Passings, reflections on the loss of my father
The end of a sailing season triggers reflections of another ending
I was six years old when a shipwright and a helper set a long piece of carefully shaped oak on a row of blocks, marked it off and started cutting the frame pockets into which the bottom of the ribs would eventually be set, and the rabbets into which the plank ends would fit. Next craftsmen at Graves Yacht Yard in Marblehead, MA, steamed oak, planed mahogany, and used these woods, plus sitka spruce, native pine, teak and bronze, caulking and varnish to create this wonderful sculpture; the 34 year old, Carl Alberg designed wooden sloop I am now putting to rest for winter.
My stewardship of this floating mix of craftsmanship and art is in it's third year. My wife and I rescued her from the edge of oblivion, replacing 2,400 screws in her bottom and 12 ribs as well as completely refinishing her. Our second sailing season has come to an end. It is a gray fall day, the kind of damp cold that discourages thinking about one last sail for the season. The Sakonnett River pulses past, dark, with white caps as I unlock the hatch to begin unloading gear for winter storage.
The smell of varnish, cedar, bilge and mildew is the perfume of my youth, each time I push back the hatch of this elderly wooden sloop I am met by the eau de closed up boat, and, for a second I am back on my father's boat, and 10 years old again. My father's "big boat" had been a 21 foot Cap Horn, a French built, molded plywood sloop. A Cap Horn had finished the 1960 O.S.T.A.R. and there were a number of them in our area of New Jersey. Along with Farnham Butler's Controversey 27, and Amphibi Cons, it was among the first of the reverse sheer designs that changed the look of sailboats forever. Again, I wish this boat of mine could talk, and tell me her memories of the markings on the charts onboard when I'd taken possesion.
I've left the infant life jacket to last, it's in my hand as I step across to the dock. I stop, my mind wanders. My daughter's lifejacket, next summer she'll need a new one, as she passes from infant to toddler. She will out grow her large Rubbermaid tote box, which served quite well this summer as an infant bed, wedged in the corner of the quarter berth. As she grows, I hope she will come to love the boat, and sailing, and that we will weave, as a family, memories that she may hold on to, perhaps fondly, to share with her children, maybe starting with "when I was a little girl."
In such a reverie I am sometimes drawn to the memory of another fall, fifteen years earlier, in a hospital waiting room overlooking the Navesink River, in New Jersey. From the departing doctor's words, it was clear my father's own passage was coming to an end.
Trying to collect my thoughts, after he'd given his message to my sister and me, I'd stared down at the Navesink River and watched a Morgan 41, her masts unstepped, as she slid silently upriver toward the Irwins Marina and promise of safe storage for the winter.
There has always been a finality about plucking the mast from a sailboat in the fall. The coming storms and snows of winter can be ignored no longer, languid summer days and the promises of brisk autumn sails a memory now, the spring, such a long time away.
Watching the Morgan, from up in the intensive care waiting room, I'd remembered unrigging our own boat in other falls, the cold trip up an empty river, the promise to ourselves not to wait so long "next year", the drone of the outboard echoing off the still water, and then the interminable wait as the travel lift straps were slipped under the hull and it was gently lifted from the water. The runoff from the hull always looked like the boats lifeblood were draining away.
When we'd returned home, invariably cold and damp, my mother would have made tomato soup with a touch of sherry in it, to warm us up. Other memories mingle, of sanding and prep work, the smell of cedar, the glisten of freshly varnished mahogany in the spring, gentle sails, and rough days in Sandy Hook and on the Shrewsbury River, passages and picnics. It's a shock to find there will be no more time to make any memories. Eventually, my sister and I collected ourselves and figured out how we were going to tell a younger brother.
My siblings and I kept a constant vigil, as, over the following two weeks, my father's life ebbed away. It was a difficult time; only in the perfectly scripted world of the movies are there right things to say and people to say them. Even then it would have been a soliloquy, a stroke having robbed my father of speech. I dreaded going to the hospital, and I dreaded him being alone. At 22 I didn't know what to say, or how to say it.
One night, words came, I just talked about the boats we had worked on over the years, fiberglassing an 8 foot pram which had been a winter evenings project, restoring an elderly Snipe dragged from the weeds behind a neighbors house. A trip home to the Shrewsbury River from the Raritan Yacht Club, when I was ten, after he and my mother had raced in the Red Grant Regatta, had become a nightmare during which we'd become disoriented and followed the wrong bouys, only upon approaching the Navesink Bridge, the wrong bridge, had we realized we'd taken the wrong fork in the Sea Bright channel, another cold hour and a half to retrace our steps. I talked about how crazy for sailing he and my mother had been when they first got the boat, never missing a weekend, rain or shine, a serious commitment with the foul weather gear of that era.
I think I was just then starting to appreciate the difficulty and love involved in Dad as a last minute "crew" in a ten foot Turnabout or 14 foot Blue Jay, trying to be small and nimble, and biting his tongue about requests to move a foot this way or that, and to please stop hitting his knees on the centerboard, it jogged the wind from the sails.
I spoke of a man named Phil Andrews, who'd built a Herreshoff 28 in his garage, needing to take the end wall off the garage to get it out when he was done. In the middle of that project, he'd built his son a Blue Jay in the living room, taking a picture window out to get it out of the house, and of other races and regattas and people; simply the recounting of shared experience.
As many young men before me, and many after, we'd had difficulty communicating as I struggled to identify my place in this world. But on this night, through our common experiences and memories, and nods and squeezes of the hand, we had connected. For a while there was a little of the old light in his eyes, and that evening he looked more at ease than had been the case for weeks. The next morning, Thanksgiving Day, he was gone.
The following spring my brother and I went back to the Shrewsbury Sailing and Yacht Club of our youth, borrowed a club launch and we took his ashes to spread upon that river full of memories.
The Sakonnett River's edge, with a strongly ebbing tide on a gray November day seems an appropriate setting to touch on these bittersweet memories. Studying the tiny vest in my hand, I hope that I, as the parent now, can weave some of those same wonderful memories for the little girl waiting at home.
Memories on the river
- Memories on the river
Another story I published in "Offshore Magazine" in April 2005, recounting taking my daughter to sailing lessons at the same place I had learned 30 years earlier
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