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What we talk about when we talk about boats*

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Doing what you love for a living is a great blessing, but it also has its dangers. This thought surfaces every boat show season, but a good chat with myself quickly rights the ship: Don’t overschedule. Go in with a game plan for what you want to see. Leave time to explore. These three rules have prevented what once felt like a kid’s visit to a giant candy store from becoming a marathon run down a dock-lined gauntlet.

It’s all about perspective. In the past month I’ve been reminded of something, just when I needed it most: Dedicated boaters are a special breed — generous, thoughtful, down-to-earth, fun-loving and grateful. It doesn’t matter whether the vessel of choice is a worn but cared for center console or a gleaming antique commuter yacht. Oh sure, there are some dopes out there racing around in cheap bowriders and expensive trawlers alike, but those aren’t dedicated boaters. These folks regard their boats only as toys and miss out on the deeper joys of caring for the sport’s traditions and history; safety and courtesy toward others on the water are afterthoughts, at best.

No, I’m talking about John Holmes, a broker at Gulf of Maine Yacht Sales, who invited me to have coffee and doughnuts and see a barn full of Pulsifer Hampton 22s. (I’m on my way, John — you had me at doughnuts!) Or Tom Heckman and his wife, Mary Jo, who offered me a ride aboard their beautiful 1929 Elco 50-foot bridgedeck cruiser. Niall Finnegan sent encouragement to take the plunge on a Marshall 22, and a photo of his temptingly priced catboat. Michael Lang, of the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum, wrote to tell me about a cool boatyard that’s not too far from Philadelphia (de Rouville’s in Bayville, New Jersey) and also told me of a wonderful book that was published in 1929, Cradle of the Deep by Joan Lowell. Malcolm Douglas sent me a letter about his inspiring mother, Bolling Douglas, who had just passed away — she had a distinguished career in the marine industry as a surveyor and later with the American Boat & Yacht Council. Robert Nee wrote just to say how much he enjoyed my columns.

It’s hard for anyone to find time in a busy day to sit down and write a note, so feedback from readers is the very best part of my job. It makes this a conversation, a two-way channel, and reminds me that we’re a community.

These are unsettling times. This ugly election season has made it glaringly apparent how deep the divides in our country run. As much as we have in common, if Soundings readers got together and talked politics, it probably would not go well. (Of course, a table full of Soundings readers probably wouldn’t talk politics — we’d talk boats.) I’m not suggesting we avoid discussing important points of contention, but in the current climate, it’s awfully easy to forget how much we have in common — yet this gives us an important touchstone, a starting point for working out all the rest.

When we talk boats, we breathe salt air and watch cloud shadows scud across a sunlit sea. We reflect on the wonder of seeing 15 shades of ocean blue on an early-morning passage. We recall the thrill of acrobatic dolphins at the bow or the peace of a sunset on the stern with loved ones after a full day of fun on a sandbar.

When we talk about boats, what we’re really talking about is our appreciation of the natural world, which has preceded us and will certainly outlast us; fleeting moments of joy and memories with the people we love will bring us happiness long after the boat is gone. We’re talking about priorities, the big picture — and most of all about perspective.

Thanks for reminding me.

* with apologies to the great Raymond Carver

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue.