All the best stories from the late Robb White: boats and boatbuilding, life on the coast and on the water. A treasure trove of unforgettable tales, practical wisdom, and flat-out hilarity.
Floatsam and Jetsam
by Robb White
A Review by Rob Rohde-Szudy
The writing of Robb White Jr. is an acquired taste. It’s like good whiskey – if you can get past the hard kick, there’s surprising smoothness and subtlety. The trouble is that his writing was spread all over in back issues of Messing About in Boats, Woodenboat and other periodicals, as well as his woefully underpublicized book How to Build a Tin Canoe: Confessions of an Old Salt.
Imagine my joy when Robb’s widow, Jane White, took the time to distill Flotsam and Jetsam: The Collected Adventures, Opinions and Wisdom from a Life Spent Messing About in Boats. This volume is less like a bottle of whiskey and more like a big jug. At 568 pages, this new volume positively swallows up the Tin Canoe book. In fact, all but five chapters are included here, which makes this book very nearly one-stop-shopping for the friend of Robb. (I’d say “fan”, but Robb talks to you like a friend in his writing.)
Eventually you’ll probably want both volumes, but I can hardly blame Mrs. White for cutting a few things. With any more pages, Breakaway Books might have had to resort to that tissue paper they print telephone directories on. Besides, if anyone is capable of deciding what to cut, it’s her. I don’t want to ruin too much of the book for you, but you’ll get to read about how she learned to drive at Robb’s side at age 17. In the mountains of Puerto Rico. In a stickshift VW Beetle. With no clutch cable! That’s right, folks, she learned to drive by starting in gear and synchro-shifting. Dang.
Now don’t imagine you need to have been a friend of Robb to become a friend of Robb. He had the uncanny ability to write exactly as he spoke. I cannot help but add a deep Southern drawl while reading. In fact, I think it is sometimes necessary to understand what he means. His conversational tone sometimes makes it feel like he’s sitting right there. (And that was without the whiskey...)
Anyway, Robb can’t answer your questions directly anymore, but there are an awful lot of answers buried in this book. Often for questions you never would have thought to ask. It’s good to have a friend who “knows a thing or two about a thing or two” as we puzzle our way through whatever we’re trying to get done.
As you work your way through this book, you’ll notice some repetition. Each one of these chapters was a story meant to stand on its own, so it makes sense that some of the necessary background information would be repeated. Jane didn’t take this out, but that’s OK. You’re not supposed to drink the whole jug at one time anyway. That will wear you out.
Also, the contents of this book are not as strictly boat-focused as the contents of the Tin Canoe book. There are whole chapters that don’t mention boats at all, like the one about his mother’s fallout shelter and the paranoia of the time that made building it seem completely normal. Not boats, but funny, interesting, and worth reading.
I guess I should also mention that a lot of the boat-related stuff is funny too. When I read his bit on British Seagull motors I think I giggled for about five minutes. My wife thought I was nuts. (But she didn’t want to know once I told her it was about outboard motors.)
If you’re a new friend of Robb, you’ll also notice how he seems to wander and talk about all sorts of things. He gets partway through a story, then realizes he needs to explain something else to help it make sense. Some have accused him of “fatuous prolixity”, but instead I think he covers a broad array of interesting topics in sometimes unexpected sequence. This style doesn’t readily lend itself to a clear table of contents or quickly finding a section you want to refer to. But it is very conversational and readable. Maybe it’s even comforting, since he writes like a lot of us think. (I know it’s not just me!)
You’ll also notice that Robb is like one of those “interesting” whiskeys. It doesn’t necessarily go down smooth. It’s not for the beginner who fruity drinks with umbrellas in them. But it is one you keep coming back to because it has a character all its own. That’s Robb in a nutshell. (Who else would move plywood on a scooter?) He has always been an agitator who does things his own way. In these pages he continues to be exactly that.
And as Robb would say, “Give you the joy of it.”
Madison, Wisconsin, USA