– Christopher Dresser, Principles of Decorative Design, Fourth Edition
When we found an eight-foot-long solid mahogany companionway ladder washed up on our beach, we knew immediately it had come from the sadly sunken motor yacht we’d christened “The Mae West” after her owner, the great Hollywood star from the 1920 and 30s. We washed it with fresh water, and as it dried out we put some serious thought into how we could continue its use in the form of furniture. We can’t recall now which idea came first, but one fairly obvious one was to create a bookshelf, with the ladder’s steps as shelves. We saw that the top three steps, if supported by some pieces of teak paneling we’d already rescued from the vessel, would make a perfect fit for our collection of Patrick O’Brian books and ephemera.
But what could the remaining section do for us? Eventually it dawned on us that if we cut it in half, and put the two pieces on their sides, back-to-back, we’d have a small table, with an interestingly sectioned lower shelf. Meanwhile (this entire creative process developed over many months), a four-foot piece of gently curved solid teak deck railing which had broken free from the yacht during a storm washed up. We saw we could cut two pieces to create ends for the tabletop that would cover the sawn edges. What remained was a piece about eight inches long. In one of many serendipitous moments in our furniture-design process, we realized we could cut it into four two-inch blocks that made perfect feet for our table and gave a visual balance to the design.
“The Mae West” is gone forever, but her story lives on in these two pieces, and a few others we’ll be featuring in future posts.
– Henry Miller
“The Mae West,” as we called her, was a gorgeous 80-foot classic wood-hulled motor yacht with lovely lines, a perfect fit for the glamorous Hollywood star who was said to have owned her. With a big covered fantail deck, she was the quintessential party boat for the 1920s. It’s known that Miss West also owned the 103-foot motor yacht Zumbrotta, originally built in 1914 for Charles Ringling of the famous circus, and that she sold it to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in the 1930s. We can only assume that our “Mae West,” whose actual name is unknown, being smaller, was her earlier vessel (our attempts to find information on the boat have gone unrewarded).
When we first came to our little nautical community here in New York City, we lived near a marina at which this boat was docked, an elegant bit of history gracing our waterfront view. We understood that she was now owned by someone who intended to make a full restoration.
Well, this was in the 1990s, and in spite of the on-going economic recovery, the marina was gradually getting run down, on its way to going out of business. The owner of “The Mae West” was obviously also running down, and out of money for his project. The thing about wooden boats is: they are constantly leaking. It’s virtually impossible to keep sea water from coming in between the hull planks, so the bilge pumps have to be kept constantly running. At this point these pumps are all electric – no deckhands required to man the pump handles . . . but, the owner failed to pay his electric bill at the marina, so the marina owner (a fellow of no particular scruples) turned off the shore power to the yacht. “The Mae West” sank at the dock.
It was very disheartening to see the boat sitting in the mud, partly exposed at low tide, and mostly-immersed at high tide. As time went by it was obvious that she’d been abandoned, and the ceaseless action of waves, storms, and the growth of black slime, then seaweed, and barnacles, turned a thing of beauty into an ever more saddening spectacle.
It was at this time that we were finding shipworm-eaten dock planks on our little beach, and conceptualizing what would become Dockwood Furniture. And much to our delight, “The Mae West” began to provide us with flotsam, broken loose from her interior by storm-driven waves. First we found an eight-foot solid mahogany companionway ladder on our beach. Then big panels of teak plywood. Finally a section of the teak handrail from her deck washed up, and another mahogany ladder.
From these we fashioned our “Mae West” Bookshelf, Side Table, and All-Teak Side Table, and we have another bookshelf planned.
After years of battering by the elements, “The Mae West” finally broke up completely in a big late-fall Nor’easter. With so much wreckage strewn about, the Coast Guard declared it a “hazard to navigation,” and the marina was forced to have it all cleaned up by a marine contractor, and pay a big fine as well. That put them out of business for good. Poetic justice?
But at least something was salvaged from one of most lovely yachts of her age that we have ever seen – her memory is preserved, and her story continues as we tell our friends about these pieces of furniture we’re so proud of.
– William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part I
We learned recently that King Richard III had worms. Roundworms. One wonders what else his life might have had in store for him had he not been killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The process by which this parasitic creature, whose proper name is ascaris lumbricoides, infects its human host is far too repugnant to describe. In most cases these days its victims survive, suffering breathing and abdominal symptoms. It’s estimated that around one billion people are currently infected worldwide, with these animals living inside them. At least it’s curable . . .
Much of our Dockwood had worms. Well, not really worms – shipworms. And shipworms are not worms, but clams! They look like worms because their shells have evolved into tiny rasp-like things, and their bodies trail from them, worm-like. The sharp-edged shells chew into wood that’s submerged in the sea, drilling into it as it’s eaten, their bodies protected inside the tunnel they’ve made. They produce enzymes which allow them to digest the cellulose of the wood.
Our favorite furniture material is riddled with thousands of the tiny holes made by our native shipworm species, Gould’s shipworm (bankia gouldi).
The most common shipworm, teredo navalis, whose holes, at about one centimeter, are much larger, is famous for rendering ships “rotten,” and un-sailable within ten years from their launching. Spanish conquistador captains used them as an excuse to burn their ships after landing in the New World, to prevent their men from deserting and sailing them back home. It wasn’t until the 18th century that fastening sheets of copper to ships’ bottoms was to finally prevent their destruction by the ubiquitous teredo.
But to this day, wooden docks and piers fall inevitably victim to these little critters. And when they break up in storms and become flotsam, and wash in up in pieces on our local beaches, we salvage the lumber for our furniture projects.