The boat who wouldn’t go away

Phyllis, the 28-footer David’s parents owned when he was a kid. This recent photo of her shows she’s still alive . . . barely. Photo courtesy David Roper

I’m writing this the day after receiving an email with this picture and a note that said her owner just couldn’t keep her up; that it was so sad to see such a beautiful yacht decline; that he was considering giving her away if anyone would take her.

“If anyone would take her.” My, how we – and things – can fall from grace! Eyes of envy used to fall on Phyllis in every harbor. She had almost weekly purchase offers. And, like a rising movie star, she even gained fame of her own sort as I wrote about her over the years in “WoodenBoat,” “Cruising World,” “SAIL,” and “Reader’s Digest.” “Reader’s Digest” bought her story from the New York Times Publishing Group, translated it into 18 languages and distributed it throughout the world. She’d become famous. And now this! Fame is fleeting. Here’s part of that story:

Phyllis: I thought she’d be long gone by now, that gallant wooden friend and part of our family going back 80 years. She was built by a man named Christ in a former wooden leg factory in Riverside, Conn., back in 1939. My parents spent their honeymoon on her in 1941.

I’m told I went aboard in a basket in 1950, wedged under the deck beams on the forward cabin’s starboard bunk. I ended up sleeping on that bunk as a baby boy, teenager and adult. As a child I remember awakening to see the naked construction of massive oak beams holding up the fir planks of the deck above me. I remember smelling the aged wood and staring at the furrows and cracks that seemed to deepen each year, like the wrinkles and veins on my grandfather’s face. As a child I never realized that there was a time when the planks and beams were new, uncracked and untested – a time when the structure around me was green, unchecked wood, filled with the saps and resins of youth.

They were happy years as we all grew older, a close family held even closer by a common interest in an old wooden cutter. Phyllis brought us together when we needed to be and took us away from one another when we became too close. My brothers and I played out our childhood fantasies on her. We divulged our adolescent secrets within her. We shared our profound young-adult thoughts and ideas about the world around her. And each summer on their cruise, my parents escaped their three teenage boys aboard her.

And then, one stormy summer night in Marblehead Harbor years later, in 1980, my dad sold the boat right out from under us. “She’s old, boys,” he said to us as we huddled below in the cozy cabin under the glow of the kerosene lantern. “You need to know when to let go.” For several years my brothers and I were upset. But that went away when we learned that one of Phyllis’ new owners had to replace just about every piece of her except the kerosene lantern. A subsequent owner had even worse trouble; she sank on him, we’d heard. Right to the bottom. Then we lost track of her. Seemingly, she was gone.

It seemed that Dad had been right. Many years passed. Phyllis may have been long gone from our sight, but she was indelible in our minds.

Years later, several months before my parents’ 50th anniversary, on a raw spring afternoon that caused the few crocuses in the yard to wither under a thin veil of ice, the family was gathered in the living room, talking of summer plans. “Fifty years ago, we spent our honeymoon on Phyllis . . . sailing. I think that’s how we should spend our golden anniversary . . . sailing,” my dad said. A twinkle came to his eyes. “Let’s pull out all the stops,” he continued. “Charter the biggest darn sailboat you can get without a captain. The eight of us – your mother and me, and you three boys and your wives – will spend our 50th wedding anniversary cruising where we’ve always loved to cruise, the Maine coast. And we’ll do it in style.”

So in July we set sail from Camden, Maine aboard a 54-foot Alden ketch and headed east along the coast of Maine. My dad was thrilled to be sailing again – and even more thrilled to be playing with the navigation gadgets he found below deck. He looked in amazement at all the electronic wizardry: GPS, weather fax, cellular telephone, VHF, single sideband, radar, depth, speed and wind-direction gauges.

“Fifty years ago aboard Phyllis,” he said, “all we had was a $19 compass, a chart, a megaphone, some old Coke cans and a pencil.” He paused, leaning forward to look closer at the weather-fax machine. “Did all right, too,” he added, nodding his head.

“Coke cans and a megaphone?” my wife asked.

“We’d throw the Coke cans off the bow and time them till they reached the stern. Good way to determine boat speed,” he replied. “Also, we’d stop and throw them abeam to gauge current.”

“And the megaphone?”

“Oh, yes, that old red cardboard megaphone.” His fingers tapped the fancy color radar screen above him. “That megaphone was my radar. I’d use it to bounce my voice off the land in the fog to find and gauge distance from obstructions.”

“And that worked?” my wife asked.

“Made it this far. On Phyllis we worked together. Sometimes we could just sense things.”

We continued on east, sailing in harmony with each other and the nearly perfect July weather. On the day before the anniversary we sailed through Fox Island Thoroughfare between the islands of Vinalhaven and North Haven and headed a few miles out to sea on our way to Mount Desert Island. It was calm and we were under power. I was alone by the wheel. My dad was down below. The others were reading or snoozing. The ocean appeared empty. The big Alden was on autopilot. I casually scanned the empty hazy horizon. A speck appeared in the distance and grew larger until I could see the faintest outline of a mast and hull. It appeared to be crossing our path, perhaps a mile off. There was no particular reason for me to fixate on it. It was just another boat on a wide, wide ocean. Yet, something drew me to the binoculars. I put them to my eyes and focused on a hull that took me a millisecond to recognize.

There, as if sailing out of the twilight zone, was Phyllis. “Everybody! You’re not going to believe this!” I yelled. “It’s Phyllis! Honest to God. Honest to God. It’s Phyllis.” Seven more Ropers gathered on the Alden’s starboard side, straining to see if this was for real. As Phyllis drew closer, I noticed a young woman at the helm. Due to all the attention from us, she was getting anxious, self-conscious, or both. She leaned her head down Phyllis’s companionway. A male figure popped up. The two boats were not 100 feet apart: an ancient 28-foot wooden cutter and an $850k, 54-foot modern custom ketch. For what seemed eternity no one spoke. Then my father turned to me and said with a confident smirk, “You planned this, didn’t you?” I told him I was as surprised as he was.

Then in unplanned unison, we all shouted: “We’re the Ropers, and we used to own your boat.”

Then off we sailed that July day in 1991, out of each other’s lives, happy that Phyllis was still living, and that someone was not letting go.

And now, in 2019, 28 years later, it appears from my email and photo that it was time to let go again. And yet, when I look at Phyllis, even in her current state, it’s still hard to do; it’s hard to look away. Like an aged leading lady, there’s still that grace and dignity.

Take a look. You can see it, too. I know you can.

David Roper’s latest novel, “Rounding the Bend: The Life and Times of Big Red,” was released last June and is available from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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