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We're all born in a gush of fluid and forever after seek a drier passage. So what is it that leads us back to the water, which often as not we refuse to enter? For me, beyond whatever prenatal remembrance, beyond the beauty of the sea, it's an urge to understand why I'm so restless. For years I came and walked the beach.
On the shortest day of the year I went looking for the longest, looking for a languishing summer sun's descent over water on a snow-weary winter solstice hillside. Most mornings I wake unprepared, but there are days when minutes drop into place like seeds, and spare moments when I seem almost immortal, as much a part of the future as the present. Standing there in a clutch of spruce, beneath the dull red hull of an old motorsailer, my feet in six inches of snow and my cold hands dumped in my pockets like links of heavy chain, I inhabited one of these moments. It had nothing to do with religion or art, with memory or love. I was a liquid poured into a mold. I did fit. The closest water was a hundred feet below, in a hazard-strewn stream that might float a model of the boat above me. But I heard the water running and knew it ran the right way: to the sea. Everything was downhill from there.
I wasn't looking for a boat seriously. We were in Maine for Christmas, visiting my wife's family. I hadn't flown two thousand miles from Texas to comb the hills for old motorsailers. I'd come for presents. On this day I was indulging my father-in-law, Rob. Over the past few years my wife, Heather, and I found ourselves spending more and more of each summer in Eliot, Maine. Hergrandmother's home sat on a bank of the Piscataqua River, a tidal estuary. A weathered driftwood dock staggered into the water. There were these possibilities. I'd mentioned that I'd like to have a boat someday. The summer before, Rob and I had looked at an old picnic boat on Badger's Island. She required too much repair, but through her I could see myself on the water. I'd look more the following summer, I thought. There was no hurry. But a couple months before Christmas, Rob called. "Found your boat," he said, as if it were a watch I'd lost a week earlier.
"Found your boat. Have you gotten your new WoodenBoat yet?"
"Yesterday," I said. "I've already gone through the classifieds, though." There's nothing so rich with prospects as a section of classifieds when I'm on a quest, nothing so worthless once it's been exhaustively perused, and nothing that can transform my emotions so thoroughly from hope to despair. Classifieds are like a home pregnancy test.
"The Cannell, Payne and Page ad," Rob insisted.
I found my freshly read issue and turned to the ad. There were eighteen boats on the page. "Which boat?" I asked.
"The Alden-Gamage boat down in the corner."
"It's got a mast," I said.
"Just a little one," Rob said. "It's really only a steadying sail."
I put my hand over the phone's mouthpiece and whispered to my wife, "Your dad's trying to get me to buy a sailboat."
"It's a raised-deck motorboat," Rob continued. "Alden designs are classics. Gamage was a fine yard, a Maine yard. It has the plumb bow you wanted, the ports. I've already sent for the particulars. I'll send them along. We can look at it when you come up for Christmas."
"Where is it?" I asked.
"Just across the river in Lee, New Hampshire."
When I put the phone down, Heather asked, "Well?"
"It's a sailboat." I showed her the tiny picture in the magazine. I wanted something on the order of an early Elco, a raised-deck cruiser from the twenties or thirties. I knew turning a key would be easier than raising a sail.
"I like the little house on the deck," she said.
"I want something we can go up the rivers in," I told her. "In a sailboat you have to turn around at the first bridge."
"Just go look at it," Heather said. "You'll make Daddy happy."
Ethan Cook stepped out from underneath his boat when we drove up, like someone who was comfortable in the shade of a hull. Compromise, twenty-eight feet from plumb bow to plumb transom, sitting on four rusty stands and blocked under the full keel, seemed colossal on that slope, like a bird on your nose. My in-laws and I walked around and underneath the boat, listening to Ethan. His boat was for sale, but only under duress: his business, art packaging and transport, needed a warehouse and truck more than it needed a boat. I suppose it's hard to get a Monet from the Metropolitan to the Kimbell in a motorsailer. He asked fifteen thousand dollars, which was why I was there. I was twenty thousand flush. If he'd been asking twenty-five thousand, I might not have crossed his creek.
The things I noticed, after the hugeness of the hull, were the hairy chin of the keel and the rust boils erupting from the dark green topsides. She was iron-fastened, both the old planks and a few newer ones replaced over the years. I asked Rob why they hadn't used stainless-steel or bronze screws on the new strakes. He told me you don't want to mix metals. The explanation was knotty with chemistry and physics, and I'm an English major. But I understood finally that mixing metals in salt water might rot out all the teeth in my head, so I just nodded to his authority. There was a single sixteen-inch four-bladed bronze propeller tucked behind an outboard rudder. Drape the propeller in a T-shirt, sit it on the corner of a bed, and it would be as sexy as my wife. The rudder, a great oak paddle, had a toehold ladder up its trailing edge. There were some dings in the brightwork of the mahogany transom, put there in a lexically proper manner by a dinghy during Hurricane Bob.
With the help of an aluminum ladder we all climbed aboard for a gam. (I have been waiting years for an occasion to use this gam word.) The more we listened to Ethan, the more we noted his pride in the boat, his reluctance to let her go. Beverly, Heather's stepmother, whispered sweet nothings about the mahogany into my ear. She was a terrible person to take along when trying to negotiate. What was worse: I liked Ethan as much as his boat. I tried not to show it.
The cockpit was like a living room, broad and comfortable, recently refurbished with new teak flooring (decking), new marine plywood sofas (lockers) and end tables (fuel tanks), and even a mahogany coffee (chart) table. The bronze wheel, throttle, and gear controls looked like cherished antiques on a mantel. The blue tarpaulin over the boat cast a blue wash over the cockpit and our faces, as if the only light in the room were from a TV. The tarp was draped over the boom, a foot above my head. I liked this. Even while I was standing at the wheel, an unexpected jibe wouldn't send me to sea or remove half my skull.
Ethan opened each locker and showed us its secret: a pair of stainless-steel fuel tanks, a twelve-volt Norcold refrigerator, life vests, fire extinguisher, the steering gear and automatic pilot. Beneath a big hatch in the cockpit sole brooded a fifty-eight-horsepower four-cylinder Westerbeke diesel engine. Nine years old, red with patches of rust, it seemed more than ample. The engine shared the hold with a bank of batteries, a thirty-gallon copper water tank, and ten or fifteen pounds of rock salt. Ethan told us it rained before he covered the boat in the fall and he didn't want the fresh water standing in the bilge, so he'd turned it into salt water. Most of the frames were sistered, a new frame paired with an old, and there were new floor timbers.
We sneaked below through a bright mahogany bi-fold door, and I paused on the second step of the companionway, like a crystal suspended in my own showcase, and looked out through the five small windows of the doghouse, the blue tarp serving as ocean and sky. The automatic pilot controls, the loran, VHF radio, and depth finder were mounted here, a tight little foul-weather steerage.
Another step down and we were on the cabin sole. There was a cast-iron Lunenberg cookstove to port and a cold-water sink to starboard. The woodwork was painted white and trimmed in bright mahogany. Another step forward and we squeezed around the spruce mast. There was about five feet eight and a half inches of headroom. I'm five foot eight. Beverly and I sat on the bunk to starboard, Rob and Ethan to port. They were hunkered down under a hanging bunk, while Beverly and I had oblong portholes for halos. Mildewed charts were rolled and stuffed in a rack along the ceiling; foul-weather gear hung from bronze hooks. Forward, an oil lamp was mounted on each side of the door to the head. I managed to stay seated for about twenty seconds and then started poking around. I opened every drawer, lifted each cushion, put my rude finger in the holes of the limber boards and pulled. There were two more oblong ports in the head, more storage there, and anchor line on a reel. Everything looked worn but sound. You wouldn't mind if a bluefish beat himself to death down there, but it was also spacious and comfortable. The lines were remarkably simple and elegant. It looked exactly the way a well-cared-for fifty-seven-year-old boat should. Many hands had been there. It had a past.
We climbed up on the raised deck and Rob showed me the tabernacle. I liked the sound of this word even before I knew what it signified on a boat: the mast hinged a couple feet above the deck and folded forward. This boat could duck and sneak under bridges, go where no sailboat had gone before.
Whenever I go to look at any antique boat, car, or Staffordshire dog, I always expect the worst. Usually, expecting the worst turns out to be the correct approach. But this boat seemed too good to be true. It needed some work, I thought, mostly cosmetic, in return for years of trouble-free, maintenance-only boating downeast. It was within my price range, and my wife would eventually forgive me. Rob and Beverly were supporters. I went inside Ethan's home, a house he built himself (a man after my own heart), and found that he was the father of courteous children. I even liked his dog.