Granddad (left) had the original boatbuilding bug, but his dream never grew further than a 30' keelson laid in the backyard. He eventually purchased a Jacobson 35 named Squal. Many an evening has been spent in the cockpit listening to Dad (center) tell stories about bringing this boat from the Great Lakes, through the Erie Canal, to Long Island Sound when he was 17, the summer before going off to the Korean war. Bruce (right) was his first mate and a fine helmsdog.
I had sailed almost exclusively on big boats until I restored this little pram and fitted her with a gaff rig. Wrestling with the immediacy of wind, water, and shifting weight in a small boat did more to improve my sailing skills than all those previous years combined. The rush of motion and the feel of the water down low are at the root of what sailing is all about for me.
Beyond the work of the hand, so much of boat building is the anticipation, the dream of some future you are creating. Hours of mindless work give rise to the most improbable fears, the most wonderful hopes. I find this part of the process almost as satisfying as the job well done-- the perfectly faired curve, or the hand cut tenon that slips snugly right into its mortise.
My father bought his first boat, an all teak Choey Lee Robb 35, when I was one. We sailed it on lake St. Clair and on up into lake Huron. Ironically, the first memories to emerge from that experience are not of wind and waves, but of cold damp boat yards in March, April and May. I remember the huge half-empty boat sheds that were like unexplored caverns to the mind of a toddler. I remember the pull of mud puddles left behind by the retreating snow, the first warm sun of spring, the improvised jungle gyms of abandoned boat cradles and assorted yard detritus. But mostly I remember the smells and sounds of the yearly cycle of sanding down and building back up of layer upon layer of spar varnish. I still have an image of my mom and dad dressed in rags, kerchiefs wrapped around their heads and over their
mouths, covered in sanding dust, looking tired, resigned and oddly anticipatory. We only had that boat until I was about six, but among the long train of vessels since, Nereis is the one that still remains most crystalline in my memory.
For months prior to taking delivery of Nereis, my father labored in the basement giving form to a 9-1/2" strip planked pram whose design he had gleaned from the pages of Chapelle's classic, Boat Building. In an odd gauge of the times, he swears that every strip of the Honduras mahogany hull was cut from old shipping pallets he collected for free. For the next five years this little pram served as Nereis's faithful tender. In subsequent years she was passed to friends, borrowed by friends of friends, until eventually we lost track of her. 30 years later, in an odd confluence of events, she surfaced again, leaning rotting and covered in vines against a garage outside Detroit, not having touched the water in over 20 years.
How far should you go to bring back a boat? For me it was one entire winter spent in a basement, cutting out and replacing board feet of rotten wood, milling out every seam between strips, fairing and finishing for hours and hours, and spending more money on bronze fittings alone than my father had put into the entire boat. One evening, hunched over this labor of love, dressed in rags, covered in dust, I had this minor epiphany: it was exactly 30 years ago, at exactly the age I was then, that my father had stood hunched over this little boat, his labor of love. Boats have been so many things, in so many ways in my life. That evening they even became a gauge by which to take measure of a life.