The Master Class
Lessons from a woodsman, adventurer, Sufi translator, and boatbuilder
Bob Darr is standing on the side of Highway 116, just outside of Cotati in Sonoma County, looking at a grove of trees. He has brought his eight students to learn about the black locust, a tree commonly used for boatbuilding. Darr is beginning to enumerate its virtues when something occurs to him. “Now, if the cops see us today,” he tells the students, “they may stop us and ask us what we are doing.” But don’t worry, he says, we won’t be trespassing on anyone’s land, so it’s unlikely we’ll have any problems. It is 9 a.m. on a Saturday and cars rush by, bound for Guerneville. Darr, who is 63 with a swirl of storm-cloud-gray hair and a neat goatee, returns to his lecture. The black locust is resistant to rot, he explains, it adds nitrogen to the soil, and it grows in shapes that are conducive to making boat frames. “It’s hard to find fault with these trees,” he says.
The son of a schooner captain, Darr spent his childhood in French Polynesia. When he was 10, he helped his father cross the Pacific, and by 16 he was competent in celestial navigation. He now lives in Novato in Marin County and runs the Arques School of Traditional Boatbuilding in Sausalito. Few people build wooden boats anymore; even fewer build them as artfully as Darr. He designs all of his boats by hand, and he rarely uses power tools, relying mostly on chisels and planes. Since opening his first shop on Tomales Bay in 1976, he has built scores of them — catboats, dories, tugboats, cruising yachts — and restored others, including the Freda, the oldest sailing vessel on the West Coast. Oracle co-founder and yachtsman Larry Ellison saw one of Darr’s sailboats on the back of a trailer and dispatched four employees to find out who had built it and how he could acquire one.
All of these projects begin in the forest, where Darr mills the wood he will need with a chainsaw (he once appeared on the cover of the magazine Chainsaw Industry). Rancher friends often call and ask him to remove trees from their property, providing him with enough wood to continue building for months. Other times he approaches property owners himself and asks them if he can salvage a tree that has fallen on their land. On this field trip, he is showing how to scout for good boatbuilding wood, which he says requires fortitude. He tells of a past excursion in which a small dog bit into his ankle while he was inspecting a tree. “I had to smile at this woman while my ankle was bleeding from a bite from her dog,” he says. “Because you’re trying to get the tree, you see?”
Darr first began milling wood in Bolinas in 1973 with his mentor Haldon Chase, the anthropologist best known for introducing Jack Kerouac to Neal Cassady. By the time Darr met him, Chase had abandoned the Beats and had dedicated himself to the making of things: constructing his own home from adobe, crafting Elizabethan lutes, building traditional Nova Scotian fishing boats. Chase was interested in every aspect of how something worked. If you were going to use wood to build boats, for example, you should know how to mill. “I used to think,” Darr says, “that boatbuilding wood had to be so special that you had to go and buy it.”
After making stops along 116, Darr takes his students northwest to Cazadero. It’s more heavily wooded here and quieter, the murmur of Austin Creek one of the only sounds. Darr wants the class to look at a tree that is unsuitable for boatbuilding: a white oak whose honey-colored bark has a spiral pattern, indicating wind twist. He tells his students that they must be as exacting as sushi chefs, identifying only the choicest trees, or else they will waste time milling wood they cannot use. The best trees, he explains, tend to be found on northern slopes, where they grow straight up before they extend branches, producing wood that flexes properly and has few knots. These characteristics are essential for planking, in which planks of wood are bent around the frames of the boat.
When the boatbuilding school he started in San Rafael burned down in 1986, Darr moved to Afghanistan, where he worked for the U.N. In the middle of the Soviet–Afghan war, he traversed the country on horseback, writing and taking photographs. Darr converted to Islam, studied Persian miniature painting, and began translating Sufi texts. On returning to California in 1989, he published a memoir and opened a new boatbuilding school. All the while, he continued to translate. Recently, he was invited to Oxford to give a lecture on the 12th-century Spanish Muslim philosopher Ibn al-’Arabi. Like boatbuilding, translation offers him the opportunity to work creatively but within certain constraints. “I love art that has tempering conditions,” Darr says. “It involves the self but it’s not as self-preoccupied.”
By early evening Darr has brought his students outside of Occidental to a Douglas fir that has already been felled. Darr scrambles up the hillside and stands on top of the tree’s stump. The air is cool under the firs and the redwoods, and the light is soft and warm. He directs everyone’s attention to a conk at the top of the tree, which indicates that it has been attacked by a fungus. “But there’s certainly a lot of good wood in here,” he says. Even the wood that is damaged could be used for building other things, like sheds. He then shows how he would set up a ramp with rollers to move the bigger pieces of lumber down the slope. “You could use gravity to bring it right down,” he says. “So you have all these advantages here.” Darr has been in contact with the property owner. The next field trip, he tells the students, will be devoted to cutting up the fir.