Acorn to Arabella: Boat Building, Patience, and the Skill of Addressing Failure.

Most of my YouTube viewing is of people fixing stuff. I’m a DIY (Do It Yourself) guy with just enough experience turning wrenches to be dangerous. I also don’t like to pay people to do things I can probably do myself, so I’ll search YouTube for things like “how to unclog your gutter” and learn how to do it myself. If I’m particularly appreciative of the video I may hit the “like” button. The algorithm takes the information I’ve provided to it about how my brain works – videos I’ve watched + videos I’ve liked – and then provides me with a suggested viewing list. My list is chock full of how-to and restoration videos. (It’s also full of other suggestions I don’t understand. Read through to the end for a few of my favorite, and some weird viewing habits for me.)

I own a personal watercraft (aka PWC, aka jet ski). As with any other boat, it constantly breaks down and needs repair. I got tired of paying someone else to do jobs I was pretty sure I could do myself, so I went to YouTube to learn me some boat repair skills. I also do this for my father-in-law’s boat. This year I winterized it myself and changed the thermostat while I was at it. Probably spent a total of 2 hours on the job including shopping for antifreeze, ordering and installing the new thermostat, and saved the family around $400.

Felt pretty good too, if I may.

I digress…

One day about a year ago the algorithm saw fit to suggest I look at this video about a couple of guys who were building their own sailboat. I clicked on it.

And that’s how I discovered Acorn to Arabella.

To summarize, these two guys – Steve and Alix – were a couple of blokes in their early 30’s who decided they’d had enough of the rat race. Listening to their story I came away with the sense they found their jobs unfulfilling, and the concept of using most of the money they earned at said jobs to pay off degrees they don’t use at their jobs seemed, well, not the best use of the years they have on the planet.

They would have preferred to be exploring and experiencing the world itself.

More specifically, they wanted to explore the world on a sailboat they built with their own hands, from wood they milled with their own hands, from trees they felled on their own property.

The project is the brainchild of Steve Denette. Steve contacted a few of his friends and shared his idea which according to him, “is a bit out of left field.” Of the friends Steve tried to recruit for the endeavor, only Alix Kreder was able or willing to make the leap.

I believe it would be fair to say that if there was a master craftsman involved in the early stages of the project, Steve would be closest to fitting the description. After watching their videos with a certain amount of consistency, I also believe Steve would eschew the descriptor. I’ve heard self-deprecation of this nature is further evidence that woodworkers know their stuff. My guess is woodworking keeps one humble. Further, it seems woodworking is a family skill. Steve mentioned using his great-great-great grandfather’s hand tools. So yeah, I think it’s fair to say there is some home-grown know-how involved.

Alix on the other hand, is no slouch in his own right. He holds a degree in photography and takes the lead on video direction and production, at least initially. He and Steve met in college and worked together in construction for a time. According to his “About” page on the Acorn to Arabella website, Alix hails from Paris, France. I don’t recall any other hints that Alix is French other than a quick mention of the fact early in the series. He has no accent of any sort, and speaks of several places he’s lived right here in the good ol’ US of A.

As best I can tell, the physical labor of the project began in 2016 or so, with the first published video on April 23. Even so, I get the sense the planning stages occurred for a significant amount of time prior to the release of the first video. I’ll get to this in a bit.

They also knew they were going into the project without the knowledge of how to do what they were trying to do. That is, they knew they would have to learn new things including, well, how to sail. Neither of these outdoor adventurists had ever been sailing.

I’ve learned a little bit about boats myself just by watching them. For instance, you know the keel – or the long-ish flat thing on the bottom of a boat? Sometimes they’re filled with lead. Steve and Alix had to create one. So they set about collecting somewhere around 9,000 pounds of lead. They collected large amounts by tearing apart old sailboats to re-purpose the lead in the keels; they collected old lead weights from tires, and even fishing weights. Then they built a smelter, melted all the lead, and poured their own ballast keel. It was an amazing and dangerous process I was glad to watch somebody else do. And they did it having never done it before.

Another process I’d never seen was steaming wood so it bends. I’d heard of it, but never seen it. As with the lead smelting, they had to build the entire steam system on site, but in multiple ways. These techniques were new and fascinating for me. (Here’s a link to a video of the creativity needed to address one particular steaming need. Start at about the 6 minute point, if you’re curious.)

I’m sorry, I get caught up in that stuff. But here’s why I find their particular journey to be meaningful.

This was the year I decided to commit to writing, and maybe make some money doing it. I’ve done a bit of that, writing for a local advertising magazine. I’ve had a lot of fun talking to new people and learning about what they do and then putting what I’ve learned into an article. I get paid a little, but I work pretty hard on them. I put emotional and brain energy into them, and when I’m done I want the work to be received well. I look forward to opening the newest issue of the magazine to see my name on an article.

Last month I wrote two stories for the magazine. One was the cover story. On the first day of the month I grabbed a copy of the issue and re-read my work which was now interspersed with professional pictures. I don’t know if the feelings I get when I see the finished product will ever diminish, but for now I really enjoy the experience.

After basking in the rush of my latest dopamine hit, I turned to the contents page to find my other article and then to the page indicated. There, right under the title, was somebody else’s name. Just to be sure I began to read the article. Um yeah, it was somebody else’s article too.

Punch to the gut, it was.

It’s actually happened before. I put several hours into doing research on a company, interviewing the people involved, writing a rough draft, sending it out for any necessary changes…. it can be a lot of time and effort. Discovering my work wasn’t good enough has the opposite effect – at greater levels – than the dopamine high I get from seeing my name and work in glossy print.

What does this have to do with building boats? Thanks for asking.

When I miss on an article I’ve written, it is pulled from publication, and somebody who’s better at it picks up the pieces and glues together something that’ll work. That’s really about the extent of the damage.

When you’re building a boat and something doesn’t work, you risk the lives of anyone who is sailing on the boat. In a lot of ways, there’s no room for error. Particularly in certain areas of the boat, like the planking of the hull. You know, the part of the boat that keeps the water out? It’s critical to get that part right.

The Arabella is 38 feet long which requires several planks to be joined together into one long plank. The process to do this uses what is called a “scarf joint.” To make a scarf joint the carpenter cuts one plank at an angle, the other plank at the opposite angle, and then joins them together with glue or epoxy. Steve and Alix had to do more than once for each plank on the longest sections of the boat. It was a relatively long and somewhat exact process. But it’s a process that has to work for the boat to float properly, so when they discovered the glue wasn’t holding, the whole project came to a halt while they investigated what they’d done wrong and how to do it right.

Steve referred to the challenge as “catastrophic glue issues.” He said it with a smile, but it was no little thing.

They began testing several glues to see what went wrong and how to fix it. They discovered their glue had expired. They tested the old glue as well as new glue and a mixture of the two glues and found that all of them failed. Eventually they discovered not only had they used old glue, but it was also too cold for the glue to cure properly. The solution? They built special insulated boxes complete with warming lamps that would keep each joint warm enough to cure throughout the cold, New England winter nights.

I’m impressed they’re building a boat to sail around the world. But what is just as impressive to me is that when something “catastrophic” happens they react with the utmost sense of calm. They consider what happened and work to learn how to not let it happen again. They don’t throw tools at anything, or take the hammer to the project in anger, or point fingers of blame, or even swear like aspiring sailors. They pause briefly, and move on in a new way to reach their goal.

I’m aware that the magic of video editing removes that which an artist doesn’t want us to see. Steve and Alix however, are intentional in sharing their mistakes fully hoping we will learn what pitfalls to avoid.

Well, as I said before I’m not a boat builder, I’m a writer. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a lot by watching them spend hours upon days testing glue to understand how it works and building new tools to get the job done right.

It makes me think of a Ron Swanson quote I once heard:

“…Don’t half-ass a bunch of things. Whole-ass one thing.”

Aside from how my mother will feel about the language, that there is some good wisdom. I’m learning wisdom from Steve, Alix, and Acorn to Arabella too. Here’s just a bit:

1) Go into your endeavor with a plan.

It’s clear Steve and Alix didn’t just set up a camera one day and start building a boat. They’d done a lot of research on the type of vessel they wanted to build. They also knew their financial responsibilities and what it would take to make it work at a bare minimum. They didn’t quit their job until their dream could support them. Watching this process unfold has been part of the fun for me.

2) Know your skillset.

Both Steve and Alix knew what they were good at and how it would best serve the project. For Steve it was his carpentry skills. Alix, a fine word worker in his own right, knew photography and film.

3) Leave your ego out of it.

As great as your ego thinks you are, you’re not as great as you can be with a bit of work. Both Steve and Alix knew they had a lot to learn going in. I didn’t get the idea that they made a list of pros and cons or strengths and shortcomings, but they had the skills to get started and willingness to learn the skills they didn’t yet possess.

4) Be patient and plan down time.

A recent episode contained the moment which blew my mind to the point where I just had to write about these guys. It’s ,,Episode 134- Alix is Back!

Alix had been conspicuously missing from the 2020 summer episodes and fans were chomping at the bit to know where he was and when he’d be back. He’d been on a planned vacation away from the project. As it turns out, living with your coworker and doing nothing but building a boat for 60-80 hours a week for four years can wear on the mind. So Alix took some time off. Steve will be doing the same thing soon. They explained at the beginning of the episode how projects like this one often die out simply because people burn out and lose interest. They didn’t want that to happen. So yes, Alix was away for awhile and is back now.

As they were talking, Steve mentioned in passing that they’re roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of the way through the project. People, it’s been over 4 years of work, and they’re not even halfway done! It was a jaw dropping moment for me, and a reminder that good stuff takes time. It was the moment when I began to consider my own goals goals and what adjustments I might need to make.

My recent glue failure moment was when I opened up that issue and found my work had been replaced. What was I going to do now?

Guess it’s time to figure out what happened and work to make it right.

(Other stuff that I cut out for brevity. Yes, that’s right, what you read above could have been even longer.)

  • I’m currently binge listening to Nick Offerman’s books. I began with Paddle Your Canoe, and upon finishing immediately purchased his next work, Gumption. I’m betwixt with his writing, insights, and wisdom at the current time, hence the two references above. If you are not familiar with him, he is the actor who gave life to Ron Swanson in the show Parks and Recreation. If you are not familiar with that show, well, check it out. Listening to Offerman narrate his own book is a lot like listening to Ron Swanson narrate. Though Nick and Ron are not the same person, which is clear when you listen to the books.
  • As Steve and Alix began to draw an audience, including many who support them financially through Patreon, they were able to hire out a lot of the film editing work. I did a bit of sleuthing and found the man behind the art. I love the way he edits and look forward to their release each Friday. ,,He and his wife have refurbished a theater in Newburyport, Massachusetts. To all my friends who live in New England, do me a favor and go visit this theater. And tell him I said thanks for his work. (Or, to support him from home ,,try this!)
  • I briefly mentioned the Youtube algorithm and how it guided my viewing to Acorn to Arabell. In this instance I’m appreciative of what I found. However, algorithms are a form of artificial intelligence, and AI is already controlling us. For a fascinating look, take some time to watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix. You’ll come away informed and will know better how to control the algorithms which previously controlled you. Having said that, here are some other videos I was introduced to by the YouTube algorithm and may or may not waste a lot of time watching- both the good and the embarrassing.

I used to watch a lot of pimple popping – particularly Dr. Pimple Popper. In my defense, millions of others do the same. It’s gross and I can’t look away. So many people did the same thing that Dr. Pimple Popper, who is really Dr. Sandra Lee, got her own TV show. So back off! Now, hold that thought…

  1. I also care for my father-in-laws horses and watch videos about various horse care activities. I was thinking about learning to trim their hooves. I’ve decided not to do that, but the algorithm combined my penchant for pimple popping and horse hooves and set me upon “The Hoof GP”. He’s a Scottish lad that trims cow’s hooves. I didn’t even know that was a thing. It’s one of the grossest things you can see on YouTube, if you ask me. But I’ve found the guy (whose name is Graem Parker) to be empathetic for the animals, and as far as I know, is really good at what he does, including the music in the videos. How much do I like his videos? I’m a subscriber. ,,Here’s a link to his most popular video with over 12.5 million views. Remember, you’ve been warned. ,,Here’s another link with less blood. And yes, that’s poop.
  2. The vast majority of my YouTube viewing these days are Do It Yourself videos which are closely related to restoration videos. I do find a lot of pleasure in seeing broken stuff fixed. There’s a redemptive aspect to it which does my heart well. As I mentioned in the main body I have a PWC that I work on a lot. While looking for information about how to fix a particular issue I have I came across a young man who restored a Sea Doo a lot like mine. His name is Zack and he’s got a YouTube channel called Ultimate Rebuilds. I watch him because I learn a lot when I do. I’d still consider this guy a new YouTuber, but I’m impressed by his work and his willingness to put his work out there for everyone to see. I’d like to buy one of his shirts but they’re out of 2XL. Here’s a ,,link to his Sea Doo project.
  3. I also listen to a gazillion podcasts. But I only send money to one. It’s called ,,The Hero’s Journey Podcast. There’s a long explanation to where the idea for this podcast originated, (,,here’s an almost hour-long TED Radio Hour show that’ll do that) but I’ll spare you the details. This is a podcast about one particular framework for writing stories. That’s why I like it and why I listen. These guys dissect movies based on the framework. If you want to be able to predict the outcomes of movies, you might want to become acquainted with this framework. It’s everywhere. I like the podcast so much I send them some money through Patreon each month to support their work. In return they mention my name during each episode. Though they do call me “Jeffrey,” and not Jeff. Hey guys, if you happen to read this…Jeff is fine.
  4. Finally, I have friends that do podcasting. One of my favorites is by my friend Jory. His podcast is called “,,Methods Podcast” and is about prayer and meditation. I highly recommend it.

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