Boats as reflections of one’s stage of life

It was in the midst of a long stretch of nothing as we headed home from Maine – hour after hour of incessant, greasy, undulating seas and an occasional glimpse of land off Cape Neddick – when my old psychologist friend spoke. We’d both been quiet for a while, which was okay; after thirty-five years as friends, we didn’t worry about filling ‘awkward silences’.

“You know how many boats I’ve had, David?”

“Not too many, I hope,” I said. “One can’t be without a boat.”

“No, but now I’m thinking, because of where I am in life, maybe I’ll be getting something smaller.”

“So how many boats have you had?” I asked, starting to count in my head my own fleet history.

“Seventeen. I just figured that out,” he said, “and then, like old girlfriends, I started to think about each of them, and where I’d been in my life with each one. I broke them down into life periods. There were my bachelor-period boats, for instance, the ones I had between wives.”  He looked down at the binnacle, then altered course a bit. “I loved those two,” he mused.

“The wives?”

“No, the boats,” he chuckled. “And then there were the family-era boats. I remember the first…”

And on he went.

And so did I.

By the time we’d rounded Cape Ann, we’d covered a lot of boats. But the most interesting thing was how, by uncovering these boats, we’d uncovered so much of our past lives; the boats took us back to where we were, how we thought and felt, and even gave us a hint of a theme to our existence.

After rounding Thacher Island, we had about 15 miles left until we reached Elsa’s homeport of Marblehead.  My friend and I drifted back into silence and our private thoughts. Mine took me back to 1960, to my first boat, Shrimpy, the six-foot skiff my dad and I built in our basement the winter of my 10th year.

Why did I want that little boat? I vaguely remembered taking the completed Shrimpy for a few uneventful and somewhat boring rows in a South Shore pond. But what I had really wanted, I realized, was to be with my dad. The essence of that boat was in the father-son relationship that got glued and clamped together, like the little boat’s chines, and grew into something much greater in the midst of the sawdust and wood chips in that basement that winter.

I kept thinking. Another boat: Sea Star, a centerboard cabin sloop of questionable seaworthiness owned by a 17-year-old incurable romantic, one who had read countless times in “National Geographic” of the teenager who sailed 35,000 miles alone around the world. My own voyage on Sea Star was only a 350-mile round trip, but it seemed like 35,000.

Why was I so driven, as a teenager, to venture off alone for 39 days, rather than hang with my friends? What was I running from? Or seeking? How did those days change me? Is that how the writing life came to be? Was it when I started writing Sea Star’s log, then a diary, then stories of that experience that got me into this writing career? Were boats what drove my life? Or did I just like driving boats?

There was one boat that I never drove anywhere, but it drove my life, thanks to the people of the world in which it floated.  Dave’s Ark was a 41-foot Mississippi River houseboat, owned during my between-wives years. As a temporarily homeless and wifeless late 20-something, I retreated to a houseboat colony on my newly acquired $4,000 steel barge-like hull with its plywood-sided, tarpaper-topped house, docked in a floating tenement row amid a bunch of folks recoiling from divorce, drugs and alcohol, debt, mental illness, or from just being social misfits.

Oddly, the whole thing inspired me. There was a richness of character in those river folks, the likes of which I’ve not seen since. I’ve put them to good use. Dave’s Ark facilitated what became a huge contribution to what is called “writer’s capital” and gave me the setting for countless stories and a recently-finished novel 30 years later. (In the novel, Dave’s Ark got a name-change, becoming Cirrhosis of the River.)

I kept thinking. Other boats came and went, and this incorrigible romantic settled down, blessed by a new marriage and children. Now – and for the last sixteen years – there’s been Elsa, our 31-foot cruising sloop, providing a well-balanced social platform for family, friends, and even some solo cruising.

But now? What’s next? What will life dictate in the form of a boat? Or what will the next boat change in the form of my life? Maybe it’s time to go back to something smaller and simpler and easier, as my psychologist friend thinks he’ll do. Not as small as Shrimpy, to be sure.

Shrimpy. I thought again of the tiny skiff’s beginning in the basement 55 years ago; this triggered my memory of another time, not long ago, of my dad’s last boat, his smallest in many years. This last choice suited where he was in his life as a 90-year old. He named it Coda, a musical term meaning “final passage.” It was that indeed.

So try this: Examine your life from a different point of view. Take yourself back in time. Look at each boat you’ve owned as a manifestation of who you were at the time. Ask some questions: Why that particular choice? Was it a good one? Who were you at the time? What did each boat give you? Or take away?

Worth asking, right?

But be ready to confront the answers; they might hold clues to understanding who you really are.

Dave Roper’s new novel, “Rounding the Bend: The Life and Times of Big Red,” will be published this winter.

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