It’s a common yarn that the two best days of a boater’s life are the day they buy a boat and the day they sell it. I can now say with certainty that that’s bullshit. Buying the boat was way more fun.
This is where I need to make a confession: My first boat was a 1961 Rhodes Chesapeake … sailboat. You need to understand, when I bought the boat with my then-girlfriend Karen, I was a newly minted associate editor in Rhode Island. My salary covered the bedroom I rented—one that, I kid you not, you had to walk through a bathroom to get to—and little else.
Stories of adventure came across my desk daily, and being new to the sailing capital of America, I became transfixed with the foreign beasts that silently glided through the water. After months of scouring Craigslist and climbing through one abandoned boat after another, I came across the Rhodes. She needed some serious TLC but like me was powered by a young heart, a 30-hp Yanmar diesel. Survey be damned, I bought the boat then and there.
My first day as a sailor was fortuitous. With the previous owner aboard, we sailed the boat to Jamestown. It was a day that remains etched in my memory. Grabbing her wooden ship wheel, we sailed for what felt like hours. Karen and I were so enamored with our new boat that we had the previous owner take our picture. That snapshot hangs above my computer as I write this.
It was all perfect. Until it wasn’t. We doused the sails as we approached our marina when I felt something land beside my foot. I reached down and picked up a spongy piece of wood. I looked aft and saw the previous owner looking up at the masthead. I followed his eyes skyward and saw that the mast was starting to split like a banana peel—which turned out to be the result of water damage.
Let’s not dwell on what happened next, except to say that it was a quiet and tense drive back to the seller’s car. I didn’t know much about sailing, but even I knew: The mast is an important piece.
When I looked to my new boatyard for help, they put a call in to a wooden boat and mast builder in town named Jim Titus. I drove my old Honda into the boatyard to meet Jim and look at my mast. As I came walking up to him, he had his back to me. I saw him make the sign of the cross as if reading my mast its last rites. My heart sank.
I asked Jim point blank, “What should I do?” He looked at the mast, then at me, then at my car and said, “I don’t see a New York Yacht Club sticker on your car. Meet me at my shop tomorrow.”
After work the next day, I met him at his place just off the highway. Old masts and older wooden boats filled two enormous sheds. Broken dreams were everywhere. Saw dust covered the floor, tools were scattered about, colorful characters and pets alike wandered around. To make a long story a little shorter, Jim took pity on me. He said that if I rolled up my sleeves and did a lot of the work, he would charge me for the materials—and little else—to build a new wooden mast.
That fall, winter and spring I spent my nights and weekends in those sheds, just another lost kid working on a project and getting an education that no school can offer.
By the time summer rolled around I had a new spruce mast that was the envy of the harbor. Building that mast with the help of a master carpenter who had no business taking me under his wing is one of my proudest accomplishments.
For the next seven years, my now-wife and I cruised and restored that boat—with a huge amount of help from my parents, who -enabled this undertaking. It’s common at the end of a chapter to look back on the previous pages with rose-colored glasses. I’ve been doing a bit of that, remembering our first trip to Block Island, long leisurely sails on Narragansett Bay, the day I asked Karen to marry me while on an overnight at the cove. But I also like to reflect on the unvarnished parts of owning the boat. The fights, the storms, the breakdowns (mental and literal), tired hands and sore backs. Sunburns and hangovers. It was the work and the challenges that made the good times that much sweeter.
In those first days of owning the boat I cursed my decision and my frugality in not getting a survey done. If I could go back in time and give that reckless kid some advice, I’d tell him not to change a thing.