We have come a long way from the care free boating days of Neanderthals floating astride tree logs and the splendid aquatic decadence of the Roman pleasure barges, but the onboard party was just about over. Thanks to Captains Cook and Blye and their South Pacific explorations, the most heinous, ignominious, unforgivable scourge that boaters have ever had to contend with was about to befall the maritime realm. No, it’s wasn’t a corroded electrical system; no, not a head that overflowed instead of flushing; no, not leaky hatches over the bunks that wouldn’t seal despite how much 3M-5200 they gooped around it; no, not even that sailboats have survived into the 21st century, despite the many power options now available to boaters. The catastrophe was that the first load of teak wood fell into the hands of the British Admiralty!
Much to the credit of modern boat builders, the invasive tide which nearly ruined boating has begun to ebb and teak wood is seldom seen on boats anymore (sailboaters love the stuff, which speaks for itself). There’s a good chance that a lot of you have never even seen a single sliver of this troublesome wood. The smooth, rich, supple feel of gelcoat, corian and other space age materials has seen to that. But it is important to “know thine enemy” so some background may be useful.
Teak is a highly oily wood, harvested in tropical latitudes, which stays moist for ages and therefore does not dry and rot like most other timbers. In fact, you don’t even need to seal it with paints and such. It can be left bare and came to be used extensively on boats for this reason. The drawback is that teak has what I call (most appropriately) a “snake-like propensity” and that’s where it’s curse dwells. In order to protect the bulk of the wood below the surface, the outermost grains of teak dry quickly, acting as a sort of protective shell for the rest of the wood beneath. Trade-offs being what they are, while the inner layers of teak remain moist and protected, the outer layer dries out much more rapidly than other woods and takes on a very chalky, bleached looking appearance. Teak seems to shed an outer layer in the same manner a snake sheds its skin, leaving behind a disgusting, dried-out remnant. So, to keep teak looking neat you have to constantly refinish the outer layer. This is made most difficult by the oils constantly infiltrating the protective coating you apply (usually varnish) which makes the coating chip, peel, bubble and generally look like crap about thirty seconds after you step back to admire the fine refinishing job you just completed. That’s teak wood for you. It is the bane of boaters, but no other wood holds up better in the marine environment. Quite a double-edged sword or, more appropriately, the reverse of serendipitous fortune… like when looking for a needle in a hay stack and thinking you might find the farmers daughter, but instead getting bitten by a rabid barn rat.
Teak became all the rage for the Royal fleet. It made ships last longer and the kings and queens could have cared less about the maintenance issue since they literally had barrels of varnish and boatloads of enslavened lackeys that would keep sanding and shellacking until the cows came home, provided the grog was kept flowing. The occasional hanging from a yardarm, keel hauling, lashing with a cat-o-nine tails and tying a man to the bowsprit no doubt played a role as well in maintaining the crews enthusiasm for the toilsome tasks of teak keeping.
What’s worse, the other monarchs of Europe soon had some teak of their own from the tropical islands they pillaged, so before long it became a matter of royal honor and international one-up-man-ship to have your fleet's teak looking better than the other guy’s. In fact, a review of official ships logs (seen below) and historical manuscripts reveals that many skirmishes started over teak as opposing naval commanders traded verbal jabs.
(Shouted through megaphones between passing ships):
“Bonjour, commander of Ze British man-o-war to my starboard. I am Ca-pi-tan Jacques de’Fromage of Ze Royal Flotilla de Francais. I wish to pass in peace, but I must say your silly king reminds me of swine droppings, your queen is a common scrub wench, and I smell a most foul odor coming from your general direction.”
“Captain de’Fromage, sir, you warted frog. Royal Commander Geoffrey Kippers here. We shall permit you unmolested passage, but suffice it to say the French are a bunch of powdered pantywaists who’d rather fight with their feet, and your wines are quite over-rated.”
“Ahhh... Oui, mon Ca-pi-tan. You are a mooost brave and unprovoked man. I zalute you. Oh, and did you notice zat zee teak beneath you’re an-chor eez chipping away a beet?”
“Sailing master?! Bring the ship about!! Sergeant at Arms?! Roll out all guns and prepare to fire at will!! Ship’s carpenter, break out the 20 grit sandpaper and varnish brushes!!!”
Teak was quite serious business back then and⎯as occurred in Part II where we saw the Neanderthals quibbling over insignificant matters of onboard etiquette and maintenance details⎯further established the traditions of yacht club comportment.
Next Time: Bigger Naval Wars, Pirates and Rum