Are you what you do?

Strangely enough, what we do for a living does normally define what we are.  Take for example, when you meet someone, names are the first to be exchanged.  Not far down this list of exchanges will be the question, “what do you do?”. It is a norm to try to form an impression of someone by what they do.  Yes it is stereotyping and we are all guilty of it at one time or another.  Recently, a friend from overseas came to stay with us for a couple of weeks.  During this time some of her friends came to visit her at the marina and of course the usual exchanges took place.  To THAT question, I answered, “I’m semi-retired!”. The next question that followed was a little more arresting.  “So you don’t do anything at all?”.  To that, I had to come up with a bonefide answer, as I have never been one to be able to sit idle for long.  In fact, one of my secret fear is that I will become lazy over time, at being “semi-retired”.  Hasn’t happened as yet as the number of boat projects in the past has kept me very busy and now with the canvas jobs that I have taken on, it doesn’t even leave me time to do my own boat’s projects.

To that question, I turned around towards the marina, swept my finger from left to right and said, “see the boats out there and the canvas on nearly all the boats?”, “That is what I am doing now!”. Of course it led to more questions, as most will not be aware of just what is involved in such a job.

It does not bother me much of what others may think of what I am, from what I do.  I am comfortable in my own skin and silently confident that I will make a good sailor knowing that I can handle most problems that will arise in a sailboat.  Why is this so important? As mentioned in my earlier posts, when you are out at sea, there are no tow trucks and not even mobile phone signal reception if you are far out enough.  It is for your own well being and that of your crew (everyone’s safety to be explicit) that your boat can maintain the necessary functions to get out of harm’s way.  It can be as simple as the fresh water pump failing, leaving you without means to get fresh water out of your water tanks. The bottled water will be consumed fast enough, then what?  Unnecessary anguish, if you can fix that pump or have a spare.  Worse case scenario, is to open the inspection ports in the water tanks to access the fresh water.  Don’t laugh, but there are those who sailed and never knew where the fresh water tank(s) is.  It is scary in a way when so many things can possibly go wrong in a boat.  So why do it?  Well, we love the sea.  Love it enough that those potential issues are mere inconveniences.  It is like commuting to work on the dangerous freeways.  We would still do it as it is a way of life for some of us.  I have a sailor friend, with grown up children who could never quite fathom why their father has such a dangerous pursuit.  One day he told his children that if he should ever perish at sea, they (his children) should rejoice, for he has lived the life that he wanted.  But, if he is ever killed while crossing a road (maybe even as a result of being knocked down by a bicycle), they should wail loudly for him, for he has not lived the life that he wanted!  Make sense?  It does to me.

Back to being a canvas maker.  It can be a tough physical job.  Canvas are heavy and if they are large enough, it could weigh as much as myself or even more.  The sensible thing is to make them in smaller manageable pieces and assemble them on site.  Working with canvas requires a certain amount of brawn.  Even the sewing machine(s) used and the threads are proportional to the task.  Fitting a bimini (an awning over the cockpit of a boat) can be a tough job.  A task that involves much pulling and stretching of the canvas to ensure a snug fit.  It has to be made to fit snugly as flapping is not just irritating but it will lead to the weakening of the canvas and its eventual tearing when the wind blows.  Quite a bit of grunting is involved, not unlike a tennis match.  This basic requirement of a snug fit is not an easy feat, considering that these are not mere flat surfaces.  They run over arches and bows wrapping around the stainless steel bows at the extreme ends.  Measurements and templates has to be precise as those are your starting points, and compensation for stretches may be required depending on the size.  I am still a relative newbie, having only started doing this sort of work for the last 2 to 3 months and without a hands-on guru to teach me it was mostly trial and error. I have tried to omit as much error as possible (as it is rather time consuming to have to fix errors) by watching as many YouTube clips as possible on the subject but more importantly, by thinking and visualizing each steps ahead.  What I lack in experience, I have tried to compensate by having more thoughts put into each step of the way.  It does work to a certain extent and in some cases even came up with innovative solutions to deal with issues.  Errors however still happened.  These are dealt with, with amendments.  Most errors and oversight can be fixed and hopefully without having to start from scratch again.  Being a perfectionist, meant too that there will be more amendments.  Yes, I do take pride in my work and I will want to hand over a good piece of work to my customers.  The work will have to satisfy the perfectionist in me first. 

Canvas aside, there are flexible transparent windows about 2.5 mm thickness, made mostly of UV resistant treated PET. I found them to be extremely challenging.  Getting them taut and snug, with a minimum amount of waviness could mean a few millemeters difference over a distance of 3 to 4 meters.  Over the front portion of a covering, these will be like a windscreen with curved slanting edges.  One of the first thing that I have learnt is that the stainless steel bows and arches are seldom ever truly symmetrical.  These structures are hand bent or handmade, subjected to all known and unknown human errors.  Each part has to be carefully measured and treated individually.  A friend whom I have met recently, dropped by for a chat while I was working on a bimini/dodger (flexible windscreen).  This was a man who has had successful businesses in truck and ship manufacturing.  His comment after some observations at my work was, “This is something no one can teach you.  You will just have to learn it by doing the job!”.  I found this to be quite true.  Some of the issues encountered, are even hard to articulate in words.

The mileage for this work is accumulating day by day and without doubt, I am getting better and better at it.  Each job has its own challenges and with more experience, each is tackled a little more proficiently and in lesser time.  My old sailor friend who got me started on this sewing business (who has sewn his way around the world, literally) and my adviser and mentor in a way, just told me that at this rate, he will be asking me for advice soon.  I was flattered but never complacent.  He is still someone I will consult when faced with a major obstacle. 

One of the frustration of such work is the reliability of your tool, the sewing machine.  Working on such heavy material will mean that it is frequently out of tune.  Skipping stitches, presser foot not lifting high enough, sometime not stitching at all.  Most people who sew would send it back to the dealer for fixing.  I bought my semi-industrial sewing machine from China, and I have that sailor’s attitude of fixing it myself.  Yes, I did fixed all those things and I have become good at that too.  Don’t even need to refer to the service manual any longer.  Some issues are not even covered by the service manual, like the presser foot height modifications!

Back now to the question of “are you what you do?”.  I don’t think so.  I may take pride in my work and I will commit to focusing on doing the job as well as I could.  It may not even be my forte, I would like to think that I am better in marine navigation electronics.  At least fewer people would know how to do what I have managed to put together as my primary navigation equipment.  The irony is that the DIY electronics is just that.  A cheap way towards electronic navigation equipment.  It will be hard to make it worth your time doing that for a living.  It is meant to be cheap.  Of course, in my past corporate life, there were things I was doing well for more than 20 years.  But a past life is just that… history, unless I would go back into that again, which is very unlikely.  Truth is, I have no desire to go back to the corporate life again.  So little life there, ironically!

As a canvas maker, it has its own challenges.  A different challenge each day making life more interesting.  More importantly, I am working with boats in the sea.  I am closer to my elements.  Working with things meant for the sea.  The salt, sun and wind which are both your friends and foe at the same time.  These are things that I understand well enough having to deal with them all these while on the sea.  Being a boat canvas maker makes me a better sailor as that is one additional thing that I will be able do well enough.  Most important of all is the fact that I do enjoy this work.  I am comfortable in my own skin and I do know for a fact that I can do a lot more than sewing canvas. 

Being happy with your life is what matters most.  The rest are just diminutive pursuits.

Do remember to take a step back and view life from a broader perspective.  Remember to live a little fuller and chase after that dream which will make you a happier person at the end of the day.  Cheers!

Published by Ben

Semi retired ex-corporate executive. Now a liveaboard on a sailboat with the Admiral and my sailor dog.

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