As the days warm and the nights lengthen, the waterfront comes alive
I grew up in a small riverside village with three boatyards within a half-mile of the family home. Each spring we were serenaded by the sounds of pile drivers and power tools; hammering, scraping and sanding; the smell of paint, varnish, creosote and outboard exhaust. Remember red lead?
Spring and early summer is a great time along the waterfront, everything just waking, every dream fresh, any adventure possible. Even the sad little tubs emerging from beneath their winter tarps and covers look as if they are worth the effort — one more coat of paint and wax, new plugs, perhaps a water pump, some TLC.
The regulars at the marina lean against pickup trucks and catch up after the offseason hiatus, talking about their boats and fishing, where they plan to cruise this summer and what still needs to get accomplished to get under way. Another old boy pulls into the yard with a boat on a trailer and they break their gam to help with the launch.
Early in the season it is a landscape of Tyvek suits and respirators, dirty Carhartts and fresh calluses, the right tools, expensive parts, the mechanic who never shows, heavy chain, shackles and mooring balls, elbow grease and working until dark. The real fuel isn’t gas or diesel or even the wind; it’s the passion for being back on the water, for shoving off from terra firma and experiencing once more the wonderful sense of freedom that comes from being master and commander of your own little ship.
This is an ode to the waterfront — to all the boatyards, marinas, boat clubs, yacht clubs, repair sheds, chandleries, lobster sheds, brokerages, clam shacks, raw bars, ancient wharfs, dusty nautical antique shops, skiff rentals and anything else that smacks of the sea. It is the smelly beat-up trucks of the pin hookers; the old fishermen’s bars with pool tables and tired, tipsy watermen; fried food wafting from the waterfront eateries; a tackle shop with two dogs sleeping in the corners and a big tank of live eels gurgling away like a fountain; a cold dark ‘n’ stormy in a stuffy members-only club overlooking the harbor.
It is three boys swimming in the river on a hot spring day while their fathers repair the docks at a community boat club. Cars and trucks loaded down with tools, paint, cleaners, sealants, extension cords, flashlights, boat parts, buckets and Lord knows what else. Not a square inch to spare. It’s Dumpster diving, regardless of your age. And Roger Hall’s big, booming voice, rolling like thunder over historic Lotteryville Marina in Avondale, R.I., where they have been tying up boats in one fashion or another since just after dinosaurs departed the Earth.
It is all those people and places and things you can set your seasonal clock by. This is home away from home. True north. As close to heaven on earth as some of these reprobates (this writer included) are likely to get.
I walk down the lane of the sleepy village once known as Fish Town, past the boatyards to the artist’s studio adjacent to an old saltwater farm where Colonial farmers who rose with the sun harvested salt hay from the estuary. Propped up outside against an antique flatiron is a sculpture of a three-masted sailing ship fashioned from pieces of a wreck tossed up on a winter beach. The weathered piece of wood is about 3 feet long and peppered through with wormholes and the fragments of at least nine large bronze nails. The artist has transformed the relic into a ghost ship of sorts with a bowsprit, rudder, three masts and rigging — after resting on the sea floor these many moons, this gray seabird sails once more.
Also taking shape on a workbench outside is a wind-driven wooden toy known as a whirligig. The end that will act as a sail and point into the wind is a thin silhouette of a skiff with a dog standing in the bow and a man in the stern, one hand on the little outboard tiller, the other waving goodbye. Mounted at the other end of the 30-inch-long creation is a carved figure of a woman whose two arms are made from lightweight wooden blades designed to turn round and round in a breeze.
The man in the skiff represents an actual waterfront character known as “Chick,” who works as the caretaker of an island estate. The woman is his wife. The story is that whenever there is work to be done ashore, Chick and the dog can be found sneaking off in his skiff to the quiet of the island just offshore. The whirligig will be mounted at the water’s edge beside the small stone house where they live.
The talk turns to the rich cast of characters who for generations have given the waterfront a certain color, texture, language and swagger. Guys just barely on the grid. The artist tells a funny story about an incident that happened 30 years ago while he was sipping a beer in a yacht club bar. He was the guest of another sailor whose dues had lapsed. A former commodore — a real stickler for protocol — approached the pair, and the older man tapped the member on the shoulder and whispered that he needed to finish his drink and leave the club. Until the dues were paid in full he was no longer a member in good standing, he was informed, and it was not proper for him to be relaxing in the club bar.
The remembrance prompted a story about a dragger captain known as Buck, who like the stuffed-shirt commodore has since been called to his final eight bells. When Buck came ashore with a good thirst after several days of fishing, he’d make the rounds of waterfront establishments, the cash burning a hole right through the pocket in his jeans. The good captain had a spot reserved for him at the end of the bar in one of his favorite joints, which was set up especially for the larger-than-life character. When it was late in the evening and Buck was on a good toot, the draggerman could strap himself to the bar and onto his stool with a lanyard that went around his back and fastened to the brass fixture on the bar. Kept the old salt from falling overboard.
The scratchy sound of songbirds greets me on the walk back to the marina, where an osprey issues its loud, clear whistle. Down the bay, terns are working. Soon enough, the truck will smell of wet waders, wet clothes, wet dog. A little cigar smoke. As the evening comes you can smell and taste the salt in the fog as it rolls over the dunes and works its way up the river from the sound.
Another season is under way, and we are happily working our way home.
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This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue.