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Back to Basics

Today’s technology means we’re losing necessary skills that we no longer use.
boat tools diy

I’d spent the entire day screwing and, frankly, I was exhausted. I’d forgotten how much work it really is. In fact, I’d half forgotten how to do it, and that surprised me. Of course, it had been a decade or so since I’d last done it, and that had been with someone’s help, so I was understandably rusty.

I blame the whole sorry affair on dead batteries. If the batteries hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have wasted an entire day doing nothing but screw.

Wait—you’re thinking I’m discussing something quite rude, aren’t you?

No, this is all about having a dead battery in my cordless drill. I was working on our new house, and everything in the house needed screws: the towel bars, the library bookshelves, the new pulls on the kitchen drawers. The list was endless.

In the middle of all this, the battery charger on my cordless drill packed it in, as they say in England. I was prepared with several batteries that I had planned to switch and recharge as each faded, but when the battery charger died, so did my only method of driving screws.

I don’t even own a corded drill anymore. Frankly, I don’t know how I put in light bulbs without my cordless drill.

So, I dug around in my toolbox, found a Phillips head screwdriver, and examined it with interest. It seemed simple enough, and I had a vague recollection of how to use it. After the first hundred screws, I not only remembered the process, but also knew why cordless drills had become a way of modern life. My wrist was aching, my forearms were bulging like Popeye’s, and I was ready to switch to nails (except I didn’t think I could lift the hammer).

Even worse, I also have cordless saws because they’re so convenient on the dock and around the boat. I don’t do that much cutting, so a cordless circular saw and a cordless jigsaw have served my purposes admirably. Until now.

My wife, Rhea, had finished painting the bedroom, and it was time to build the new valances over the windows. I even had a pile of fresh 1-by-10s that would be padded and covered to match the curtains or the carpet or something. I’d promised Rhea that I would get the valances up. When I said that my batteries had died, she pointed out that I still had my handsaw. There is no arguing with simple logic.

I dug out the handsaw, which had last been sharpened when my father was building our Cold War bomb shelter, and admired the patina of rust on the springy blade. I vaguely remembered how it worked, and I only had a few crosscuts to make.

How long has it been since you actually sawed a piece of wood? If you’re like me, table saws, circular saws, even little Dremel tools have taken the place of manual skills. It took me several tries and a little blood from a barked knuckle to get the saw started in the soft pine for the valances. I’d take a few strokes, be impressed with my abilities, and—boing—the blade would bow in a seeming attempt to bite my remaining knuckles.


Rhea watched this display of skill with bemusement, turning away with a snide comment that sounded something like, “Paul Bunyan, you’re not.” Is it possible that, once upon a time, men actually built entire boats by hand? Without power saws? Amazing.

But there is a rhythm to sawing. By the third valance, it was coming back to me. Get the shoulders into it early, run the blade deep to use the remaining sharp teeth at the ends, roll smoothly into the return stroke. Even though my hands still ached from my morning with the Phillips head, it was starting to be fun. There was a satisfaction to the growing pyramid of sawdust that I’d actually created by hand, and a pleasure in sighting the cut planks to find that they were more or less straight.

And I realized that the ease of our modern technology has taken away some of the delights of accomplishment. After all, I could have knocked out those valances in about five minutes with a power saw. It took the better part of an hour and the investment of some brownish bloodstains on the wood to cut them with that half-sharp saw. But holding those hand-sawn planks made me feel like a kid who’d just built his first birdhouse.

And I realized that this sort of dysfunction has taken place across our lives, as tasks that once brought a sense of pride and accomplishment have been replaced by an addiction to speed and simplicity.

It is, in a way, a sad thing to see skills wither from disuse. There was a time when I’d never seen a prespliced dockline. Docklines were something you made from a piece of line cut off a big spool at the marine hardware store. You took that piece to the dock and decided how big an eye you needed for your cleats. Then you sat down in the cockpit, usually with a cold beer nearby, and tucked in an eye splice just like your father or some mentor had once shown you.

The idea of walking into a marine hardware store, going to a rack of shrink-wrapped, prespliced docklines and selecting one by the sizes printed on the bags would have seemed quite silly. After all, tucking in a splice is a seaman’s skill, and one that you practiced with pride. To buy a prespliced dockline would be like buying a prebuilt model airplane as a kid.

Darwin proved, to himself anyway, that the species often evolves out of disuse. Amphibians that spent most of their time on shore soon had mutant appendages rather than fins or flippers.

The same is unfortunately true in an age of electronic navigation. With GPS and chartplotters available for less than it costs to visit Disneyland for the day, our navigational skills have fallen into disuse. When you simply punch a few buttons and a magic instrument tells you exactly where you are, then there’s really no point in digging out that paper chart and plotting a course.

But, like the pleasure of getting back into the rhythm of sawing by hand, there is a feeling of accomplishment when you figure the currents and the wind to lay a thin pencil line down on a nautical chart. Even better is the satisfaction and pride when you arrive at your destination just as planned, when a landmark looms out of the sea haze right where it’s supposed to be.

We have sophisticated instruments that calculate our position for us and print the data in glowing green numerals, but what’s the fun in that? Turn the steam gauges off for an afternoon and set your course on a piece of chart paper. Where’s the pleasure in cruising all day long by staring at a mini-TV screen? Relearn the pleasures of time-speed-distance to arrive exactly where you want.

After all, there will come a day when the batteries go dead. Then you’ll need those age-old skills of navigation and seamanship, and even sawing wood. To be able to swing smoothly from an electronic age into one that dates back centuries takes practice.

When the batteries go dead on us, we’re literally screwed.