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Lunar Blue

Krystyna Sznurkowski

Last year, I built a boat.


Boats are full of stories. Where I work, these stories make their way into lunchtime conversations. Our office is tucked into a boat shop, where decades of wooden vessels have been crafted by hand. The grimy table in the middle of the metal building attracts whoever is not in the field, a handful of old sailors, and occasionally the drummer from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. 


I am an architect and landscape designer. Now I’m learning to build. I’m a project manager at a small construction company—we build new modern homes and restore historic structures.


My boat is a solo-carry, skin-on-frame, double paddle canoe. I can carry it on my shoulder. I can lift it onto my Mazda 2. I can drive over the Ringling Causeway, wind rippling in the cavity of juniper ribs and coated nylon skin. My knuckles at ten-and-two, I hunch like the grandmas that fill the roads around here to keep my car from lifting off.


My boat story started at that table when Pat, beloved founder of our company, was telling his own stories. “These little canoes are so damn light, the grandkids can just pick ’em up and get in the water. They just have a ball.” He’s built four or five of them and he tries to make each lighter than the last. I felt like an eager six-year-old listening to him. I said, “I want to make one!” Pat replied, “Well, you should.” So we did.


Out in the water, I’m on my own. On land too. Except, I do have a few people who make me more alive, more curious, and ambitious. And I’ve got one person who has, over five years’ time, become a part of my everyday.


And I’m scared of losing him.


Miguel. We work together—he has an artist’s eye for landscaping. He is my confidante and lover. He parks his trailer in my side yard—the shovels, crumbles of soil, and leftover plants make his presence in my home constant but he doesn’t live there. Except for my family, maybe only five people have visited my house. Whenever Miguel comes over, my dog Luna somersaults in ecstasy. 


Lunar Blue Log - 2.8.22

        My package arrives. It includes:

        -A spiral-bound edition of Hilary Russell’s Building Skin-on-Frame Double Paddle Canoes

        -The “11-½’ Solo Carry Canoe Plans” (templates for forms, decks, stems & knees included)

        -Imitation sinew

        -Two brass stem bands

        -Nylon fabric


Pat and I scrounge the lumber rack. He locates some juniper and shows me how to plane it down. He has me trace the template for the decks—triangular pieces at the bow and stern—on the boards. This is not where Hilary starts in his book, but I trust my mentor. He shows me how to use the bandsaw to cut the thick wedges and chuckles when I have to stand on a railroad tie to operate the machine.


Conversation makes me nervous. When Miguel and I first got together, there was one very uncomfortable car ride. We’d met for lunch and we weren’t ready to go back to work after sitting so close at the bar top. So I jumped in his truck and slid across the bench. He started driving. I kept looking out the window at some imaginary fascination because I could not come up with a damn thing to say. My right hand wandered on the seat and I crumpled some receipts, desperate for some sound. We drove on, stopped at a red light, then continued. Eventually, he turned around in a parking lot. Before pulling back on the road, he shoved himself back from the steering wheel and grumbled, “You’re so boring!”


I froze. That’s the thing I am most ashamed of and he’d just called me out. 


But that was before we had practiced talking with each other. Before he spoke English with the confidence he does now. He’d expressed an emotional observation in a language still foreign to him and it came out wrong. 


What he’d meant was “You’re so bored!” A lament of our awkwardness.


Lunar Blue Log - 2.28.22

        Pat and I find plywood to make the forms, and old decking for the strongback. The strongback is the frame that the boat is built on. 

        The forms are the cross-sections of the boat in negative. After I trace the shapes, I step up on the railroad tie. I make some shaky cuts but the forms aren’t part of the boat. They just guide the shape. I am learning that individual imperfections can turn into a beautiful vessel.  

        The boat is built upside down, so the top of each form is the bottom of the boat, where the keel stringer will be. 


I am quiet—not shy, but taciturn. At work, conversation flows because there’s always a topic—current projects or gossip about jobsite neighbors. But ask me how my weekend was or any other stock chitchat and I’m out.  


In the 11 months it took me to complete my canoe, most of my colleagues had some hand in its making. Pat’s universal advice was “Don’t make it look like a farmer did it.” Pat’s advice was usually followed by “Now, was that insensitive?” and a broken-in grin. Pat is, in reality, a pretty sensitive man. 


I talk, more than I prefer, about a lot of work things every day. At home, I soak the quiet in. And on my walks with Luna, people stop to say hello or kids want to play. But Luna is a performer, so I don’t have to do much. I named my boat after her—Lunar Blue. 


Lunar Blue Log - 3.16.22

        The other impermanent parts are the ribbands. Tied to the forms, they make a cage to set the ribs and the stringers into.

        Next we cut: 

        -A pair of gunwales & a pair of inwales—¾” x ½” x 12’

        -The keel stringer—½” x 1 ½” x 12’

        -A pair of stems & knees —1” thick

        -A pair of garboard stringers, 8-sided (7/16” square, w/ chamfered corners)

        -Pairs of middle stringers & sheer stringers—⅜” x 1” x 12’


When Miguel comes to my house, often we work—I help him run his landscape company. But our work talk has an intimacy to it—it’s an all-in-one precarious kind of conversation. Tangents lead us back to old jobsites where we snuck kisses behind palms. And there's the distracting physical closeness.


Other than his visits and Luna, I am alone in my home. When I am gardening or folding laundry, I listen to podcasts. The conversations in my headphones keep me company. It’s a way to skirt loneliness. 


Lunar Blue Log - 3.16.22 cont.

        At the table saw, Pat shows me how to make the long cuts, starting with the gunwales. “Gunnels” is the proper way to say it. When I ask if inwales are “innels,” I get a laugh. I go slow—using the small push stick to guide the wood alongside the toothed blade intimidates me. 


I haven’t yet spent an evening in my boat, alone to greet the stars. Those familiar clusters whose names I cannot remember. But there are the bright anchors I always know—the belt, the dippers, the bears.


Tonight, Miguel calls around 8:30. I’m out on my porch. “Hola.” We say the first parts together. “Como estas?” And then one of us continues. Him: “There is a lot of wind.” He lives 17 minutes north by car and he’s outside with his shih tzu x pomeranian. “But it’s not raining.” It has been a dry spring. Me: “God, my palms are thirsty.” He planted them for me, six solitaires in my front yard, their leaflets currently curled inward to prevent further dehydration. “They are still growin’,” he assures me. “I see them.” He has taken notice, he’s tracking. Ten minutes later, I put my phone down and the winds arrive. 


I don’t have “girlfriends” or “close friends” but the important figures in my life are like those stars I know at dusk. In my birth constellation of Libra, there are 83 stars. I've got six…seven? Bright spots scattered here and far. 


Lunar Blue Log - 3.31.22

        I tie the middle of one gunwale to the center form and twist and clamp each end to the strongback. Once the second gunwale is set, I wrap rags around the wood and pour boiling water over. The wood fibers loosen and reset in their new curves. The concrete floor below gets its first rinse in decades. Once dry, I screw the decks in between the gunwale ends.


Two of my far away bright spots are Beccah and Heather. I know them separately but one day in 2016, we three convened in Manhattan. 


Beccah is witty and quick. And she has never made me feel bad about catching up. Conversationally or physically. She’s a marathoner and the one time I jogged with her was a Homecoming 5K in grad school. Since we’d decided to participate the morning-of, and I had no sneakers, I wore her spares—a half size too small. She easily outran me but lingered at the finish line. 


Christmas-time of 2020, she visited family in Florida and took a detour to see my house. I showed her my nascent garden and she declared she loved it. My coconut palm was learning to live in the ground. It came from a sprouted, washed-up coconut on one of Miguel’s jobsites and had lived in a pot on my apartment porch for two years. Miguel came up naturally in conversation. I told her, “I’m relaxed when I’m with him. Comfortable.” There was no need to present him as anything but a person interwoven in my life. It was an easy conversation. 


Lunar Blue Log - 4.15.22

        Next is the keel stringer—the backbone. I set it in the notches along the tops of the forms, eyeballing the line, checking, adjusting. 

             Then I cut the stems and knees on the bandsaw. I glue these together and make the connection between the decks and the keel stringer, and I have the abstraction of a boat. 


Heather was my first real neighbor in Sarasota. The same winter Beccah came, Heather visited from her newest homebase—Montana—and we met up at the Hillsborough River State Park. “Helllooooo.” Her airy voice is always comforting. We started down the trail passing cypress knees along the riverbank and ducking sabal palms that overhang the path. Heather is a romance fanatic and works in the publishing industry in the genre. While I pose for a photo inside an old hollowed cypress, I tell her I am reading Book Lovers, a novel she’d recommended. “And?”


“I feel Nora,” I tell her about the protagonist. “All the hard and twisted emotions…I know those.”


We talk about the complicated passion and uncertainty in the book, and I tell her about my complicated passion and uncertainty with Miguel. 


We made our way to a picnic table, slapping at the December mosquitoes. She talked about us as millennials—I’m on the elder cusp—making decisions based on our guts. Neither of us did the graduate-marry-big house-babies sequence. She, a Florida girl, moved to New York and lived the city life for a decade, then Airbnb-hopped for months while working remotely. Me? I’ve got the confidence to hike around the Highlands National Park on my own. To change my career from architecture to landscape to construction. To state “I want to build a boat” and follow through. But what I’ve got no confidence in is how to have people in my life.


Lunar Blue Log - 5.6.22 

        I start making the remaining components:

        -30–40 ribs—5/16” x ⅞” x 48” (make spares—many will crack)

        -A thwart—1” square x ~30”

        -A curved backrest—1” x 2 ½” x ~30”


        On the lumber rack, Pat finds more juniper and some sinker cypress. The cypress is heavier than he prefers for repetitive pieces like the ribs but for the cross-bracing thwart and backrest, the strength is worth the weight.  

        Ripping the ribs is good practice. Pat helps, not wanting to “waste daylight,” but I do most of it. And I feel proud when I look at my pile of skinny lumber on the worktable. I tick off the location for each rib on each ribband in preparation for the assembly. 


When things go wrong in romance books, women turn to their tribes. I don’t have a local group. I sort of did for a bit and there was the easy, if irrelevant, activity of trivia nights. Then two people moved away and we stopped going.


What I have with Miguel is unconventional and sometimes goes awry. But it fits both of our oddball lifestyles. It’s not “true love.” But it is tender. I do wonder if it’s OK for me to not pursue true love.


Miguel had a true-love. 


He has told me about her, the girl, in his tiny town in Mexico. They stayed together through young adulthood. I believe in true love because he experienced it. And it ended and he has lived on. He asked me a couple of years ago, “Why do you love me so much?” and I said, “I don’t.” Because, though sometimes I care more about him experiencing happiness than I do myself, it’s not love. 


Lunar Blue Log - 5.25.22

        To make the steam box for the ribs, Pat and I cut up scrap shelving. Along with a thick rubber hose from God-knows-where, a camp stove, and the stock pot from the annual low country boil, we are set. 

        Per Hilary Russel, “The rule of thumb for steaming is an inch an hour.” Understeaming or oversteaming can result in breakage. So can impatience. So can knotty wood. 

        The short juniper strips go in the steam box four at a time. I wear heavy mitts to take them out and shape them against my hip, pushing the final curve over my thigh. My jeans go from boiling to clammy and back with each rib. 


Even if not love, I still feel something strong for Miguel, seated insecurely between the things we are to each other. My insecurities come in waves, breaking up idleness. After I walk Luna, I usually take her out in my backyard. I sit on the deck Miguel built me and scroll Instagram while Luna chases lizards. On Miguel’s page, there’s just videos of him working out at the gym. But she—the woman he was dating when I met him—likes his posts. She—not his true love, but his most recent lover—is still a part of his group of neighborhood friends. The end of their relationship didn’t change that. I look at her page.


There’s a selfie of her and he’s in the frame. My eyes get hot and I flashback to 2019 when I had gone to Sanibel alone and I had nearly zero signal. Just enough connection to see his post of him cooking shrimp. And her post later of a plateful of seafood. I am glad the beach was not crowded. I am glad the wind was loud. Because I screamed into the phone. The call kept getting dropped and, in hindsight, I realized it was the signal but, at the time, I yelled at him to stop hanging up on me. 


When jealousy builds up in me, it finds its way out. I cry mad tears that turn to scared then sad tears and eventually I am just soggy. Miguel sits with me. It’s not always jealousy that reduces me to such a leaky mess. Sometimes after I cry, I tell him there’s just something dark inside me and he says, “I know how you are feelin’. I feel it.” It really scares me to think I might lose someone who knows how I feel. 


Lunar Blue Log - 6.5.22 

        The first rib that cracks makes me jump. The split of freshly steamed juniper calls for pause. To observe the fibers and how they can pull apart so quickly. 

        Once each rib is bent, I thread it up and over the strongback and pull the center tight to the keel. Gently but before it cools, I pull the outer edges up to the ribbands. I wait to feel it set and zip-tie it in place. 


When the sun sets over the quartz sand beaches here, you go. If traffic and work and grocery shopping and your heart allow, you go. 


So on my 39th birthday I found myself speeding towards the shore. I was three weeks into my job at the construction company and three days into a visit from Jane, a high school BFF. This visit—just her and kids—was the fourth year she’d come. The second visit was just a couple months after the first time Miguel and I kissed. That was the year of the extraordinary red tide that kept us—me, her, her kids, her husband, her sister, her brother, and her brother’s friend—inside the tiny motel room by Venice Beach because outside the air was solid with marine decay and algal irritants that triggered bronchial coughing fits. The verbal exchanges matched the atmosphere. Filled with critiques about people we used to both know, at high volume with so much bite to them, that I stopped participating. 


I don’t remember where the annual obligation to visit started but since she is the one who kept making the trip, I felt roped in. 


On this particular birthday, I’d already taken two hours off to meet the AC guy at my house and I’d committed more money than I had to a new air conditioning. I texted Jane to let her know I might be late. She called me later, anxious, needing to know my ETA because she had to come pick me up from the public parking lot since there were no guest spaces at her hotel. When my day ended, I’d had to go home to walk my new puppy before heading to the beach. “I’m still not sure, traffic is bad.” “Ok. I don’t want to miss the sunset.” 


Lunar Blue Log - 6.28.22

        Now come the stringers. I carry the long strips to the planer and their bounce makes me feel like a tightrope walker. I run them through to a consistent thickness. Planing goes only at the speed of the planer and is an incremental activity.


I’d called Jane when I was close and there was no answer. I texted—no answer. I called again and no answer. So I parked, got out and walked around to see if I could spot her minivan. I paced and called and texted. I started walking towards the hotel but it’s nearly two miles south. Finally, her van slid up beside me, too fast. I jumped in obediently. “I’m SO sorry.” She’s emphatically apologetic. “We went in the pool while we were waiting and I left my phone in the room. I don’t think we’re going to make the sunset!”


So went the evening, culminating with me perched on a pile of suitcases while they all ate leftover sandwiches in their hotel room. I missed a call from Miguel because I’d left my phone in my bag in the locked van and I dared not ask to go get it. He’d shown up at my house to surprise me with a birthday dinner. 


Several months into my canoe project, Jane texted a photo from that ill-fated visit. A snapshot of two friends on the beach at sunset. I texted “Love the pic.” She texted that she’d already booked her vacation for my next birthday. I responded, “I’m not sure if I’ll be in town…” which was not true. Sometime later, she texted that she felt that something had changed and we should talk about it. So I texted back how I felt uncomfortable with loud, harsh conversations. How I didn’t enjoy how her demands structured our visits. How I had not enjoyed my birthday. She replied that my words stung and she had to think about them.


Lunar Blue Log - 7.24.22

        I lay the stringers over the tied-in-place ribs, twisting along each length, clamping. I practice looking down the keel to assess each line. I feel my way through the process, discovering and correcting as I go. That is how I move through life.


And so, if that burned-out friendship ended when I spoke up, what happens if I speak my frustrations to Miguel? I equate voice with loss. With being alone. 


Miguel has his neighbors—a found family—and they hang out in their driveways and talk and work on their trucks together. I love that he has that community. But sitting by myself on my deck, staring into the night clouds, I think of them, their shadows mixing in the streetlights and resentment rises. 


I want a group like that.


Lunar Blue Log - 8.9.22

        I start the lashing. There are no screws or glue in this process. Just flat waxy thread. The trick is to make the lashing at each intersection of rib and stringer with no “x” crossings. The rubbing of the thread over itself would wear over time. I watch Hilary Russell’s instructional video over and over and then got it on my first try. My fingers knew exactly what to do. 


I don’t have a group but I do have a seat at that lunch table and I seem to fit in with the old guys. They can have conversations that start, “back in ’84 we were crossing out to Useppa” which spurs, “oh yeah, we saw Old So-and-So, in his red boat, with his third wife.” I hope to have some good stories when I’m their age.


I have another boat shop I’ve been visiting for more than a decade.


Bill—an architect now in his 80s—has a “box shop.” These days, he can be found working there, at the Sailing Squadron, or on a jobsite. 


He put a mini-split in a box trailer and made it his office. It’s parked in the last of the three bays he rents in a storage park where mechanics and cabinet makers and artists work. In the second bay, with Phyllis Dillon playing loud, he has recently been giving me varnishing and sanding lessons. “Well you know, K. You have to mind the ‘wet edge’. Get down at eye level. Check it out.” I’m doing better than when thick drips of varnish puddled in my canoe frame. I remind him of that and he says, “I know. And that…” (he’s a master of the dramatic pause) “ why you’re here.” He has taught me about life as a rogue architect and now we’ve circled around to boats. 


Lunar Blue Log - 8.24.22 

        Next is an exercise of checking and adjusting the ribs and stringers. The lashings have bound the frame into a basket but the ends of the ribs are still free against the gunwales. Once all is fair, I glue the rib ends in place and reclamp to dry. 


After my lesson with Bill, I step into the trailer, warmed by the incandescent drafting lamps and dark-brewed coffee. I settle in between sets of redlined drawings. He sits on the carved folding chair that was his grandmother’s. We’ve talked about putting his stories into a book. Stories about the amphitheater he designed in Cocoa Beach. About how the architect Tim Seibert fired him from his office but then hired him to work on his boat. About all the sailboats he has built, several hulls of which are hanging from the ceiling of his shop. We landed on recording conversations, as the most interesting things come out organically. I’ve only actually been sailing with Bill once, as a storm was blowing in. I didn’t know boats could sail when so close to being tipped completely over. 


I’ve yet to pinpoint why I feel at ease with these old Florida boys but I see in them a camaraderie that I hope I am destined to find. 


Lunar Blue Log - 9.20.22

        I release the frame from the strongback and lift the thing over my head like a spindly trophy. I unscrew the forms and set them aside.

        Now I start with the hand tools. Learning the feel of a block plane along the keel stringer, and guiding a spokeshave along the gunwales, sanding the stems and knees….I lean into the slowness of this part. 


I share my boat-building stories with Miguel. And he tells me about how his neighbor made tamales (and he brings me some) and how the rental manager complains he has too many planters in his yard and how his other neighbor’s daughter comes to borrow his dog every day. We have our own conversations, when the sun is low and raking across my white linen sheets. We talk about the world around us—the desperate need for gun control and how detestable a person Ron DeSantis is; where we should go for “rolls” (sushi); how much we don’t know about how to make money and invest it; and how the build up in the movie Instructions Not Included (No Se Aceptan Devoluciones) was almost too good, but the ending…Dios!


He’s going to help me install pulleys in my carport so I can hang my boat under the roof, above my car. Right now, it takes up most of my porch. “Lo prometo” he says. 


Lunar Blue Log - 10.17.22 

        The curved backrest and straight thwart will resist the outward pressure of the ribs. I cut the pieces to fit, and screw them in below the toprails. I use a Japanese pull saw—one of my favorite tools—to cut the ribs flush with the gunwales. Then I start sanding at the cut ends of the ribs. I spend the next many evenings sanding and varnishing. 


My boat is petite (shy of 12 feet long and around 20 pounds) but it took me from February 2022 to January 2023 to be ready for launch. Partly that’s because In March of 2022 I started training as a Master Gardener Volunteer—12 weeks of training and 75 volunteer hours to start. I love tending things and the study of horticulture. And meeting a class of other gardeners was an opportunity. It’s not often that I meet people outside of work.


Lunar Blue Log - 12.14.22 

        To skin the canoe, I turn it back over and unfurl the nylon. I let it rest over the hull,  gravity erasing the creases from sitting under my desk for 10 months. I clamp the cloth in place and bunch and trim the ends. Once it’s taut-ish, I staple it to the gunwales. Back and forth, adjusting, pulling out a staple, tweaking. I trim off the excess with a soldering iron, cauterizing the frayed edges. Along the stems where the folded parts come together is tricky. Here,  I managed to burn a scrap of nylon into the back of my hand. It took weeks to work itself out. 

        Once the edges are burned to clean lines, I clamp the rub rails on and screw them in at each rib.


One of my classmates, Linda, has become something like a good friend. Just before Christmas, we met for dinner. She arrived wearing an illuminated necklace, a red bow in her hair, and jingle-bell earrings. This woman sparkles! A retired accountant, she is meticulous and purposeful in her actions. We talked about how we plan to spend our time volunteering and, both being of the mind that the chitchat should happen separately from the work, we decided to partner up. We “adopted” the abandoned bioswale demonstration garden and now spend our Sundays, once or twice a month, pulling out invasive species to allow the swamp ferns to flourish and de-mucking the bottom to restore the water flow. Sharing the physical effort of ecological renewal with Linda, and the twining of work and sporadic conversation, is comfortable. We’ve made plans to go to dinner again soon. I want to learn more about her, and how she shines. 


Lunar Blue Log - 1.2.23

        All that’s left is to sand and touch up the varnish and to coat the nylon skin. I dyed my polyurethane blue so my boat blends with the dark Florida waters. The beauty of a skin-on-frame is that when the sun is out, it is a lantern. It glows and the frame shows up in silhouette. 

        Lastly, I screw the brass stem bands along the fabric seams at each end. 


When Miguel and I get to work on a jobsite together, there’s the satisfaction of the work but also a steady passion that edges in. We’re in our element. He asks me why I work for free at the bioswale, instead of spending that time in my gardens. I try to explain how it’s a start for me, in expanding my world.  


Lunar Blue Log - 1.13.23

        My test launch was a short run on a windy day. Pat put Lunar Blue in the back of his truck and we drove to the Bayfront Park. My colleagues and Bill met us there. They watched from the dock as I pushed off into the mangroves. “It floats!” Just beyond the pinch of stilt roots was the open bay, with waves that would roll me over. So I turned back and saw all of them applauding.


Miguel wasn’t there, but later, I showed him a video. 


Lunar Blue Log – present

        I carry my canoe on my right shoulder, paddle in my left hand, and wade into the Myakka River. In just a few inches of the brackish water, I float my boat and climb in. Settled in between the ribs and stringers, I let the current pull me through the draping Spanish moss and set out upstream.

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