We tuck into a small cove on a warm day and drop the hook. The small breakwater upon which two dozen cormorants stand, drying their wings, protects us from a 2- to 3-foot swell. The flag beside the lighthouse hangs limp in the light southerly.
The eel grass meadows wave in the current, and terns drop from the clear sky on schools of baitfish. The red and white Coast Guard buildings and the granite light tower stand as they have for more than 100 years.
These waters are where my story begins. But what has become of Fred the lobsterman and his sturdy wooden skiff?
A half-century ago my friends and I lived in this cove during summer, fishing, snorkeling, spearing flounder and burning off copious amounts of pubescent fuel. We were trying to crack the code on girls and fish, and decipher the distant rumblings from Southeast Asia.
Fred’s skiff perched like a scruffy gull at the top of his ramp, which descended from a seawall that ran along the inside of the cove to the water. Low-sided and work-worn, the boat was usually loaded with wooden baskets, lobster bait, fuel tanks, a fishing rod and the other assorted gear of an inshore lobsterman. A battered 25-hp Evinrude with a long-handled tiller hung off the transom.
When it was time to launch the boat, Fred would douse the planks with buckets of seawater and summon us from our aquatic horseplay. He didn’t really need our help. He had the ropey forearms and defined biceps of someone who’d wrested a living from the sea.
Dripping wet, we’d muster around the bow and, upon his command, put everything we had into driving that rough workboat down the ramp and into the water. “OK boys, on three,” he’d growl, a pipe between his teeth. Awkward adolescents that we were, I don’t think he ever realized how much we enjoyed pitching in. We all looked up to this unsweetened Yankee waterman.
Fred has long since gone to his reward, and his skiff, no doubt, has been reduced to kindling. There is no trace of his ramp or the boys who once played in the cove.
I tell this story today because I am anchored in Fred’s cove in a boat that would have caught his eye. Swamp Yankee is an outboard-powered 22-foot fiberglass Down East skiff, a boat that the lifelong fisherman would have understood at a glance: Strong sheer, low freeboard aft, tumblehome and wide covering boards.
My Sisu 22 was designed by Royal Lowell, who had a knack for drawing efficient, seaworthy lobster boats. Before we gussied her up, she would have been right at home hauling traps. Fred certainly would have scoffed at the varnished mahogany coaming on Swamp Yankee, but he would have liked her smooth ride and the way she runs down-sea.
It would be years before I understood just how much Fred had shaped my concept of what a proper boat should look like and how one should behave. His skiffs were simple, seaworthy and handsome. They worked hard, earned their keep and were valued for their utility. Watching Fred work his traps along the reefs left me with a deep appreciation for how much a small boat in the right hands can handle.
Although we were not related by blood, I always referred to the irascible fisherman as “Uncle Fred,” a title that spoke of the long friendship between our families. His wife, Loretta, was my godmother, and she was always and affectionately called “Aunt.”
I’ve been a small-boat outboard guy since those summers. And I still gravitate to the places small boats can carry you—bright flats and shallows, rips, island coves, sandbars, saltwater creeks, places well off the beaten track.
I return to the cove each summer, set the anchor, put on a facemask and slip over the side, looking for fish and listening for those gangly, feral boys of yesteryear. If I squint, I can see Fred rounding the breakwater, standing in the stern, the extended outboard tiller in one hand, dressed in worn khakis, a t-shirt, cap and knee-high fishing boots. I catch a whiff of pipe tobacco and sweet two-stroke exhaust.
The man and the boat are one, moving in sync, with form following function. It is a lesson I’ve never forgotten.