A stroll on the dock with a voice from the past reminds the author that beauty is timeless.
I walk the show docks after hours in Lauderdale or Miami or Newport and occasionally I am joined by an old Norwegian sea captain who appears out of the fog of my memory to accompany me.
A former captain who worked aboard J.P. Morgan’s great yacht Corsair, Olaf Berentsen quietly appraises the new boat fleet, stopping to examine a center console with four outboards. He likes handsome skiffs, sailboats and motoryachts in the 30- to 50-foot range.
A World War I veteran, Olaf was known around the waterfront as “Cap” out of respect for his years of running boats. During the 1920s he captained yachts for wealthy families from New York and Philadelphia.
He sailed into Watch Hill (R.I.) Harbor sometime in the 1920s, met my widowed grandmother and her two children (including my father), married, swallowed the anchor and moved ashore. I knew him when I was a boy, and I now stroll comfortably with this gentle ghost.
“Boats should look like boats and churches like churches,” says Cap as we stop before a European design that leaves both of us scratching our heads. Cap has been gone for more than 50 years; I put those words in his mouth, but I can hear him say them clearly with his soft Norwegian accent and in a voice just above a whisper.
Cap was quiet, stoic and capable. He is the one you wanted at the helm when the weather turned dirty, the seas boisterous. Having survived the Battle of Argonne Forest, what was there to be afraid of?
Saw too much war at the front in France and couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about it later. What I remember about him was that he could fix just about anything—or build it from scratch, like the iceboat he sailed on the frozen salt ponds. The keys in my pocket today are attached to a bronze snap shackle from that ice boat.
He made ship models, walked the harbor in the evening, talked with the new generation of captains and, relatively late in life, built a skiff that slept for decades in the barn loft of the family home.
I have his tattered notebooks. One contains lists of supplies he purchased for the yacht Reverie between 1922 and 1924, written in the most beautiful cursive you’ve ever seen.
Funny. I still find myself buying some of the same materials that he purchased one April, some 90 years earlier. One file for 20 cents; a dozen pieces of sandpaper, 25 cents; two small brushes for 40 cents; a half gallon of varnish for $2.85. He smoked unfiltered Camel Straights, the ones I first started to smoke in high school in a silly attempt, I suppose, to be like him.
Cap’s letters and notebooks, his correspondence with clients about yachts they were interested in buying, and the photos and family stories continue to shape my ideas of boats and seafarers. As do our occasional conversations.
We talk about what makes a good boat. I tell him about the man who long ago gave me a formula for a happy life on the water: Buy the smallest, simplest boat that will comfortably get the job done, rather than the biggest boat you can afford. That could mean a 15-footer—or a 50-footer.
Cap nods his head in agreement. We also share a fondness for the steadiness of purpose-built boats and those with working-class roots.
He smiles. “And it should always make you stop and look back on her several times as you walk away,” he says. I turn and look for a graceful 31-footer that I have admired for years. When I resume my walk, Cap is gone.