A small boat and a warm summer day can nurture a love that lasts a lifetime
Small boats are the soul of boating for many of us; they are where we start and often where we finish. We were allowed to use them in our youth because they had limited monetary value; we allow ourselves to use them in old age often for the same reason — and to get back in touch with why we fell for boating in the first place.
Although some of us might have gone cruising in larger vessels at a young age, the significant experiences for most of us were in small boats. At some point, usually between 5 and 10 years of age, we were allowed to pilot these little ships ourselves, often with our young contemporaries as crew. These small boats and the places we used them made boating an essential and inevitable part of life, far more than later, larger and much more elaborate yachts ever would or could.
My four siblings and I lived on a central Maine lake in the summer through the 1950s and had a variety of small craft at our disposal once we had passed the “swim across the lake” test. This was not the only test, however. My mother thought we should also experience “sudden unexpected immersion” as part of our preparation for single-handing our small boats around the lake. This test consisted of my mother upending one of us, or the boat we were in, on some flimsy pretext such as reaching too far over the side for something or asking us to look for the oarlock she had “accidentally” dropped over the side in a few feet of water.
We had a square-ended pram — my launch platform for sudden unexpected immersion — a cat-rigged Barnegat sneakbox catboat, an odd steel outboard called “The Old Tin Tub” and, in the year I turned 8, the sleek and nimble Skimmar. It was a flat-bottom plywood skiff with a jaunty bow that I considered my first command. Though it technically was a family boat, the occasion for its purchase was a promise my grandfather made as I recovered from a tonsillectomy: to find for us kids, which I interpreted as me, a safe, small boat appropriate for a 3-hp Johnson outboard he had in his garage.
A few weeks after I left the hospital he took me to a small-boat and outboard dealer in Hallowell, Maine, on the banks of the Kennebec River. Standing against an outside wall was a row of plywood skiffs built by Skimmar (at least that is how I remember the brand name.) He picked out a 12-foot model, managed to get the whole package delivered to the lake shortly thereafter and I have never been the same since.
I had that boat for more than 25 years, and when it became dangerous to take a couple of adults to sea I cut it up with a chain saw in an emotional private ceremony, saving the stem, bow eye and a few measurements. I carried these around for several years and eventually built another. It carried the next generation of my family and is now in my daughter’s possession.
When I was about 12, my parents decided to try Boothbay Harbor, Maine, as a summer destination. They were from central Maine and had spent time in Boothbay with their respective families, although my mother was by far the more experienced boater; Dad was a tourist from the foothills. My maternal grandfather, from the Skimmar period, had kept a boat in Boothbay from his home in Augusta. The best thing about Boothbay for me was that there was a boatyard across the street and my grandfather would come down to search the local yards for a proper launch for the next phase of our boating education.
By 13, I was running our Norman Hodgdon 24-foot inboard launch into town for groceries and over to Norman’s yard from time to time for small repairs. We kept it on a mooring at Blake’s Boatyard in West Boothbay and reached it from the float via the Skimmar, now sporting a Johnson 5-1/2.
I have always had a fascination with boatyards. On an early spring visit to Boothbay, we brought along a good friend of my older brother John. The friend was a boat romantic like me and quickly spied an open-seamed old launch at Blake’s that became the subject of restoration plans.
We spent the next couple of hours planning her next life, renamed the Kumquat. Unfortunately, the Kumquat foundered on the shoals of insufficient teenage capital. Our investors rejected the business plan for restoration.
In the corners of boatyards and yacht clubs there are often the remnants of dreams and adventures long past. In the boatyard where I now work — writing e-mail marketing missives, generating Web content and brokering boats — I ran across a stripped runabout on an old trailer. No engine, no seats, no name or numbers.
In a yard full of gold-platers, I knew there had to be a story — and there was. One of the company’s principals, who has spent a life in the boat business, had worked as a teenager in an outboard dealership. The boat in question had burned partially in a fire resulting from a seized bearing and a tire on fire. His dad purchased the hulk at salvage and restored it to working order; it garnered an indelible place in their lives and hearts. It is a story with an unwritten ending. Like the Skimmar, there might be another chapter.
My friends Buzzy and Bunkie, themselves childhood friends in Portsmouth, Va., were wharf rats at the old Portsmouth Boat Club, whose headquarters have long since been buried by urban renewal. The club’s longtime launch was The Queen, a former World War II lifeboat. Laid up and engineless, it sat in the corner of the club’s lot, perfect fodder for a couple of boys with dreams of command. She floated again, driven by an old Evinrude hung on a bracket over the side, and provided the base for the whole gamut of adventures that two teenage boys might desire. Like the Skimmar, bits and pieces of The Queen reside in the corner of Buzzy’s shop, itching for a new beginning.
For me, the small-boat romance has continued for nearly 60 years. Forgetting my later pretenses of actual yachting, I have built the second coming of the original 12-foot Skimmar; the Blueberry, a 16-foot sharpie skiff from S.S. Rabl’s “Boat Building in Your Own Backyard”; a larger and much more rugged version of the Skimmar, called Girl, with my son’s friend Kevin; a 16-foot Phil Bolger Gypsy; and several fiberglass kayaks. Currently I am limping along with three kayaks and the Gypsy in Maine and a 14-foot aluminum skiff in Virginia from which I fish for the mighty croaker and fearsome Norfolk spot. Practical as the aluminum skiff is, there is no substitute for piloting a small craft of your own build.
My colleague at work has a grandchild who recently had her tonsils removed. Of course, I told her that my grandfather used the occasion to get me a boat. She is still a bit young for her first command, but I think there is a boat in the corner of a boatyard with a lot of potential.
Peter Bass writes the “View From the Porch” column in Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors magazine, where he is a longtime contributing editor. He lives in Portsmouth, Va., but retains deeded access to a porch rocker in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.
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This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue.