Peeling back the layers: The Roper Boats

December 2008

By David Roper

On May 5, 1994, my now 92-year-old dad (aka, “Grampy” to Points East readers) self-published a book called “Roper Boats.” The book contained both pictures and narrative, done in his inimitable style, describing about 40 Roper boats owned either by his father, himself, or by one of his three sons over a period of about 50 years. Like layers of built-up paint, his descriptions of each one reflect a piece of the life, times, and personality of its owner.

Let’s peel back the surface of a few of these boats and step aboard in the 1920s.

 

Boat #1, circa 1920. She was simply named Canoe. Book photo: a sepia black-and-white photograph in a bucolic setting by a lake; two boys, one about 4 and the other about 11 in what looks like blissful surroundings. Dad writes: “Don’t remember much about Canoe except watching Father ironing on canvas having applied Ambroid glue and then heating and melting it into the canvas using a hot iron. Messy. This picture of brother Peter and me pushing it into the lake was actually posed and taken by a professional photographer. Peter and I look so angelic in the shot, which looks as if we’re headed for a friendly paddle when really we hated each other. Perhaps I was a nuisance to my older brother.”

Boat #2, circa 1924. She was named Carula. Photo: nondescript 20-foot open motorboat propped up in the backyard. Dad writes: “The name came from a random group of old brass letters that Father had in the basement; in true Yankee spirit, he played around with them until he got a reasonably good sounding name: Carula.

I remember one spring at about age 8, I was playing with the engine that had been removed that winter and was down in the basement. Out of sheer curiosity, I took off the cover of the reverse gear. Suddenly I dropped one of the cover cap screws into the reverse gear, where I couldn’t possibly get it. I worried for two months that when they put it in the boat and tried to run it, that screw would catch the gears and ruin the engine. I held my breath (and tongue) as they started her up and put her in gear that summer. No problem and no one ever knew until now.”

Boat #3, built pre-1925. She was named Emily-O. Photo: a gaff-rigged 35-foot yawl with bowsprit and long overhangs. Dad writes: “Father bought it for $500 in 1925. She was just enough of a yacht to allow him to qualify for the New York Yacht Club. She was wide and slow and leaked horribly. And Emily-O would never go to windward. For that she needed the engine, which was a massive, slow-turning two-cylinder Lathrop. It had a huge flywheel that was used to start it. There were holes in the rim, and one put a bar in a hole, rolled the engine by compression, and just hoped it didn’t backfire, which would have then driven the bar through the bottom of the boat. We primed the cylinders with raw gas into each petcock, pouring the gas from an open coffee can. Then we hoped for the best.

One memorable cruise was when two pals and I, at about age 21, took the boat to Fishers Island to visit a wealthy friend named Bill. The four of us sailed back to Greenwich, Conn., together. Bill had been promised by his parents $21,000 by age 21 if he didn’t drink. We had a rough passage back on the Emily-O with bad leaks, headwinds, rough seas and only one cylinder of the two working. When we finally arrived and dropped anchor, we settled below and had good strong drinks. Bill, too. But before he did so, he swore us to secrecy, then fell asleep on his bunk before dinner. No secret anymore. But no matter. All dead now except me.

On another trip across the sound, we got caught in a squall which put a strain on the mizzenmast, pushing it down on the keel and causing a heavy leak. Emily-O was sinking. We spotted a stretch of clear shore in front of the prestigious Sewanaka-Corinthian Yacht Club and ran all 35 feet of her right up on the beach. Very soon, a club employee hurried down and told us this was private club property and we had to leave. Didn’t happen.

The worst of Old Emmy’s leaks was when my sister, her husband, Phil, and I (age 12) ran into a squall, and she leaked so much, the water in the boat got high enough for the flywheel to throw it around the cabin. That was a bad sign when Emmy leaked like that. Phil got real worried, turned over the wheel to me, and said: “I abrogate responsibility.” I had no idea what the word meant, but I could see that he was no longer captain.

So that’s a small piece of the first 10 years of Roper boats. From there, the boats, like the generations of their Roper owners, go on, sometimes evolving and sometimes repeating some of the look and feel from ingrained memories of an earlier time. It’s really all about keeping a family afloat – kind of like taking a ship’s log to the pictorial, personal, and anecdotal level to buoy up the really important memories. Try it sometime yourself with your own history of your boats. You could use “Roper Boats” as a model, but the first print run was only five copies. Not a big seller. But each copy is cherished.

Dave Roper keeps his boat in Marblehead, Mass.