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Under Way - September 2006

Trolling the waters of rich memories

Trolling the waters of rich memories

There is something about being on and around the water that makes us want to pass it on to the people most important to us, to share it with the young, with our children and our friends. For me, that is the clearest signal that something special is at work “out there,” out where the waters are bright and the wind is filling in, out where we strive to spend so much of our time.

I find myself putting these thoughts down on paper now because my son and youngest daughter, who are 6 and 7, respectively, are spending more and more time with me “out there.” They are enthusiastic shipmates who are anxious to learn everything and anything, as long as it comes in short doses and is fun.

To my way of thinking, it is a good thing for our young charges to taste salt spray on their lips and feel it in their eyes and hair — that tight, scratchy sensation as the sea dries on the skin. How good will a freshwater shower feel after all that salt and sun? It’s a good thing to slip the traces of terra firma and play for an afternoon in the wind and swells. The motion is unfamiliar to them at first, like walking is to a toddler. But in time the pitch and roll will become second nature, and you hope that they too will wonder, as you did, how they ever lived without it.

In many small ways I see myself in them, as I was some 40-plus years ago on nearly every outing. As a child I wanted nothing more than to be on the water with a crab net, hand-line, and later a fishing rod and bucket firmly in my hands. I lived on the docks and sea wall across the street from my father’s summer business, and I pestered the three leathery charter skippers who tied up there about everything under the sun.

Each August my family would charter the Bobby D, and we’d motor slowly out through Little Narragansett Bay in Watch Hill, R.I., to the Middle Grounds for a day of bottom fishing. To me it seemed as if we were sailing to Timbuktu. The excitement was intoxicating. I remember the sound and smell and vibration of the diesel, the white glare of the sun off the water, my mother’s hand grasping the back of my shorts as I struggled to lean as far over the gunwale as a boy could lean. I lived for that trip. Not long ago, I watched a home movie of one of those outings, and it all came back so clearly. And there at the end is a proud 5- or 6-year-old dragging a big flounder through each grainy frame.

I am trying, I suppose, to give my kids similar experiences and leave them with what I hope are rich memories. Initiating our young into the world of boats and water is tricky business. You want so much to get it right, for them to take to it as you did. Push too hard and you risk mutiny. How well am I doing? How well are any of us doing? Perhaps only our children can say for certain, and only then after a period of time. When they are grown and can look back themselves. But the early evidence looks pretty good.

My son, Michael, told me recently: “My most favorite thing in the whole wide world is catching stuff. Catching fish. Catching fireflies. Catching minnows. Catching crabs.” I know the feeling and both encourage and indulge his passion. As a team we give fits to the fish, crabs and anything else that dares move.

I am keeping a loose record of our conversations to remind both them and me. I will share one with you here. My youngest daughter, Carly, is starting third grade and for Father’s Day this year she and her second-grade classmates each put together a book of “5 Things I’ve learned From My Father.” Carly’s list — complete with colored drawings — reads as follows:

1. You taught me how to fish

2. You taught me how to snorckle (sic)

3. You showed me how to boogey board

4. You helped me write stories

5. You taught me how to varnish

Regarding the latter skill, the old man is still trying to perfect his technique for the perfect final coat. Otherwise, I am pleased with what has stuck so far. By next year I hope Carly adds a line about sailing; we are adopting an orphaned Blue Jay this summer that the kids already have named Plankton.

Boats carry us into another dimension, one that shakes us from the house, the office, the freeway, the backyard projects. My old Boston Whaler knows the way to a spot on the backside of an island where even in midsummer the surface temperature is a cool 62 degrees. The water is clear, the bottom sandy. I hold my breath and dive to the sea floor where it is good and cold and emerge with a handful of sand, as I did when I was a boy. And as my children do now. We climb back on board and shake like duck dogs.

We laugh and dry off with towels stiff with too much salt. At that moment, I feel as if I’ve added years to my life. Perhaps I’m kidding myself. Who can say for sure? But I know this: Years from now, I hope my children find that they, too, can replenish themselves by following a sun-glint course to a quiet spot and diving into this fountain of life.