Memories on the river

The new Blue Jay
The new Blue Jay
My Father's Cap Horn, a 21 foot French built sloop
My Father's Cap Horn, a 21 foot French built sloop

Once more to the river

This piece was first published in Offshore Magazine in April 2005, regrettably, the magazine no longer exists.

I led an enchanted childhood on the water’s edge, exploring the vast reaches, the hidden coves and sandy shores of the Shrewsbury River on the northern New Jersey coast. My first boat, an eight-foot pram, was given to me when I was seven years old. I couldn’t wait to take it out, but my first sailing adventure was only a qualified success. Like most boys my age, I was familiar with the square rig- the basic propulsion of every pirate ship- and I was ready to create my own. My parents had recently taken delivery on new rugs, which in those days (1962) came wrapped around bamboo poles- just what I needed for my ship.

My friend Jack and I carefully rigged a mast with one bamboo pole, and we fashioned a crosspiece with another cross piece with the other. We made a sail out of a drop cloth, sheeted our lines to the oarlock horns, used an oar to steer and took off, feeling like real seafarers. It was not until after we fetched up on a sandbar on the opposite side of the river that we realized we were not going to be able to sail back. In this way we learned about the practical uses of centerboards.We eventually made it home okay, but it was some years before I understood the fortuitous arrival of my parents in their boat to offer us a tow home was not the pure coincidence we believed at the time.

That initial voyage, crossing a river perhaps a mile wide, was the first of hundreds of days I would spend on that river.The Shrewsbury Sailing and Yacht Club, in Oceanport, NJ, was the center of my boating life. I took sailing lessons and the junior sailing program and its races became the focus of my summers.

The natural progression was to learn to sail in a Turnabout, a beamy nine-foot cat-rigged boat,then move on to either the Wood Pussy, a 13 1/2 foot cat or a 14-foot sloop-rigged boat called a Blue Jay and ultimately, perhaps, to a Comet, a 16-foot racing sloop.

Most mornings we would arrive at the club as the day was heating up, and the bouquet of low tide- the demarcation line of marsh and reeds- would sometimes greet us half way down the street. The morning stillness was so complete, we could hear an outboard start on the other side of the river, or a screen door slam many houses away. Some days the river looked almost like a sheet of glass.

The Turnabouts were kept on the beach and and it took a herd of 8 to 12 year olds to move them to the water on rollers. It had to be a cooperative venture, and all launches were conducted at once. At the end of the day we reversed the process- which meant you couldn’t linger out on the river. If you did, the pool of potential helpers might have gone home by the time you came ashore, and you might not have enough help to put your boat put away.

The hotshot racers in the club sailed Comets, and the Comet sailors, who were almost mythical figures to us Turnabout sailors, gave us an early introduction to the art of detailed boat prep for racing. They were rumored to take the boats to have them spray painted in auto booths, I remember hearing one sailor describe towing his boat around the New Jersey highways for a hundred miles in order to get the hull to dry out. The finishes they achieved were indeed new auto like in their smoothness.

This was still a time when all of the class boats were wood. If you wanted one, you talked to the man who was going to build it. When I was 12, Larry Olsen was commissioned to build me a new Blue Jay. I remember countless visits to his shop as the boat progressed, bit by bit, and each time I was enchanted. Smells of planed cedar, mahogany, ash, and spruce mingled with the aromas coming from the paint room, a potpourri of magic and promise to my young mind, which the smell of styrenes in a modern shop falls far short of.

Even now I marvel at the ease with which anyone working there could pick up a piece of nondescript wood, mark it by eye, and moving from machine to machine, emerge with a recognizable piece of boat. Even so, the wait as the carpentry was done and the boat went through the paint shop seemed endless to me. As it turned out, my boat was the last wooden Blue Jay that Olsen built for a customer. The next one became his plug for a mold, as the Fleet had decided to allow the boats to be built in fiberglass

I sailed that boat for many years, later taking it to college with me for one year, to sail on an Ohio Lake.Eventually, work took me out of New Jersey and I found myself settled in Massachusetts. I married and our daughter Barbara was born.

My boat then was the 30 foot Alberg designed wooden sloop that my wife and I had rebuilt prior to my daughter’s birth. As she grew she seemed to like sailing and a few summers ago when Barbara was nine we returned to New Jersey to visit my sister, and I made arrangements for Barbara to to take a few sailing lessons at the Shrewsbury Sailing and Yacht Club.

As we drove up to the yacht club on the first morning, I noticed that while the neighborhood was more built up, there was still a large band of marsh grass offering privacy to the driveway. The perfume of the tides transported me instantly back, for a moment I was startled to see the steering wheel on my side of the car. I’d been the passenger being let off here so many times that I felt disoriented. This was my first experience with a direct intersection of my youth and my daughter’s.

The table where the volunteer Junior Program Director sat and cataloged the incoming students was right where it had always been.

On a wall was a plaque with the names of all the Turnabout Summer Champions since 1958. Different plaques attested to success in other series or individual weekend regattas. Barbara delighted in seeing my name on them. With the exception of the hardwood floor, the building was much the same as it had been decades earlier. I was almost surprised not to see my fathers 21 foot Cap Horn sloop on it’s mooring out front.

As I watched the group of kids form a circle around the blackboard where the basics of wind direction and the concepts of tacking were introduced, I remembered that it had been cloudy at the beginning of my first day.The teen teaching the class was the daughter of a friend, the woman heading the program his sister. Everybody else was older too.

When the intrepid sailors took to the boats, I could see my daughters face in a wide smile every time I looked at her boat with binoculars. I took a lot of pictures with a tiny, tiny Turnabout in them that day.I felt a twinge as the one by one the fleet rounded up and coasted to a stop in the approximate are of the dock. How many landing had I made there over the years?I knew the trip was a success when Barbara started agitating to return next year before we got to the end of the driveway on the last day.

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