New life for an old jacket

Mike’s infant daughter, Heather (left), “wearing” the jacket roughly 30 years ago, and Heather’s son, Cobbe (with Grandma) wearing the same jacket last summer. Most likely, this year, Cobbe will already require a bigger PFD. Photos courtesy Mike Camarata

Guest perspective/Mike Camarata

I am 35 years old. My stitching is solid. My straps and handles are snug and strong. My zipper slides up and down as smooth as silk. My Coast Guard-required printing is very legible. My D-rings are bright and shiny. My belt clips still have their grip, and my bright colors haven’t faded. Well, maybe a little.

I am a lifejacket. This is my story.

I used to be a PFD, but now I’m back to being the lifejacket I preferred all along. I was born in 1983 to be used by a beautiful infant girl named Heather. She was forced to wait until she was three weeks old to take her first cruise on Long Island Sound aboard a 23’ sailboat. I nestled her comfortably in her carrier between the centerboard trunk and the settee as the vessel Heart of Gold and her parents motored on absolutely flat seas from Clinton, Conn., to Coecles Harbor at Shelter Island, N.Y. A metaphor for the start of life, perhaps?

I don’t remember what Heather and I did that first weekend, but Suzie, the Irish Setter, and her lifejacket, were along, as well as our future babysitters, Mike and Carol Guay on their boat. Suzie and her lifejacket have been gone many, many years, and sadly aren’t here to tell their stories.

Our return trip was quite different from the passage over. We bashed into 20- to 25-knot winds, with three- to five-foot seas. We lost control of our jib sheets and jib, and waves were breaking over the Heart of Gold, but I kept my charge comfortable and secure. Happy, actually. If the worst had happened I was there to keep Heather afloat. Perhaps these events were another metaphor for life.

Heather and I had some grand times together, splashing in beach waves, digging in the sand, floating in pools and just loving the early days of childhood. But infants tend to grow into toddlers. And beyond. After a year-or-so, I was outgrown, and Heather moved on to a 30-pound-and-up toddler lifejacket. I was put away and my buddy took over. Yes, I was taken out occasionally as a guest came aboard one of our various boats with an infant for an afternoon. Mostly I was in a plastic bag in a dry, dark locker, put away and forgotten. For 34 years.

A couple of years ago, Points East Magazine published a story about a wedding at the Mystic Seaport Museum and us going there by boat. I was in that boat, Infinite Improbability. In a dark locker. Still forgotten.

Sometimes a year or two after a joyous occasion such as that another joyous occasion occurs. A new, future crewmember was born, and I had hopes of being put to use again. Cobbe Michael (pronounced “Kobie”) visited us in Marathon, Fla., at two-and-a-half months of age, and wore me as he was ferried out to our mooring. I was also worn on dinghy trips to the boat in May and June, but the real fun together started in July.

Cobbe received gifts of new lifejackets before he was even born. He wore his new lifejacket on his dad’s fast powerboat on the south shore of Long Island, N.Y., but didn’t really have a great time. When he came to Mystic, Conn., for his first sailboat cruises, he let everyone know he much preferred me to his shiny, but stiff, new jacket. He also showed he liked being on a sailboat more than a powerboat. Smart boy. Of course he did want to steer the dinghy outboard. He is a boy.

We started off slow, with a couple of one-mile trips out to Ram Island from our Mystic mooring, before his first real cruise. Like his mother’s, his first cruise beyond our home base involved big seas, small-craft advisories and lots of smiles. A 35-year difference didn’t seem to matter. It was a two-week cruise, instead of two days, and the boat was bigger. And Cobbe’s mom got seasick this time while she hadn’t, as an infant, all those years ago. Some things do change.

Anyway, we went from Mystic to Block Island, R.I., on our first leg, and had to stay for four days because of the wind. Cobbe and I splashed in the ocean and Great Salt Pond, and visited the animals at the Abrams and Draper family farm. Well, I didn’t go there. I waited in the dinghy. Then it was on to Cuttyhunk, Mass., and the big ocean swells of Rhode Island Sound. Cobbe loved those. His mom didn’t. I, of course, kept him comfortable and safe. Hadley Harbor was the highlight of the cruise. We swam off the boat, rode in the dinghy to see seals, and frolicked in the Northwest Gutter, a narrow passage between Naushon and Uncatena Island. I remember doing all these things while being worn by Cobbe’s mother; now she was holding me and Cobbe, doing many of those same things!

After going to Vineyard Haven, on Martha’s Vineyard, and riding the carousel at Oak Bluffs, we went back to Cuttyhunk for a couple more days of playing on the beaches. It was a long passage back to Mystic from there in choppy conditions, but again, I was up to the job. Cobbe turned eight months old on this cruise, and I swear he grew an inch. I had to be adjusted.

This year, if Cobbe and his mom come back for more summertime fun, I am hoping for more adventures, as they’ll certainly be our last. Because soon I’ll be outgrown. Again. Kids keep growing up, and things get left behind. Cycles begin and end, sometimes before you want them to, and I won’t have the strength to do this all again. It’s been fun. And, who knows? If I don’t fit Cobbe, maybe Mike will find another home for me – preferably one that’s just welcomed a new crewmember into the family!

Michael Camarata and his wife and co-captain Carol Zipke are full-time liveaboard cruisers, mostly snowbirds, whose home is the 44-foot catamaran, Infinite Improbability. They are both Senior Navigators and Past Commanders of the Waterbury (Conn.) Power Squadron of the USPS. Mike is also one of Waterway Guide’s Cruising Editors (Northern Edition).