My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Many people have asked me about the figurehead standing halfway up the mizzen (aft) mast of “Kuan Yin”. Who is she? What is the she doing up there?
The figure is, of course, Kuan Yin herself – the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion who is revered throughout Asia. More specifically she is the “patron saint” of fishermen, sailors and expectant mothers. All of them wishing for a safe passage!
Properly, she is a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, meaning “the lord who looks upon the world with compassion” and can also be represented as a man. However, as compassion has been reckoned a feminine virtue, Avalokiteshvara is now suually represented as a woman.
The tradition of having a figurehead on a sailing vessel goes back at least to the 15th century, and to the Greeks and Romans in the West if the non-figurative emblems are included. The purpose of the figurehead was to ward off evils and dangers, to pacify the seas and to help illiterate sailors find their ship.
The Water Fairies of Northern Europe
In Germany, Belgium and Holland, it was once believed that spirits/faeries called Kaboutermannekes (water fairies) dwelt in the figureheads. The spirit guarded the ship from sickness, rocks, storms, and dangerous winds. If the ship sank, the Kaboutermannekes guided the sailors’ souls to the Land of the Dead. To sink without a Kaboutermanneke condemned the sailor’s soul to haunt the sea forever, so Dutch sailors believed. A similar belief was found among early Scandinavian sailors.
My own reasons for commissioning the figurehead were perhaps more aesthetic and less mystical. The design of the boat is very traditional and this suggested there ought to be a figurehead; whereas a figurehead on a modern fibreglass boat would almost certainly look out of place.
I had already decided to rename the boat “Kuan Yin” out of respect for the importance placed on compassion in Buddhist teaching and because the name seemed appropriate as it is my intention to eventual sail the boat to Asia.
Finding the master carver
The quest for a carver took a few turns before I encountered khun Prapan Suja outside a small village in northern Thailand. In fact, I’d all but abandoned the idea as impractical and too expensive and said to a Thai friend who was helping me search that if the project was not meant to be then we should just let it go. A hour later- after so many false turns – we arrived at khun Prapan Sujo’s workshop and I knew at once that he was master carver to do the work.
(The major problem had been that, while I was prepared to pay the carver for his work (they are almost all men) I refused to pay a small fortune to a middle merchant who would then pay a pittance to the carver doing the work and pocket a huge profit.)
Khun Prapon specialized in Kuan Yin and Ganesh (the elephant-headed god). As soon as I explained what was required, he drew out the figure on the concrete floor with a stick of chalk and there she was.
How to adapt Kuan Yin for the boat
There were several challenges. Firstly, Kuan Yin is highly respected and a demur figure with downcast eyes. Ye
The complete carving. Unfortunately the wood would quickly fade to grey in sunlight and all the detail would be lost so it the figurehead for a vessel has traditionally been barebreasted and looking out at the world. We had to find an expression that was engaging to the world without having the “come hither” look of a prostitute.
In addition, the figure could not have her arms out with the traditional vase of “sacred” water and a sprig of willow, becasue these would be too easily broken on a small boat.
In some depictions, Kuan Yin is shown riding a dragon and I wanted the dragon also to be looking out at the world with its mouth gaping. Far from being a creature to be loathedand feared (as it is in the West) the dragon is viewed as awesome creature filled with power and wisdom, the go-betweens of heaven and earth. Dragons are considered down right lucky and are strongly associated with water in popular belief. They are believed to be the rulers of moving bodies of water, such as waterfalls, rivers, or seas.
Kuan Yin is no “painted lady”
Khun Prapon managed to carve both a powerful dragon full of energy and a bodhisattva who is calm and patient. The whole figurehead was carved from a single piece of teak and the detailing is marvellous. However, the rich honey-coloured teak would quickly turn grey in sunlight and the figurehead needed to be painted in bright colours. I didn’t want to risk turning her into a “painted lady” so Kuan Yin was painted in the workshop in traditional Chinese temple colours.
Getting her out of Thailand proved more complicated. Even brand new religious figures – including Jesus – can only be taken out of Thailand with an export licence. So the humble figure, measuring 1.3 metres had to go before a committee of the university for approval and the necessary stamps on the paperwork.
Finding her place up the mizzen mast
The next challenge was where to mount the figure. According to tradition she should have gone under the bowsprit. However on a small sailboat that’s where the anchors are stowed and she would have been too easily damaged. Up the main mast was ruled out because of the likelihood of catching and being damaged by sails and lines.
Another complication was the possible effect of raising a figure weighing quite a few kilos up above the deck – this raising the vessel’s centre of gravity and making her slightly more rolly.
In the end, I decided to take the risk, position her up the mast and accept that she might have to be moved. However, the effect seems to be minimal and up the mizzen mast she can be seen even under full sail.
With her vase in the palm of her left hand the sprig of willow in her right, she stands on the dragon’s head looking out at the world, offering her blessing and message of compassion to all the world.
For more information
Figureheads – wikipedia. The story of figureheads in Western navies and merchant shipping.
The Figurehead Archive – an amazing gathering of information from a master carver and restorer of figureheads.
Kuan Yin – wikipedia. An extensive review of the history of Kuan Yin and her importance in Asian culture and arts.
Buddhanet – lots of straightforward information about Avalokiteshvara and Buddhism in general. A great source