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A father’s legacy: his way with boats

Going to sea in small boats has a way of humbling those of us who are reasonably accomplished on land. Such was the case with my father — and with me, at least as far as the “humbling” part is concerned.

Going to sea in small boats has a way of humbling those of us who are reasonably accomplished on land. Such was the case with my father — and with me, at least as far as the “humbling” part is concerned.

Dad graduated from an upstate New York high school at the top of his class, attended college on a scholarship, learned the law and became a leader in his community. Throughout that time, he loved boats. And when he was out in his boat or messing around with boats on land, he was just like the rest of us trying to catch a fish or fix balky machinery and dry rot. I loved those times with him.

Dad’s ancestors purchased HalfwayIsland, one of the smallest of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River. Boats were obviously very important on Halfway. To Dad, running a skiff with an outboard was a life skill.

My mother (Ruth, but known as June) didn’t like boats very much and liked Halfway even less. Because the rocks were so steep and the water so deep, she made us wear life preservers when we were on land. So Mother moved all of us to Old Saybrook, Conn., where the Connecticut River meets Long Island Sound.

Dad needed a boat to go along with this new maritime paradise. He decided to build a boat and, because he was busy with his legal career, he bought a kit. I remember a trailer truck arriving in the winter of 1959 with many big pieces of wood. I was 4 years old.

I never asked why he didn’t buy a used boat. I now suppose it has to do with what Thomas Fleming Day, the editor of Rudder Magazine, meant when he wrote, “It’s not about the having, it’s about the doing.”

While Dad was handy, he didn’t have much of a shop. Undaunted, he built an 18-foot outboard runabout with a power drill, a Yankee ratchet screwdriver, a combination table/jig/band saw, and lots of clamps. (I still have the screwdriver, the saw, and the clamps.) He boiled towels to moisten and bend the quarter-inch plywood over the mahogany sawn frames. We all helped paint her — white topsides, red bottom and tan non-skid decks. The windshield and top would come later.

The boat was beautiful, but too large to exit our basement. I remember male relatives arriving to decide what to do and, later, the boat emerging from a large hole in the side of our house.

Down the ways

Launch day arrived. The tide was high. The neighbors assembled. The new 35-hp pull-start Evinrude was mounted on the transom, inside the well that Dad had added for safety. Dad liked to swear and did that a fair amount to make sure the new motor would start. All six of us piled in, with our life jackets, and said goodbye to our neighbors.

All went well, except that Dad had hooked up the steering backwards so that the boat turned to port when the wheel was turned to starboard. This caused more swearing. I clung to my mother and cried. I recollect that she and I were put ashore and the shakedown cruise continued without us. Mother liked that boat about as much as she liked HalfwayIsland. We named the boat, somewhat in her honor, “Ruth Less.”

A couple of years later Dad started fishing for blues and striped bass with some of his friends from Old Saybrook. The best fishing grounds were nine miles across Long Island Sound near Plum Gut and Gardiner’s Island, too far and treacherous for an 18-foot homebuilt runabout. Dad’s friends had classic New England bass boats, which were essentially Maine lobsterboats with an open cockpit instead of a covered pilothouse.

Moving up

Soon, he bought a used 23-foot Marblehead Bass Boat with a 135-hp Palmer straight-six inboard. She was built-down with a soft entry, round chines, full keel and skeg. For accommodations she had a small cuddy with a V-berth and bronze portholes. She was slow, solid and very seaworthy. Even my mother liked her … and we named her “Juno.”

Dad and Mother took the U.S. Power Squadron’s safe boating course and Mother earned a higher score on the final exam.

Off we went to Millstone Point (before the nuclear plants were built), ShelterIsland, and Block Island. The evenings were the best. Dad was always satisfied that his vessel and seamanship had brought him to a new harbor, which until that evening had been a distant name on a chart. And he seemed quite content to be there in that cuddy with me.

After 10 years of good service, Juno started to rot and needed a new engine. Dad started looking for a larger boat. He liked Juno’s soft ride and full keel, and he wanted a boat that would get him home, no matter what. It was the early 1970s and Dyer was transitioning the design of their 29-foot cruiser to a flush deck bass boat.

Dad ordered Hull No. 78 from Dyer in fall 1971 and made multiple trips to Dyer’s factory in Warren, R.I., to monitor the building process. He was not prone to buying options, but he did order a compass.

Soon it was spring and she was ready. So Dad — by now a leader in his field — and I took the Greyhound bus from Hartford to Warren to pick up our new Dyer 29.

And there she was: white topsides and sky-blue decks, riding comfortably at Dyer’s dock ready for our adventures. I remember spending the night on board, starting up the new Daytona V-8 as dawn broke, and motoring down Narragansett Bay, to arrive in Old Saybrook by early afternoon.

The new Juno met every expectation. She caught her share of blues and bass. She was seaworthy, at one point shrugging off a line squall with gusts up to 55 knots. She was reliable, and extremely well-built. And you couldn’t take your eyes off her. At least our neighbor must have thought so as he bought Hull No. 124 three years later.

We owned our Dyer for about 10 years, until my father retired around 1985 from the law and took up golf. He sold her, I married and had children and started to establish my own career. Dad died in 1991.

Father to son

I wasn’t thinking about boats much until I rented an old skiff for the day in 1992 to take my 4-year-old daughter fishing. At the end of the afternoon, walking off the dock with salt in my eyes, a white canvas bag full of boat stuff and daughter in tow, I decided to buy a boat.

Within a year I owned an Eastern 18, which is a sweet little round-chine outboard with a full keel. Like father, like son; I bought the boat bare and built my own console and seats. I splurged for a compass and a handheld VHF, and Mother bought me a handheld GPS knowing that her grandchildren would be drawn into my adventures.

As my children became old enough to want to go off for the night, I bought a Pompano 21, a small lobsterboat with an inboard diesel and a cuddy for those magical evenings, and named her Trophy Wife.

The purpose of the cuddy on a boat is to take trips. And the ultimate destination, as far as I was concerned, was northern New York via the Hudson River, the ChamplainCanal and Lake Champlain. Yes, that was a long way to go in a small boat but with planning, time, compass and charts, anything is possible.

It helped immeasurably that our then-10-year-old son, Henry, was fascinated with military history and wanted to see all the forts and battlefields along the Hudson. So, off we set from Shelter Island, west down Long Island Sound, through New York Harbor, and due north up the Hudson, stopping at West Point, Saratoga, and Fort Ticonderoga along the way.

We almost didn’t make it, and not because of a nautical mishap. New YorkHarbor can be a rough place for a small boat, so that morning we crept north along the western shore of Manhattan to stay in the lee of a stiff northeast wind. As we approached the USS Intrepid at New York’s Pier 86, Henry asked for a closer look. All was fine until we heard, “Little blue yacht, cease all forward way!”

We turned to see an orange Coast Guard Zodiac headed for us at full throttle, its bow-mounted machine gun pointed at us. The gun was, we assumed, functional.

Two Coasties in full military gear jumped aboard and demanded to know where we going. Henry stammered, “V-V-Vermont,” and threw them the charts. After ascertaining that the cuddy was not crammed with fuel oil and fertilizer, they resorted to a safety check, which we passed in flying colors. Henry answered all their questions, and then finished by reminding them that a diesel does not need a spark arrestor. After a picture with the officers, we were on our way.

We settled into a routine of 40 miles per day, usually in the morning, followed by a stop of military interest. We enjoyed many magical evenings in the cuddy, just father and son. We ended our adventure by “attacking” FortTiconderoga, where we met the truck that would haul Trophy Wife home.

The larger reaches of Lake Champlain, ValcourIsland (the site of Benedict Arnold’s battle with the British in 1777), and Montreal and Quebec still beckoned. But I wanted something a little bigger than the Pompano for extended cruising. Upon our return home, I started to look for a step up.

The next boat

Naturally, I began looking at Dyers. I contacted Tad Jones at Dyer, who gave me the full history of my father’s purchase of Juno and every hull then available for sale. When I learned that Hull No. 124 had been listed by the family who bought her new in 1974, I did not resist. She was in original condition, complete with the Chrysler 250-hp V-8. She was better equipped for cruising than Dad’s Juno as she had a trunk cabin and sheltered helm, aft tiller steering and controls, and nice teak trim.

She needed some cosmetics, but her very ’70s aqua green gelcoat still glistened. I paid the asking price and I had my Dyer. I had planned to replace the Chrysler and installed a 200-hp Yanmar diesel within two weeks of the purchase (after the Chrysler quit in the middle of Long Island Sound).

In many respects, the Dyer 29 is the original Down East “lobster yacht” that has spawned numerous look-alikes like the Legacy, Hinckley and, most recently, Back Cove. As someone has written, they are a boater’s boat, with nothing important omitted and nothing unnecessary added.

Modeled after the better lobsterboat designs, they are round-bilged with a full keel to protect the running gear and provide good tracking at slow speeds. They are easily driven and provide a very soft ride even in nasty conditions. Anyone with a keen eye for good boats can’t take his eye off the graceful sheer line and cambered transom. And they are built as well, too.

We named her “Thanks.”

Thanks to my father for making special time for me on the water. Thanks to my children for wanting the same experiences with me. Thanks to my company for paying me enough. And thanks to my wife for tolerating me and my nautical obsessions.

Andrew Chapman, 51, is a utility executive in New York City. He keeps Thanks on ShelterIsland, where he cruises with his family to Connecticut, Block Island and Gardiner’s Bay.