My first boat wasn’t really a boat at all. My father made the unfortunate decision to move our family from Brooklyn, NY to a waterfront house in the middle of Long Island, NY. To my nine-year- old sensibilities, this was the highest form of family treason, unbearable to my small mind. Away from the gangs and bodegas to a giant house surrounded by weeds and hair-spray wearing teenagers (girls and boys). I made my displeasure known at every turn, the rest of my time mostly investigating the yard and digging holes.
A curious shape lurked on the ugly side of the house, a mound of weeds slightly higher than the surrounding mounds of weeds. Digging out the plants, which my mother would later let us know, in her warm, disinterested voice, were rare country flowers. My father’s only comment, voiceless as usual, was to give me a rusty garden spade so I would return my mother’s glass measuring cup, chips and all.
It was nearly winter, the ground hardening. As my tiny hands dug over several days a shape emerged. It was not a forgotten planter, after all; it was a small wooden boat, red, white, and rotten, around 6 feet long. I dug further, uncovering a bench, finally discovering the wooden floor. To my horror, I found several large, well placed holes. It may have once been a boat, but was most certainly, and would forever remain, a planter. I could fit my hands through the drain holes.
Winter came, and with it snow, and with the snow, new activities. Just the fact of seeing unbroken snow, white snow, was enough distraction to mute my geographical complaints temporarily, which at that age is the same thing as forever. Deeper into winter the bay froze over, became covered with more white snow, and we would take walks out into the middle of the water, never once drowning. These were not frozen street puddles to slide across. This was country ice.
Once the snow melted, suburban activities took root. School, sports, bullying, making friends, activities for which I was wholly unsuited, a skinny, stuttering color-blind Brooklyn rat. No one liked me, and the feeling was mutual. The snow left and with it my spirits. I longed for concrete, for bodegas without anti-theft cameras, for anything within my reach that did not include houses and hairspray.
One day in early spring the boat reappeared, upside down, in the middle of the back lawn with a shiny new object on its spine. A paint scraper. I went to work immediately as my father watched from the window. The flaky paint gave way to soft wood, which gave way to hard wood, which made the drain holes look bigger. 10 hours later, exhausted, I dragged myself up the stairs to my bed.
The next morning new objects appeared; scissors, small squares of white cloth, a can of liquid. With my father directing my hands, I learned to lay fiberglass patches. We reset the oar latches, laid down paint and dragged it down to the water. A weekend’s work for someone like him, lifechanging for an odd kid like me. I don’t think we said a single word the entire day. He was like that. As was I.
The boat floated, and the day he put me on the bench behind the oars, with an adult-sized life jacket tied around me twice, was one of the happiest days of my life. Not because I had something new to do; because I had somewhere new to go.
Over the summer my arms turned a deep brown and strengthened. My hair, curlier, more blond, thick with salt. For my birthday the following my father bought me a small motor, a 2 horsepower Evinrude about the size of my adult arm now but far bigger back then. Must have cost him a week’s pay even with the winter sale price. He sent me to a Coast Guard course for youths, which consisted of a three-hour nap, and months later, as soon as the ice was thin enough for me to break a path through, I was off. Rain or snow, no matter the temperature or conditions, I was on the water. So began a childhood on the water, summers working as a boat mechanic, as a rigger, a fiberglass grinder, a stock boy in a marine parts store. Whatever broke I learned to fix. Whatever I couldn’t fix I salvaged or stole.
My childhood years went by. Bigger boats. Faster ones. Even homemade ones. Whatever it took to be on the water. I needed to escape my childhood while still a child, and the water is one of the best ways to do that.
I grew up, and out. For many years I was nowhere near the water. I worked in cities, travelled, got married and divorced, broke some bones, joined a cult, switched careers several times, but a part of me always remembered that very first day. The licking sound of the water hitting the wooden sides of the boat. The smell of salt. The begrudged sear birds, dark swirling water surrounding the oars, the thunk when the boat hit the dock back home.
Aside from a short time with a speedboat I purchased on a credit card just before the dot-com bust, and my own subsequent bust, I rarely thought about boats. I was busy, but I was not happy. Successful and unsatisfied, as most of us are when we think we’ve grown up but really hadn’t. I longed for a childhood I ran like hell from…I just didn’t know why.
People complain all the time about boats. How expensive they are, how often they break, how quickly they deteriorate. How they’re a waste of money, of time. I don’t. I think about the water, and a boat is the best way to get there. It would take forty years to find my way back to that simple place where I was once happy. This is story of how I got there.