“This old broom’s had seventeen new heads and fourteen new handles in its time.”
Trigger’s famous broom scene from Only Fools and Horses came to me as Blue Eye was lowered back down the slipway of a New Zealand boatyard earlier this year.
“So how the hell,” demands Sid, “can it be the same bloody broom then?”
Well Sid, quite. Was this the same boat that we hauled out six months before? And if it was, was it the same boat that we left in from England in 2016? And if it still was, was it the same boat they built all the way back in 1973? Theseus would have something to say about this, the philosopher who asked the question: if all parts of an object are replaced, is it still the same object it was to start with?
Theseus must have been acquainted with the tendencies of a boat to require unrivalled levels of care and attention, because to illustrate his paradox he enlisted the example of a wooden ship. If over the years every plank and every nail of the structure is changed, are we left with the same ship? The question at the heart of Theseus’s Paradox, is whether an object is the sum of its parts or if it is in some way more or other.
Many sailors might have found themselves pondering this dilemma over a busy yard period. A time when parts are hammered, heated, wrenched and twisted; sanded, grinded, squeezed and scraped; kicked, smacked, smited and cursed, out of the boat and into the bin, so as to make way for something new, shiny and, in all likelihood, expensive. Indeed, after half a world of sailing, Blue Eye was certainly in need of a new handle, and perhaps a new head too.
The list was daunting: osmosis of the hull, a wobbly rudder, a broken gooseneck, a worn cutlass bearing, seizing seacocks, faulty solar panels, a faulty VHF, a faulty tiller pilot, a faulty automatic bilge pump, and an engine with its own extensive list of troubles. It’s actually a miracle we got to New Zealand at all, come to think of it.
Such a jobs list, it’s fair to say, would have been intimidating to the most hands-on of boat owners. But we had just spent a great deal of time cruising in the South Pacific being very much hands off (this, admittedly, probably contributed to the length of the list), and to find ourselves living on the hard and faced with the above, forewarned of quite the change in lifestyle from the balmy waters of the tropics.
So Blue Eye became a workshop. Dust, oil and grime was trodden in and out everyday, the galley doubled up as a tool station, bunks became workbenches, and the cockpit area was now something of an open-air shed. It continued, however, to be the confined space in which we slept, cooked and lived, and therefore the weeks became one long reshuffling of objects so as to find a place to sit down to consult a jobs list that seemed only ever to grow.
We got stuck in, revelling in revived purpose that somewhere between a Caribbean beach and a South Pacific lagoon had been lost by the wayside. Every morning I’d climb down the ladder to pick up the sander, and slowly take back stubborn layers of antifoul paint, feeling like I was getting somewhere until a flaky epoxy primer underneath confronted me with a vengeance. In due course (by which I mean, some miserable weeks later), I would grind out the few soft spots of saturated fibreglass, dry away their vinegary tears so as to refill them in time, and, at long last, we could apply a fresh coat of primer and antifoul to the entire thing. Meanwhile, James would pass the days nestled into a small and generally inaccessible spot of the boat, attempting to take this or that apart, so it could be dealt with accordingly.
It soon became evident that the dismantling element of things was to be the most time consuming, whether it take the course of sanding, whacking or unscrewing. Indeed, fixing or replacing was straightforward enough: we either knew what to do or we knew where to find our thinning wallets. But the amputation of the object in question – which had in one way or another amalgamated itself with whatever it was that it was supposed to be coming off of – devoured whole days quite easily. And so to be sure the effort of removing it wouldn’t go to waste, we dedicated just as much time to the final part of the process: reassembling the apparatus in such a way that neither the climate, the circumstances, nor the next poor bugger, could get it off without a great deal of blood, sweat and tears. It’s a vicious cycle, boat work.
Fortunately – particularly in a place such as New Zealand where international cruisers flock for the cyclone season – much camaraderie, help and advice is to be found amongst dusty boatyards. Our South African neighbours, for example, had watched James hammering away at this thing that needed to come out of that thing, and in their typical kindness had sent around their son with a bigger hammer to ease the job along. Barely had James raised the new and improved tool when a friendly Frenchman, who had taken a keen interest in assisting us too, arrived avec un velo, and conjured an even bigger hammer yet from his basket. We had a chuckle and waited to see if a sledgehammer would show up, but it transpired not to be required.
Employees of the yard also proved invaluably helpful, in particular a Kiwi engineer called Tony, to which everything was “spotty dog” (or spot on in English, we believe). In his kindness (or perhaps pity), Tony would frequently take our problems home to his workshop for repairing off the clock, and at first light the next day he could be found knocking on our hull with a great smile and the fixed piece held aloft, declaring it now to be “spotty dog”. We ended up gifting Tony our much loved but little used Seagull outboard engine that had been accumulating cobwebs in a locker. What looked like a piece of rusty old scrap metal to me, was absolute gold dust to the likes of Tony.
And so it was amongst such a community atmosphere that jobs were ticked off, until – much blood, sweat and tears later – we were at last ready to go. We nervously watched Blue Eye edge back down into the water, where everything could happily resume breaking again, and we could happily ignore it until it got serious.
Was it the same boat? Trigger was certain it was the same broom he’d had all those years. But Trigger was extremely stupid, and so there was an assumption that he was wrong, which is of course what makes the whole thing funny. And yet, I felt pretty sure this was still the same Blue Eye. Practically speaking it would be very hard for it not be, I suppose, because – unlike Theseus’s wooden ship – Blue Eye is one big lump of fibreglass. But what if over the years it was continuously treated for osmosis, again and again, until the original shell had been entirely replaced by an assembly of patchworks? I think even then it would be hard to say it was no longer Blue Eye.
Indeed, the sailor is naturally a romanticist, who would struggle to submit to the notion that their boat is no more than a sum of its parts. Replace every plank, change every nail, but the essence of a sailor’s ship remains untouched. I think, after all these years, I finally understand what Trigger was getting at with his broom.