Child of the Sea

Photo by Tad Unger

A walk through a working boatyard is an archeological journey. Entering through the gate you first pass modern yachts and work boats, gleaming or purposeful, all blocked up “on the hard” for seasonal maintenance or repairs. This picnic boat has been tented for painting. That trawler yacht is having her engine replaced. Over against the boat shed a bare aluminum gillnetter is being readied for the coming season. Everywhere people are busy sanding, scraping, painting, or waiting for the travel lift to come pick up their boat in its enormous slings and lower it back into the water. 

Keep walking past the first row and the boats become older, made of wood rather than the fiberglass that has been ubiquitous since the 1960s. Wooden boats require more work and time in the yard each year than their modern counterparts so the yard foreman puts them out of the way where their owners can take all the time they need. But these works of art reveal the quality of their care in every seam and surface. Some are glowing with fresh varnish. Some ring with the sound of caulking mallets tapping tarred hemp (“oakum”) or cotton into the gaps between the planks. Old they may be but no modern boat could approach them for beauty or craftsmanship.

Further in, behind the row of classic yachts, the expedition reveals another stratum of the waterfront. Grass grows up around the stands underneath boats that have not moved in months or years. Paint is dull, cracking, or nonexistent. A neglected sailboat keeps company with a shabby cabin cruiser, both looking over at some unidentifiable thing covered by a blue tarp. These boats are not derelict yet but they will be soon if their owners do not address their problems and get them back in the water. 

But it’s at the very back of the lot, up against the fence, that the explorer finds what they seek. Here, between stacks of old, rusting equipment, worn out travel lift tires and piles of miscellaneous debris lie the boats that have been abandoned.  They were left for the yard to deal with once the storage bill grew too high, the owner grew too discouraged, or other fate intervened. There they sit until the yard owner decides that they need the space for something else and finally gets around to cutting them up. 

Most of these sad vessels are worth nothing at all of course. Cookie-cutter ski boats and cheap day sailers, all in various states of disrepair and half-filled with rainwater. But every so often you will come across something unexpected. A boat that, down on her luck as she may be, rises up from the tall grass with what remains of her dignity and whispers a promise. “Give me life again, and I will give you adventures beyond the horizon. I will give you sun and rain and wind and waves. I will give you dreams. I will give you yourself.” It is a siren call but take care if you hear that voice. Like the sea, dreams are wild, shapeless things and you can never know where they will carry you.

Climb the ladder leaning against the hull and step aboard. The deck is worn and rotten in places. The door to the pilothouse hangs crookedly on its one remaining hinge. The fittings are tarnished and the paint is cracked and flaking. She is long past her prime. But look beyond these signs of neglect and see her as she was, and as she could be again. See her lying in the harbor, with new paint reflecting the morning light and the ripples in the water playing along her smooth hull. Imagine her heading out to sea on a brisk day, confidently shouldering the waves aside. Feel the wind in your face and the dash of spray as she meets each crest. And dream of lying at anchor in a secluded cove, as the sun sets behind the hills and the moon rises into a lavender sky. Stand for a while looking at her as she sits there, waiting, and remember.

Somewhere in the distant past a twelve year old boy walks down a half-sunken dock, stepping over broken and missing planks. There at the end lies an old, abandoned tugboat tied up with scraps of rotting rope. She’s a little thing, barely twenty feet long. A log boom boat or something like. Her cabin doors lie open to the rain, revealing glimpses of the interior. Pulled by that compulsion to explore that is the right of children he goes aboard. 

Inside she is little more than a bare hull. Her engine is gone leaving only the rusting end of the propeller shaft. But her towing bitt still juts firmly from the aft deck and her bow stands proud, ready to push and shove and coax another log tow into shape. In the pilothouse her wheel just spins, no longer connected to the cables that lead aft to the rudder. She is not yet gone but neither does she live - she only waits for what may come.

The boy stands there with his hands on the helm, looking beyond the shore that he can see through the cracked glass of the pilothouse windows - looking toward a future that he cannot quite grasp and which yet feels imminent. The years of childhood are already passing. The years ahead will bring high school, that terrible, looming prospect, then college, a job, a house, a family. But those events remain but vaguely understood possibilities. 

In this moment the boat murmurs to him of other paths - of cool mornings in the Canadian Gulf, the fog just lifting to reveal the brilliant day to come. Of night runs north under the stars, the wake stretching behind, long and luminous. Of cold water, green forests, and remote fjords. He reaches out for this other future, not knowing what he would sacrifice nor what he would gain, yet called to it.

His mother yells to him from the shore and the vision is gone. He scrambles back onto the dock and runs to join his waiting family. She asks him what he was looking at for so long but he is unable to answer her. “An old boat, mom” is all he can say, and yet it is so much less than what he felt.

Somewhere, now, a man stands staring at a boat. His family is waiting for him in the car and he knows that he will return to them soon, that he will rejoin the circle of attachments that binds us all. He will feel the joy that comes from lifting his son in his arms and seeing the smile of welcome on his wife’s face. But first, he walks over to the yard office to ask the manager for the name and phone number of the person who owns that old boat sitting up against the fence. And later that night he makes a phone call.

Somewhere, in time to come, he will watch as his son takes the helm, looks through the pilothouse windows, and sets their course north through the green water of the Salish Sea. What does the boy see ahead, he wonders? The man he is will never know, but the child that he was remembers.