Monday, November 30, 2009

The Bottom (Soko)

After getting the planks bent we anchored the assembly firmly to the sawhorses and began the process of fitting the bottom to the boat.  The bottom, or soko, consists of three large timbers and we started with the largest center piece.  This timber is huge, over a foot wide, nine inches thick and some eighteen feet long.  It easily weighed over 250 pounds when we started.  We have chainfall riding on a cable across the shop which allows us to move this on and off the boat, for scribing and then shaping on a pair of sawhorses.

This timber had been roughed out with a chainsaw by my teacher and his son before I arrived here.  Here it is right side up where we are working on the edges fore and aft that meet the side planks and also hollowing the center.  The square bump you see forward is the mast step, just an integral part of the timber and not a separate piece of wood.

You can see the strap running to the chainfall and the horses to the left where we move the timber to work on it.  In the last three days we have moved this timber on and off the boat at least twenty times.  I am amazed by how incrementally my teacher fits this.  We take off just an eighth to a quarter inch of material at most at a time, each time getting a little bit closer to the final fit.  This center piece only touches along about two feet of seam at either end (that's the bow toward the camera).  We will be adding timbers along either side of this one next.  Shimojo san has told me that the final goal is a bottom timber that is about three inches thick.

Here Shimojo san is scribing for the next fitting.  He does this by eye, sometimes with the help of a batten.  Then its time to take the timber off the boat, trim to fit, and then rig it to move it back on.  Repeat.

Over the last three days we have planed the bottom considerably.  Its still big and heavy, but we have turned a lot of it into shavings nevertheless.  This is just the result of one fitting.  The mountain of shavings grows ever bigger.

This is looking aft from inside the hull.  If you enlarge the image you can see how we hollowed the side planking and the material we left to create thwart risers (which will support the seats later).  Some of the turnbuckles and chains we used to bend the planks are visible, along with the bars we installed to spread the planks.  The bottom timber is running down the centerline of the photograph.

Japanese youth culture is notoriously famous for its obsession with fads, be it fashion, music, dance, etc.  It seems the current fascination is watching two old men build a wooden boat, if these visiting seventeen-year-olds from Niigata Prefecture are any indication.  We are trying to enjoy the attention while it lasts.

Peace and oranges.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ben again

We share the shop with what seems like a hundred sparrows.  They are noisy in the morning until they clear out for the day.  One remarkable quality they seem to have is that they don't leave droppings in the shop.  That bit of fastidiousness (very Japanese?) will be important to anyone who has varnished or painted a boat in the company of birds.....

"Sparrow" in Japanese is "suzume."  But here on Iejima they are called "chyou chyou."


I am digressing again, but one of the charming features of Okinawa are the shisa which guard the entrances to most homes.  Traditionally these lion figures were mounted on rooftops, but now people place them at either side of their driveways.  The shot above shows a traditional Okinawan style house.  There are no wooden ones left on this island, but there are some made of coral block walls.  Most are concrete block.  If you look closely you can see the shisa on the roof.

The modern ones range in size and feature glazing, etc.  Some of the old ones are basic unglazed fired pottery.  When there are in pairs one lion always has its mouth closed while the other one's is open.

This old one is my favorite.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Yukkuri, dozo

The title of this entry means, "Slowly, please."  That's been our watchword the last three days as we've slowly begun bending our planks.  The first day on the job the boat builder was telling me that we would be pouring hot "oyu" over the planks to bend them.  Japanese sometimes say "oyru" for "oil" so for a few days I thought he meant hot oil.  Who was I to argue?  Then I figured out that oyu is boiling water.  In the old days his wife would tend a pot and they would burn all the shavings from the adzing and planing of the planks.  It was her job to keep running in pitchers of hot water to pour over the planks.  Now we are using a diesel flash boiler and a hose.

Here's the view of the bow joined together.

Spraying the hot water is something we've done every few minutes for days now.

Starting to happen.

It took over a day to get to this point, with lots of clamps, bars, and turnbuckles used.

This is the view of the stern.  The large turnbuckle at the bottom is used to spread the planks.

We used a handsaw, making many, many passes, running between the planks to create the faying surfaces at the bow.  Sabani have very narrow bow transoms instead of a stem.

Here is Shimojo san doing the same sawing at the stern.  He says it is his signature that his sabani's planks come together a few feet forward of the transom.

Here's a closeup of some of the rigging for this bending process.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Bit About Ben

A Bit About Ben

One of the interesting aspects of this research is language.  In Japan regional dialects are called "ben."  What people speak in the Osaka region is called Kansai Ben, for instance.  Some dialects are quite infamous: in 2003 as we were getting ready to leave Tokyo for Aomori, our friends were horrified.  We were heading right into the heart of Japan's most infamous dialect: Aomori Ben.  We were told that even to native speakers the Japanese spoken in this region was impenetrable.  In fact, it wasn't nearly so bad as the dire predictions.  First, we found that there were three main dialects in Aomori: Nambu Ben, Shimokita Ben and Tsugaru Ben.  We were living on the border of the first two.  Tsugaru Ben is probably justifiably scary, but even so really everyone under the age of seventy can speak what is considered Tokyo Ben (standard Japanese).  It took me about three weeks to sort out the different sounds my teacher used that deviated from the Japanese I had studied.

The same is true here in Okinawa.  I've noticed that these rural dialects tend to me a more clipped from of Japanese.  For instance, my teacher does not say "tomodachi" for "friend," instead he says "tomaji."  Where it gets interesting is in the names of the parts of the boat.  Some of these words I have been told are Iejima Hogen.  People here don't refer to their dialect as Iejima Ben, but as Iejima Hogen (how's that for a head fake, their dialect has a different word for "dialect").  My dictionary defines "hogen" as: "an obsolete word."  The locals would probably define it as: "the way we talk (as opposed to the funny way you talk)."

Here are some common boat parts and my list of vocabulary thus far:

rudder        kaji haji
sail             ho pu
bottom        shiki/soko su fu
bow           omote pijira
stern           tomo tomopirjira
wedges     kusabi shikasa
mast           hobashira hashira
beam         funabari haiki
paddle       kai ya fu
sheet          sheetsu tina

I would sincerely appreciate any comments on language, or any of the words I have mentioned here, from native speakers to students of Japanese.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Carving.... and carving

We've spent over a week hollowing out our two planks.  These planks began as nearly 2-1/2 inch thick planks, twenty-five feet long.  We've removed almost half their volume, leaving basically a rim around the edges (representing bow, sheer, stern and bottom) and leaving within the planks what will become the thwart risers (what supports the seats).  As we did this work (and believe me, it was work).  But probably nothing like the old days, when Shimojo san used the adze, above, to do most of this work.  He told me that the blade was made from the spring of an American military vehicle and that it was his idea to weld the farming tool to it, to give the adze more weight and make it easier to use.

We began the process by cutting the edges of those parts of the plank we were not hollowing out.  With the blade depth and angle set very carefully we cut those edges.

This monster cut almost a one inch wide swath.  It is no fun to push (we cut to the full depth with each pass).  We cut a series leaving material between each pass so we had something to lay the tool on as we tried to come back and cut the remaining material out.

Beyond that the work was primarily with hand tools, including planes, gouges and chisels.  Shimojo san's son used an air chisel.  Finally we turned to a grinder and then sanders.  I believe that today we finally finished it off.

Given all this work, I was given over to fantasies of building up these planks out of two layers, essentially adding the gunwales, risers, etc. to a plank.  When I went to the sabani races I saw boats built this way.  The style is called "nanyouhagi" meaning "southern ocean joining" or, basically, the foreign way.  After asking Shimojo san about it he shook his head and said one word: "Bad."

If you click on this final image and enlarge it you will get an idea of what we've done.  Basically we hollowed half the thickness of these planks.  I was surprised when we finally moved them today at how much lighter and more flexible they have suddenly become.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Off To The Races

Yesterday I traveled to Itoman, a large fishing port at the southern end of the main island, to see the last sabani sailing race of the year.  About a dozen boats took part in a mass launching from the beach.  The idea was to sail/paddle out and do two laps of a triangle course but the race was cancelled due to high winds after a lap.  There were a couple of capsizings, a few collisions, etc. but this event seems to be more about the fun than the competition.

Sabani don't have rudders, steered instead with a paddle, so it takes some real skill to maintain direction.

It was said that this boat is fifty years old.  There were several old boats in the race.

This crew dragged in late, looking pretty exhausted.

And some people just sailed around, having fun.  The folks who race are mainly young, watersports types, yachtsmen, fishermen and, I suspect, those Japanese who have come to Okinawa from elsewhere who appreciate the island life...  That's a very informal survey....

I was taken to the sabani race's NPO headquarters, where they have a small museum.  This is a boat made right after WWII from one half of an air force drop tank.  This was a fishing boat.

Here's a look at it from the stern.  Nice use of military junk.

In Itoman Port I found some old power sabani fishing boats.  Most were wood covered with fiberglass and a couple were entirely fiberglass, but you see the sabani shape, with sponsons added, etc.

In one old abandoned sabani I looked inside and saw this fastening half fallen out.  Thinking it would be a nice souvenir I tried pulling it out but it wouldn't budge!  Testimony to this form of construction.  This is the huundu, or dovetail key, and I need to devote a blog post to this form of fastening.  The boat I am building will be entirely fastened with these.  NO NAILS.  More on this soon.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Shimojo san

My teacher is Mr. Ryujin Shimojo, who took up boat building in his early twenties after working as a fisherman like his father.  He was 16 during the Battle of Okinawa and he told me that he and all the other schoolchildren were made to build fortifications.  As for fishing, in those days the only boats were unpowered sabani, both big and small, and Shimojo describes this work as cold and demanding.  He told me how he would fish alone, holding the sheet in one hand, the rudder in the other with the trolling line held in his teeth.

Here is a photo of him and his wife.  In his forties he was in a severe car accident that permanently damaged the left side of his body and he lost one eye.  He had four children to take care of and he continued to work, though one of his sons and his wife began to help him in the shop.

Here is his son Tomio san helping him.  Tomio is working with us part-time on the project, and Shimojo san's wife comes in daily to pitch in.

This is the shop.  Today all the buildings on the island are concrete or cinder block.  Wood may have been nice, but rebuilding after the typhoons wasn't.  Shimojo san did a variety of work here, mostly boat building but he also set up a machine shop for shaft and propellor work once small engines became available.  He began building powered sabani and then built what he called "wasen."

"Wasen" means "traditional Japanese boat" but the distinction for Shimojo san is that a sabani is something else unique.  It is a reflection of the idea that here in Okinawa there is a culture distinct from the rest of Japan.  This photo shows his very first boat built in the Japanese style.  He built more of these and then switched to fiberglass.  In the harbor I found some of the old style glass boats, perhaps ones he built.

He said his biggest boat was 35 feet long.  He considers sabani to be the pinnacle of boat building and he had some interesting things to say about the evolution of boats that he built.  Of wasen he said, "It's easy, you just set frames up on the bottom bend the planks around and that's it."  Of fiberglass, "You just spread the stuff around and you have a boat."

Working with him has been a revelation in tenacity and endurance.  It is enormously humbling to be working alongside a 79-year old man and see his severe physical limits, and then think that he has carried on like this for over thirty years.  He has made many adjustments and for the most part uses all the tools with one hand.  He is just five feet tall but he can swing around a heavy power tool easily with his right arm.

I do as much as I can to anticipate what he needs but if one of these planks needs lifting and I am not there he lifts it.  He refers often to his accident, and his bad arm and leg, but every time he completes the story with a smile and a laugh.

He marks his work with the first and last kanji (Chinese characters) of his name: SHIMO JIN.

Today I am off to the races, literally.  I take the 8 am ferry back to the main island and then down to Itoman where the last sabani races of the season are taking place.  There are only three sailing races a year and when Shimojo san heard I was invited to see them he gave me the day off.  He said that in my absence he might just spend the day sitting in the shop doing nothing.