I began my sailing life as a kid in an 8ft El Toro and a 16ft Snipe on Lake Millerton in California’s San Joaquin Valley. I am concluding it as an 80-something in a Rhodes 19 on Lake Damariscotta on the coast of Maine. So what does this have to do with the hardy, oceangoing sailors who read SAIL magazine? Well, I’ve been where you’ve been, too, in between my lake-sailing daysailor days, and I’m here to tell you that there is life after saltwater.
My feel for boats came early and intimately, as my father—an architect and a master woodworker—built a jig around which my brother and I bent plywood to create our own El Toro sailing prams. Following our father’s perfectionist lead, we ensured that the slot in each screw head was aligned fore-and-aft, that the final pre-paint sanding was done with 360 grit (and tested for smoothness with the back of the hand, not the fingers or palm) and that the brush strokes were imperceptible. A few custom touches like laminating the tiller with contrasting woods put the finishing touches to it. Once you set out from shore in a craft you’ve made yourself and nothing goes wrong, you’re hooked for life.
Before long I graduated to a 16ft centerboard Snipe and then an 18ft Mercury keelboat, thrilled by competitions on my home waters and at Stillwater Cove in Pebble Beach. Later, I crewed on the 46ft Amorita in the fierce Sir Thomas Lipton Cup competitions on San Francisco Bay before moving to the East Coast. We soon discovered the magic of cruising Maine, purchased a cottage on an island and found boats to sail, and have now spent every summer in Maine since 1974.
Beyond day sails and overnighting, each summer when our three kids were still with us featured a family cruise along the Maine coast. As SAIL readers well know, such experiences are unparalleled in calling forth both the functional interdependence and the abiding patience required to sustain life afloat for people confined within 35ft of each other nonstop, around-the-clock, for a week or 10 days.
Much more importantly, however, only such experiences could occasion what happened in the cockpit one day as we were gliding down Eggemoggin Reach on an absolutely perfect sailing day. Our then-teenage daughter Shannon suddenly burst into tears. We immediately asked what was the matter, and gathering herself, she sobbed, “I don’t think I’ll ever—ever in my whole life—be as happy as I am right now.”
Over the years, we’ve delighted in sailing other venues, from the Chesapeake to the Windward Islands in the South Pacific, and we’ve had a full share of the inevitable enduring joys and momentary terrors that all sailors live for. (“Live for” terrors? Sure. I’m not the only sailor who is enlivened by what I call “the hint of menace” ever-present in saltwater sailing.)
In the last few years, though, as age has taken its toll on my balance, strength and appetite for stress, I have found myself less frequently yearning to “go down to the sea in ships” and more fondly remembering the tranquility of lake sailing. And so it was that last year I sold off the last of my coastal cruising boats and found a derelict Rhodes 19 that had been left uncovered for years to serve as a collection bin for rotting leaves and a haven for little critters seeking shelter. Improbably but appropriately, it was named Wharf Rat.
Propelled by the notion that both the boat and a new owner might have a dance left in them yet, I acquired her and plunged into a restoration project that conjured up all the boyhood gratifications of creating a craft to be proud of. After stripping off all its wood, I delivered the hull to Stuart Marine in nearby Rockland, where she had been built in 1992. Many months and dollars later, the hull was returned to me better than new. Meanwhile, I was happily toiling away in my barn, grinding down decades of neglected varnish and blemished wood to restore the brightwork, refurbish the spars and fittings and doing whatever else was within my skill set. And of course, the boat needed a new name, one that fit both her easygoing nature and my own purpose for her. She is now called Peace.
During our last sail of the summer—a warm sunny day with a fine breeze piping and the slight chop of Lake Damariscotta slapping her hull—I suddenly felt a deep surge of nearly tearful emotion that made me wonder, like Shannon on Eggemoggin Reach, if I could ever be this happy again.