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The whirl of generations and the sweep of tides

Anchored off an island in eastern Long Island Sound one afternoon late last summer, my son, who was 9 at the time, asked, "Can we build a boat, Dad?"

I was pleasantly surprised.

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"Well, I think we could probably build a boat," I said. "A small one, anyway."

"Could we put an engine on it?" he asked.

"That I'd have to check on," I said. "You might be too young. But we could build a nice skiff. You could have a lot of fun rowing it."

"Could it have a sail?"

"I'm sure we could find one that you could sail, too."

"And it would be my boat, right? It would be mine. To go out with my friends? By ourselves?"

It is only natural, I suppose, for us to want our children and grandchildren to take to the water with the same aplomb that we did. When my son expressed interest in building a boat of his own, I sensed a window had opened, an opportunity presenting itself. How could I say no? After all, with a nod to "The Wind in the Willows," "There is nothing - absolute nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

The sentiment is as true today as it was when first spoken by Ratty 102 years ago - and will continue to resonate 100 years hence.

My youngest crew these days consists of my 10-year-old son and my daughter, who is 11. On the water, they are as different as ebb is from flood. Michael likes a good turn of speed, choppy water, big wakes, spray in his face. After three daughters, I can say he's all boy without, I hope, being accused of gender bias. Carly prefers flat water, 12 knots rather than 22, and as little uncertainty as possible.

"Are we going in the deep ocean today?" she asks with a hint of trepidation in her voice. She embodies a prudence that will stand her well when she eventually warms to the "deep oceans."

I do my best to give each a bit of what they're looking for. A little fishing, crabbing, snorkeling, beach combing, tubing, cannon balls off the bow. Who can skim a stone the farthest? Catch the largest fish of the day? Find the coolest piece of sea glass?

Keeping kids interested in boats until something clicks inside them is the tricky part. Sometimes the tumblers never drop into place, no matter how much you want them to or how careful you are in introducing your young charges to this strange world of pitch and roll and yaw. Making it fun is a key to this business, and that means no yelling.

In earlier generations, parents were more apt to "kidnap" their children for a week at a time or longer and head off cruising. I'm not sure it works that way today. We all have more demands on our time.

From the start, my goal has been to get my children to feel comfortable on, in and under the water. You try and teach them to be aware and alert to everything going on around them, including the basics of reading the water: the effects of wind against tide, how and where the rips make up, interpreting a changing sky. And you teach them the names of sea birds, fish, crabs, clouds, shells, knots and a dozen other things. In the process, we all learn together.

You want to pass it on because you believe it will somehow sustain them over the long haul. Allow them to renew their spirits and quicken their step back ashore.

I'm confident my son and I can handle a small stitch-and-glue kit boat that we are considering. I'm pretty good at following instructions, although those who know me would never mistake me for a craftsman. More important, perhaps, my son and I can tap a couple of ringers for advice if ("when" is probably more like it) we get into a jam. Michael's uncle is a talented boatwright, and one of my close friends and fishing partners used to make his living as a boat carpenter as well.

Just the other day, we were online reviewing some of the kit boats available from Chesapeake Light Craft.

"Can I see the Skerry again?" Michael asked. "Can that one take an engine? How big is that one?"

We're leaning toward a 17-foot Northeast dory that is big enough to safely carry two or three of his friends on a summer's worth of small adventures. Perfect for passing along the simple, enduring joys of being on the water.

Author Kenneth Grahame's Ratty, of course, knew all about the magic of boats, which his friend the Mole was about to discover for himself: "Absorbed in the new life he was entering upon, intoxicated with the sparkle, the ripple, the scents and the sounds of the sunlight, he trailed a paw in the water and dreamed long waking dreams."

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the seas."

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.