Rot in the bullshead

The author’s son, Nicky

By David Roper
For Points East

Editor’s note: Dave Roper is on vacation, so we’re cutting him a little slack this month. Here is one of our favorite columns of his, which ran in April, 2013.

They owned a small inn on the coast of Maine, and they came in earnest down to Marblehead, Mass., to view our robin’s egg blue 19’ Corinthian sloop, which my growing family had outgrown. A young couple as sweet as our little sailboat, though a bit naïve about sailing, they had a good natural eye for a seaworthy, well-designed craft. With a very deep cockpit, full keel and small cabin, Windmill had served us well and been perfect for our sailing lives while our two kids grew from babies to four and five year olds. She sat in our driveway on a trailer, waiting for another season of sailing. Nicky, our precocious five-year-old, was all excited that chilly morning as we awaited the prospective buyers. He wanted to help me sell the boat. He held up his open but still tiny right hand. “Daddy, I have five years at sea on Windmill, just like you. They will want to talk to me, too, I bet.” It was true; he and I had done everything together on that little boat. Like a small, loyal and inquisitive puppy, Nicky had always been right there beside me, and unbeknownst to me, he had absorbed EVERYTHING about the boat. “Daddy, I can show them around the cabinet (his word for the tiny crawl-space cabin); and I can show them how the head works, and how to fix it.” He took a breath and continued, his mind obviously spinning about all he knew. “And all the other stuff: how the motor works, how these crankers (Nicky’s word for winches) pull in the sail, and where we keep the anchor rope.”

He really does know a lot, I thought to myself. Maybe too much; I began to get nervous, especially about some bad areas in the cockpit bulkhead. “Nicky, maybe Daddy should do the adult talking about why they would like to buy the boat,” I ventured. He gave me a quizzical look, and then that cute, exaggerated double shoulder “whatever” shrug that five-year-olds are known for. “I’ll signal you when it’s your turn to talk, okay? You do want to sell Windmill so we can get that Cape Dory with the bigger sleeping cabinet, right?” Then I quickly tried to distract him before he could counter (for even at five his mental alacrity was beginning to eclipse mine). “And you can help me set up the ladder so we can all climb right aboard when they arrive,” I said.

When the young couple did arrive, we exchanged pleasantries about their drive from Maine and the history of our town of Marblehead. All the while Nicky waited patiently, seemingly adhering to my instructions. But then talk turned to discussing the boat, and this was when I first met the salesman inside my young son. As Arthur Miller wrote in his famous play: “For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to life. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.”

Nicky Roper, the salesman, took over.

“Let’s start with the trailer,” he said with a confident smile, and he crouched his 48” frame by the right front tire of the tandem trailer. “Don’t let this rust worry you,” he said, tapping the frame of the trailer. “That’s normal cause it gets wet all the time.” Then he moved to one of the tires. “You need to check here, to look for loose bears,” he said. We all smiled.

“Bearings, Nicky,” I corrected.

“Yes, bearings,” he said, self-correcting with a somehow erudite tone.

“Nicky, let’s show them the cockpit,” I suggested. We all climbed the ladder.

“Watch your step,” Nicky said to the young wife. Once safe in the cockpit, the pitch continued. He explained about the outboard motor well, where the choke was on the outboard, how the gas can needed to be vented, and how you could take the motor out of the well and put it under the seat for less drag when sailing. “Even Grampy likes this feature,” he said, “and he’s the Cow Manure at a yacht club even.”

“It’s “Commodore,” Nicky,” I corrected.

“Yes, well, Commodore.”

Then, with great pride, he showed them the small mahogany switch panel box I made for the cabin and told how most Corinthians didn’t have such cool shiny (read: varnished) wood in the cabin.

Then he got to the toilet, which was a marine head – this was before the days of holding-tank requirements – that sat under the little v-berth. “Excuse me,” he said to the couple as he squeezed by them into the cabin. Taking a hammer out of the little tool bin, he got down on his knees in front of the main thru-hull for the head. “This can be stuck,” he said. “But you just crawl down like me, get way under here, and tap it with this hammer. On hot days, Dad says some swears while he does this, but you might not want to do that.”

And so, the sales process continued. I think if Nicky himself were for sale and not Windmill, the closing would have been quicker. But we were getting there.

The young husband turned his attention to me. “Are there any areas we should be concerned about then?” he asked.

I gave this a false ponder. Or was it? This was not a structural issue. It wasn’t a safety issue. And it could be fixed. It was just the connotation of one particular word that concerned me. “Well, I don’t . . .” I began to say.

“You should tell them about the rot, Daddy.”

“Well, Nicky, I was just getting to that.”

He got down on his little knees again and pointed to the base of the cabin bulkhead where it met the cockpit floor.

He looked back at the couple and smiled self-confidently at his ability to enlighten them with his esoteric knowledge of such a hidden flaw.

“That’s rot in the bullshead,” he said with a now serious look.

Yes, rot in the bullshead. I should have spoken of that.

It was almost a deal breaker.

Look for David Roper’s forthcoming book, “Beyond Mermaids . . . Life’s Tangles, Knots & Bends.” It’s a sequel to “Watching for Mermaids,” a three-times bestseller available on