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Quality time remaining

A friend in Florida admitted recently that he was back “working” the death notices. Huh? Working the what? What he did was compile all of the obituaries over a three-day period from a big South Florida newspaper to find out the average age of the decedents. The number was 83.2.

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He’s trying to figure out exactly when to retire and how much time he’ll have left to boat and fish. He’s got a nice clean diesel fishing boat tied to his dock behind the house, which is exactly 22 steps from his desk and about 1 nautical mile from Hillsboro Inlet. It’s about as good as it gets, except that like many of us, he spends more time looking at the boat than actually using it. It’s the third time at least in the last year that he’s run his decidedly unscientific obituary average.

“You’ll know when you’re ready,” he tells me.

“I’m pretty sure you’re ready,” I reply.

“Remember, it’s all about QTR,” he continues. “Quality time remaining.” And that, he notes, is a far cry from TR — “time remaining.”

With that, I hang up, push my chair back from the desk and head for the boat. It’s a Friday afternoon in August, and the rest of the world can certainly do without me for a few hours.

* * *

It is high summer, and the boatyard is moving at a nice, slow pace when I roll in. Boatwright Bill Taylor is refastening a small wooden keel on Muskrat, a lovely 18-foot picnic launch with a rich history on the Pawcatuck River, which runs between Westerly, Rhode Island, and Stonington, Connecticut.

The story of Muskrat is one of those come-full-circle tales — and one that may help put time in a little better perspective for my friend in Florida. This is a story of longevity, of how slow and steady wins the race.

The little diesel dayboat was built 60 years ago by Palmer Scott, making her one of the first generation of fiberglass boats. She looks very proud and proper these days, sitting in Frank Hall Boatyard with her varnished teak coaming and windshield and teak deck. The brush-painted white hull couldn’t look nicer.

The open boat has a sweet story to match her sweet lines. A week before Christmas in 1954, Muskrat was delivered to Frank Hall Boatyard in Avondale. On Christmas Day, owner Cy Moore brought his wife, Harriet, to the yard and presented her with the boat as a gift.

Among those witnessing the exchange was 14-year-old John Hall, whose father, Frank, owned the yard. Today John, who is 74, owns and runs the operation — and he and his wife, Brigid Rooney Hall, now own Muskrat.

Hall told me that as a young teen one of his jobs was to keep Muskrat shipshape and to also skipper Mrs. Moore from the yard to Watch Hill and Fishers Island. “I was the first captain of her,” says Hall.

During the next six decades Muskrat changed hands at least eight times, but she always remained on the river.

Brigid, a yacht broker who has a good eye for pretty boats, spotted the little launch at a boatyard down the street from Frank Hall’s about 13 years ago. Riding past the boat on her bike, Brigid became smitten with Muskrat. The boat looked lost and lonely with a little “for sale” sign hanging from her.

“I thought she was beautiful,” says Brigid.

She told her husband about Muskrat, which still bore its original name.

“I said, ‘Oh hell, I owned her once,’ ” recalls John, who had bought it and sold it, as yard owners are wont to do, as had the first owner’s daughter, who had significantly upgraded the boat.

Now Muskrat is back in her original yard and under the care of the man who was her first caretaker and skipper. And Brigid, who knew a gem when she saw one, makes sure the repowered launch (Yanmar 3GM, about 27 hp) gets her exercise, carrying nieces and nephews down the river to Little Narragansett Bay for summer fun.

“She’s certainly beloved,” says Brigid. “She’s well known on the river.”

Muskrat is comfortable at about 5 or 6 knots and can run maybe 8 to 12 with one person in her, says Hall, who has been meaning to bring out his handheld GPS one of these days to get a true speed.

“And if I was on a diet,” he laughs, “she’d do 1 knot more.”

In this family boatyard, whose roots go so far back you can easily get lost, time moves at a comfortable pace. “Quality time” is here every day, in the rhythm of seasons, of hauling and launching, paint, brightwork and repairs — and in a patient little boat named Muskrat.

“The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting place.”

— Arthur Ransome

October 2014 issue