Foraging in the pasture of the past

June 2008

By Dodge Morgan

Age and illness drive one’s mind into the distant past, to childhood memories, often clean and true, sometimes elegantly embellished. The present seems not that compelling, and the future not that comforting unless flavored with the spices of how things once were.

My initiation into the world of boating was 70 years ago at the boatyard of my uncle Rupe, where my brother Russ and granddad, Cap Dodge, also labored. I was seven and constructing my very first vessel. She was the shipping crate for a 25-horse Johnson Seahorse outboard motor, a box five feet long by a foot and a half square. One side of the crate had been removed. I marked a bow with a tacked-on triangle, and then with a tub of tar and a pile of stones, attempted the more critical work of making her floatable and stable. I took the fact that my efforts had become a yard entertainment feature as a compliment, perhaps just then igniting a lifelong sense of pleasure on being the center of attention. The launch was a success. I board-paddled the craft for a good 20 feet before she capsized and sank.

At 16, I became a yard employee. Rupe had a firm attitude for himself and those working for him – basically a rule that boats were not a recreation but a job for us. We did not use boats; we fixed boats that our customers used. This meant I spent my time happily scraping and painting and scrubbing and less happily watching the carefree enjoyments of kids my age outboarding and sailing. I built up a powerful desire that has endured a lifetime, initially sated with a rented catboat a five-mile bike ride away on the Bass River. I taught myself to sail, certainly accounting for the many of the things aboard I do wrong or, at least, do unconventionally to this day. But I could not have been such a bad teacher, since I have accumulated many thousands of sea miles without losing my boat or myself.

The catboat taught me patience. I learned the joy of being alone with her challenges, and I found the incomparable thrill of sailing beyond any tether. The sea became the mystery I fell in love with.

My boatyard lessons also included my grandfather. Cap was loaded with talent and a highly antisocial attitude. He reported to the yard on his whims and seldom did what he was asked to do. He could build a seven-foot pram in half a day and would sell it for prices ranging from 10 bucks to 200, totally depending on how his customer struck him. What I got from Cap included a powerful irreverence, a fulsome obscene vocabulary, a joke a day, and a lack of any concern for how others think of me. Cap’s marine career was noted for building his own design of rumrunners, called “Dodge Water Cars,” specifically for smuggling Nova Scotia rum during the Prohibition. The boats had an unloaded waterline plus a cove stripe that became a waterline when the boat was under a full load of booze. They were just 20 feet in length and powered with 16-cylinder Packard engines. Cap also designed a disposable cement barge drone for the Navy to carry supplies to a beach. I can credit Cap with my inclination to sail solo. He told me, “No one will know your mistakes.”

Dodge Morgan singlehanded American Primise around the world without stopping in 1986.