Why we love boats

People see boats as symbols of the human experience, which is why they’re so potent in art.

Skylarking, 24X36, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas. Available here.

I recently got a floor-cleaning robot. I find myself talking to it, usually cooing as I do to the dog. But this week it’s been avoiding a spot near the kitchen door, and I lectured it. “Mom, are you getting mad at your Bissell spin-wave?” my son asked.

Anthropomorphism means our inclination to assign human characteristics and personalities to non-humans. The word was first used by Xenophanes, which tells us that the urge to anthropomorphize our stuff goes back to earliest man. It’s one thing to talk to your dog (who may or may not answer) and it’s another to talk to your floor-cleaning robot, or to converse with Alexa.

American Eagle in Drydock (the winch), Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, available here.

I’m hardly alone. Humans are hard-wired to understand and interact with other humans from birth. When we come across something non-human, our impulse is to interact in the human terms with which we’re most familiar.

Complex machines are relatively modern. It’s interesting that we overwhelmingly characterize them as female. That is, perhaps, a way of expressing trust in them (which is why it’s so important for car manufacturers to build ‘cute’ cars). Or, it’s possibly because they do our grunt work for us. Thanks, Mom.

Boats, on the other hand, are almost as old as humankind itself. We traditionally call them ‘she’, even when they’re named after a crusty old Admiral. The roots of this tradition are lost in the mists of time. It may come from the idea that a goddess protects and guides a particular ship (as in a figurehead). Or, it might be an artifact of a precursor language, where nouns had gender.

Breaking Storm, Carol L. Douglas, available here.

But people see boats as symbols of the human experience, which is why they’re so potent in art. They sail through calm waters and storms. They narrowly escape destruction, or they are, in fact, wrecked on the shoals of misfortune. They are elegant and lean, floating on the breeze, or they’re stout little working boats like me.

Most of us spend far more time in cars and planes than we do in boats, but paintings of boats predominate in art. All three modes of transportation are elegant. All three have their romance. So why do people love boat paintings so much?

It’s, in part, tradition, but it’s also the confluence of wind, water and sky. Even without a vessel, the ocean is a pretty magical place.

Sunset sail, Carol L. Douglas, available here.

A friend recently painted her first boat, and told me the experience left her flat. I laughed and said they were my favorite subject. She thought that she perhaps ought to take my boat workshop to understand why. That’s as good a lead-in as any to the idea of painting aboard the schooner American Eagle. I teach two workshops aboard her—in June and in September.

But Ann might be disappointed, because we don’t focus on sails and rigging. Rather, it’s a sort of traveling-sketchbook experience, where we capture quicksilver impressions of the ever-changing, watery world of Penobscot Bay. It’s all about the light, and the light never changes more quickly than it does on the ocean.