When I was 14 or so, my father reclaimed a sailboat that had been left untended for years on a trailer under the trees near our house. The open deck had been closed in by a waxed, mildewed canvas cover. Under the moss and grit that covered the hull, the wood was still sturdy and sound.
We reclaimed the boat. We washed the hull and deck down, then scraped the paint down to the bare wood. We soaked the boards in linseed oil to open up the pores, sanded them, treated them with primer and painted the hull green and the top deck blue.
The boat was a BlueJay, just under 14 feet long, five feet wide in its center, its mast reaching 20 feet above the deck. Even then, in the mid-1970’s, the craftsmanship of the simple boat felt like the legacy of a more careful time. The mast was rotted through and the fittings all rusted and weathered.
We went to Tiverton to order a new mast. We bought fittings, stays and yards, and worked diligently on the boat to prepare for the delivery of the mast, a long, slender piece of oak lathed to the specification of the BlueJay class.
My father would have projects like these that were complete and self-sufficient, ambitious in their scope and audacious in spite of our absence of knowledge. We lived like pioneers. We made our things. We had laid new floorboards in our old house from the old floorboards of a house ruined by fire. We built a barn out of unfinished planks of wood for our chickens, geese and goat. The bark was still on the irregularly shaped pieces, and the barn layered the misshapen pieces of wood over each other. It was thick and stolid, almost a living creature, but drafty in the bitter cold wind that winter sent from off the Bay.
We shellacked the floorboards. They were so slick that you could hardly stand and we had to rough up the finish to give our rubber soles some purchase.
We anchored the boat on the bay by the boathouse. It wasn’t a sheltered spot, and the little boat would swing back and forth in the wind, the current and the tide. She handled rough, struggled to get her head up into the wind, and bore down flat on the water on downwind legs. But she would idle along on a broad reach, back and forth across the bright water of the bay.
I don’t remember many sails. Life was busy and the work of putting the boat into the water was something that was focused and urgent. The business of sailing along the bay had little momentum. No one else wanted to sail.
Sailing had been something my father had tried to pass on to me. From early on, he brought me places to sail, and from the earliest times, I was too frighten by the dark water to pass the swimming tests. In high school though, I joined the sailing team, and learned something about sailing. I was fascinated by the tactics and angles of racing, of the adrenaline rush of the start, the feathering of your boat on the upwind leg, the urgent strain of throwing your entire body over the side to gather the boat back in, bring it to a level where you could feel the thrumming sensation of the water against the hull subside into a steady vibration filled with speed and energy.
I named the little boat Zephyr. After some time, I worked up the nerve to take her out alone.
We lived at the point of Aquidneck Island that was closest to the swollen belly of Prudence Island across the bay. The currents were strong along this eastern edge; the tides sucked the water out into the ocean through the narrow openings to the east and west of Jamestown. Sailing out on the bay during the Spring, racing with the sailing team, you could lose your purchase on the store and get pulled out north into the bay if you strayed to far west in the passage and didn’t have sufficient wind to carry you back.
That one time I went out the winds were snapping, strong enough to carry my soft little boat forward, but easy enough that I could handle her against the weather. I wanted to sail over to Prudence Island, which I’d looked at across the bay, through the gorgeous crimsons of the sun setting, or into the brilliant prisms of the lighthouse during nights blanketed with thick fog.
My sail was easy enough, but off to the west I could see grey clouds gathering. One time my father and I had taken the boat out up to the northern bend of Prudence Island, and on the way back gotten caught in the early rattling of a summer squall. The boat didn’t handle the weather well; the mast strained against the pull of the tide and the push of the wind, and the bottom slapped down jarringly on the growing whitecaps.
I lost my nerve on the sail when I saw the gray clouds. I put about and lay down wind on a easy slope. When I tied the boat up I was shaking, even though the afternoon was warm and still.
Zephyr was battered in a big storm, the mast broken and the hull ultimately abandoned. I don’t remember exactly when. The conclusion was like many of the other projects that we embarked on with such enthusiasm and focus: it petered out, with the real experience never quite measuring up against the intent. There wasn’t a rhythm of ritual and routine in the beautiful things in my life. They were gathered hastily, resourcefully, and then set aside.
The one constant was the sheer beauty of the water, the brilliant shadows of the bay and the drama of the setting sun over the west, dipping behind Prudence Island in momentary increments, welcoming in the evening quiet.