My dad’s skiff

May 2018

By Lawrence Smith

It looks like skiffs are making a comeback. The Maine-based website, Off Center Harbor, is running a video series that features bright-eyed youngsters engaged in the communal building of some fine 13-foot wooden skiffs. Plans for the homebuilder are advertised in the back pages of “WoodenBoat” magazine and in their store. There’s an Asa Thompson Skiff, a Westport Skiff and the Lumber Yard Skiff. Mystic Seaport has a fleet of skiffs. The historic Beetle Boat Shop builds skiffs. Lowell’s Boat Shop, “a national landmark and working museum,” builds no less than five different skiffs. And Louis Sauzedde, the affable shipwright with a thick New England accent, is constructing a stout 17-foot skiff in a series of excellent instructional videos.

These plain boats of working-class origins all evolved from similar DNA. They tend to be slab-sided with flat bottoms, painted not varnished, stable and easily handled, and can carry a big load of fish, clams, cargo or raucous families. Skiffs are also in my DNA: it was the first type of boat I stepped into as a youngster.

My father acquired his skiff after he came home from the war, and the family began the annual ritual of escaping the summer heat of the city. In a box full of old photographs and Kodak color slides my sister and I inherited, there are some of Dad and the boat. The crumpled prints and little 35-millimeter transparencies show my sister and me, and sometimes a friend or two, happily sitting in the boat, working the pump and using a cup to bail. Dad convinced us that it was a fun job in the same way Tom Sawyer got his friends to whitewash the fence. Another photo shows dad taking his turn at bailing, and he doesn’t seem to mind it, either. A couple of the pictures show me, at the tender age of three, sitting in the boat or standing alongside it, trying to help out by giving it a determined push.

I was a lucky kid. I had the good fortune to spend my childhood summers near the shore. In the 1940s my grandparents bought a modest summer cottage in Huntington, Long Island. It was in a small, close-knit community hidden in the shady hills overlooking the harbor. A little ways down a narrow winding road from our house was a sandy beach that gave our family access to the waterfront.

Those special summers, between 1953 and 1970, are with me still, dreamlike and distant. They are memories that make their appearance in sepia tones, ghost-like images frozen in time. When I willfully conjure up the images, they briefly come into focus. But they’re slippery, these memories, and they quickly fade like floating apparitions drifting away into the shadows. The images are brought to life, again, when I step into a small boat, feel its movement, and smell the salt air and the rich mud of low tide, shells, seaweed, kelp and rockweed drying on the shoreline.

Our boat always leaked because it had the skiff’s characteristic cross-planked bottom boards with a caulking seam between each piece of wood. Every spring before launching, the seams had to be cleaned out and renewed. As a child, I didn’t know the terms cross-planked, caulking seam, or what it meant to reef out the old caulking. But my dad did. Correct terminology or not, Dad knew the procedure.

In my mind’s eye I see him bent over the upturned hull on a warm spring Saturday. The boat sits on a couple of rough, paint-spattered sawhorses. Dad was no shipwright, so he used whatever tool he could find hanging over the workbench in the garage. It might have been a screwdriver, or a curved carpet knife worn dull, or perhaps an awl with a bent tip. I’d watch him work, pulling out the dried chunks of caulking compound and the loose strands of cotton held in the seam, and pushing in the new, to be held fast with sticky caulking compound that smelled of white lead and linseed oil.

Next, the boat had to be painted. The bottom, after being caulked, needed its thick coat of anti-foul. The topsides were usually a dull green, or some years, it sported different colors on the side-strakes. It generally depended on what leftover paint was found under the workbench. The inside, after picking away at any large bits of peeling paint, was given a coat of “battleship gray” deck paint, a cheap and ubiquitous concoction that was purchased at the Knutson Marine store in town.

When we needed paint or supplies, we’d pile into the car and drive along the narrow shore road to Halesite, at the head of the harbor. After we bought our paint or small bit of boat hardware, we’d take a walk through the boatyard behind the store. We would meander among the sailboats and motorboats. There’d be daysailers and dinghies and auxiliary cruisers. There would be skiffs, of course, and runabouts and speedboats and cabin cruisers of all sizes and descriptions.

These boats were in every condition possible, from immaculate gold-plater, to boats merely needing their annual coat of paint, to boats that had been sitting in their cradles for too long, their topsides dried out and daylight shining through the planking seams. Some boats were so old and neglected their planks were sprung loose, rot was spreading through the wood, their keels timbers were broken or twisted because the blocking was gone, and they were just sadly waiting to be broken up. They were like old logs lying on the damp forest floor, forgotten, rotting away and slowly going back to the dark earth.

In years to come, after the skiff was gone, we would drive to Knutson’s just to look at boats. We’d park near the gate, and stroll right into the boatyard as if we owned our own gold-plater. Dad called this ritual “eating our hearts out.” If things were quiet at the house, he would look at me and say with a smile, “let’s take a drive over to Knutson’s. We’ll walk around, look at the boats, and eat our hearts out.”

Back at our makeshift boatyard next to the garage, Dad would dig out two paintbrushes from beneath the workbench; a wide bristle brush, and a small pint-sized one for me. After opening the can and stirring the oil paint with a bit of turpentine, he’d tell me, “when we’re done painting, we’ll bring her down to the beach and let ’er soak. We have to give the bottom time to take up and swell.”

It took a couple of days before the seams swelled tight enough to keep the water from pouring in. Dad would drag the boat up onto the sand, and tip out as much water as he could. Then, with a pail and a sponge, we’d get her fairly dry. Finally, after a careful examination of the floorboards, and keen observation of the rate of water inflow, he would pronounce her ready to use.

To get the family out of the harbor and beyond, into Huntington Bay, our skiff was equipped with an outboard motor. It was a Scott-Atwater model. Even though many Evinrude, Johnson and Mercurys have passed before me all these years, I remember that vintage motor clamped to the transom. Its name stuck in my head and trips over the tongue like a familiar musical phrase – ScottAtwaterScottAtwaterScottAtwater. I also remember that, like most of the small, two-stroke outboards of the day, it was cranky, noisy, hard to start, smoky and oily when it ran, and hard to keep running. I still have a lifelong distrust of these machines.

And yet Dad placed enormous faith in the motor. It got two adults and their children out on the water during those glorious summers. There was enough faith in this motor to take grand voyages outside the protection of the harbor, and into the waters of the bay. The boat would be loaded with towels, pails and shovels, a cooler full of food, thermos of lemonade, bulky Mae West life preservers and kapok-filled boat cushions. Destinations might be the quiet waters of Lloyd Harbor, or a picnic among the mysterious cement ruins on Sand City. Our favorite spot was a rocky beach on a spit of land that poked out into the bay not far from Target Rock.

One summer, when I was about 12 years old, a strange thing happened to the skiff. It simply disappeared. Dad didn’t sell it. He didn’t trade if for a bigger boat. He didn’t give it away. I think in his heart of hearts, Dad grew tired of the skiff. He no longer wanted the time-consuming burden of getting it ready every spring. What had for many seasons been a labor of love was now a chore. The bottom boards were getting leakier, the motor crankier. After each busy week of working in his store, he simply wanted to go to the sandy beach down the road from the house, and relax.

Perhaps the boat was torn from its mooring during a summer gale. Or maybe some older boys took it for a joyride one day, and left it behind to drift alone, an orphan bouncing along the ragged shore of the harbor. Remarkably, my friend David and I simply stumbled upon it after it was gone. We had walked down the road from our beach to Axel’s fishing shack to get ice cream. Axel had a low, flimsy dock that had dinghies and skiffs tied alongside. We were standing on it engaged in a favorite pastime; looking at the boats moored in the harbor. Suddenly, I noticed a faded green skiff that had settled in the water near the shore. “My boat!” I shouted, “that’s my boat. Look. That’s it, I’m sure of it. C’mon, let’s bring it back.”

And that’s what we did. We bailed her out, jumped knee-deep into the water, and pulled her along back to the beach. My mother was flabbergasted. “What are you two doing?” she asked as we dragged it up onto the sand. “We found it. We got our boat back,” I answered. “This is it. It’s it!”

I don’t remember anything else about Dad’s skiff. She was not returned to her mooring. The Scott-Atwater was never clamped back on. We never used her or saw her ever again. Dad still enjoyed boats. He went out with friends many times. I once took him sailing with me in my Penguin dinghy, and we capsized in the busy channel coming in from the bay. Many years later, I took everyone – Mom and Dad, my sister and my nephew, and my own son and daughter – out on my Ensign sailboat. Dad may have remembered distant summer days in Huntington. He didn’t say. Most likely he was in the moment, just enjoying it, letting the memories and faded images take care of themselves, as memories often do.

Larry and his wife Pam sail the southern New England coast on their 1982 Nonsuch 36, Cracker Jack. He sometimes dreams about the boating life he had 60 years ago, and then his wife gently steers him back to reality.