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First You Have to Row a Little Boat Reflections on Life & Living
By Bode, Richard
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 1995 Bode, Richard
All right reserved.
The Mariner’s Rhyme
When I was a young man I made a solemn vow. I swore I would teach my children to sail. It was a promise never kept.
The exigencies of life—money, work, location, and health—kept me from passing on to my children this legacy which I deem to be the essence of myself. I feel as if I have left something unsaid which I ought to have said, something undone which I ought to have done. I am filled with a lore which I learned as a boy, and I failed to pass it on to my sons and daughters, who will now fail to pass it on to theirs.
I try to forgive myself, but I can’t. No matter how many excuses I make, I am faced with the unalterable fact: I did not teach my children to sail.
In my mind’s eye, in the quiet night, in my vagrant dreams, I see myself doing what I didn’t do. I take my children out one by one in the tender sloop I sold soon after they were born. I teach them to sail out the saltwater creek and to point for the lighthouse across the bay. I teach them to bring the bow or the stern across the face of the wind: to tack or jibe. I teach them to raise or lower the sails, to throw an anchor overboard, to bring the boat up to a mooring in a heavy sea. Through it all I know I am not merely teaching them to sail. I am showing them, hopefully without the taint of preachment, that they are engaged in a metaphor. To sail a boat is to negotiate a life—that is what I want them to understand.
Yet I confess that when I learned to sail as a youth, I had no idea that the lessons of simple seamanship had such universal application and would stand me in such good stead later on. I didn’t sense a wind shift and say to myself, Aha, there’s another one of life’s little lessons. I tacked, jibed, drifted, anchored; I adjusted myself to the conditions I found. I was enjoying myself and acquiring a skill—that’s what I thought.
What I didn’t know was that I was also developing a consciousness, an acute awareness of the relationship between myself and the elements over which I had no control. God gave the wind. It might blow from the east, west, north, or south. It might gust; it might fall off to practically nothing. It might leave me dead becalmed. I didn’t pick the wind; that was imposed by a power far greater than myself. But I had to sail the wind—against it, with it, sideways to it; I had to wait it out with the patience of Job when it didn’t blow—if I wanted to move myself from where I was to where I wanted to go.
As humans we live with the constant presumption of dominion. We believe that we own the world, that it belongs to us, that we have it under our firm control. But the sailor knows all too well the fallacy of this view. The sailor sits by his tiller, waiting and watching. He knows he isn’t sovereign of earth and sky, any more than the fish in the sea or the birds in the air. He responds to the subtle shiftings of the wind, the imperceptible ebbings of the tide. He changes course. He trims his sheets. He sails.
The hurricane, the typhoon, the tsunami, the sudden squall—they are all sharp reminders of the puniness of man when measured against the momentous forces of nature. We aren’t in total charge of our fate. We are subject to death, accident, and disease; we can, without warning, lose love, work, home. An unseen hand can rise at any moment from an unexpected quadrant of the compass and strike us down.
I lost both my parents to death—first my father and then my mother—while I was still a boy. That was a colossal storm, an irreversible wind that changed my destiny. I didn’t command that wind and I couldn’t make it give back what it had taken away. But it was my wind and I had to sail it until it led me at last to a sheltered cove.
All that happened to me a half century ago, and I have survived. In the intervening years I have discovered that—despite the overwhelming nature of that early disaster—day-to-day life isn’t a constant series of crises and calamities. Day-to-day life is like the wind in all its infinite variations and moods. The wind is shifting, constantly shifting, blowing north northeast, then northeast, then north—just as we, ourselves, are constantly shifting, sometimes happy, sometimes angry, sometimes sad. As the sailor sails his winds, so we must sail our moods.
I find myself sharing these thoughts with my children as we sail together through my mythical dreams. But we didn’t sail together and so I never told them—and maybe it’s just as well. If the condition of fatherhood has taught me one thing, it is the difficulty, if not utter impossibility, of passing on to my offspring the lessons of my separate life. I found out, almost after it was too late, that my children weren’t born to learn from my experiences; they were born to learn from their own, and any attempt on my part to substitute my perceptions for theirs was doomed to fail.
The truth is that, for all my sorrow and regret, I can’t go on forever condemning myself for what I did or didn’t do. I learned to sail when I was a youth and my children did not—and that is the sum of it. I don’t know why that happened anymore than I know why some students head straight for the school library and others for the gym. I suspect there are destinations that call to us from a secret place within ourselves and we head for them instinctively.
The silent currents within my own life led me down to the sea in a sailboat when I was still a boy. That was the course I chose for myself—and it has made all the difference in my life and memory.
My children are grown now and involved in their own lives, with their own distinctive triumphs and discoveries, and I am left with a tale untold and no one to tell it to. And so what I write now is in its way an expiation for the sins of omission I committed in the past. I am like the Ancient Mariner, seizing innocent stragglers and wayward passersby and telling them my rhyme.
The First Thing You Have to Do Is Learn to Row a Little Boat
The urge to sail first came upon me when I was twelve. I stood on the shore and watched the boats dipping, righting themselves, and dipping again in the onshore breeze. It seemed like such a simple sport, far easier than hitting a home run or shooting an oversize ball through a metal hoop. I thought all I had to do was raise the canvas, let it fill with wind, and the boat and I would take off together like a soaring bird. But the first man to get me off the land and into a boat had a decidedly different idea.
His name was Harrison Watts, and in the beginning I knew him only by reputation. He was a legendary sailor who had skippered racing sloops and iceboats as far back as the turn of the century when the Great South Bay froze over every winter from the Long Island mainland clear to the Fire Island Light. If you go down to the end of Ocean Avenue in the old seaside town of Bay Shore, you will find the captain’s wood-frame house still standing there, just north of the boat basin, backing on the busy saltwater creek. For all I know, you may also find his stubby charter boat, the Nimrod—which he ran before, during, and after World War II—sitting at her berth, swaying in the wind, even though the captain himself has been dead these many years. He has gone the way of his forebears, the early settlers of this far eastern shore, who were whalers and seafarers right down to their rheumatic bones.
I saw the captain often, albeit from a respectful distance, because he berthed the Nimrod across a narrow waterway from the shipyard where I spent most of my spare time. He was a portly man of about seventy with a cherubic face which he kept shaded by a white canvas cap with a long bill; despite a gimpy gait he moved from the dock to the deck of his boat and back to the dock again with catlike agility. He would appear regularly at the Nimrod’s helm on summer afternoons, returning from the bay with a fishing party aboard, chugging up the creek, towing a snub-nosed dinghy behind. He saw me, too, I’m sure, because I was always sitting on the bulkhead, waiting for his arrival so I could observe the easy way he maneuvered his boat into her slip.
He became my mentor in the most natural way. It was late June, school was out, and the long summer vacation had just begun. I arrived at the shipyard early one morning, braced my bike against a boat shed, and as I came around the side of the dilapidated building I saw the Nimrod hauled clear out of the water, up on the ways, with the captain underneath flat on his back, scraping her bottom. I approached him with apprehension, for he was still part myth to me and I thought he might rise like a sea god and bite off my head. I settled on a huge wooden block beside his boat, and when he finally turned and spoke to me I realized that my fears were unfounded. He was only a man, and an amiable one at that.
“So, my boy,” he said as if we were the best of friends, “what brings you down here so early in the day?”
“I’m looking for a boat,” I said. It wasn’t the exact truth, but it wasn’t a total fabrication, either.
“What sort of boat?”
“Can you sail?”
It was a question I dreaded, for one of the hardest things in life is to confess ignorance when trying to impress. I could deceive my friends; in fact, I often did with idle tales about what I would do and where I would go if I owned a boat of my own, and they looked at me as one who knew exactly what he was talking about. At the age of twelve, it’s extremely difficult to resist the adulation of one’s peers. But the captain was a different matter. He was the master of an ancient art form I wanted to possess, and I knew he would see through my pretensions right away.
“No, I can’t,” I said.
“Have you ever been in a sailboat?”
“You’ve never sailed. You’ve never even been in a sailboat. Yet you want to get yourself a boat. How do you figure that?”
“Oh, I guess I’ll manage.”
He rolled out from under the Nimrod and pulled himself up straight. I honestly expected at that moment he was going to conjure up a tidy sloop in which he and I would sail away. But there was to be no sailing lesson that day. Instead, he reached into the cockpit of his boat, pulled out a couple of oars, and walked down to the snub-nosed dinghy he had tied up against the dock. He handed me the oars.
“Get in!” he said. “The first thing you have to do is learn to row a little boat.”
I looked at the dinghy; I doubt it was more than ten feet long. It sat there bobbing on the surface like a cork, an affront to my ego. I didn’t want a rowboat; I wanted a sloop, a ketch, or a yawl. I wanted to sail the bay, cross the ocean, cruise the world.
I stepped aboard, holding the oars, standing straight up; the rowboat lurched and almost pitched me into the drink. The captain said nothing; I guess he figured there were some things I would have to learn for myself.
For three consecutive days I rowed that dinghy back and forth across the creek, about two hundred yards from bulkhead to bulkhead, dodging clam boats, ferries, and pleasure craft. Occasionally, the captain would walk out to the end of the dock, wave me ashore, and offer a few helpful hints, but most of the time he stood there quietly, watching me pull at the oars. Was he pleased with my progress? I like to think he was. But I know this: I was pleased with myself, for I was mastering a milieu entirely different from any I had ever known before.
Hour by hour, day by day, under the captain’s silent tutelage, I acquired a skill which, as much as walking or talking, remains fundamental to my view of the world. First, I learned to pull both oars together, then I learned I could also propel the boat forward at a different pace by alternating my strokes. I gained a new perspective on inertia, for the boat was hard to start, since it didn’t have an engine, and harder to stop, since it didn’t have a brake. It had but one motive source of power, and that was me.
We are creatures of the land and we respond to the conventions of the land. First, we learn to ride a tricycle, then a bicycle, and finally, when we come of age, we graduate to a car. But they all have one element in common: wheels that roll across unyielding surfaces of concrete or asphalt. Turn the wheels to the left and the vehicle veers to the left; to the right and it veers to the right. The convention of the wheel is ingrained in us at an early age and from that moment on we tend to apply it to virtually everything we do.
But the boat I rowed that day had no wheels and it didn’t ride upon a hardened surface. It had a flat bottom that floated freely in a pliable sea, and it operated in a manner exactly opposite to a bike or a car. Pull on the left oar and the dinghy veered to the right; on the right oar and it veered to the left. Pull on one oar and push on the other and the boat turned sharply on its axis. All those motions were contrary to the ones I knew, and they called for a fundamental adjustment of muscle and mind.
The truth is that in our daily lives we constantly make similar migrations from land to water and back to land again—and we don’t always do so with the fluency of the sailor. Time flips us rapidly from place to place and role to role. We shuttle from suburb to city, from home to job, from business meeting to dinner party. Each milieu has its own conventions and makes its own demands. Sometimes the changes occur so fast we lose our bearings. We behave like parents to our colleagues and executives to our kids. We lack a sure sense of the appropriate because we haven’t taken the time to figure out where we are.
Few humans conduct their affairs with the aplomb of a duck, which is one sort of animal in the water and another in the air—and never confuses the two. In the former, it tucks back its wings and neck, extends its webbed feet, and paddles about, dunking or diving as it feeds. In the latter, it tucks back its feet, extends its neck, and unfolds its wings, beating them strongly as it flies.
I sat in the center of the dinghy, facing the stern, my destination somewhere behind me, a landfall I couldn’t see. I had to judge where I was headed from where I had been, an acquired perception which has served me well—for the goals of my life, and especially my work, haven’t always been visible points of light on a shore that looms in front of me. They are fixed in my imagination, shrouded and indistinct, and I detect them best when my eyes are closed. All too often I am forced to move toward them backward, like a boy in a rowboat, guiding myself by a cultivated inner sense of direction which tells me I’m on course, tending toward the place I want to be.
And so in time the rowboat and I became one and the same—like the archer and his bow or the artist and his paint. What I learned wasn’t mastery over the elements; it was mastery over myself, which is what conquest is ultimately all about. We take our children to Little League so they can learn the supposed benefits of teamwork and competition, by which we mean domination of others in sport as well as life. But in life, real life, we aren’t pitted against one another; we are pitted against ourselves, and our victories are almost always the ones we forge alone. If we want to teach our children self-reliance, then we shouldn’t take them to the diamond or gridiron. We should take them down to a river, a lake or a bay and let them learn to row a little boat.
“A Boy’s Will Is the Wind’s Will…”
I saw the blue sloop long before I knew she would be mine. I was standing on the bulkhead at the shipyard when she suddenly materialized, gliding up the saltwater creek with the wind behind her, white sails billowing, graceful as a swan. As she slid past, the standing helmsman pulled the tiller toward him, away from the sail; the boat swung in a broad arc across the creek, jibing in the gentle breeze, and headed toward the bay. In a moment she was gone, but her sheer wooden hull and her bright varnished decks, glistening in the morning sun, remained fixed in my mind and memory long after she disappeared.
I wanted the blue sloop, but I had no idea how I could make her mine. She was aloof, and the best I could do was admire her, the way a youth admires a lovely lady—secretly and from afar. What I didn’t know is that we grow toward our desire in the same way a flower grows toward the sun. We gain our ends not through seizure but affinity. The boat and the boy, the boy and the boat, are drawn toward each other, and when the passion is strong enough there is no power in heaven or earth that can keep them apart.
In the days that followed, the blue sloop became the standard of elegance against which I measured every boat I saw. There was no other like her, and as I poked about the shipyard, examining the vessels in dry dock and in the water, watching the owners clamber aboard their fancy yachts and sail away, I played an imaginary game. I pretended I could summon up a preternatural power, a sort of djinni, who would say to me, “Pick out the one boat that appeals to you the most of all you’ve seen, and I will make her yours.” Without hesitation I would pick the blue sloop that had blown out of nowhere on a summer wind.
It was a daydream, of course, an activity that our society, with its penchant for productive employment, scorns. “Stop daydreaming! Surely you can find something more useful to do with your time!” I can still feel the sting of that adult rebuke, snapping me out of my boyhood reverie. I heard that reprimand repeatedly from my teachers, my guardians, even the parents of my friends—all of whom seemed to be engaged in a grand conspiracy to keep me from slipping into my private world.
It was poor advice, as impossible to follow now as it was then (for the daydreaming boy is father to the daydreaming man). Longfellow was right: “A boy’s will is the wind’s will /And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts,” and there is no admonition severe enough to dislodge the daydreams that fill a child’s head. Rather than suppress those dreams, he should be ordered to obey them, for they are the true harbingers of his future self. They tell him who he is and what he wants and in which direction he should tend.
We ignore these visions at our peril, for—contrary to conventional wisdom—they aren’t as idle as they seem. They arise from a distilled longing to join ourselves with the spirit of truth and beauty that lies latent in us all. More than we know, we crave the symbols of that union, for they empower us with life. And so it wasn’t the blue sloop I yearned to possess so much as the idea of the sloop, which was, up to that moment, the most grace-filled object I had ever beheld.
I had a choice; I know that now. I could have smothered the dream, killed it off, and paid the physical penalty for that repression. At the very least I would have grown a huge wart at the end of my nose. Or I could have kept it firmly fixed in my mind’s eye and moved inexorably toward it with whatever resources I found at my command. Looking back, I realize I had been following the latter course, even though it didn’t seem all that clear to me at the time. I had gone to the shipyard and befriended the captain, who taught me to row a little boat, and now I was waiting… waiting… for a chance to test my newfound skill on that veritable sailing paradise, the Great South Bay.
I had a classmate who lived near the water; and when I told him Capt. Harrison Watts was “a personal friend of mine,” I became an instant celebrity in his eyes. He invited me to go for a sail in his older brother’s boat. It turned out to be a sailing dinghy, barely larger than the captain’s rowboat; it had a single sail and it was extremely tipsy, even in light airs.
We took turns at the tiller. Sometimes we turned the boat over deliberately, more often by mistake. But I had, without realizing it, advanced closer to my dream. I was now out of the protected saltwater creek into the choppy bay, and rather than pulling on a pair of oars I was relying on the inherent power of the wind to propel me toward my goal.
I decided I had to own a boat of my own, any boat, and I thought about confessing this desire to my aunt and uncle, with whom I lived. But they weren’t people of means and I didn’t feel I could ask them to lay out a large sum of money for me. They knew I spent most of my spare time either talking about sailboats or actually sailing, but I was sure they would dismiss this hankering of mine to own a boat as an adolescent whim that would pass with time.
I misjudged them, for when the time was right they came to my aid in a way I never would have supposed. They didn’t supply me with money; they supplied me with something better, the contractor who built their new house and who had a powerboat of his own. His name was Ed Doubrava, and I never tired of watching him measure boards and drive nails as the wooden frame of the house rose about him room by room, seemingly more by magic than design. A lean man with a weathered face and thinning gray hair, he moved with effortless grace despite a physical handicap, the result (I learned from my uncle) of a childhood disease.
While he was still a boy, he was stricken with polio, which affected the left side of his body, especially his arm. His left hand reached only as far as his waist, but the arm itself was fully developed from manual labor and its muscles bulged. When I first met him, his shortened arm was his most apparent physical characteristic, but as I got to know him better I hardly noticed it at all.
He spoke to me while he worked, sometimes enlisting my help. At first I carried two-by-fours, then he showed me how to nail siding and shingle the roof. Whenever the opportunity arose, I would tell him about my desire to sail, and he would nod knowingly, without comment. When the house was finished, he offered me a summer job as his “apprentice”—fixing up windblown dwellings that faced the Atlantic on the barrier beach.
We left Bay Shore at seven every morning and headed across the bay. Ed knew the channels and, when the tide was in, he knew the shortcuts across the shoals and flats—and he passed this knowledge on to me. I learned by the color of the water when it was safe to skim slowly over the sandbars and when it was wiser to take the longer way around.
Ed and I spent a week together, living aboard his boat, docked in an idyllic backwater called Oak Island while we straightened out a beach house that had been bowled over by a hurricane. One day after work he walked into the tall reeds beside the house and dragged out a leaky duck blind, which had been converted by its owner into a makeshift sailboat. While I stood staring in disbelief, he told me it was mine, a gift outright from a friend of his who had no use for it anymore.
There was only one difficulty; the boat had a mast and a boom, but it didn’t have a sail. I presented this problem to my aunt, who was an excellent seamstress. She cut up a couple of old bed sheets and stitched them together; they weren’t as sturdy as Egyptian cotton, the preferred sailcloth of that day, but they fit the duck blind perfectly. And now I had a sailboat of my own.
First time out, Ed and I sailed the duck boat around Oak Island, a circumnavigation I shall never forget. We skimmed in two feet of water, so close to the marsh we could hear the salt wind rustling in the reeds. On the north side of the island, Ed pointed to a pair of slender birds with black backs and white forked tails gliding off the bow. “Scissor-bills,” he said, squinting into the sun. “They were here when I was a kid. They’ve been here for a million years, I guess.”
Thereafter, I sailed the boat alone. As the summer progressed, we moved from port to port along Fire Island, towing the converted duck blind behind. I sat on the stern, watching the way my sailboat plowed dutifully along, riding the powerboat’s wake. As the summer waned it was apparent that I was ready for something more substantial than a duck blind—and by then my uncle was persuaded that he could safely, as he put it, “make an investment” in me.
The following spring Ed found a sloop at a boatyard on Bellport Bay, farther east on the Long Island shore. It was nineteen feet long; it had a centerboard that popped up and down (instead of a keel) and a good suit of sails. The price was right, about $350. My uncle wrote out a check; and as soon as the weather turned sufficiently warm, I sailed her home.
The boat was flawed; she had a round bottom and she wasted an enormous amount of energy wallowing like a hippopotamus instead of slicing like a seal. She wasn’t the prettiest sight at anchor or the most efficient under sail, but she was mine and I sailed her for two years, either mastering her idiosyncrasies or learning to live with them.
During that period I saw the blue sloop many times, looming on the horizon off Fire Island, scudding past south shore beaches under lowering skies. She remained as elusive as ever, the phantom of my waking dreams. And then toward the end of the second summer with my roly-poly sloop, I unexpectedly came upon an ad in the Bay Shore Sentinel:
23-foot Timber Point sloop with bright decks and blue hull. Two suits of sails, plus spinnaker. $1250 firm.
I showed the ad to my uncle (purely for his information, I told myself, not daring to raise my hopes), and I remember how he sat there studying it for an interminably long time. Finally, he asked, “How much do you think we can get for the boat you now have?”
“Maybe five hundred,” I replied. “And I have a hundred and fifty dollars saved from working with Ed.”
Excerpted from First You Have to Row a Little Boat by Bode, Richard Copyright © 1995 by Bode, Richard. Excerpted by permission.
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