The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float by Farley Mowat


Dreaming of the glorious life of freedom that sailing the seven seas, or at least three or four of them, might grant, Farley Mowat bought a boat.

And regretted it almost immediately.

For starters, she was designed as a fishing boat, not a pleasure cruiser. This meant that as much space was given over to cargo space and as little to the comforts of the crew as possible: there were three stations for fishermen on deck with two cavernous wells into the hold, but living quarters (sleeping, cooking and all) that wouldn’t pass muster in a walk-in closet in a cut-rate McMansion today. The fact that she was elderly and hadn’t been used for some time meant that she was not in the best condition, to say the least, and her equipment was antiquated…

OK. The ship leaked like a sieve. The pumps were incapable of keeping up. The engine kept shaking apart, leaking diesel into the bilge and then sparking right where the fuel was puddling. The masts and much of the rigging was quite literally held together with baling wire and netting ties. The hull was “sealed”, in a manner of speaking, with several inches of gurry. (For non-commercial fishermen: you don’t want to know. Really.)

The Happy Adventure was cantankerous, to say the least. The beginning of her maiden voyage under Mowat’s ownership and captaincy should have given him a clue about the ship’s nature: he and his companion ended up traversing the bay backwards while under full sail forward when the make-and-break engine started in reverse.(The “make-and-break” engine commonly installed in fishing vessels in this area had only two speeds, so to speak—forward and backward—and would randomly start in one direction or the other.)

Mowat spent a great deal of the subsequent sailing seasons wrestling that bull-headed vessel along in an effort to actually sail her. Voyages seemed to consist largely of alternating between plugging her porous bottom with whatever variant on sodden dirt was available, and searching frantically for the next mud bank while using ungentlemanly language in reference to the make-and-break engine. He did later fix the Happy Adventure as well his finances permitted, though even electric pumps and a newer four-cycle diesel couldn’t cure all its ills. Getting stranded in various outposts, in varying degrees of desolate isolation, was inevitable for Mowat and whoever was crewing for him; the Newfoundlanders were nonplussed but on the whole charitable, and indeed Mowat and the woman who became his wife, Claire, ended up settling down in one of the more hospitable communities for several years.

Mowat’s style is amusing, but the various voyages are clearly at best miserable and at worst skimming disaster. It’s amusing to read, but I can’t see wanting to do this up close and in person. I’m not sure how exactly truthful the book is; I’m sure there was such a boat, and he did struggle with it more or less as described, but I’d be curious to hear how much creative non-fictionization was going on.

While Mowat may be better known for books such as People of the Deer and Never Cry Wolf, he did nevertheless show a great talent for this sort of humorous writing. (Indeed, some would argue that those two auto-biographical non-fiction books were humor/creative, as well.)

(For all the editors out there: yes, the title is grammatically incorrect. It should be ‘the boat that/which wouldn’t float’. Now, shush. You’re missing the point: the title of this book parallels one of his other books, The Dog who Wouldn’t Be.)

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