Why are (most) boats beautiful?

On our Biscay cruises,  we visited the lovely little Ile de Groix , once home to great fleets of long distance tuna boats. It is only recently that I have come across an intriguing explanation of why the famous fishing boats of Ile de Groix are such attractive little ships.

They are designed by the sea itself, in just the same very serious and real sense that the dolphin and every other fast-swimming sea creature is designed for its life in the ocean through natural selection under pressure from the marine environment. No wonder that a boat that is fit for purpose is very often also a beautiful object and artefact, and that the language of boat appreciation is so full of words and phrases like lovely, or elegant lines or a pretty shear.

Taking Darwin’s ideas and applying them to boats, the French philosopher and journalist Emile-Auguste Chartier wrote in 1908:

“The small decked Breton fishing boats from the Ile de Groix that fish in distant waters are wonderful machines. I have heard an engineer say that the best designed battleship is a monster compared with these gracious and solid hulls, where the curves, slopes and thicknesses are everywhere what they should be.

We admire the work of bees; but human work of this kind is much like making the hexagonal cells of the hive. Watch the bee or the fisherman and you won’t find a trace of reasoning or geometry: you will find only an unthinking attachment to custom, which is, however,  enough to explain the advancement and perfection  of their artefacts.  Here is how:

Every boat is a copy of another boat; all the science stops there: to copy what  exists is to make what one has always made. Let us think about it the way Darwin would. It’s obvious that a badly made boat will go to the bottom after one or two fishing seasons, and so will never be copied.  They rightly copy only the old hulls that have resisted everything. They understand  very well that, most often, such an old hull is precisely the most perfect of all, the one which responds best to the use that has been made of it: a trial and error method, a blind method, which nevertheless leads to continually increasing perfection.

It is possible, from time to time, by chance, that a mediocre boat escapes the blasts of wind and therefore offers a poor model; but that is an exception. In a huge number of experiments, it is not possible that there are a lot of mistakes. A well built boat may go on a reef; a pile of junk may escape. But in a hundred thousand boats of all types thrown against the waves, the waves will bring back just a few inadequate ones and almost all the good ones; it would need a miracle for all the best ones to be shipwrecked.

So one can say, with complete rigour, that it is the sea herself that shapes the boats, chooses those that are suitable and destroys the others.  New boats being copied from those that return, the ocean keeps choosing among the elite yet another elite, and again thousands of times. Each step forward is imperceptible; the craftsman  is always copying, and will say nothing must change in the form of the boat; improvement results exactly from this attachment to routine. That’s how the instinct of the tortoise overtakes the science of the hare”.

Spring Fever is from a different sailing world altogether, a 1980s GRP yacht, but I’ve always been pleased by how many observers compliment her lines, as I’ve often heard about  all of David Thomas’s designs. I’ve also heard his boats criticised for being old fashioned even when they were launched, in an age of wide bodied competition from France. But Chartier’s explanation reinforces the idea that if it looks right, it is right. I feel better about our 30 year old boat already.

My translation, from Propos d’un Normand, 1908, by Chartier, under his single writing pseudonym Alain. I found the full text after a passing reference in Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and back, 2017.