The Gulf, golf and the kid

David Roper and his son, Nick, on the golf course. Photo courtesy David Roper

By David Roper
For Points East

Published January, 2000

How do you get a teen-age boy to go cruising in Maine with his father (no, this is not the lead to a new joke), to share in the joy of quiet nights under a blanket of stars, to be away from his friends, from the activity and noise of youth…from chicken fingers…from girls?

Teen-agers are a lot like golf balls. You can apply the utmost effort, concentration, training and commitment to getting them to go in the right direction, yet how they act and where they land is often a surprise, if not a shock.

Like voyaging to the Antarctic, getting ready for a voyage to Maine alone with a teen-ager requires intense forethought and preparation. I needed clearances and permissions. From him. From his mother. I needed to know my opposition and anticipate any number of mental crises. But most importantly, I needed to get him to want to go. I needed to bribe him.

My son loves golf. It is perhaps the only thing he loves which is not endemic to teenagers. I had my bribe.

But his father is a sailor, not a golfer. I went aboard my parents’ cruising sailboat in a basket and never looked back. The sea is in my blood. When people think of me they think of boats. I could develop the world’s first non-polluting, pollution-eating machine. I could make food grow on people’s laps. It wouldn’t matter – people would always say, “Oh, him; he’s a sailor.” I’m forever labeled.

And golfers and sailors rarely steer the same course.

But I had an idea.

“Care for a merger?” I asked my son one day as he sat on his bed watching the walls of his room pulsate to the sound of Puff Daddy on full base.

“What? Speak up!”

“Care for a merger?” I boomed.

Nick looked at me with an uncomprehending sneer.

“A merger,” I boomed again. “Could you please lower that…that sound for a moment?”

“What the hell’s a merger?”

“We combine our interests…and you don’t need to swear.”

“What interests?”

“Golf and sailboat cruising. We’ll go on a golf cruise on the Chang Ho. We’ll cruise along the coast of Maine, living on the boat and sailing from golf course to golf course, just the two of us.”

I thought I heard him utter the word “cool,” but over Puff Daddy and lack of direct eye contact I couldn’t be sure.

“You like that idea, pal?” I ventured hopefully.

Without looking up he said: “Dad, chill. I said ‘cool.’ OK? ”

I slowly backed out of the room. In my recent studies of teen-agers I had learned one thing for certain: if you get an inch, take an inch. There are no miles.

I began to prepare early. First, I knew we’d need to understand one another, my teen-ager and I. To communicate at all, I discovered, would require that I learn a new language – his.

This would be my mission prior to departure.

So I listened to Puff Daddy, studied teen-age styles of dress, including grunge, and learned what it meant and why it evolved. I forced myself to look coldly at a full moon on a warm summer’s night, clouds scudding past its face, thinking of it not as the inspirational beauty of nature, but just some big white glob in the sky with some clouds going past. I tried not reading, instead attempting to glean an education and knowledge from television, pop radio and video games. And I tried golf.

• • •

Over time I became more and more anxious that my son’s interest in the golf cruise would fade, that teen exigencies would eclipse this father-son opportunity. But then one day weeks later, when Nick mentioned that he’d figured a way to mount our golf clubs in the cramped forward cabin of our 25-foot Cape Dory sloop, I knew this cruise was going to happen. I asked Nick to research the harbors that were within walking distance of golf courses. “Already done,” he said confidently, and he showed me his book of public golf courses in Maine. He’d dog-eared the pages with Sebasco, Boothbay, Deer Isle, Rockland and Castine. I nodded, taking my inch and backing out of his room. “Dad,” he said, just as I was closing his door, “What will we do the rest of the time? You know, all the time at sea and at anchor and stuff; you know, when we’re not playing golf.”

I thought for a minute. I thought of all the reasons we could be harbor bound: fog, pouring rain, high winds. I thought of the 75 square feet of cabin space in the Chang Ho. I thought of our inability to communicate and our nearly total lack of common ground. And I suppressed the beginnings of a panic attack.

“We’ll bond,” I said, and quickly shut his door.

• • •

“What if he falls overboard?” my wife asked with grave concern, after I’d told her of my plan. “What if he falls overboard and it’s in that ‘thick black dungeon fog stuff’ you’re always talking about?”

She had a point. I pictured my son, a black dot disappearing in the grainy mist, yelling, “Dad, Dad, help me. Please.” (Well, I thought, at least he’s saying “please.”) I pictured myself in a growing frenzy, searching blindly, listening, turning the boat left and then right and ultimately in circles all the while screaming his name.

“He won’t fall overboard,” I said to my wife with authority. “Besides, he doesn’t even like to come out of the cabin. He likes it down there with his Discman and Gameboy.”

“Well, I think I’ll just stay right here, thank you very much… maybe do some shopping,” my 12-year-old daughter, Allie, interjected.

“Oh, and you think those malls of yours are safer places?” I asked.

“At least you can’t get seasick in one,” she said.

“I get the message: You don’t want to come along; you don’t want to spend two weeks living in Chang Ho’s cabin with your big brother,” I said.

“Dad,” she said, with hands on her hips and a burgeoning pre-teen smirk, “I’d rather wear knee socks and eat Brussels sprouts.”

• • •

The big day of departure finally arrived. The golf clubs fit just fine up in the bow. My hand-me-down set of antiques, including “Old Rusty” and “The Baffler,” went on the bottom, cushioning Nick’s shiny new set of top-notch irons. I stowed Nick’s sustenance – barbecue chips, Sprite and other nutritious teen-age culinary delights – into the lockers.

My wife and daughter stood on the dock waving goodbye as we headed east in search of the first nine holes of father/son bonding. “Did Mom yell something?” I asked Nick as we headed out of Salem Harbor. “I couldn’t hear, Dad. But it would be about brushing my teeth. It’s always the last thing she says.”

Once underway, the cruising routine quickly became clear: Nick would sleep, listen to his music or play Gameboy; I would steer, navigate, adjust sails, cook, and do the boat maintenance. It was during that first night out, anchored behind Smuttynose Island at the Isle of Shoals, that I learned Teen-age Lesson #1: They are nocturnal creatures; it is in the wee hours when they really come alive. I found that out this first night when I awoke at 3:30 a.m. to the word “cool.” He was looking out the porthole over his bunk. “Are we dragging?” I asked, sitting up quickly. “No, wind’s up Dad, we should get going. Sailing at night would be cool.” So, even though I’d had only four and a half hours of sleep, at 4 a.m. we were underway. At 4:30, two miles out from the harbor, Nick was sound asleep. So much for cool teen-age night sailing. But we had 10 knots of breeze on the quarter; the boat was on automatic pilot, and it was bliss.

A couple hours after dawn, I began cooking pancakes. I tried to wake Nick at about 8, and this is when I learned Teen-age Lesson #2: During the first half of any given day they are varsity sleepers; they will sleep through most any cataclysmic event short of Armageddon (which hasn’t yet been tested); they can put Rip Van Winkle to shame. So I ate all the pancakes alone.

The first golf port on our cruise was Sebasco Harbor in eastern Casco Bay. Easy to enter, the harbor is protected in every direction except from the southwest. The very hospitable Sebasco Harbor Resort on the eastern shore has reasonably priced guest moorings, which include launch service and showers. Or, if you’re a cheap Yankee like me, you can anchor out. The nine-hole course is fun and scenic (and very reasonably priced), with the second hole requiring a shot over a tidal inlet (my ball is the one with a red dot). Nick’s score: 39; Dad’s score: well, higher (hint to sailors/non-golfers: high in golf is not good). Nick’s Sebasco Harbor Resort chicken finger rating: 8.25 out of 10. There were no cribbage tournament games that night due to the fact that Nick discovered an old-fashioned three-lane candlepin bowling alley on the Sebasco property. We played until closing (I lost) and then rowed out in the fog to Chang Ho’s cozy cabin. The fog cleared that night but the wind came up strong from the southwest. We had a roly night, but we were warm and dry.

The next day, NOAA weather radio called for “high wave” warnings, with wind and seas from the southwest. I figured if I could just make the five miles to get around Cape Small, it would be a wonderful downhill sleigh ride after that, all the way to Christmas Cove. Nick’s job, of course, was to sleep through it, despite the carnival-like ride. Though the Chang Ho is by no means remarkable to windward under sail, she’s awesome under power, thanks to her narrow, low profile hull and full keel, all pushed by a high-thrust, 4-stroke Yamaha with a three-bladed propeller. (Sure, it’s wet, but that’s what dodgers are for). Rounding Cape Small, I eagerly rolled out the jib and raised a reefed main. Chang Ho took off. The quartering seas were mesmerizing.

As we slid past Seguin Island Light and on towards Damariscove Island, I happily watched Chang Ho’s stern lift to each sea; then I anxiously watched our dinghy surf toward us on its own wave, falling just short of our transom. At first I was entertained; then, as the seas continued to build, I became a bit anxious, though the boat seemed to be doing just fine. A few minutes later, glancing over my shoulder, I saw double trouble, one of those waves upon a wave. The bottom half got under the boat’s starboard quarter and lifted us up on our beam ends, while the top one hit the hull full force above the water line. The result was like dropping a shingle sideways into a bathtub; until buoyancy took over we were headed toward China. The port cockpit coaming and part of the dodger went under, but in a few moments we were right back on course. Only the captain was the worse for wear. It wasn’t Armageddon, but Rip Van Winkle did awaken. “Dad,” Nick said, headphones ajar, “did my basketball shoes get wet?” It was here that I learned Teen-age Lesson #3: They fear nothing from Mother Nature because mothers don’t scare them.

We spent the night in Christmas Cove and went ashore for dinner (Dad needed to chill out.) Nick’s chicken fingers rating: 8.2. Father/son cribbage tournament score after dinner: Nick 3; Dad 0. Required summer reading pages completed: 42 (“Cat’s Cradle”). Profound dialogue meter score: 0.

After a stop for the night at lovely Harbor Island in Muscongus Bay, we sailed east into West Penobscot Bay on a comfortable broad reach into Rockport. That night, Nick and I walked to Camden for dinner at Cappy’s, passing a herd of belted Galloway cows on the way. We also detoured by some of the biggest new homes we’d ever seen.

“Are those hotels, Dad?” Nick asked.

“No,” I said, “They’re private homes. They’re owned by some executives who work for a big credit card bank.”

“How can those people afford such big houses, Dad?”

I pulled out my wallet and handed him my credit card. “See this?” I said.

He studied it. “Yeah?”

“Well, this is one of those things to watch out for in life,” I said.

“You mean like fast women?”

“Kind of,” I said.

At Cappy’s, Nick found top-rated teen-ager food and root beer; then, after a walk around the busy waterfront, we called a cab to take us back to Rockport and the Chang Ho.

Delightful stops over the next few days included the Benjamin River off of Eggemogin Reach and a visit to Woodenboat Magazine’s headquarters in Brooklin. Then it was time for our next golf course, so we sailed back through the Reach, rounded Cape Rosier and motored into Castine Harbor.

Castine is a great stop, easy to enter with options to either rent a mooring off the Castine Yacht Club or anchor out in wooded Smith Cove across from the harbor. We opted for a mooring close to the yacht club due to our golf plans and soon became the center of attention when we emerged from the tiny cabin with full golf apparel (Nick done up 100% a la Tiger Woods) and two sets of clubs. We gingerly loaded our gear and ourselves into our 7’6” dinghy. The focus stayed on us ashore as we began walking down the street, clubs over our shoulders, full golf attire, and no golf course in sight. That’s when the inevitable witticisms from passersby began: “Long par 5, I guess, huh?” (Hah hah) and “You guys must have a wicked slice; the course is one mile that way.” (hah hah)

Castine is a charming town full of history, great inns, and attractive colonial homes. It also has a pretty 9-hole course with views of the Bagaduce River. And the course really isn’t too far from the waterfront. Nick’s score: 41; Dad’s score: higher. Chicken finger rating at local Castine greasy spoon: 8.8. Father/son cribbage tournament score after dinner: Nick 7; Dad 0. Additional summer reading pages completed: 11 (“Cat’s Cradle”). Profound dialogue meter score: still 0.

After a night of relative seclusion in quiet Smith Cove, we headed for our ultimate challenge: a beautiful, top rated 18-hole course in Rockport called Samoset.

“I’m going to bring that course to its knees,” I said confidently to Nick on the way across Penobscot Bay.

He rolled his eyes. “Dad, you’ve never even played an 18-hole course, and never a course with a slope like this.”

“Well,” I said, “I hope it’s sloped in my favor.”

“Dad,” Nick said, exasperated, “slope is a complex formula arrived at from…oh, never mind. Just don’t fly the greens; you’ll end up in the water.”

A little-known secret is that Samoset Resort maintains several guest moorings and a float right off the breakwater close to the property. The cost (free) was right up my alley (they get even with the greens fees). We met my brother Skip, who’d driven up to join us for our final course. Samoset brought us all to our knees. But it sure was pretty and it sure was fun.

Skip would be driving Nick back home to stay with his aunt and uncle while my wife, Mary Kay, joined me to continue our cruise the next day. Just before bed on Nick’s last night aboard, I asked him what he’d learned about his old man after two weeks together in such a small space. I held my breath, hoping for a jump in the profound dialogue meter. He thought for a few moments (a good sign). Then, rubbing his chin, he said, “You sure drink a lot of hazelnut coffee.” I smiled, resigned to taking an inch where I could, feeling that at least this constituted some form of dialogue.

But then, the next day as he climbed into Skip’s van, Nick quickly slipped me a tightly folded piece of paper: “What’s this?” I asked.

“Read it later, Dad. See ya,” Nick said. And he was gone.

On the way back to the boat, I carefully unfolded the paper. It was a list of courses he’d planned for next year’s golf cruise. That was when I learned Teen-age Lesson #4: They CAN bond; they’ll just be real subtle about it.

Dave Roper has been a freelance writer since the early 1970s. His published writing has been translated into 18 languages. In the summer of 2000, he and his son will embark on their third annual golf cruise to Maine. Nick continues to be a superb golfer, cribbage player and young man. His Dad still stinks at golf, but is getting better at cribbage.