A boat of my own

August 2021

By Marilyn Pond Brigham

Little girls of my era often badgered their parents for a pony, a dog, a jungle gym… or some other toy far beyond their ability to comprehend the logistics behind, such as cost, practicality, or level of responsibility. I wanted a sailboat.

Marilyn poses next to her new boat Christmas morning. Photo courtesy Marilyn Pond Brigham

One memorable Christmas morning, my older brother and I ran downstairs to see if Santa had visited the night before. He had indeed. Besides an empty tray of cookies and milk, there were lots of brightly wrapped presents and a fully rigged Optimist pram. We were overwhelmed. The pram was for my brother, who named it the Yankee Doodle for its red, white and blue sail. As for me, Santa brought a fully furnished forest-tree house for my collection of little toy woodland stuffed animals. It brought me hours and hours of fun.

At that time, we lived in Ohio, and sailed a Nipper (a small Marconi rigged sail with a centerboard) on a large lake about an hour’s drive away. My brother, who was 11 and five years my senior, had already participated in the yacht club’s youth sailing program and was ready to skipper his own boat. I sailed with my parents on the Nipper while he raced Yankee Doodle. We trailered the Nipper by car several times from the mid-West to Cape Cod for vacation; but eventually, it was sold, along with the pram, when family routines, evolving interests and time commitments changed. Instead of just going on vacation to the Cape however, my family bought a summer house there. And I wanted a sailboat. I made that clear – every birthday, and every Christmas.

We were fortunate to have a mooring on Pleasant Bay in Chatham, not too far from our home, which my father kept a small power boat on. We also had a spot suitable for a dinghy at the neighborhood association dock. So, my dad bought one that he could leave there to row out to the mooring. My father’s “dinghy,” if you could call it that, was less like what you might imagine, and more like a large, hard, plastic margarine tub. Aside from aesthetics, it had no keel. That aside, the oars were either too long, or the oarlocks were poorly located, as it was often difficult to negotiate the tide and currents of Pleasant Bay to get from the dock to the mooring. More often than not, we just kind of floated to our destination.

Picking up on my “not-so-subtle hints,” for my 13th birthday, my parents gave me the equipment to transform the margarine tub into an actual sailboat. My parents realized that my interest in sailing was genuine and wanted to encourage the kind of self-confidence that sailing can engender. The new equipment included a brace that cut across the bow to hold the sail and lee boards, and, of course, a plastic sail with a mainsheet. One of the existing oars was to be used as a rudder.

My boat got her sea trial later that birthday afternoon. Unfortunately, the lee boards refused to stay perpendicular and popped up whenever a wave hit, or I encountered a cross current. So much for added stability and maneuverability. The sail may have been too big for the boat, but its rigging did not allow for the boom to be raised very high. In fact, in order to sail the boat, it was impossible to sit close to the stern, close to the bow, or just about anywhere in between. The boom came at about waist height, so I found it best to lie in the boat to sail it.

However, as you might imagine, visibility was compromised when looking forward you were staring straight up at the clouds. Because the rudder was an oar, it protruded way off the stern and wasn’t particularly effective in making any change in direction. Often, it too popped out of its fitting. It did sail a bit better when I tried it on a small kettle hole with no waves and mild wind, but then dad had no way to get to his boat. Tried as we did, it didn’t turn out to be a suitable sailboat.

Lesson learned – do some research, talk to other owners and maybe take it for a test spin before buying.

Not long thereafter, my dad ditched the power boat and bought a Cape Dory 25, along with a more serviceable second-hand dinghy. We were back in action, but I still longed for a boat I could skipper myself.

Several years later, there was another special Christmas. Like the time before, Santa had eaten all the milk and cookies and delivered lots of presents, only this time he included a Sailfish for me. It was sitting out on the patio, its blue and white crab-claw sail raised on its mast, brightening the cold, Ohio Christmas Day sky. The Sailfish (made by Alcort) was a hollow core board style craft with a sit-upon hull. I was thrilled to have my very own boat and practically counted down the days until it would be warm enough to sail. That spring, my parents moved to Cape Cod permanently.

Part of the fun of sailing a Sailfish was that you’d get wet. A bathing suit with a pair of short-shorts and some old sneakers were de rigueur for the boat; but that non-slip surface was brutal on the back of my legs. With the stiff Atlantic breeze, hull almost perpendicular, heeling with your feet on the rails… it could be a particularly uncomfortable, though exhilarating, sail. And, if you were heading across the Bay for a day on the beach, with no cuddy – your towel, ditty bag and lunch most definitely got soaked, if they didn’t take a full-on swim to the bottom of the water.

Where I generally sailed, the tidal current could be strong and on a day with a light breeze it was embarrassingly easy to sail backwards with the current. Often, I was given a tow back to the beach. I couldn’t buck the tide to make it home.

If everything was in alignment, I really enjoyed the Sailfish. That said, a lot of things needed to line up. Like, someone to help me haul it, a slack tide, moderate breeze and any other number of things to factor in my favor. Having said that, while I’m sure other sailboats may have suited my circumstances better, I learned a lot from this little 82-pound boat and finally had a boat of my own.

Marilyn Brigham, along with her Co Captain / spouse, Paul, sails Selkie, a Catalina 445, out of Quissett Harbor, Falmouth, MA. She is a life-long sailor and a current member of both the Quissett and Cottage Park Yacht Clubs.