Not quite sure where this page is headed, or where we’re headed for that matter. It’s looking more and more like Steph & I will be picking up where my maternal grandfather left off. The lead image for this page is a shot of my mom’s dad, Jim, “piloting his vessel,” as she wrote on the back of the picture. This savvy sailor was a card carrying member of the Society of Small Craft Designers and that bears on what follows.
After he was already a member of the yacht design community, he finished up his coursework in advanced yatch design, so he was no slouch when it came to drafting boats.
Sailing Daze – JKTjr Advance Yacht Design – This course certificate seems to have been printed on real parchment (the scan does it no justice), quite a different animal than the ‘parchment’ cardstock we use to print our company’s component hang tags!
Family lore suggests he was a designer for Chris-Craft, a career that would have followed logically from his training as a naval architect and yacht designer. At some point he jumped ship from Chris-Craft and, borrowing his gusto from the slogan of his high school alma mater, the Admiral Farragut Academy with it’s ubiquitous, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” he began designing his own sailing yachts. Not content to draft them on paper, he set about building them in a warehouse in Lancaster City, PA. Seven sailboats and many dinghys later he pulled the plug on what had proven to be a labor of love, and no way to support a growing family. His vessel, the one I sailed growing up, was not the last boat he built, nor the first. It was the one he had an opportunity to buy back from the fellow who had originally commissioned it.
He sailed that boat for all the years I was alive and he was alive, though that was hardly enough. Short version, my granddad took ill the year when he retired, when his boat was already out of the water for winter maintenance and storage. He grew worse over the winter, was confined to a wheelchair by spring, then to his bed by the following fall, and he never, not once, sailed after he retired. For a man who planned to sail every day, not just weekends and holidays, this was crushing. I remember the bitterness in his eyes as he watched me from his wheelchair while I mowed his lawn that summer; he had always been gruff, yet generous with his knowledge, and until that summer I’d never been uncomfortable around him. Now, once a week, I loathed working under his silent gaze. His anger was palpable, even if he was too well mannered to give it voice. I never heard him complain. To shift from fit sailor to ragged and immobile old man in months, to know the prognosis was as grim as could be, to see Death grinning from a far shore and yet to have no way of sailing across the void to boldly hasten the meeting, to slouch away a final summer because there was no other possible way to endure except to sit patiently crunched up, to watch, to wait, and then to die without sailing big after a lifetime of working toward those moments of freedom – this was his most undeserved and ignominious end, and perhaps my greatest lesson.
For now, I’ll populate this page with the draft of what might become the opening pages of an essay or a book that follows my interest in boating – an interest that was considerable in my youth, absent almost entirely during my middle years, and is resurgent now. Who knows the places this interest may take us. So, here is…
Book One: The Wet Waking
Chapter One: Nameless, Not Forgotten (partial)
There was the boat with no name. She is lost to me now, but once was tethered to a mooring ball and pointing westward, upstream and into the gentle breeze that swept down the flooded Susquehanna River valley. She floated, hopeful for her freedom, upon this dammed body, apparently still and silent from the distance of the morning shore, but truly neither upon close approach. Row near and you’d see and hear her struggles as she shook within the writhing currents and was slapped across her bow, spritzed by little wind-borne wavelets as they disintegrated against the white paint masking the boards which lapped her frame. Bound in this space, she gurgled the river where she split its slow water. This is where she struggled against her holdfast, against the lines that clasped her to the floating ball, its sunken chain, and what must have been at its farther end a great iron eye bolt emerging from the only sessile creation in this particular chain of being. Spaced from the others, the buoy a point marking another cross in an invisible grid, and, sunk upstream as part of a mirrored pattern, the immobile concrete casting or the undragable mass of an iron anchor mushrooming from the river bottom which kept the little boat to her safe span of persistent resistance. Trapped in this matrix, she could not free herself, nor was she at risk, amidst the orderly pattern of the moorings, of bumping and damaging other vessels shackled like she was.
The river, in these dozen miles termed a lake by the engineers who made the her waters captive nearly a century ago, was flat, broad by a mile or more, and seemed to the boy to spread forever past the yacht club’s resting boats, their flotilla in anchorage, bumping on the water’s surface like a resting flock of wind-spent geese, gathering their strength. This was an eternity of water and he poked around the near edge, wanting to spook a frog – clunk! – or see a turtle glide off an algae slimed log into the invisibility offered by the dark water. The Safe Harbor dam tamed this reach of the Susquehanna, gentled the massive river enough for summer sailing, yet her safer depths were pocked, especially on the far side, with the unflooded remnant tips of higher ground, mudshore islands visible and lush with woodland wilds. Offshore, lurking dread beneath the surface outside the buoy bounded channels, were the scoured equivalent of reefs, stone ridges and spires clutching after passing hulls, catching one now and then.
The captain respected the grasping stones but feared nothing. The boy, with a trepidation inherited from his anxious mother, and exacerbated by his constant reading, his attentive listening, fretted about potentials and possibilities. If a channel cat latched onto one of his swimming legs, would it pull him to the depths to feed its squirming young? If he dove from the bow of his grandfather’s boat, might he crack his skull on a rock in the grungy water? If he jumped soldier-style, would he impale his soft abdomen with the shattered end of his own femur if there was a waterlogged tree trunk, barely submerged, floating unseen and ill-timed in the dark waters, to meet his feet and rigid legs as he plunged into the depths? Was there, as his grandfather hinted, a remnant tribe of Susquehannocks watching from the island scrub? Did they still fish with sinew lines and bone-barbed hooks, hunt with the knapped stone arrowheads that modern explorers sometimes found? And did they really kidnap wandering boat children, pull them, muzzling hand over the gnashing mouth to muffle inevitable screams, back into their wooded lairs to raise them up as loin-clothed wildlings?
The boy always assented to sailing opportunities, even if the old man was rather gruff. He did smile once they’d set the sails. Aboard, before he was not even a proper cabin boy, his chief responsibilities consisted of fetching his grandfather a drink of iced-tea poured from the button-release spigot of the green plastic cooler, and watching for tacks, ducking when the boom came swinging over the cockpit. He was not allowed to fall overboard – a rule, not a suggestion – and, even though he was a strong swimmer, he was forced into a regulation orange-canvas keyhole life jacket when the boat was under way. The Coast Guard Auxiliary plied these waters – their waters, their rules – and like the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men ruthlessly lording it over the denizens of Sherwood Forest, the agents were notoriously quick to find fault and issue fines. The old man, never caught short, kept a ready stash of life vests, the radio, the airhorn, the brass plaque, the life-rings and their lines – and never any alcohol aboard. Always that inland brownwater guard left penniless in search of less prepared, more profitable quarry – the pontoon party boats anchored away from the docks, their new coolers heavy with cases of Old Milwaukie and Genesee Light, their decks festooned with bikini-clad river nymphs, and their radios blaring that rock & roll.
The sailboat sailed lithely and farther than the party boats bothered to drag themselves. When finally anchored off the islands for a cockpit lunch and swim, the boy stripped off that mandatory lifejacket, but took no unnecessary chances. If he was forced to leap off the bow by watching relatives, he belly flopped, absorbing the pain, accepting it as the only way to ensure his fragile body didn’t spike into the depths and frazzle itself upon wood or stone. If no one was bothering to look, absorbed in the absorption of the sun, or lost inside the pages of a book, he’d climb down the folding aluminum ladder, intended as the way out of the water, not in, and ease himself onto the water’s surface. He loved to swim, but not to tread, not here. Treading put one’s legs down far enough that a cat might slink up from its hidey-hole, pounce, and drag him down into the river’s depths, his final screams voiding his lungs in a trail of bubbles popping on the surface, almost silent and entirely unnoticed. And when he swam, he kept his feet toward the river’s center as best he could, always angling his head, his eyes above the surface, like a ready crocodile, to keep watch upon the island shores, spotting for the Indians who never broke their cover. Made sense. They were natives inherent to this land, tarred over with fine silt mud, feathered with still-green leaves torn from the sassafras and red sumac. He saw nothing of them except their watching eyes, glinting from the shadows. There were more eyes than he could count, watching, blinking rarely, staring as they plotted his abduction into the tribe. He wondered if there was an Indian lass, a Lilliputian tigress, seven, or maybe six – a year his younger, nudging her father, pointing at him, the self-imagined reptile in the river. That one, da, that’s the one I want, smart enough not to dangle his legs for the slick river demons. The Susquehannock had another name for the devil creatures, lost now to us, but some word in sense akin to the kappa* of Japan, amphibious hanna monsters of the eastern shore tributaries, prone to wrastle down an unwary swimmer, pin him under toad- or frog-like limbs (limbs they also used to scuttle overland in drought years) until they consumed their victim’s soul and, in unquenchable thirst, sought out the next and then another, leaching them dry as a spider drains the mortal quoils of the hapless in her webs and leaves their husks to shiver in the wind. That girl knew the dangers, wanted to save the boy but a father’s warning hand upon her shoulder stayed her in the underbrush.
“Lunch dears, a lovely lunch!” sang out his grandmother. All hands on deck. Feet conjoined, he porpoised to the ladder, climbed the steps up, and reached for the towel he was handed to keep the cockpit dry as was possible with a string of soggy river rats emerging, scaling the rungs, and leaping aboard like a ravenous string of Pie-Rats from the Richard Scarry story**, Uncle Willy*** and the Pirates (or, apparently, Pie Rats Ahoy!, in some versions).
The night before, he had aided his grandmother as she prepared the lunch, mostly watching. The tea began as bags upon bags of orange pekoke laid into a brimming two-quart sauce pan, strings and tags dangled over the pot-edge and pinned down with the vent-cracked lid; these she boiled until every drop of the black tea’s essence was steeped from the leaves into the over-tannic water. Once cooled enough to touch, she wrung out the bags over the pan until the bags were all but dry again. The inquisitive boy, spooning it like broth when grandma stepped away from her kitchen, discovered the tea soup was as unpalatable wet as the dry and bitter bar of baker’s chocolate he’d once gnawed at in his mother’s kitchen. He must be more cautious. In the morning she was levering ice out of the metal ice-molds in the freezer, filling the huge cooler until none more would fit. Over the ice, she poured the dark sludge of concentrated tea that had continued cooling on her range overnight. Grandma added from the tap what little extra water would fit within the interstices of the jumbled cubes, knowing that the icemelt would temper the bitter concentrate, that the boat tipping to leeward as she ripped over the waters would stir the jug, that the hot day and morning sail would finish the refreshing tea everyone would welcome by noon. In the last ounce of space she squeezed in a hissing stream of lemon juice, or lime, from the ovoid plastic citri that she kept in the door of her fridge, her real lemon and real lime she called them, though they seemed rather fake to the boy. Fake, but good. Something that had been worth trying. He was often scolded for sneaking them from the fridge and squeezing himself a mouthful of the zingy juice, “There won’t be enough for the boat! Have a junket instead.” While the tea was boiling or cooling down, she assembled brown grocery bags of other necessaries: sodas, chips, fruit of the usual sort – apples, oranges, green grapes, though never bananas, tasty cakes for dessert, and plenty of paper towels. Granddad always made the main course sandwiches. He was very particular. White bread, both slides slathered deep with peanut butter to prevent the jelly leaking through, then some Welch’s in between – only the bare minimum to damp the peanut butter, as though an excess of jelly might jut out from between the slices, squirt to the deck, the gunwales, or the seats between to thus make a mess of his only ship. Shipshape meant many things to the captain, among them no crumbs, and no Rorschach-splotchy jelly stains on the pale cockpit cushions.
Shipshape also meant constant maintenance, not simply cleanliness aboard. Granddad’s boat, one of his NorthEast-23 design, was unusual compared to most sailor’s boats in that he designed it, and he built it up, singlehandedly, and from a scratch pile of raw materials and component parts. The wood was his work, stem to stern; he bought cleats that some foundry had poured, a mast that others made. As a whole creation, she was his from the architectural drawings to the moment she was Christened. So when the old man tended to the boat, he was caring for a loved one that he wrought into existence. A Pygmalion’s ivory masterpiece, this time mahogany, and of the sort, feminine though she was, that my grandmother never minded the beauty’s arrival nor her lingering as the focal point of their lives. The motor always wanted work, the bilge pumps seemed fussy, and the brightwork needed sanding and varnishing. When he swam at mid-trip anchorages, he swam with a scrub brush and sponge in hand and he polished as much of the hull as he could see, or could polish blind in the drecky waters. At rest, at anchor, while everyone else aboard ate or played or sunned themselves on the foredeck, he worked, around messless bites of his peanut butter with jelly sandwiches, at preventing the dissolution of his beloved and incomparable boat. When it was time to haul in the anchor, slosh it free of mud, raise the white sails, then, finally, one hand upon the tiller, he was at rest, caught up in the momentum of his craft as she lanced over the waters, free before the wind.
…to be continued…
* If I had the time to head back to grad school, and if grad school afforded me the opportunity, by way of some designer credits where I could rack up academic points towards a worthwhile degree while still exploring a few of the oddities and parallels I’ve noticed in my reading, here is one subject that merits further exploration: the resonance of Kappa lore, out of Japan, with the monster Grendel from the old English epic Beowulf. How curious it is that both the beasts live beneath the water except when they emerge to battle men, both give preference to wrestling their opponents, and both are reputed to shed a limb more easily than their life (though Grendel does perish from his great avulsion).
Since I can’t pirate a ship and take my prize down to the Caribbean for numerous reasons, among them morality and Interpol, I’ve had to content myself with pirating the bottom half of a design sketch depicting one of the sailing yacht’s I’m enamored of. This was the Golden Hind, one of many so-Christened in honor of Sir Francis Drake’s vessel, but this one has the curious history of having been commissioned by another Drake, Mr. William P. Drake. This particular Golden Hind, a sloop which has been twice renamed at this point in history, was launched in 1966, having been built by Paul E. Luke from a design by K. Aage Nielsen out of Boston. Imagine this sketch fleshed out in teak and mahogany.
**If you don’t own an OLD version of the Richard Scarry books, you should hunt down a copy of his books that were printed in the early 1970’s. They had tales like Pierre Bear, which is so politically incorrect it has long since been purged.
***My youngest brother should know that this story is why my kids, when younger, called him Uncle Willy.