Ode to the mighty Sturdy

The author’s humble plywood skiff. It’s nothing fancy, but it provided many years of adventures. When he sold his boat, he kept the skiff. Photo courtesy Chuck Roast

June 2023

By Chuck Roast

I took the oars: the Pilot’s boy,
Who now doth crazy go,
Laughed loud and long, and all the while
His eyes went to and fro.
“Ha! ha!” quoth he, “full plain I see,
The Devil knows how to row.”

–The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


I’d been trying to sell my Cape Dory 33, Navicula, for 16 months as I no longer had the energy to push the beast around anymore. When the day finally came, it was like a nine-ton burden had been lifted from my shoulders. All that was left to do was assist the new owners in becoming familiar with the boat, and winch my eight-foot dinghy – the mighty, mighty Sturdy – down from the foredeck. After 10 years of solo-cruising New England waters, my hard-sailing days were done. I was taking to my dink.

But what a decade! The first summer of sailing Navicula in Maine could charitably be described as a learning experience. When I pulled into Portland’s old Gowen Marine that October to get hauled, all I could think was, “Thank Christ I didn’t sink the buggah!” You sail, tinker, dismantle, fix and upgrade, all the while getting deeper and deeper into the small craft. Thirty-three feet of complexity and simplicity. The intimacy deepens with each turn of the wrench, every new piece of sandpaper and every replacement part.

And yet somehow, at the end, I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

With me always on the adventure was a humble little marine-plywood skiff built from some forgotten plan in someone’s boat shop. I needed a tender, and I didn’t want an inflatable requiring a motor. I was trying to keep it as simple as possible. My friend Max sold me the dink and oars when I bought Navicula. It didn’t occur to me at the time to give her a name. But I’d be cruising around offshore someplace and I’d turn and look over the transom, and there she was following faithfully along. She had some issues over the years requiring resin and a bit of fabric (the beach at Roque Island is sand; virtually the rest of the Maine coast is cobble). To paraphrase that Timex commercial: “She took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’.” On many occasions I thought, “She sure is a sturdy little wretch.” Some might think it presumptuous to name an otherwise unremarkable marine-ply eight-footer. But when something entirely unremarkable begins demonstrating superior survival capabilities and performs flawlessly whenever asked, notice is required.

Sturdy went onto the transom.

On my last trip south I found an empty mooring ball up the Saco River just under the University of New England’s Biddeford campus. A wicked gale hit that night, and the sloop went every which way between the current and the wind. I woke in the morning to see huge waves pounding the breakwater down river and my dink capsized, the oars likely headed for nearby Boone Island.

Onward to Narragansett Bay, an oarless Sturdy trailing along in my wake. I made my usual stop in Gloucester, Mass., on a Saturday. It’s always a pleasure to haul past Ten Pound Island and the old paint factory. The great marine artist Jeff Weaver used to open his doors for a few hours a week on Saturday, so the Danforth went down. Gloucester retains some of the funky charm of its working-class fisherman past. The bourgeoisie seem not to have applied their special patina yet.

I walked over to Maritime Gloucester where they had an old hogged-out fishing schooner on the ways. There were a few salty looking guys kibitzing in front of the building. I asked one of the fellows if anyone knew where I might find a set of oars and oarlocks. One of the men said, “Well, I have too many oarlocks at the moment so you can have these.” He gave me two beautiful round bronze oarlocks. A perfect fit for my future oars.

There is a formula for determining the correct oar for dinghies and dories. And who better to do the arithmetic than Shaw & Tenney. They do make beautiful sweeps. Luxurious compared to my long-gone, beat-up hand-me-downs. Mine were around six-feet long. They stored nicely in the bottom and worked perfectly . . . particularly after I installed a couple of brass oarlock brackets with Teflon bushings.

At the very time the new owners of Navicula were calling and leaving a message that the survey was adequate and they wanted to go forward with the purchase, I was wandering down to my trusty marine consignment store in search of new oars. I told Bud that a couple of six-foot wooden oars might do. New oars from Shaw & Tenney are $300. Bud said that he only had one set of oars in the basement, and I could take a look. I headed down the stairs. The one pair of wooden oars turned out to be an old six-foot twosome nicely tarted up with a couple of coats of varnish, complete with rubber buttons. Talk about a lucky day! I was ready to go poking around the harbor.

In order to get the dinghy off the foredeck and onto the hard, the Fairclough winter canvas frame had to come down. During sale negotiations, a howler from the north had destroyed the careworn cover. This misfortune simplified removal of the frame, and despite my not having attended mass in decades, had no ill effect on the sale price. On a nice Saturday in early April the new owner and I lowered the Sturdy into a sea of jack-stands. We went off to see ol’ Bud again for some new batteries, and later I rigged the lazy jacks as a courtesy for the new guys. Now I had to find a good, safe spot for the dink that would not annoy my new overlord . . . the harbormaster.

Jim Barr – Chuck Roast is a nom de plume – sailed his Cape Dory 33, Navicula, around the Gulf of Maine for about a decade. As of last month, Jim is “now a total land-lubber,” having sold his mighty Sturdy for $450. “I really didn’t row around as much as planned,” he said in an email. “An eight-foot dink with six-foot sweeps plus a geezer do not do well in 15-20 knot afternoon breezes.”