Django: Elegies and Improvisations with Small Boats

Cikovsky, Nicolai; "The Inlet at Wooley Pond", 1945; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY

When a boat dies, you usually have two choices: pay hundreds of dollars to have it hauled away, or let it molder and sink into some secluded corner of the yard. A quick tour of my wife’s parents’ town on the South Shore of Massachusetts, where I moored my boat, would suggest that the latter is the norm: those husks and dark prows entombed in plain sight beside rotting cordwood, abandoned swing-sets. Last year, when I discovered that the oaken keel of my sailboat had rotted irreparably, I embarked on my first experiment with time-lapse photography. I rented for twenty dollars a “reciprocating saw”—the contractor’s principal instrument of demolition—known as a Sawzall. After positioning my iPad on a kitchen chair in the driveway of my in-laws’ home, then unraveling forty yards of extension cord from the garage, I plugged in the nasty tool—part torpedo, part robotic swordfish—and grimly laid into the carapace of the little boat over which I had worried and fussed for almost ten years.

 

When we first considered buying the wide, or “beamy,” 12’ x 6’ Beetlecat—a marriage of whaling dory and gaff-rigged sailboat—the owner, George Blanchard, rowed us out to it in his dinghy. The first thing we noticed was that his Beetle sat lower in the water than the surrounding cousins because the hull had been encased in a heavy shell of fiberglass, a last resort modification by the boat-owner who has no interest in maintaining the original wooden hull but still wants it to float. For the time being. The day you wrap a wooden boat in glass, however, the clock begins to tick. An evening thunderstorm had loaded George’s boat, so rotten splinters, liberated shims, and the staves of ribs floated troublingly around our ankles. As July sun and humidity amped up, we helped George with pump and sponge until a less sluggish, naturally tippy action returned to the boat. “Bailing every day is my exercise,” he said, crossing his legs, khakis rolled, canvas sneakers soaked. “Never invested in a cover. Might be a good idea.”

George was a small man, but in his blue windbreaker and baseball hat, a fringe of thin, cropped gray hair visible just beneath the band, he reminded me of my father, who had died a couple years before. They would have been around the same age, both World War II vets: George a chief petty officer in the Navy and my father a lieutenant and pilot in the Army Air Corps. Each man had gravitated toward planes after his stint in the service: George founding Blanchard Aviation at Hyannis Airport in 1950 and my father becoming an aeronautic engineer, first on Long Island and eventually lighting out for the aerospace revolution erupting in Southern California, where I was born. But with the end of the war my father’s interest in aviation was confined to the drawings of jet turbines and combustors on his drafting table, to tests in wind tunnels and pitches in boardrooms. As the years went by, he was content to relinquish control of a plane’s flaps and instead translate flight into the elegant curve of a ballooning sail.

We went over the rest of the rigging with George, including his homemade boom-crutch and a complicated chain of hardware store gadgets he’d mickey-moused to extend one of the shrouds. The deteriorating state of the brightwork, bump-rail, mast, and gaff fork was muted under heavy coats of varnish, especially the oak mast hoops, stacked and glistening like dark, weathered vertebrae above the boom. In spots, the sail was thinned to translucence, crumbling and powdery like a moth’s wing at the grommets and fasteners because of “sun rot” from almost forty summers of exposure.

George explained that he’d secured the Beetle three years earlier from the author Sebastian Junger, who had left Provincetown after his popular book The Perfect Storm(about the 1991 wreck of a Gloucester swordfishing boat) had been translated to film, computer graphics, and George Clooney’s unconvincing, Hollywood-inflected Boston accent. He divulged this as quirky celebrity novelty, but I detected a mischievously ominous smirk when he finished with, “But that’s neither here nor there,” as if perceiving my tentativeness at acquiring a boat owned by a writer who had immortalized a doomed expedition. We bought it anyway.

 

Every summer in the 1960s and early ’70s, my father, having since moved our family back east, would spend most of his two-week vacation from the General Electric Aeronautics Plant in Lynn, Massachusetts at Southampton, New York. This is where my grandparents owned a small cottage on a saltwater cove developed in the 1930s. Being on the inside of Long Island’s South Fork, Wooley Pond is as protected a body of water as you’ll find on the Atlantic seaboard, the last Spartina-fringed increment in the tapering of open Atlantic, Block Island Sound, Gardiners Bay, and Little Peconic Bay.

The Belorussian painter Nicolai Cikovsky seems to have composed “The Inlet at Wooley Pond” from the kitchen window of that bungalow on Southampton Shores. Part of a loosely affiliated group of influential artists on the South Fork of Long Island in the middle of the 20th century, Cikovsky translates through rough-hewn, frantic strokes, crazy perspective, and primary colors, the bulrushes swaying on the left, peaty marsh bank on the right, a single dark cottage set on pebbled dunes.

Because the windows of my grandparents’ bungalow faced the cove and the house was next to the community dock, I woke up every summer morning in the loft to the sound of boat engines. If it was the gulls on the chimney that roused me first, the boats would follow soon enough, the whining, blue-smoked complaint of outboards being revved too high after ignition, or the mesmerizing, syncopated guttural knocking of the big inboards as they chugged to or from the bay. I knew almost every boat in that little kingdom, but especially the sportfishing boats and big cabin cruisers wedged tightly in the sheaths of their slips at the marina on the far end of the pond. An apostle of gods with names like Maru, Wahoo, and Black Fin, I was the first to the binoculars when their rumbling filled the air. Even now, their images are immediate and acute, but back then their regal appearance rounding the bend of the inlet was as visceral and punctual a reminder of planetary rhythm as the arrival of the bluefish and blue-claw crabs in August.

My grandfather, a retired New York City fire chief, owned a larger motorboat for his fishing and clamming ventures, but the primary function of his rowboat was for training my sisters and me. I was forced to watch that wooden skiff from the safety of the porch as my sisters’ were put through their paces: starting the ancient, temperamental maroon and white Johnson engine, casting off, weaving in and out of the channel markers (in forward and reverse), dropping and securing an anchor, and finally pulling alongside the dock and tying-up. My grandfather had left the job of their induction to my father, who, like some nautical DMV officer, sat in the bow with his arms crossed, uncharacteristically silent, as one of my sisters sweated it out. Watching all of this from the house, I pined and worried, kneeling at the redwood picnic table trying to focus through the porch screens to follow her yellow windbreaker and tangled wake.

Not long after my initiation, my grandfather bought an eleven-and-a-half-foot square-nosed Sears “Gamefisher,” which was made of aluminum. Because owning a wooden boat is like caring for a sentient, perishable being, the explosion of low-maintenance materials (like fiberglass and aluminum) in the late 1960s and early ’70s was probably what kept boats from disappearing altogether from our family. During those next few summers of elementary school and junior high, I lived—and sometimes slept—inside the olive drab, machine-bent contours of that Sears rowboat, making contact with terra firma only in the direst circumstances (illness, dinner, or bedtime). Back then, when such real estate as my grandparents’ was poised or just beginning to drift irrevocably beyond the reach of the middle class, most of my friends still lived near or on the water, in bungalows strung along the warrens of sandy two-tracks, cedar and beach plum. The labyrinth of connected lagoons and ponds ramifying from the Little Peconic guaranteed that I could be at their houses by boat almost as quickly as I could on my bicycle.

My grandfather had bought an outboard that was oversized for the skiff, a six-horsepower Evinrude that, clamped to the stern, was certainly in violation of marine safety limits. I could easily lift and drag the boat like a sled into the marsh grass, up past the tide line. The engine itself was another matter. My grandfather decreed that it had to be uncinched from the transom and stored in the garage at night, which entailed a grunting struggle up the gangplank to the bulkhead and then a thirty yard trek across the lacerating spikes of the dried-out backyard lawn, through the cedars and around to the garage. There’s no easy way to carry an outboard. Adults simply grab it by the mounting bracket and heft it with one arm like a stubborn child by the waistband of his jeans, but when the machine is as big as you are, it’s like dancing with a drunk, as you hold it out in front trying not to ram your shins into the propeller or paint your chest with grease.

With the engine mounted, the boat was stern-heavy, especially since I had to sit back there to steer without a throttle extension. It was difficult enough to see where I was going but also took a thick skin to deflect the descriptive eloquence of my friends, who’d dubbed it “the flying boner.” I tried positioning a few cinder blocks in the bow, but the only way to make it drop was to open up the engine, and to do that, you had to be out in the bay, and the bay had to be calm. On those still July or August mornings, before the hot southwest wind would crank up and whip the bay into a white-capped nightmare, my world expanded. With the boat’s snout aloft, I would creep around the dredged bend of the Wooley Pond inlet, poised for the moment when I could round the last red nun buoy to open water, wrist that throttle, and wait for the deck to plane like a battle lance leveling in its downward arc to the target. And when it did, my view of the boat cushions, buckets, gas tank, fishing rods, tackle box, crab net, oars, and everything else I’d packed along sank, replaced by the panorama of the Peconic’s oily sparkle. The reassuring features of Robins Island, Jessup’s Neck, the inlet at North Sea and Saharan, and the oak-dotted bluff of Cow’s Neck all seemed projected onto the hazy boundaries. Then the wind became charged with the exhilarating stench of hot salt, the beaches’ freshly drying seaweed interlaced with the faintest perfume of other boats’ exhaust. Global warming, carbon footprints, and their accompanying guilt were decades away. Even the memories of the fuel embargo of the ’70s and any crisis that it might have visited upon my two-cycle-engine-dependent lifestyle had dispersed and evaporated almost as thoroughly as the rainbows of gasoline trailing the stern whenever I’d flooded the engine.

 

The development of my marine aesthetic and experience, spanning the mid-1960s through the ’80s, was not only a confusing geographical tug of war between Long Island and New England, but a fundamentally vehicular one of motor or sail. Right up through my late twenties, before my conversion—and my purchase of the Beetlecat following his death—my father and I sustained a perennial argument about the benefits and drawbacks of sailing. The meditative hush of wind, water, and mewing gulls—the sonic purity of it all; this was his locus. Soon followed by an articulation of his reverence for the more organic behavior of a boat that is not fighting or trying to master the elements. I just thought it was boring, a waste of time, and asked him if he’d ever tried to cast a fishing rod from between stays, spreaders, and sails. He would continue to wax lyrical about the way a sailboat’s hull would roll or track with the swells instead of percussively whacking against them.

My very earliest boat-related memory with him was not so Zen-like. Before those years with the aluminum rowboat, I had been a hopeless coward at sea, a condition for which I blame my father, partially. It was on Long Island, and I was probably not much older than three when we were on one of his famous driftwood-gathering missions to Cow’s Neck, a headland that separates the Little and Great Peconic Bays. In 1963, my grandfather still had a stubby wooden cruiser with a roof and a white and silver Mercury engine whose shape reminded me of an electric razor.

The water off Cow’s Neck was shallow, so my father had to anchor the boat a mile from shore. At least it seemed that way to me. What I remember best from that hot, windy day, other than contemplating the distance between myself and the deserted beach, was being handed over the gunwale then placed in a small inner tube, told to hold tight, to keep my arms outstretched. When you’re that small, “choppy” water seems Odyssean. My mother and aunt floated me toward land and my father waded behind us with a coil of rope around his shoulder, the red bucksaw lifted over his head. Because of the size of the waves, I was inevitably torn from the group, lost my grip on the tube, and slipped through its center as if flushed down a toilet. This happened a few times, someone’s quick hands always yanking me out of the green mayhem back to the surface just before I took a lungful and sputtered my last. And by the time my feet gripped the sand and rounded pebbles of Cow’s Neck, I was cried out, exhausted, and already dreading the return expedition. But when the time came, my father skipped the tube, put me on his shoulders took me out there himself, breasting the waves like Gulliver while I locked my arms around his chin, gazing down at the ineffectual wavelets, wondering how I could have been such a baby.

What my sisters, mother, and I knew but never discussed was how persuasive my father was in getting us to trust him while he himself was still learning to understand the sea and boats. His earliest trials with boats—with the family as his guinea pigs—contradicted his reputation as a famously cautious man. He was good with a canoe, a skill he’d honed as a Boy Scout on Long Island in the 1930s and early ’40s. He had flown a B-17 during WWII (true, he had been shot down, but not until he’d flown a number of missions from North Africa to Italy, then eventually into Eastern Europe). He had never been in an auto accident (that was my mother’s job). He was Mr. Safety First—the gatekeeper to lighting fires, handling power tools, opening jackknives—except in his station at our passage to handling boats. On the water, our family tacked erratically from idyllic leisure to frantic situations that went against everything he preached in his pounding, impromptu lectures. The perfectionist tendencies of the aeronautic engineer and preparedness of the Eagle Scout seemed to fly out the window or, more accurately, gush out over the transom.

The stakes were raised when my father decided to import his nascent hobby back to Massachusetts from Long Island. In 1968, he bought a seventeen-foot O’Day Day Sailer from a guy at the office and took the whole family out by himself after onelesson with the owner. It was a new game when it came to saltwater. A dense and awesome vista of swaying masts, bucking hulls, and cross-hatched wakes, Marblehead’s granite-ringed harbor seems to defy the possibility of being navigated by any boat whose captain might actually choose to sail in or out of it. You wonder how all those boats can swing with the tide and wind and not demolish each other. This is where our father chose to moor his Day Sailer, which he had decided to call “Widget”—my mother’s nickname at the adult camp where they’d met after the War.

Once aboard, I gazed out through the jungle of spruce and aluminum, confident that we’d deploy the outboard and wouldn’t dare any sort of passage under sail among the pitching outboards, the daggers of their exposed skegs. Then the sails were hoisted and flapping, thrumming like a motorcade of choppers. One of my sisters, ape-like, was on all fours up on the bow releasing the mooring line. The world suddenly lurched and went diagonal. My trauma in this first jolt of movement was not assuaged by the sight of my father’s white knuckles on the tiller, the main sheet gathered to his chest in the other hand like the reins of a possessed horse. The soundtrack was more operatic, if not apocalyptic. He screamed his panicked orders in what seemed a foreign tongue, each time more impatient, more desperate. The lexicon of our introductory session on the drive over (rear-view mirror to back seat) had evaporated, and for the first fifteen minutes he was definitely on his own as the rest of the family tumbled as if trapped in a funhouse barrel. In perverse call and response, he barked at us to do something. We shrieked back in terror that we couldn’t.

Because I was small, I crawled beneath the cutty and wedged myself between the boat cushions, army blanket and anchor line like a trembling rodent. We hadn’t capsized. There would be no tragedy, but I stayed there, bitter and fetal, for the rest of the day, vowing never to sail again.

Improving, yet discouraged by the intensity and congestion of Marblehead, my father joined the Ipswich Bay Yacht Club the following year—a rustic, understated gem perched on a mowed headland over Plum Island Sound. The annual pulse of dread would surge when I’d see my father wander out to our apple orchard in late spring to peel back the heavy canvas from his boat, but I was encouraged by the paradise its new anchorage offered, the prospect of exploring the maze of Essex marshes or up the Parker River, fishing for flounder off of Grape Island, snorkeling around the jetty at the mouth of the Ipswich River estuary. The relative ease of negotiating the more manageable population of boats in the harbor initiated the slow healing of the Marblehead trauma.

The tidal current in Plum Island Sound and Ipswich Bay, however, was impressive, providing the mooring buoys their own audibly riffling wakes at certain times of the day. The volume of water squeezing through that passage made it seem as if the all those Styrofoam and plastic floats where engaged in their own crazed regatta, some of them submerged and oscillating underwater, pulled down by the speed of the current and their short tethers. This rendered my father’s obsession with returning to the mooring under sail almost impossible, but it didn’t stop him from trying. Either the wind was no match for the current and we were pushed back out to sea regardless of how full our sails were, or the two forces were locked in a stalemate and the boat sat stubborn and motionless on its flowing treadmill. Or, we simply careened and spun out of control while one of us, sprawled on Widget’s bow, flailed with both arms or a boat hook to snag the pick-up buoy as the wind and water, working in unison, hurled us past the mooring.

 

My father was strangely content to let sailing remain in New England for the time being, so it was the glistening, open-bowed Fabuglass tri-hull, with its forty-horsepower Evinrude that transformed our family’s vacations on Long Island. Our custom after the seven-hour drive from Massachusetts was to head immediately for the backyard, climbing over each other to bypass our smiling and forgiving grandparents for a glimpse of the Pond, as if we had to reassure ourselves it had remained intact over the long winter. If we arrived in the middle of the night and the tide was high, my father would take us to the bulkhead and gangplank with my grandfather’s big, sealed-beam flashlight to coax the small fish to the surface. But after one particular disembarkation of the littered and stuffy Impala, we arrived at the edge of the bulkhead to see a modern green motorboat bobbing at the end of the pulley system my grandfather had rigged, a clothesline suspended between a post on the beach and a mooring buoy about fifty feet from shore. There was something indestructible in the blunt shape out there in the darkness, its sleek engine scoffing at any reliance on wind. The exhilaration of seeing that boat for the first time: my heart leapt at its chrome railings apprehended in the darkness by the flashlight’s shaft. The era of motorboats and dependability was set to elbow the mayhem and folly of sailing from our family once and for all.

We fell into a pattern of beach trips that would endure for the following decade, and eventually (nearly) erase from memory my free-form waterboarding at Cow’s Neck, not to mention the psychic trauma of Marblehead Harbor. First there was the early morning grocery run to buy the makings of lunch, then the efficient factory of our sandwich assembly line, my father’s mathematical packing of the coolers, the loading of the boat, the trip to the Marina at the end of the pond for gas, the excruciating crawl at idling speed back along the shore to the inlet, then, finally, the open throttle burst into the Little Peconic. “Where should we go today?” my father would yell to us when we hit that critical juncture.

One afternoon he did not give us a choice. After weeks of waterskiing, idyllic picnics, and reconnaissance to remote beaches, my father took us on an excursion to the Shinnecock Canal. The density of boat traffic there was the urban antithesis of Wooley Pond’s forgiving, sleepy commerce. It was no place for a novice or intermediate pilot like my father, who was used to acres of water, not to mention the patience and goodwill of his fellow mariners. Even our Labrador Retriever was nervous as the boat slowed at the menacing locks. She was perched on the bow, sniffing the air uncertainly, its foreign traces of fried food, carnage of charter fishing boats, and fizz of the open ocean, that frontier on the other side. The creosote-soaked piers and bulkheads were lined with fishermen, the gauntlet of their poles and rods taunting, dipping and lifting like the feelers of some living organism. We churned through slowly, my father dodging the other boats, our forty-horse engine struggling mightily against the volume of water surging through that narrow passage when the locks were finally opened.

In the cooler air of Shinnecock Bay, we pounded deeper into perspective toward the inlet, which my father approached as if he were at the helm of a tuna boat four times the size of what now seemed an overcrowded tub. Once I felt the subtle seismic lift of the ocean swells I knew it was not going to end well. Sleek sportfishing boats speared past the dark boulders of the jetties on either side, up and over the standing waves in the tidal current, then out into the open ocean, their privileged wakes fanning out like ermine cloaks.

I remember him remarking that the waves weren’t as big as they looked, my mother saying it probably wasn’t a good idea. But they were already upon us, the bow lifting almost vertically as the big silver Coleman cooler skated the length of the deck and slammed into the transom. Then we were down into the next trough. The dog lost her footing, yelped and was washed along the same path that the cooler had just taken as the wave broke over us. We all screamed, even my father. If he turned us around, we’d surely be swamped or capsized, but that didn’t stop us from being swept farther out the inlet alongside the other boats, whose tanned pilots, cigarettes dangling rakishly from their lips, glared down in disdain from the dry security of their flying bridges.

My aunt began bailing futilely with the yellow bucket normally used to hold fish. My sisters and mother were pale and stunned, seawater and tears streaming down their faces. We were all yelling at my father until we were hoarse, up to our shins in water as plastic bottles of Coppertone, empty soda cans, cookie bags, assorted sneakers, and flip flops floated around us like trash. But luck, an eddy, or some deep hole deflated the sets rolling through, flattened the current. My father punched the throttle, spun us around, and surfed us back to safety, outrunning a few alarmingly ravenous peaks by what seemed inches.

It took me years to forgive him for that experience, but throughout my teens, twenties, and thirties, I’d forge a subtle, evolving peace with boats in general. A few short years later, with late afternoon Peconic windswell breaking over us as we returned from Jessup Neck, my sisters and I would beg to ride in the bow seats, to be the first to receive the full impact of the waves as our father smiled at the helm. How we howled with crazed pleasure as our grandfather’s boat drove into a particularly deep trough and the warm bay drenched us. We held tight to the railing, for a few more summers, anyway, wanting that short, dangerous voyage to last forever.

 

One of Widget’s last voyages, before my parents gave it—their first sailboat—to my sister (who soon surrendered to its slow implosion and donated it to charity), was with the cockpit full of my nieces and nephews. I was ferrying the gang home to Ryder’s Cove, where my parents’ finally settled on Cape Cod, in Chatham. We had spent the day on Nauset Beach, my father back at the house, too ill at that time and past his ability to sail, my mother taking care of him. Halfway across Chatham Harbor the wind picked up and clouds darkened. Before we knew it, a summer squall had dropped over the bluffs and was marching grimly across Pleasant Bay. Because I knew the fuel tank was close to empty, I decided to keep sailing, saving those last precious drops for an emergency. I left the sails up, stayed as close to the wind as possible—almost directly into it—and inched toward the Cove. “Reaching” is when wind is pouring directly over the gunwale, into the sail from a ninety-degree angle. This creates the most dramatic moments in sailing, what we recognize in those iconic shots of boats leaning—or “heeling”—so that the mast is almost grazing the surface of the water. Which is what I tried not to do on that blustery, unpredictable day, when the margin of error was so unforgiving.

Chatham had yet to vindicate me since my parents had moved there, delivering instead its own series of naval mishaps. I’d almost gotten lost fishing with my son in the famous fogbank that can bury the harbor in a matter of seconds. For almost a half-hour, I was forced to watch the back of his little head staring into white limbo from the prow, listening carefully for the sudden roar of a trawler’s engine or bow wave. Once, I’d hit a rock with the propeller, cruising along the northern tip of Strong Island, catapulting my mother and a friend from their seats to the deck.

Sailing through that squall, I noticed that the faces of nieces, nephews, son, daughters, sister, and wife seemed vaguely conscious of the black, vaporous clouds, and howling wind, but they kept on chatting, laughing, pausing briefly when a gust would hit us and I’d release the singing main sheet. The hull would right itself, then I’d bring it a little farther into the wind to keep us from being knocked over as decisively as a squarely struck tin bear in a shooting gallery.

The wind sat down as we approached the cove. It was suddenly a summer afternoon again. We dropped the sails routinely, stuffed them into their bags, started the engine and idled around the last point to spot my parents leaning on the deck railing in the emerging sun, waving enthusiastically to us, as if they’d been waiting for hours.
At the very beginning of summer, I used to drag my vinyl-cocooned Beetlecat from the woods on its trailer and wheel it into my in-laws’ old garage in Duxbury, Massachusetts, where I commenced the annual task of bringing it back to life. This is, of course, after undoing the web of clothesline, peeling off the tarp, washing the hull, applying the anti-fouling paint, and hosing out the cockpit. You’d put it to sleep knowing exactly what would need attention in the spring, but then, at the unveiling, you see what looks to be an enormous “bite” out of the mast, a crack that needs glassing on the centerboard, a previously stout hackle worn as thin as a wedding ring. The deck tattooed black with mildew and new psychedelic paisleys of brownish orange despite the care you put into wrapping. How did it all happen? What was responsible for the damage wrought mysteriously upon components of a boat that seemed perfectly fine when it went into mothballs in early autumn? Then there was the theatrical debarking of the mice; the rank smell of their eight-month static voyage almost knocked me over when I removed the tarp and plywood cover one May. I was expecting a warm wave of cedar, but got instead the ammoniac chemical musk of rodent feces belonging to the dozen stowaways who sprang over my shoulders and onto the lawn when sun flooded their dank quarters. Once, ramming a vacuum nozzle under the gunwale, I sucked up a generation of pencil-eraser-size pink babies before I realized what they were.

It was always a dismal mess. Mouse occupation aside, my son predicted that one day the boat would just fly apart in a shower of wood, fiberglass, and bronze fittings, surrendering in one final gasp to its decrepitude and marginal captaincy. My youngest daughter had nothing but disdain for my creaky, smelly, temperamental catboat ever since we had enrolled her in the local sailing school. She had been seduced by the sturdy feng shui minimalism of its fleet of fiberglass 420’s.

When he’d bought this early ’70s Beetlecat, George Blanchard had renamed it the “Carving About,” fusing his hobby of sculpting birds from wood with “coming about,” a sailor’s command for an element of tacking (the sailboat’s zigzagging process towards its destination if the wind won’t accommodate a straight shot). You’re more likely to string together a sequence of many lines, some of which don’t make any sense. It’s frustrating, but if you’re going to sail, you need to recalibrate your expectations about time; adaptability is a quality that separates recreational sailors from recreational motorboat operators. In some ways, George’s name for his boat captured perfectly the sailor’s sporadic decisions behind all those increments and angles. The paradox of sailing is that you can make progress even if the gale is against you, howling out of the very place you want to go.

One spring, after being at the orbital sanders for two days with my son, our dust-masks were frosted bright red with the old color of the boat, our hair and faces, too, glowing. I was looking forward to a new era, a new identity for the Beetlecat, so I wasn’t prepared to balk when I came buzzing around to the stern and its chipped but persevering name: Carving About.  It had been harder than I thought it would be to expunge that corny history. When each summer came, I was too impatient to get it in the water, to sail it rather than reinvent it. Earlier that month, I’d come across George’s business card in my desk drawer, punched his name into a search engine with hesitation and dread, and sure enough, his obituary appeared on the Cape Cod Times page from a year before. He had been eighty-seven. I remember running my fingers over the texture of the words before I switched the paper in the sander to a coarser grade and began erasing, grinding away at the oversized vinyl letters he had painstakingly arranged in a subtle arc below the tiller slot.

The family fought for days over a new name, their pretentious or profane candidates wrangling to accompany the boat’s new shade of deeper red: Interlux Burgundy (only sixty-five dollars a quart). “Pinot” and “Prostitute” squared off half-heartedly (our children had come of age), but one morning, faithful to my father’s creed of Captain’s Word=Law, I had the final word—literally—the mildly esoteric Django. The iconic French Gypsy jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, seemed to embody everything that I understood about the personality of my boat and my relationship with boats in general. Titles of his melodies—“Chasing Shadows,” “Nuages”—seemed apt impressionist anthems for my quest. Definitely, like my father, I was no virtuoso on the water, but sailing that Beetlecat had invited one lucky improvisation after another, especially when separate squalls had sheared the original mast and snapped a tiller.

 

Since we’d never bought a dinghy, I always had to swim out to the boat whenever I wanted to use it. This was a deliberate choice, a commitment that made the exercise pure. But it was also a behavior that marginalized me from the growing culture of skiffs, paddleboards, kayaks, and motorboats at Shipyard Beach. How many rides had I turned down on my side-stroking journey out there?  My in-laws said I was stubborn (and cheap), but immersion as part of the crossing from marsh grass to Django’s gunwale was both spiritual and biological. To hoist myself panting from the water, then to slither onto the sunlit deck like an iguana, was like being reborn and becoming a higher life form simultaneously.

Once we’d had our sail, stowed everything, and buttoned up the cover (we did finally have one made), it was time for the flip side of the process: diving off the bow and thrashing back to shore. Like a trained dolphin with his beach ball, I pushed with my forehead a waterproof bag stuffed with shirt, hat, sunglasses, tools, cell phone, and the remains of lunch. Because few of my crew members ever found this phase of the day appealing (except my wife on warm days), this meant dropping off on the beach whoever had come along, and then sailing back out to the mooring alone. Sometimes, I intentionally lengthened that brief solo sail, taking a few extra passes at the mooring, which made it seem—from the family’s perspective on the beach—as if I were having trouble, living up to my usual standard of inefficiency, when I was actually just stealing a few more selfish moments on the water.

No matter how cold the bay or the air, how late in the season, or how great the distance to shore, the swimming ritual had become the exhilarating framework to a day well spent. In October a few years ago, when our boat was one of the last in the water, the Harbormaster, trussed up in his survival gear, churned up alongside me in the town’s high-performance Zodiac as I treaded water a few yards from the Beetlecat. With its headdress of whipping antennae and eye-like spotlights, the official craft approached like some inflatable predatory insect. He idled up alongside to ask me calmly if I was drowning. When I calmly answered no, he asked me if I was nuts, then sped away in a huff.

For Django’s last season, the marina installed the mushroom anchor extremely close to shore, which meant the boat was high and dry at low tide. This placement of the mooring sheared off an hour of time on the water, compelling us to beat it back to Shipyard Beach if we didn’t want to be stranded in the bay. I had begun to miss the long swim, but was careful to contain my relief on those days when I didn’t have to strip down and plunge… after the clouds moved in, my lower back began to throb, and my fingers were growing white-numb after three hours of gripping the tiller and absorbing spray from boat wakes and wind-chop.

 

About a mile east across Duxbury Bay from Shipyard Beach is Clark’s Island, named after the first mate of the Mayflower. It was also proposed as a potential settlement before the Pilgrims decided on the mainland. During Django’s last few seasons afloat, taking a lap around Clark’s became the goal of our more ambitious expeditions. Given a consistent breeze, the sail usually took about three hours. In the course of lazier circumnavigations, no matter who had come along for the ride (four adults maximum), the conversation was rich, the family arguments as discursive as the voyage itself, though you could be just as content staring into the water, its hues changing with the depth, the texture and composition of the bottom.

Passing along the eastern shore of Clark’s, we’d study the rustic houses (had Capote really written In Cold Blood in one of them?) and contemplate a life off the grid, sustaining ourselves on solar power, quahogs, and blueberries. When friends from Manhattan visited, it was a stretch of time dedicated to debating loudly and profanely the year’s best and worst novels. The face of my brother-in-law, the pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon, was like a gauge as we rounded that island late in the afternoon, the furrows of responsibility melting from his forehead, his jaw slackening. Once, my father-in-law took what he described as the finest half-hour nap of his life, on his back in the cockpit when I thought he was actually rapt, listening to my anecdote about lunatic colleagues. Staring up into the rigging and sail, mesmerized to sleep by passing clouds, his occasional bursts of snoring competed with the rudder’s hiss.

Having snuck out for a morning sail without our children early one August, my wife and I interrupted our Clark’s trip to anchor off the southernmost reach of Duxbury beach. Swimming just inside the little cape had become a pit stop on our circuits. That morning, we caught the tide perfectly: the wind had died a little, the sun was warm, and the flood was rushing around the point from Plymouth Bay, through the straight between the beach and the Island. The sand deposited inside that hooked claw was white and fine, and even more irresistible when contemplated through the shimmer of seven transparent feet of the green incoming surge. We dove in, shrieked with the jolt of the cold Atlantic, floated on our backs like otters until the current carried us too far from the boat, then swam back in a panic and hauled ourselves over Django’s solid transom, revived.

We savored those ethereal blue, eight-to-twelve-knot days aboard the Beetlecat—Duxbury Bay eerily silent, the bigger craft already tied up or dropping their sails, motoring against the draining tide, confined to the narrow channel—when we, sail filled, centerboard half-down, skimmed over oyster pens and cobalt-blue mussel beds in eighteen inches of clear water getting away with something.

 

What Cikovsky, the halfhearted-cubist, captured perfectly in his painting of Wooley Pond is the optical illusion that the cove does not have an inlet to the Peconic Bay; because everything is in focus, the white sand of the near shore appears fused to the channel’s opposite bank, as if the pond, in fact, were closed. I remember returning boats seeming to slip into visibility as if emerging from another dimension. Their departures were just as beguiling, their outlines swallowed slowly by some undetectable rift in the solid perimeter. But I always knew where they were headed or coming from, that the portal was real. In the painting, Cikovsky’s lone mariner, like the towering bulrushes toward which he leans, is much too large. His boat stretches surreally across half the channel where it should be a speck. He’s sitting in the stern, arms angled outward, elbows resting on knees, meditating on the inlet, almost imploring. The bow is facing the channel we can’t see; it’s impossible to discern whether he has already come back from the bay or it’s where he wants to go.

That hot day when George Blanchard first rowed us out to the Beetlecat, both my wife and I noticed a patient deliberateness in his stroke, which we almost mistook for the frailty of age. His trajectory, aimed generously above the moored boat, guaranteed he would arrive without betraying any suggestion of a fight. Barnstable Harbor is a dynamic little pocket of water, especially when the tide is on the move, so if George had missed the target, he would’ve had to battle his way back “upstream” to the tantalizing stern, its gentle wake betraying the current that might have swept us out into Cape Cod Bay. He was almost eighty-three at that time and was hoping to sell to us the last boat he would sail alone. If he had been sad about the implications of this potential transaction, he hadn’t shown it, just as his compensatory navigation with the dinghy had delivered us precisely to where he had intended.

It’s hard to fathom that after an hour’s work with a Sawzall, I was able to cart what was left of Django to the transfer station with one trip: four trashcans packed into the back of a late model Volvo wagon. Sometimes, when I’m feeling nostalgic and idealistic, I’ll play that time-lapse video in reverse, watch the ribs and gunwales levitating from the lawn into the shape of a hull as cloud shadows speed across the meadow like ghost boats, the surrounding trees convulse and twitch, and my frantic doppelgänger, in a scampering crouch, draws the tool along its flanks, seeming to build rather than obliterate.

 

 

Ralph Sneeden’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Agni, The American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, Ploughshares, Slate and other magazines.

Image: Cikovsky, Nicolai; “The Inlet at Wooley Pond, 1945”; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY

Olivia ZhengDjango: Elegies and Improvisations with Small Boats

Related Posts

drawing of dragon and sea

Spritehood

ANDREW SHADE
The strong terrorized the weak, not just once but repeatedly, hounding them through one life after another. Normal people became outright thugs, enacting fantasies of domination. Dominated people had a tendency to become informal police, enacting fantasies of justice.

koi

Project for a Trip to China

LISA CHEN
I have always been partial to this story. Like the narrator, I have always imagined I would go to China one day. Doesn’t every Chinese person not from China have a project for a trip to China? My mother, even as a little girl in Hong Kong, yearned to see the Three Gorges.

Family Photo

Land Not Theirs

MADISON DAVIS
I have just a few weeks to come up with eight thousand dollars in order to register for spring classes. The most obvious resolution would be that I take the semester off, move back to Ohio… But I know that the likelihood of returning to school after a long break is small.