“Daphne” by Andrew Nelson

An original memoir written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Summer 2010


This is the story of how I changed my life by building a rowboat; by accomplishing something that I thought was impossible.


Dad had called me upstairs to his office for the first time since I came back from Slovakia, after Mom found my grades for winter quarter at the community college. I knew that they would not happy. After Fall quarter, I was put on academic probation. After winter quarter, the second consecutive time where my GPA was below a 2.0, I was academically suspended.

“Drew, Mom and I both agreed that I should talk with you,” Dad told me, as he was sitting in the large reading chair inside his office.

I sat still, with my knees close together. My arms folded. Ashamed.

“You have been deliberately deceiving us.”

My heart skipped a beat. Deceiving hit me. It’s a powerful word.

“We feel you have misled us multiple times since you have come back from Slovakia. Most recently about your grades, but you didn’t tell us that you were skipping classes earlier in the term. And you never told us that you were still drinking.”

I shrank. My brain froze. Dad has a way of multiplying the gravity of one mistake by making lists of past mistakes. It’s one of the consequences of having a lawyer for a father.

“We don’t know if we can trust you. We are beginning to wonder how your behavior is going to influence Garrett and Addy. We are thinking about what type of presence you bring into the house. Drew, can we trust you to be honest with us?”

What could I tell Dad? He was right.

Culture Shock

The year leading up to the conversation was the hardest year of my life. I struggled while trying to transition back into life in the United States after living a year in Slovakia. I was not prepared for the hardships that would follow me home. I remember when I first arrived, I would tell people that I had just returned from a year abroad in Slovakia, and they would ask me where I was from, as though I was foreign. I felt like there was a brick wall between me and everybody back home. Nobody seemed to understand me.

The language barrier was just the beginning of my struggles. I still needed to graduate from High School. I tried to complete a Senior Project, which is a requirement for graduation. I planned to work on a project focusing on the struggles involved in transitioning back to life in the United States. I could not compete it. I tried to take a class at the High School I attended before I went abroad. I signed up in English IV to help me complete my Senior Project. I failed. I tried to enroll in running start, a program designed for High School students who want to get a head start on college. Not only did I fail, I lied to my parents about failing and my Dad gave me the talk about trust.

After a year in Slovakia, which I looked back on as the reason for my struggles during my first year back, where I began many of the bad habits that stuck with me, like drinking, smoking, and not studying; and after a year in the United States of exceptional failure, where I felt like I could not do anything right, not even classes at the community college, where I began a trajectory in my life that I envisioned ending in doom; I needed to change my life.

Lesson From Slovakia

I learned in Slovakia that I could suffer through anything. I thought that was the most important lesson that I had learned. I can live anywhere, no matter the hardships. Do anything other expect of me, no matter the consequences. Part of coming back to the United States felt too easy. I could understand everything, life was too predictable; there was nothing for me to suffer through. I remember making myself tortures so that I could relive and relearn the most important lesson I gathered while living in Slovakia. Skipping classes at the community college became one of those tortures, lying to my parents was another. I learned there is a huge difference between being able to suffering through anything, and being able to do anything. The lesson I had drawn from my year abroad was a passive lesson. Let the world beat me up, and watch the fortitude of my indifference. To be able to do anything required action, motivation, and ambition.

Ayn Rand

I wanted to change my life. I started by picking up the writing by an author I used to read while I was in High School, Ayn Rand. My parents gave me a copy of The Ayn Rand Lexicon for Christmas. I kept it downstairs in the library inside my bedroom. I had turned to the book many times before while looking up philosophic or intellectual interests, but I had never gone to the book with such an existential problem. I flipped through many entries searching for the way to change my life. Under the entry about ambition I read, “’Ambition’ means the systematic pursuit of achievement and of constant improvement in respect to one’s goal…A great scientist or a great artist is the most passionately ambitious of men.”

I needed a goal.


The surface of the Grand Canal slid underneath the boat, as I pulled the oars through the thick water, looking back at the Palace of Versailles. When Kaitlin, Stephanie, Samantha and myself saw the boats for rent, we knew we wanted experience the gardens of Versailles from the surface of the Grand Canal, during our day at the Palace at the end of our year in Slovakia. We were on an end of the year trip through France, England and Belgium.

The rowboat fascinated me. It was about fourteen feet long and had room for five people; two people could sit on both the front and the back seats, and one person could sit in the middle and row. I enjoyed rowing. It was fun to pull the oars through the water and feel the weight of the boat glide on the surface. It was relaxing, and stress free to be on the water. The water was so calm and tranquil.

At the end of our day at Versailles I joked as I did about other things, that I would have to build a rowboat when I went home to bring a little bit of Europe to Longview.

Lesson From My Dad

Dad was in the garage, buffing the spotless white paint on his Jeep Liberty, when he asked me, “Drew, its been a year since you have come home, how do you think your year in Slovakia has impacted you?”

“I think that a year of being back home has allowed me time to look back and see the lessons that I learned while abroad. For example, I was just thinking about how I learned I could bear any burden while in Slovakia.”

“Did you learn that you could do anything now that you have lived a year in Slovakia”

Then it struck me. If I can bear any burden, then I can suffer through making myself bear any burden. I can flip the passive lesson I learned to an active lesson simply by making myself want to do something.

“Dad, you gave me an idea…”

Thus I learned I could do anything.

The Goal

In the basement of my house, I sat at the desk in my room in a mental torture over how to change my life. I scribbled down ideas onto a legal pad — read more, write more, exercise more frequently — I did not know what goal I wanted to accomplish. I did not know what goal would be life changing. It had to be ambitious – run a marathon, write a book, build something. That’s it. I wanted to build something. That would bring my confidence back. What could I build? I needed to build something that I thought was impossible. I remembered the old idea from Versailles that I had long forgotten and never really thought was possible.

I decided I was going to build a rowboat.

The Fisherman’s Skiff

I googled “How to build a rowboat.” There were some sites that documented other people’s experience building their rowboat. They looked like experts. One site lead me to an instructional book on amazon.com about building rowboats called Instant Boatbuilding. The premise of the book was that these boats could be built in one weekend or about 30 hours of labor, so I knew that it would take me all summer to complete mine. I ordered the book.

When the book arrived, I had to choose which boat to build. I wanted the most stereotypical rowboat, one like we took at Versailles, and one that was easy to build. I decided to build a boat called the Fishman Skiff. The instructions seemed easy enough, it was the style I wanted and it was the right size. Twelve feet long and four feet wide. The Fisherman’s skiff also did not have a stem running along the bottom, it had flat bottom made of one piece of plywood.


Dad and I went to buy the wood. I needed a special type of plywood called marine plywood that is waterproof on both sides. I called Lumberman’s, a typical northwestern lumberyard, to see if they carried marine plywood. They did. Dad and I drove his Jeep Liberty, with the trailer that I had built with dad, two years ago, attached on the back. Inside Lumberman’s there was every kind of wood I could imagine. They had sheets of wood in every size, wood for decks, fences, and siding, 2 by 4s, 4 by 4s and every type of treated wood, cedar, oak, pine. I asked the guy at the front desk – located in the middle of lumberyard chaos if he could show me where the Marine plywood was. I took me out back, and told me to wait. He came back with the forklift and asked me how much I needed. I told him 3 plies of 8 by 4. I sounded like I knew what I was talking about. I also bought a piece of Douglas fir to make the frame out of.

I kept the wood in my backyard.

My Dry Dock

I decided I was going to assemble the boat in my backyard. Towards the house there is a patio, with a tent that covers a glass table, where my family had dinner on nice summer days. On one side of my backyard our garage stretches from the patio to the alley. I would use the garage to cut out the wood. On the other side we have grass lawn bordered by an old fence that separates our yard from our neighbors and the alley. I was going to build the boat on our lawn. In the back of the yard there is a wooden gazebo that has wisteria growing around it, with a white wooden swing that my grandpa built.

Buying the Saw

Dad brought me to Lowes and left me alone in the power tool department. I needed to find a circular saw. It was the largest tool I needed to buy to in order to build my boat. Finding the right saw was up to me. I needed the circular saw because it was able to cut curved pieces of wood. The only requirements I had for the saw were that it had an adjustable blade that could be raised and lowered, and that its blade could bevel. The circular saw collection at Lowes was immense. They had a whole wall dedicated to just circular saws.  I immediately went towards the saws under fifty dollars.  I’m usually frugal and I would have bought the cheapest saw available even if it did not fulfill my expectations. But this saw mattered to me. I was going to build my boat with it. I chose to buy an more expensive saw. I bought the saw and a special diamond edged blade that would cut through the fiberglass.

I spent around $120.00 at Lowes

Measure Twice, Cut Once.

My first job was to transform the three pieces of eight foot long plywood into two twelve foot long pieces of plywood. The book said that this would be done by cutting one of the eight footers in half and fiberglassing the two halves to the other eight footers.  You would end up with two twelve foot long, solid, waterproof, pieces of plywood that the rest of boat’s pieces could be cut out from.

I prepared to cut one of the pieces in half by measuring four feet from both sides and drawing a line down the middle in pencil. Then I stuck some spare two by fours underneath the plywood so that when I sawed across my garage floor the blade would not hit the concrete pavement. When I turned the saw on I felt the power of the saw blade spinning, the gyro effect, the jump at the beginning, the acceleration of the saw as it comes up to speed. I heard the roar of the motor echoing in my garage. I lined up the marker on the saw with the line I drew. I gave a prayer. And I made my first cut for my boat.

I was off by a 1/4 inch.

Fiberglass Two Pieces of Plywood Together

I had never fiberglassed before. I could not have told you what fiberglass was before I decided to build a boat. I had to fiberglass the two half pieces of plywood I cut to the ends of the other eight footer pieces of plywood. I read fiberglassing is a complex process.

Basic outline for Fiberglassing

1)    Sand the surface of the plywood where you will be fiberglassing

2)    Place wax paper underneath the area where you will be fiberglassing

3)    Measure the amount of fiberglass mat you will need.

4)    Mix the resin and hardener together. Use bottom of an old coke bottle and refill with resin as needed.

5)    Wet the surface with the resin mixture using a paintbrush. Lay the first fiberglass mat in place, and saturate with resin

6)    Sand the surface

The first time I tried to fiberglass the pieces of plywood together, I used the wrong type of fiberglass matting. I used fiberglass tape. A tape made of a thin grid of fiberglass wire. After going through the process, and waiting for the fiberglass to harden, I woke up the next morning and the pieces of plywood just fell apart.

I realized that I needed fiberglass matting, a thick cloth that was would soak up the fiberglass in order to connect the two pieces. When pouring the fiberglass resin on top of the matting, I saw the matting become transparent. I knew this was the right material to fiberglass with.

The Keystone

After I cut out the rest of the pieces to make the boat, I needed to make the stem in order to make the shape of the boat. The stem was going to be difficult to make. I knew it would be, it had to be perfect. The stem was the piece of wood that was in the front of the boat, where both sides meet to create a bow. In essence the stem is the keystone to whole boat.

The shape of the stem was complicated to make. Made more challenging by my limited supplies. The shape I had to cut out was basically a triangle with a quadrilateral on top of it. The quadrilateral created space where the plywood would fit in order to be glued to the stem. The stem was also a small piece of Douglass fir, no larger than one and half inches wide.  “You have to wait until we go to grandpa’s house to use the saw in his workshop” Dad said. But I just wanted to do it, finish it.

Cutting out the triangle was easy, but how would I remove the rectangles from the both sides in order to form the quadrilateral on top? I had to make two sliver cuts that had to be precise so that the ends of the cuts met each other.

I cut out the stem in a very dangerous way, because I wanted to finish it. I only had limited supplies so I had to slide the triangle piece wood through the saw with my figures, within inches of the blade. Turning on the saw made it jump forward, it created a loud roaring drone. As I fed the wood into the blade of the saw, I could hear the blade crunch against the Douglass fir and the high pitched sound of the blade against the wood. The sawdust flew in my eye. I had to have faith that the stem would not jump in the saw, or that there was not a knot that I could not see, or that the triangular piece of wood would not rotate during the cut, or else I would have lost a finger. I had to repeat this hair rising maneuver four times in order to make the shape of the stem.


I’ve been thinking about what I want to call my boat. Everybody know, boats have to have feminine names. Laura came to my mind, not only the name of Petrarch’s unrequited love, but also the name of a girl in Slovakia I used to love. Laura did not do it for me. Dagny came to mind, named after the main character in Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged. Dagny was not the right name. Daphne. It was perfect. Not only was Bernini’s sculpture one of my favorite, not only is the myth of Daphne found in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, a book dedicated to personal transformations, but Daphne was turned into a laurel tree, a type of wood, the same stuff the boat was made out of. Daphne was the name of my boat.

I decided I was going to design a flag for Daphne. Every boat needs it’s own flag. I decided that my flag would have a laurel wreath – symbolic of Daphne turning into a laurel tree, poetry, and victory. And Cross arrows, the two arrows mentioned Ovid’s version of the myth – one golden, one lead. They have opposite amorous effects on people. Lead makes you reject love, which Daphne was struck with, and Golden makes you fall in love, which Apollo was struck with.

Reflections about completing the stem

I remember looking through the kitchen window one evening before dinner, past the mementos that Mom placed on the window sill that remind her of her childhood, a round rock with the words “Friends are Blessings” carved into it, a glass doll, and a clay model of a house. Through the kitchen window I was able to see the shape of a boat. Just glancing past it, I could have easily mistaken it for a boat. Before it looked like pieces of wood, poorly fastened together, like a cheap dog house under construction, but now it looked like a boat. I had attached two sides of the boat to the stem in order to create the front of the boat. I saw the shape of a bow. It looked like a boat. I had made the shape of a boat. I did it. I did the impossible. It was unbelievable, I made a boat.

Finishing the Boat

After I put the stem together, I felt like had accomplished my goal. I was able to see the shape of a boat and the end of the project. All I had to do was put the bottom of the boat on the sides, and cut it down so that the bottom fits, and fiberglass all the seams, sand the fiberglass and paint the boat. There was a newfound energy inside of me after complete the stem. Finishing the rest of the boat was easy.

Maiden Voyage

I pulled heavy oars that did not fit into the oar rings, though the green, blue water of Lake Sacajawea near my home. I looked around and saw joggers, I imagined them being in awe of the fact that I had made a boat. My mind was rushing with thoughts. I did not know if Daphne was going to float when I put her in the water. And she floated. I had put more fiberglass than necessary on all the seams, twice over, in hopes that it would seal out all possibilities of leaks. There were no leaks. I thought about the buoyancy, maybe the weight would not be right and Daphne would roll over. She was perfectly balanced.

Meaning of Daphne

I decided to build Daphne because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do the impossible. But the boat became symbolic for a new beginning, after a hard journey. Building the boat brought back my confidence and self-esteem. It was both a way for me to bring a little of Europe back home, and also a way for me to move past my hardest times during my year in Slovakia. The process of building Daphne was the most important part, not the final product. Rediscovering my self-motivation and realizing that I can do anything – I don’t just have to suffer through life – were life-changing lessons I learned while building Daphne. By building the boat, I not only completed a life goal, but I learned that I can accomplish any of my life goals.

—by Andrew Nelson