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Waterlines: In Praise of Older Women

An Englishman I met in British Columbia once told me that sooner or later every sailor falls in love with an older woman. His name was Duncan, and the moment he saw my boat, Drummer, he was awash in longing...

An Englishman I met in British Columbia once told me that sooner or later every sailor falls in love with an older woman. His name was Duncan, and the moment he saw my boat, Drummer, he was awash in longing.

“And you know,” he added with a philosophical twinkle, “the only way that can hurt you is if it doesn’t happen.”

I didn’t know. At thirty-five I was still too young, and my mind too slippery, to grasp eternal truths, but his earnestness won me over. Of course, he was speaking metaphorically about older boats. I smiled at his poetics.

We met on a beautiful evening in Ganges, a fishing village on Salt Spring Island, midway between the cities of Vancouver, on the mainland, and Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Ganges is one of my favorite stops in the Gulf Islands. The locals exhibit a charming post-apocalyptic grittiness, a kind of hopeful foreshadowing of The Rapture. Recent years have seen a rising tide of off-island disposable income flood the place with the detritus of affluenza. Starter castles festoon the ramparts above Swanson Channel and dispatch their Porsches and Jaguars to Mouat’s grocery store each afternoon for daiquiri mix and a little mingling with the masses, but even all that glitter can’t hide this town’s blue collar. When you walk from the government dock to the town square, shaggy dogs watch you pass from tumbledown front porches. Nothing says, “Welcome back!” like a low growl and the gleam of a canine incisor. I could live there.

That particular evening, the air above the harbor was a rosy violet. A lamb tenderloin with carrots, spuds and huckleberry ice cream made an appearance at our table in a little Greek place off the main square. Then my cruising mates and I walked along kicking loose stones toward a future we couldn’t imagine, discussing the nonsense of the world. Tears of laughter poured down our cheeks as we turned down the gangway onto the dock and met a small knot of English tourists out for a stroll. 

“You wouldn’t belong to that beautiful sailboat at the end of the dock, would you now?” asked an elderly gentleman.

“Ahhhh,” I flushed pride, “that I would!”

His female companion, a well-nourished woman with lavender tinted hair, reached for his elbow and steered him landward. “Come, Duncan, we’ve seen enough boats.”

“Perhaps another time,” he called pleasantly, and strode away.

A young schoolteacher tending a group of dock-rats on a science field trip looked up from her Sidney Sheldon novel as we continued on our way. The kids were all fishing, baiting hooks, poking squirmy things in nets with knives and sticks. 

“There’s been a parade of people on this dock lookin’ at your boat,” she said brightly. “One guy was near tears. He said, ‘Lord Jee-zus, somebody sweat blood over this boat.’”

“Somebody did,” I grinned.

“Cool name, Drummer.”

“Thanks. She was a mess. Fixed her up some.”

“I should say,” she said.

When I bought Drummer, a Pearson Triton, she was a 30-year-old derelict dowager, a chaotic mess of dry rot, broken rigging and bare wires dangling from ersatz light sockets.

“How much you want for her?” I asked the Ishmael at the marina office. He told me, I countered, and five minutes later I drove away from the cackles of laughter, burning with pride. At last, I owned a real boat.

I’d had the boat-owning fever since I was a teenager, and now, in disbelief, the fever had broken. I spent the next three years rebuilding her from keel to masthead. I even laid a teak deck (madness!), and when I was done, a thousand plus hours of labor had been deposited in a “good sailing karma” bank account with my name on it. Gordon, the artist who painted her hull, once told me, “This boat don’t need an ocean, it needs a museum.”

When Drummer tied up to a new dock, she often drew a crowd. My derelict dowager graced the cover of this magazine, and several others, on six occasions. They say time cures hubris. I’m not so sure.

That evening in Ganges, I sat in the cockpit and watched the stars swirl. A slow-moving shadow materialized into my new friend, Duncan, who had returned for one last look. I welcomed him aboard, poured us some Earl Grey, and he told me about falling in love with older women. For just a moment, for old friends and other strangers, time stopped. Then I filed his wisdom under “Duncan, Englishman,” and sipped my tea.

Night gathered her skirts as footsteps approached. A shapely silhouette appeared on the dock beside us. My schoolteacher friend had returned, her hair brushed out, a shawl draped over her shoulders against the evening chill. 

“You’re back,” I said. 

“So it seems,” she said, flashing me a smile that women have been practicing for a million years. “I was wondering. There’s a great band from the mainland playing in town tonight. Would you like to go dancing?”

Duncan smiled at me. “Run along,” he chirped. “You kids have fun.” 

Paul VanDevelder is an author, journalist and screenwriter, and a long-time contributor to SAIL

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