County Fair in a Bottle

The sea can be a boring place to hang out on long passages.  Sailors have filled the off-watch hours with their own particular amusements for centuries.  Now a days they have television or the Internet.  not so long ago amusement was provided by the resources on board ship.  The materials on hand in a sailing vessel are basic but can yield some fine results in skilled hands.  The sailor’s arts center around rope, canvas, and wood.  Bits of string and a little paint blended with imagination can create a nautical novelty fit for the mantel.

I have always been fascinated by the traditional sailor’s arts and have tried my hands at several.  I have made up monkey’s fists, and sewn my own ditty bag.  I tried scrimshaw.  The results pleased me but it was a bit too labor intensive and having a whales tooth about the place can land you in a lot of hot water now a days.  Model making is tons of fun and half models and ships in the bottle take less time and yield results that people seem to appreciate.

All over America it’s county fair season.  Rural communities entertain the citizenry with carnival rides, rodeos, and appallingly unhealthy food that everyone loves.  The county fair is also the seat of judgment over local agricultural products and home-based crafts.  I married into a family that has a tradition of striving after blue ribbons.  Baked goods are frequent contributions in the fiercely competitive cooking categories. Ribbons for photography are sought after with a sort of creative vigor.

Last year I entered a half model of a catboat.  A half model is a representative view of the shape of a vessel’s hull.  The beauty of form and symmetry are brought out by a careful craftsman.  Wood is a soulful medium that makes wonderful boats.  Models of all kinds aid the mind’s melding of form and function.

This year I decided to put forth a ship in the bottle.  Actually a schooner in a bottle.  The prototype is the great lakes schooner Challenge from one of Howard I. Chappelle’s books.  To enjoy this particular craft requires the heart of an illusionist.  Children are especially fascinated to see such a large object inside a bottle with a standard size neck.  Those who lack imagination or have been jaded by television are certain that the large end was cut and invisibly rejoined.  No sir!  Everything goes in by the same route the rum came out.  Tis’ da law of da sea, Arrgh!  Years ago when I attended craft shows with my woodcarvings I could gather a very interested crowd with a demonstration of the installation technique.  My audience would be held, if not spellbound then, alertly interested as I folded up a small ship complete with paper sails, hinged masts and slid it through the neck of a bottle to rest on the waves of a  previously sculpted and painted sea.  The next big moment was when The mast and rigging were raised by drawing on the carefully arranged threads that make up the fore and aft lines of the rig.

A completed illusion is a very satisfying thing not unlike filing your taxes or varnishing brightwork.  I was pleased to win another ribbon but there were no other ships either in a bottle or out.  I was in the miniatures category which usually features incredibly detailed scale dollhouse furniture. Probably I was cursed as an interloper by somebody who sweated over place settings at a mouse sized table.  Next year I’ll go back to woodcarving.  I’ve got a sea turtle in teak roughed out and a nice piece of burl to mount it on.  Now all I need is some time which is the greatest illusion of all.

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