Through the years, many people have asked us how we came to name our boats. Years ago, just before Taleisin was ready to be launched, I wrote the following story:
What’s in a Name?
For two and a half years we listened in frustration as friends, family and magazine editors called the lovely cutter growing 200 yards from our desert canyon home Seraffyn II. “No,” one or the other of us would say, “That’s not her name. Would you call your children John, John II, John III?” This new boat did seem to be like a second child as she grew under our hands, her 21 foot –long keel timber slowly emerging from a solid teak log, her black locust frames flaring like limbs from the glowing bronze floor timbers.
“You should name her Seraffyn II,” the late Petty Slater, a well-known Southern California sailor said, “how else will your old friends recognize you when you sail back into foreign ports?” Her logic held us for a few moments. Then we each took a glass of wine out to the boatshed and looked at the teak planking which was slowly edging upward, closer to the sheerline. This boat’s profile did remind us of our last little cruising home, the tiny mite that took us around the world so patiently. But there the resemblance ended. Where Seraffyn had been pugnacious, tough, almost a bit of a rascal, this new boat already showed a finesse you’d expect now Larry had combined his ever-growing boatbuilding skills with Lyle Hess’ design improvements. The new hull was sleek where Seraffyn had been cherubic. The new hull showed proud buoyancy providing cheeks above her fine bow where Seraffyn had the lean look of a young designers dream. No, we’d find our old friends another way. This boat needed its own name.
Each week we’d come up with a new one, sometimes serious, sometimes whimsical. “Let’s call her Maria Elena like all our Mexican friends call you,” Larry suggested one day. I blushed in appreciation. “Let’s call her Lorena after your Mexican goddaughter,” I countered. Neither name lasted for more than a few days.
Someone came by and watched Larry fitting the deck strapping into place. “You’re building her as carefully as they build Chelsea clocks,” the friend said. And that name caught our fancy. Chelsea, easy to say, simple and English like our boat’s general appearance. So we wrote the name on a slip of paper and tacked it on our bulletin board to look at, savor, try.
“Easy Sheets, that’s a name for her,” Larry joked one day. “That’s what I always call you Lin. Every time I come out on deck you’ve eased the sheets.”
“Cariad, that’s a beautiful name,” I said as I wrote it on the list under Chelsea. Cariad was the Welsh word for sweetheart, loved one. But Larry felt uncomfortable about naming our boat after the unique 19th century pilot cutter that now sat in ancient splendor at a museum in southern England.
“Lansing, we could name it after my favorite square rigged ship. Lansing ran the North Atlantic mail line for 30 years and not once was it overdue,” Larry said as he added it to our list. But I wasn’t comfortable with that name re-read a letter we’d received from Sven Lundin in Sweden who expressed my feelings perfectly. “Choose a simple name, one your boat can grow into and give meaning,” he wrote and Lansing fell by the wayside.
After two years of ministering to this growing, almost living shape it seemed irreverent to call it simple, The Boat. I found myself falling into the easy trap of saying Seraffyn II. That was okay when the hull was out of sight. But if I said it as I sanded and varnished inside her teak planked body, it seemed like I was making a mistake.
We took a weekend trip to San Francisco and stood on the dock there, looking at the little boat that had once been ours, the one that had given us so many thrills and moments of pride. As I stood there I realized there could only be that one Seraffyn, an entity on her own, waiting, ready to cross another ocean under other hands we hoped would care for her as much as we had.
The quest for a name seemed to grow until every friend wrote suggestions or offered sources. One sent us a dictionary with a name gazette that weighed ten pounds. Another sent us a Welsh-English translation dictionary. Not only was Seraffyn’s background Welsh, but so was Larry’s and the lines of this hull were a development of the Welsh pilot cutters of a century ago. But hours of going over these dictionaries produced some laughter but no name we both liked.
Brion Toss, a softspoken rigger we’d met during our voyaging wrote;
“Nine years ago I brought home a Newfoundland puppy and set about the task of naming. It is an important, profound task, frought with peril but extremely satisfying and nourishing if pursued properly.
American Indians sweated and fasted for their names – the description of the mature self as opposed to whatever they were tagged with as children.
Eskimos tried to find the right name at birth. A sage would attend the labor “calling out” the bagy with name after name. When the baby heard its name, out it came.
Our own system of indexing seems crude by contrast and of course boats usually fare no better.
I brought the dog home and a friend and I sat with him, looking, listening, wondering. We were trying not to be in any hurry, trying not to be cosmic, assuming simply that he had a name and that it could somehow be known. It was a beautiful autumn day. We tried a few names. He panted lightly. We tried a few more. He played with a stick.
“Saul,” my friend said. (She afterwards could not say why), and we heard a peculiar resonance, bell-like yet echoing. He trotted over and sat down in front of us.
It is not always like that of course but there is some similar magic, intentional or not in naming important things. Corresponding vibrations. Mind and nature.”
So we waited for the magic, throwing names at the silent hull while we struggled with the endless seeming tasks of fairing up the deck beams, fitting on the cabin sills, scrapping and varnishing the inside of the planking.
The sailing world is very small and sooner or later each voyager seems to have invisible threads leading t others who have known the quiet of calms, the howl of storm winds, the joy of new landfalls. When we happened to meet Tristan Jones one summer day in 1981, we hit it off immediately. His determination, his feeling that obstacles were an excuse for new action, his sheer sense of optimism enthralled us. His Welsh burr, amazing storytelling and quiet ways turned the evening into a bit of the reality usually found only in a secluded anchorage far from shoreside hustle and bustle.
About six months later we heard the distressing news. Tristan had lost his leg, not in a sea-going episode, but in the depths of New York where massive indifference had caused a medical error. We wrote a letter offering our sympathy and half in earnest, half in jest, a piece of teak we had left over after cutting out our new boats stem. “Larry can rough out a peg leg for you if you want one,” I wrote. Our offer was eagerly accepted and after writing the dimensions we needed to know, Tristan’s letter concluded, “What can I do in return?”
Larry got out the hunk of teak he’s offered and set to work gluing on cheeks with waterproof resorcinol adhesive. Then he shaped the peg and couldn’t resist more and more finishing touches. “Ask Tristan to think of a name for us, A Welsh troubadour or minstrel. He’s the man who should know.”
I couldn’t send the beautifully shaped peg off without protecting it from the elements it would meet when Tristan again went sailing. So I added five coats of varnish. Then we packed it carefully in foam and shipped it off with a friend who was headed to New York. That same afternoon we received a short simple letter.
June 7th, 1982 New York City
Dear Lin and Larry
Welsh bard from pre-Christian era. He was found in the bull-rushes as a babe and sang the sweetest songs. He sang so sweetly that he cast a spell over the birds so that they flew away in the winter when he slept. He sailed himself over the looking glass sea and lives in a magic land far away to the west of Ireland. He told the original tales of Mabinogion. Therefore he is the originator of the Tale of Fantasy.
A lovely, honorable name for a bot.
We went out to the boatshed and looked at her varnished transom. “Taleisin,” Larry said. “Tal-e-sin, a wandering story teller just like Seraffyn was.” The golden light of dusk seemed to point out the jobs we’d finished. For the first time I could imagine water lapping against the sides of the rudder that now swung so easily on its shinny bronze pintles. Taleisin, a perfect trade, a gift from one sailor to another. Brion had been right, this name did give the correct vibrations. It slid smoothly from our tongues; the boat seemed to respond by changing each day as deck strakes laid easily into place.
We called jay Greer who’d carved the name into Seraffyn’s transom. “Taleisin,” he said, rolling the name slowly. “I love it. It will look elegant, Taleisin of Victoria.”
Tristan wrote to tell us his peg leg had arrived and would be used and cherished. His letter ended by saying, the closest ancient welsh translation of the name, Taleisin, was happy wanderer, lively minstrel or possibly joyful singer.
Once she had a name, it seemed she became a reality. A year after Jay carved it onto the transom then I highlighted his carving with a layer of gold-leaf, Taleisin settled slowly into the water to truly live up to the name fate had bestowed upon her.