planks on all sides with big metal clamps holding everything in place, to lay eyes on it before the sea sets in around that schooner.

3,000 nails, he said, and it still won’t be near enough to complete this project. I held one in my hand and marveled. 2 years, he said, and I’ll likely have 2 more. I may not get to finishing it.

I ran my hand over the port-side, like I would have touched the wing of butterfly, careful not to take any of the dustings with me. Everything about that shed was sacred–every bit of dust left unsettled from the morning’s work, every thin and supple wood shaving that curled and fell at my feet, every tool used, and the faint sound of the radio playing in the background. I wonder if I have ever felt so honored in my life, to behold something so marvelous, to be in the presence of such mastery.

For those next 15 minutes, during our time in that shed together, I cried and laughed and cried.

You’re not going to remember half of what I’ve told you today, Henry said.

You’re probably right, I told him, because I haven’t written a thing down. What I will always remember, though, is this moment right now–how small and special I feel before this one last schooner.

Before we left, I took his right hand and squeezed it between both of mine, brought it to my lips, and kissed it goodbye. You’ll finish it, I said, and I’ll come around again when it’s time for the ceremonial ship launching.

No one taught him how to build, he simply began at age 20 and now, some 60 years later, he’s still building. While his beautiful, strong and gnarled hands can’t play the accordion anymore, even though his knuckles are near the size of golf balls, while they might not be able to manipulate the fine details of something like they once could,  they still manage to build a 57 foot schooner day after day.

Happiness is kissing the hand of an 80 year old boat builder and muttering blessings into the bones.

A red car rounded the corner just as we were walking up the stairs and making our way out. We quickly crossed the street and I stuck out my thumb without thinking, both exhausted and exhilarated from an afternoon with an amazing man. The car slowed and made its way over to the shoulder. From where I stood I saw a smiling and familiar face looking back at me. Hop in, his voice said, I’ll give you a ride home. 

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23 thoughts on “one more schooner

  1. Wow, that was beautiful, I love reading your stories! I’m so proud of you for going on this journey… Love you! P.s. We will be in Europe in May, let me know where you will be, we will try to visit with baby girl:) xoxo keep learning, keep loving, keep writing!

  2. Chels, thanks for seeking out + bringing us into this sacred moment Henry + his boat. I’m crying too… what a gift it must have been to share an afternoon with someone so alive with passion.

  3. Oh my…brought me to tears, as well. Exquisite writing that had me standing right there experiencing it with you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  4. Hi Chelsea, I just saw and read your article. My father, Henry, mentioned to me that he had a visitor who was so excited to meet him that her emotional reaction when viewing his work (57ft schooner) had him fighting back an emotional tear. You really touched my dad’s heart with your genuine sincerity and passion. I want to thank you for ‘making his heart felt passion’ appreciated. I have recently written my dad’s story and am in the process of seeking a publisher. I believe with all my heart that his story is one that needs to be shared.

    1. Josephine, it is so good go hear from you. Meeting with Henry was the best part of my trip to Newfoundland. When you publish his story, which I know you will, please let me know how I can get to it. Henry will forever have a very special place in my heart. What an incredible man. Love to you both. XO

      1. Nice to hear from you. I hope to submit my manuscript any day now and when and if I get published I will be in contact with you. A friend of mine also mentioned your name a little while ago. Roberta Black told me that she had met you and I believe your mom? Am I right in that you are the person she spoke of?

      2. No, I don’t think I’m the one she spoke of. I’ve been in Trinity for the month. My family is in Michigan, USA. Please let me know when the manuscript goes through.

  5. Ms. Smith, I just finished reading your article on Mr. Vokey and his most amazing boat building skills. We missed the launching of the Leah Caroline by only a couple days but when I saw ‘her’ I was as emotional as you were in meeting Mr. Vokey himself. Another reason I am brought to tears is to find someone else who recognizes the soul of a boat. Only difference is, you know how to put it in words…. Being a bit of a songwriter originally from NL, and being teased for not having written one about NL, I quickly put together a song about Newfoundlanders in general and since I don’t do videos I used a picture of his beautiful schooner and dedicated the song to him…. If you would excuse the noisy production I would love you to hear it, if indeed it will up-load to here. The link will though, I’m sure. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnCovhOJn2U
    Thank-you so much for doing what you do.
    Florence Ross
    Whitby, ON
    Originally from Trinity, NL

  6. I was very lucky to be included by the family for the launch of the Leah Caroline and also take the maiden voyage. Henry is an amazing man and will always hold a dear place in my heart and i will be sure not to miss the launch of another of his schooners. XO

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