As an English literature major, I read the epic tales of John Steinbeck from The Grapes of Wrath to Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men to Cannery Row. In novels that championed the common man, Steinbeck wrote of courage and struggle and, most of all, about humanity and the meaning of life. Being young and full of life, and being preoccupied with sailing, beer and girls (not in that order), I found his books heavy going and often depressing.

Never mentioned in those dusty college courses was his expedition to what is properly called the Gulf of California: a long, thin sea/lake bounded by the peninsula of Baja California on the west and the Mexican mainland on the east. Cortez explored it centures ago, and I have sailed and raced to it and across it many times. But it was Steinbeck who immortalized it in his work The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

It was 1940, and he had just finished his monumental The Grapes of Wrath. Burnt out from the effort and under attack for earlier controversial novels, Steinbeck badly needed to get away. With his friend Ed Ricketts (later immortalized as Doc Ricketts in Cannery Row), Steinbeck set out on a boating expedition to the Sea of Cortez to collect and research invertebrates, resulting in a 600-page logbook that was as much a commentary on mankind as it was about the various species he found.

He wrote: “A man builds the best of himself into a boat—builds many of the unconscious memories of his ancestors. Once, passing the boat department of Macy’s in New York, where there are duck-boats and skiffs and little cruisers, one of the authors discovered as he passed each hull he knocked on it sharply with his knuckles. He wondered why he did it and, as he wondered, he heard a knocking behind him, and another man was rapping the hulls with his knuckles, the same tempo—three sharp knocks on each hull. During an hour’s observation there no man or boy and few women passed who did not do the same thing. Can this have been an unconscious testing of the hulls? Many who passed could not have been in a boat, perhaps some of the little boys had never seen a boat, and yet everyone tested the hulls, knocked to see if they were sound, and did not even know he was doing it.”

I thought back and realized that I, too, subconsciously knock on hulls. These days, doing so might be considered merely a test to see if the hull is fiberglass, wood, metal or whatever. But the act is more than just an “I wonder if it’s wood” moment.

I realized that I often pat boats, too, as if they were human. Usually my own boats, because I feel no more comfortable patting other people’s boats than I would patting their spouses.

If you attend a boat show, you’ll see what Steinbeck saw. Even in the most casual passing, people let their fingers trail along the sides of a boat, much as children with a stick can’t resist running it along a picket fence. As they stand considering boats, their hands are in motion, touching the varnish and gauging the rigging and playing with the lines.

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It is, in many ways, the primeval urge that Steinbeck understood. That before committing to a voyage onto those frightening seas, man needs reassurance that his vessel is sound.

But it isn’t just at boat shows where we touch boats. Walk the dock in a marina, and it’s hard not to reach out to a curved bow as you pass. It is as much in our DNA as eating and breathing.

Had Steinbeck known what was in store, he might have stayed in the Sea of Cortez. Instead, he went home to disarray: his marriage fell apart, the world went to war and he moved away from California. On the positive side, he wrote East of Eden and won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Ricketts died after closing up his laboratory on Cannery Row one night and attempting to cross the tracks in his ancient Packard. He was killed by the evening train, thus ending their plan to return to the Sea of Cortez. Twenty years later, Steinbeck died in New York, leaving a wealth of fiction and nonfiction. The one that lingers in my mind will always be The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

He wrote: “A horse, a beautiful dog, arouses sometimes a quick emotion, but of inanimate things only a boat can do it … it is very easy to see why the Viking wished his body to sail away in an unmanned ship, for neither could exist without the other.”

She Who Must Be Obeyed has long threatened, once I fall off the perch, to load me into the sailing dinghy that is moldering in our yard, build a bonfire and send me off onto our lake.

In that case, I guess I’d better go rap on the hull of the dinghy, just to make sure it’s ready for the voyage.

Pictured at top: A seagull finds its own solidity in the form of a statue of venerable author and “boat guy” John Steinbeck. 

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