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When the boats we own become a part of us

I forget who first suggested to me that commercial watermen can’t afford to get too sentimental about their boats. They’re simply tools and transportation and a way to make a living.

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It’s all the rest of us who don’t work on the water who become overly attached to our boats, so the theory goes. I’m sure it’s true for some watermen — and not for others. I broach the topic now because I am parting, after a dozen years, with my venerable 1968 Boston Whaler Nauset, the boat that has served me faithfully and reliably and has been the catalyst for so many fond memories. She became a member of the family in that sweet, strange way that boats do if you are lucky.

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Cuttyhunk, Mass., lobsterman Bruce Borges was in the process of selling his 35-foot JC workboat when I was on the island earlier this summer. He’s owned her for 28 years, and at age 76 he is stepping back from lobstering, even though he’ll continue taking light-tackle fishing charters aboard his 23-foot center console. I asked Bruce if he thought he’d miss Old Squaw.

“Let her go,” says Borges, who has worked the water his entire life. “Time to turn the page, move to the next chapter. They’re a tool. You can’t become too sentimental, but they do become part of you.”

I called Bruce as I was writing this column, just to make sure the sale went through. The new owner, who was going to convert her into a gillnet boat, had taken delivery a week earlier, and it seemed as if half the island came down to the fish dock to see Old Squaw off.

“I’ve sold four other boats in my lifetime, and it never bothered me,” the fisherman says. This time, though, was different. “It was kind of an emotional thing,” says Borges, surprised by the feelings. “It was tough. I think I would have felt better if I had sunk it.”

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When I was on the island, I also spent time visiting my friend Capt. Jim Nunes, one of the last of the old-time Cuttyhunk fishing guides. Nunes turns 80 this fall, and he sometimes wonders aloud how long he can keep guiding. His legs hurt, and the damp, foggy island weather only aggravates his arthritis.

Nunes fishes from the 24-1/2-foot black-hulled Rudy J, one of the last traditional wooden bass boats working these waters. The Enoch Winslow-built boat is low-sided, simple, seaworthy and handsome.

He sold her once, thinking a glass boat was the answer — and then promptly bought her back, ruing the error of his ways.

“I’m getting to the point where I have to cash it all in,” says the good captain, who has been guiding for almost 50 years. Later, sitting at the dock, looking out on the harbor, Nunes says, “I’d be lost without my boat and being able to fish.”

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More than a decade ago, I sold my 18-foot Tashmoo lobster skiff to the town of Vineyard Haven on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. It was another one of those bittersweet partings, but I was happy she was going back to her home waters.

That simple, surefooted “seagoing miniature” was a direct descendant of an old wooden skiff that Dan West had found in a salt marsh on the island. He pulled a plug off the tired workboat and started producing them in glass.

Vineyard Haven harbormaster Jay Wilbur saw my ad, knew the boat’s pedigree and put her to work in the harbor earning her keep. Every few years I either hear from Jay or I check in with him just to keep track of the old boat. “I just got out of it,” Jay told me when I called in mid-July. “We have a new high-deck patrol boat that’s also wonderful, but in the summer, I spend my time in the Tashmoo. It just fits me better. They’re just great boats.”

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They’re all great boats. It makes me wonder why in the devil we ever get rid of them. But I am on to a new project boat, converting a 22-foot Sisu workboat into a pleasure boat. And I am happy the Whaler is headed for a good home.

George Sass Jr. is not only a colleague, but he’s also an excellent boatman who is in charge of all editorial operations for the Active Interest Media Marine Group, to which Soundings belongs. A good guy and a good boat guy, George understands the complicated dynamic of boat ownership; he says I can visit the old girl whenever I like.

“Never has a finer craft existed. Graceful were her lines, ever pleasing to the eye, because she was the embodiment of usefulness. Like a true masterpiece, she stood above the fickle taste of fashion.” – Erling Tambs

September 2013 issue