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The boats that stand out in my life

I’ve been in boating for most of my life, except when I was trying to imitate John Wayne while in the service. My boating’s split pretty evenly between power and sail. I even survived building a 32-foot sailboat, and yet when I think of the boats I’ve owned, raced or delivered, only three stand out.

One was a 16-1/2-foot yellow cathedral-hull bowrider that we bought as a dive boat and towed to dive sites in the United States and Canada. Towing a boat is not my favorite pastime, but it provided a platform for adventure in salt and fresh water.

One incident I remember fondly was on a lake in Ontario while boating with our three young daughters. They were sprawled in the bow, soaking up the sun as a large powerboat throwing large wake crossed a few hundred feet ahead of us. I asked my daughters to move aft, but, of course, they didn’t respond. The bow lifted to the first wave, but with their weight forward, it couldn’t recover and lift to the next wave. They were shocked awake by the cold water, accusing my wife, Lou, and me of not warning them. Cruel perhaps, but it provided a lesson they remember to this day. They’re still convinced I was the cause.

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The two other boats that come to mind are both sailboats. The first is an exercise in how not to buy a boat. Windigo was a 24-foot carvel-built, clipper-bow centerboard cutter built in Baie-Comeau, Quebec. The hull was white, and the counter stern, cabin, cockpit coamings and gunwales were mahogany and finished bright, as was her spruce mast. She had low freeboard and a well-sprung sheer. I saw her, and it was love at first sight. Throwing advice, caution and common sense to the wind, I bought her on the spot. No survey, nothing. Lou warned me. To her credit she’s never said, “I told you so.”

Windigo was a truly beautiful boat, and we lavished care on her. My oldest daughter and I really learned the art of varnishing, and in sunlight her brightwork gleamed as if polished bronze. Alas, beauty is only skin-deep. She sailed like a witch (hard-mouthed on the wind) and leaked like a sieve. In late winter, we would spread tarps over the snow to clean out and caulk her seams. They say the family that caulks together talks together, and it worked for us.

We tried coating her bilge with catalyzed resin, but found that, without a heat source, resin wouldn’t cure in sub-freezing weather. Every spring we would launch her and watch her sink. The marine lift would have to hold her until the wood swelled to seal her seams. Even on land she always had about three shot glasses of water standing in her bilge. To crew her, we had two sailing, two bailing and one providing sustenance and drinks.

Interestingly enough, maintaining and sailing that boat was one place where the lines of communication between our teenage daughters and us were open. We never had to cajole our daughters into working on her. Windigo taught me a lot. How to splice 7-by-7 wire rope and fiber rope, repair sails and rope them, find and repair dry rot. In fact, Lou can still smell out dry-rot. I was lucky. I met several old salts and learned from them. The lessons I learned stayed with me and helped make me a seaman.

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Our next boat was fiberglass, a Nonsuch 30, a wishbone-boomed catboat with a fin keel/spade rudder. Once you got the hang of sailing her, she proved to be very fast on all points of sail.

We bought Ten-Yo for charter and could offer the accommodations of a 35-foot boat for the cost of a 30-footer. She entered Bayfield Race Week on her first outing and took first in class, first in the Olympic Series, and third in fleet. She was roomy and perfect for Lake Superior because she boasted a kerosene fireplace. During an early winter storm on Madeline Island, Wis., we were able to host all the boaters trapped with us to a huge pot of chili. She was just a great, fun boat for our whole family.

I guess it’s not so much the boats, but the memories that stay with us.

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.