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Under Way - July 2007

Sandpaper, varnish and a moment in time

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Two bright-eyed kids armed with sandpaper are just starting to put their young muscles into the job of roughing up the varnish on a mahogany pilot seat. Giving it a “tooth.” After a week of heavy spring rain, a dazzling morning unfurls like the young leaves on an aging maple on our windy hill.

“Go with the grain, guys,” I instruct them. “That’s right, with the grain.”

It’s nice to hear them chattering like nesting birds, with their excess energy finding a focus and purpose. At ages 7 and 8, a boy and a girl, they are anxious to try anything, happy to work on the old boat beside their old man. They take turns with the sanding block and small pieces of 220-grit paper. Their hands are small and soft.

“Am I doing it right?”

“Am I scratching it?”

“How does this look, Dad?”

I suspect the day will come when the sanding and waxing and painting seem like drudgery; they will complain, defer and wiggle out of spring boat chores that today are special and new. In another blink, they will be looking at colleges and standing on the cusp of adulthood.

What will they remember? What will they take with them? Sometime later, perhaps, they will recall a spring day like this: the smell of lilac on the light northerly; the fine varnish dust that builds up on our work and hands and forearms; a sky with just the barest trace of clouds; the orange cat stretching on the porch steps, ears twitching to the noisy, emerging life. For about 45 minutes the world is just right, nearly perfect. The season is young and everything lies ahead.


Like time-lapse photography the trees and flowering shrubs follow our progress over the next several weeks, marking the passage of time in scent and pollen and color. Varnishing begins. The adults work on the big parts; the kids tackle with foam brushes a piece of mahogany that covers the anchor locker.

So what if they — or their father, for that matter — leave a sag or a run, or miss a spot or two. It’s not the end of the world. What can they hurt, really, that can’t be fixed with a bit of epoxy, some sandpaper and varnish, a few well-placed screws and fasteners, the odd piece of hardware fabricated on a lathe? After all, the boat is almost 40 years old. My friend Frank, who rebuilt it with me, calls it “functional restoration.”

I used to worry more about water seeping into the cores of my boats or drilling holes below the waterline until I met a “restoration” expert of a different sort, one who could open up perfect little holes in children and remove the most terrible things. Big hands. Perfect hands. Surgeon hands. And such delicate work, all of it below the waterline, too, where the systems are complicated, all that intricate wiring, plumbing, filters and the big pump laid in there just so. It’s all high-wire stuff, no net.

After that, it seemed sort of silly to sweat the boat stuff. You learn that it’s all a matter of perspective.


The small, red notebook in my hands is an echo of a man I barely remember. A Norwegian-born yacht captain and World War I veteran, Olaf Berentsen sailed into Watch Hill (R.I.) Harbor sometime in the 1920s, met my widowed grandmother and her two children (including my father), married, swallowed the anchor and moved ashore.

Everyone called him “Cap” out of respect for his years of running boats. He was quiet, stoic and capable. Saw too much war at the front and couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about it later. What I remember about him was that he, too, could fix just about anything — or build it from scratch, like the iceboat and skiff still in the barn loft of the family home.

I found the tattered notebook this spring. It contains lists of supplies that my grandfather purchased for the yacht Reverie between 1922 and 1924, written in the most beautiful cursive I’ve seen. Funny. I am buying some of the same materials now that he purchased on the same date, some 85 years earlier.

April 3: 1 file — 20 cents

April 7: 1 dozen sandpaper — 25 cents

April 8: 2 small brushes — 40 cents

April 11: 1/2 gallon varnish — $2.85

And so it goes for shellac, zinc, screws, paint, stain, white lead, brass polish, cheese cloth and a host of other chandlery supplies.

As I mentioned, he was Cap to everyone, including my father. One Christmas my mother received a gift from him with a card signed “from Dad.” She is 93 today but remembers it clearly. “It made me feel sad,” she recently recalled. “I think he just wanted to be called ‘Dad.’ ”


“Dad! Dad! Am I doing it right?”

It has been a good spring. The work has gone well. We’ll splash our little boat in a few days.

Boats can teach all kinds of lessons, enhance all sorts of skills, including working together. The children first need to learn what any smart sailor already knows about the value of going with the tide, with the wind.

But before my young crew fledges, I also need to teach them that life, like voyaging, sometime requires you buck the tide, jog into a big head sea. Sometimes you need to go against the grain.