“A Passion for Boats”–Neil Mathison

If a man is obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most. A small sailing craft is not only beautiful, it is seductive and full of strange promise and the hint of trouble.

from “The Sea and the Wind that Blows,” by E. B. White (1977)

I have a passion for boats. I’ve written a number of essays about boats. About boats that I’ve owned and voyages I’ve made. About how boats figure in my ancestors’ history and in my own history and in the histories of my son John and my wife Susan. About traumas that have occurred on boats and the redemption that has, at least partly, followed trauma. My essays have also been about a life at sea – I was a Naval Academy midshipman and later a US Navy officer. Once I described my passion as a passion for “boats and the sea.” Now I realize my feelings for the sea and for boats are not the same thing. My feelings for the sea are ambivalent. My love for boats is unconditional.

My earliest drawings were of boats. My earliest longings to own something were to own a boat. A boat never failed to turn my eye whether it was a well-turned-out schooner or a working-class tug. In any weather, in any season, I was, and still am, ready to go out in a boat. I love the feel of a boat’s deck under my feet. I love the dancing, shuffling, shifting, lightness of being in a boat. I love heading up a sailboat to a puff of wind, and letting it fall away when the puff eases. I love being at anchor and sitting in a boats cabin, the warmth of a trawler lamp gilding its interior. I love the smell of varnish. The tang of outboard-motor exhaust. The salty fragrance of a sail as you unfurl it. I love the sound of wavelets lapping the hull. I love the rainbow spray flying astern of a fast runabout. I love the giddy joy of rising from the water on a pair of water-skis. The greater joy of kicking a ski and skiing slalom. I’ve been fortunate (my wife Susan might say “doomed”) to have accumulated a fleet of boats: sailboats, rowboats, water-ski boats, fishing boats, prams, dories, dinghies, rubber boats, wooden boats, fiberglass boats, canvas boats. Surely, to realize one’s life passions so completely is as sweet a gift as life can give.

The first boat I remember my family owning was a tiny cedar-plank pocket cruiser. (I’m not certain the term “pocket cruiser,” which connotes a very small version of what would usually be a larger boat, was common back in the 1950s.) The boat was fifteen feet in length, had a displacement hull and a cabin with flat panes of glass for its windscreen and two round portholes port and starboard on its cabin sides. The aft cockpit was open. It was a boat from another era, pre-World-War-II, slow, inexpensive – a blue-collar-working-man’s boat. Originally it had been an inboard with a propeller and shaft and rudder. The inboard engine was gone by the time my father bought her, although the rudder and cabin steering wheel still remained. Below the cabin-sole floorboards, water leaked in and sloshed about and my father had to bail the boat every time we got underway from our Lake Washington moorage. My father named the boat “Willie,” which had been the name of his first sailboat in Baltimore, although I never remember my father calling it “Willie” until long after he parted with it. The inboard engine had been replaced by a bright green, Johnson-Seahorse-Ten outboard motor that hung from a bracket on the stern. My father would sit in the stern and lean back to operate the throttle. He allowed me to steer from the cabin steering wheel so long as I steered toward a land bearing that I was required to communicate in advance. There was a crack in the windshield glass. I would align the crack with the house or tree on the shore that I had chosen for a bearing and I would spin the wheel back and forth as the boat wallowed through the Lake Washington boat wakes. My father had the unnerving habit of throwing the outboard tiller right or left if he thought my course led us into any danger. Despite his interventions, I still loved to steer, until, on one voyage out into Lake Washington, my Aunt Janet, unaccustomed to the manner in which my father barked his course changes, and convinced that her five-year-old nephew wasn’t turning quickly enough, grabbed the wheel and snapped the steering cable. My father never bothered to repair it.

I picture this. A dry, sunny day in May. A boatyard on Lake Washington’s Rainier Beach. Mt. Rainier rising at the south end of the lake. The hulls of boats on blocks in the yard tower over me, graceful, it seems, even ashore. My father and mother are painting our little boat’s hull white, its trim red and blue. I smell the fresh paint. I anticipate the promise of where we might voyage, although it will never be beyond the shores of Lake Washington. I want nothing more from life than for my father to take me out in that boat. The boatyard is gone now, replaced by apartments and condominiums. But the lake, on a spring Saturday, is still filled with boats and Mt. Rainier still rises at the end of the lake in its snow-and-ice-flanked glory.

I mentioned earlier that the love I have for boats is not the same as the feelings I have for the sea. As a boy and a young man, the sea called me and I answered the call and there was much beauty in my seaborne life but also much monotony and, on occasion, fear. My friends John and June McCauley, who cruised the South Pacific for eight years in their thirty-eight-foot sailboat, once told me that theirs had been a life of island idylls interspersed with ocean transits of abject terror. The sea is no paradise. It can be capricious and fickle and dangerous and it’s unwise to be unappreciative of its potential for violence. In Joseph Conrad’s novelette, “Typhoon,” the captain, MacWhirr, despite his years at sea and his apparent calmness in a storm, lacks the imagination to recognize the violence of the sea, and thus leads his ship to destruction. Mostly, however, a voyage on the open ocean lacks drama. It’s boring, like a desert trek can be boring. The change in the light and temper and color of the sea, the evolution of flora and fauna is so gradual by latitude (north or south) that it’s almost undetectable; as one transits by longitude (east or west) even less so. A sailor becomes adept at detecting small changes. What is the first moment when you see a flying fish? A spot of gulf weed? A seaborne coconut? (There are exceptions: the Gulf Stream, in effect a warm river through the much colder North Atlantic, has a markedly bluer blue than the blue of the rest of the Atlantic, and it has different plants riding its flow, and often even has different weather; the Sargasso Sea is a field of vegetation in the mid-Atlantic bounded by the Gulf Stream to the west, the North Atlantic Current to the north, the Canary Current to the east, and the Equatorial Current to the south; and in places like the Grand Banks and the Bahamas the sea is shallower or deeper or more reef-strewn than the adjacent ocean and the change in waves and currents and colors manifests the difference.)

There are two oceans: the open ocean and the coastal ocean. Where I have reservations about the open ocean, I love the coastal ocean – I love its islands and beaches and harbors and passages, its riot of life, its clash of environments. What a glory it is that on our planet two such different worlds coexist. And it is here, at the coastal sea, where, subsequent to my years in the Navy, I’ve spent my boating life.

We sold a boat this past summer, an outboard runabout, a Boston Whaler 16SL, a boat we’ve owned for more than twenty years, a boat upon which we explored the Sacramento River delta in California, on which we commuted to our house in Friday Harbor on Washington State’s San Juan Islands for nearly half a decade (across northern Puget Sound, or the “Salish Sea, as some, these days, insist on calling it), behind which we water skied on Red Fish Lake below Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. In its final years with us, the Whaler made its home at the Seattle Yacht Club on Lake Union’s Portage Bay. I grew weary of spending more hours cleaning the Whaler than using it, of moving it every winter to dry storage, of spending money each spring to tune its outboard engines, which would be run only a few hours each summer. We decided to sell it. A young family bought the Whaler, intending to water ski and tube behind it on Idaho’s Lake Coeur d’Alene. Subsequent to its purchase, and after some difficulty getting its engine running, the new owner called to say that his mechanic assured him that the Whaler was a “good boat.” It is a good boat. I miss it. The Whaler isn’t the first boat we’ve sold but it’s the first we sold that didn’t have a larger, replacement boat in the offing. So it marks a milestone, a reduction in our fleet, a retreat from the high-water mark of our boating lives, a tentative withdrawal from our heretofore expanding nautical life.

Such retreats, I’m beginning to realize, are an inevitable part of growing old. I no longer water ski. On each of the last three times I water skied, I injured myself – two cracked ribs, one strained back. I skied every year from my fifties into my early sixties and now, at sixty-six, it’s highly improbable (and certainly not wise) to ski again. I have a hard time expressing my loss. The tug of the tow rope, the Phoenix-like rise out of the water, the spray behind me as I cut back and forth over the tow-boats wake, the final release, and the slow, graceful descent back into the water, arms tired, pulse racing, the ski raised over my head, the tow-boat approaching to retrieve me. It is a metaphor for a life well lived –transcendent, ephemeral, physical, spiritual, renewing, all-too-soon coming to an end. It’s a gift to live the passions of one’s life, but it’s a gift that comes with a hard cruelty – the gift will end.

I don’t want this ode to boats to end on a minor chord. We are sailing our sloop Allurea now more than we ever did before Susan retired, logging a month or more aboard each summer. A few years ago we purchased inflatable kayaks, and we now glide in these gentle craft through salt ponds and drying lagoons often in no more than a few inches of water. We watch minnows flee our shadows, crabs scuttle across a sandy bottom. A couple, older than Susan and me, live near us in Friday Harbor. In all but the harshest weather, the two, a man and a woman, row a graceful lapstrake skiff around Brown Island, passing in front of our shore-side house. We see them right after sunrise. The skiff is a “sliding-seat” rowboat, meaning its seats slide as the rowers row, adding the power of the rowers’ legs to the power of their arms. Last January, we purchased our own sliding-seat rowboat, a Whitehall Tango, in nearby Victoria, British Columbia. Unlike our neighbors, we don’t row each morning. And we forgo rowing in the rain or fog or wind. But it’s a new boat and a new way to use a boat and already it’s given us joy.

What draws us to the passions of our lives? I have often wondered about this but I haven’t come up with an answer, not even for my own passions. Perhaps what makes them “passions” is that they aren’t something we’re obligated to do. They feel spontaneous, irrational, consuming. They make us feel lighter, soar higher, laugh louder, smile broader. They are a gift, a sweet intangible aspect that eases our mortal destiny. There’s an old sailor’s trope that the two happiest days in a boater’s life is the day she buys her first boat and the day she sells her last boat. For my own part, I hope the trope isn’t true. I hope I never have a last boat. As Ratty says to Mole in Kenneth Graham’s The Wind and the Willows, “Believe me … there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

NEIL MATHISON is an essayist and short-story writer who has been a naval officer, a nuclear engineer, an expatriate businessman living in Hong Kong, a corporate vice-president, and a stay-at-home-dad. His essays and short stories have appeared in The Ontario Review, Georgia Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Agni, Blue Mesa Review, and Cold Mountain Review, among many others. “Volcano: an A to Z” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2010 while “Wooden Boat” is a “notable essay” in the Best American Essays 2013. Neil’s collection that includes both essays was the finalist in the AWP 2013 book-length nonfiction contest. http://www.neilmathison.net/