Under Way

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Sometimes water is as thick as blood

“It is remarkable how quickly a good and favorable wind can sweep away the maddening frustrations of shore living.”

— Ernest K. Gann

Sometimes water is as thick as blood

The cockpit of a small boat is a good place for a father and son to be on a warm day in early October, when the season is closing in and time is growing short.

Boats possess a magic that isn’t obvious looking at them tied to a slip or riding on a mooring. They bring people together and open them up in ways that don’t happen on terra firma, at least not for me and my family.

My father’s forebears arrived in the New World (Portsmouth, R.I.) around 1644, perhaps earlier, and my father grew up not more than 35 miles away as the crow flies.

We are not a particularly demonstrative family. The patriarch of the clan is a “swamp Yankee” — child of the Great Depression, World War II veteran, tough, laconic and independent. Eighty-four years old, wiry as a sapling and thick-skinned as a pasture oak, my father expects everyone to enjoy his wit and tongue, which, like a tart Granny Smith apple, is an acquired taste.

Of this father-and-son relationship, my mother says simply: “The apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.” By this point in life, we are who we are, for better or worse.

I put out a hand to help him board, but he wants no part of it, thank you. He’ll do it himself. I get him situated and then we are under way, heading down the tidal river that leads into Watch Hill, R.I., and Little Narragansett Bay.

My 1968 Boston Whaler Nauset has just finished a 2-1/2-year refit (that’s a story for another day) and this is the first time he’s been on board. I show him the new chart plotter; he is mildly interested. He knows little about computers and couldn’t care less. Occasionally, he asks about the depth of the water.

He lets me know in his direct style that the varnished pilot seat is hard on his backside. I dig out a seat cushion. I have brought along a heavy jacket because he feels the cold more these days, but the sun is out and the wind is light and from the southwest, so it stays stowed. He’s wearing boat shoes that he says are probably 20 years old. We make quite a team.

I run the boat through a shallow cut in the bay that was opened up by the Great Hurricane of 1938. To starboard is a small island called Sandy Point, which is migrating to the north. Prior to the hurricane, this sand spit was attached to Napatree Point, to port.

“I bet there aren’t 10 people alive who remember what it used to look like,” he says. That’s what comes from living a long time in one area.

The 1938 hurricane is still very much on his mind, so dramatically did it alter this landscape that he has known all his life. We round Napatree Point and cruise at a moderate 12 or 13 knots along a pretty barrier beach that prior to the hurricane was lined with summer cottages and a large public bathing pavilion. I go easily over the wakes. The swell is small, and the breeze has just scuffed up the surface a bit. He points to shore. The dunes are high now and topped with American beach grass, but he’s looking at something else, something I can’t see.

“Forty-five houses,” he says. “All gone.”

“Every one of them?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“Every last one of them,” he says. “All 45. There wasn’t a stick left on the beach.”

The hurricane killed nearly 700 people in the Northeast, many of them in Westerly, R.I., where Watch Hill is located. He remembers the big seawall that guarded the homes. How could that be breached?

“It just sank out of sight,” he says. “Lost in the sand.”

He stands at times and moves forward of the console, holding onto the bow rail and staring at the shore. Sometimes he speaks; sometimes he doesn’t. I wonder what he’s thinking, what he’s remembering. This was the site of his childhood — and mine, too.

We find ourselves with very different memories spilling out over the same ground. As we motor past Watch Hill Lighthouse, he recalls when the lifesaving buildings were still standing and the rescue boats were launched in a cove where one of his close friends used to keep a lobster skiff. All of this is gone now. And the light sequence has changed, too, he says. “It used to be two short reds and a long white,” he says. “Now it’s just red, white, red, white.”

Someone remarked the other day about how fast the time is passing. It’s the sort of throwaway comment you hear all the time. You laugh and shrug — “We’re all getting older,” you sigh, sounding world-weary — and go on with life. What else can you do? Today it gives me pause.

My youngest child is 4 years old. The next day I had hoped to take him fishing, but something came up and we had to put it off. You blink, and summer has turned to fall. Close your eyes again and the son is now a father, and the father has grown old.

Fall always brings with it an urgency. The season is going fast, and I need to grasp what little remains as tightly as possible before that disappears, too.

I hope for an early spring, when fathers and sons, sisters and brothers will again experience the magic of the waters.