At around this time every year I write about getting my boats into the water and preparing for another boating and fishing season. I watch my neighbors getting their boats ready and, after a quick “how’s the family?”, we talk about boating and fishing in the summer to come. This year instead of looking forward I’ll look way, way back. My boats today are modern fiberglass fishing machines, fun and comfortable to ride in with cushioned seating, cup holders, and Bluetooth radios. My first boat, though, was very different.
When I was 11 years old, my family spent a few summer weeks in a fishing village that was in the process of changing into a vacation community. I spent my days climbing onto little boats with neighborhood boys, getting to know the local waters and learning the wonders of little engines which we started with a pull string and steered “tiller style” with a handle on the engine while sitting at the stern. We cruised the bays, beached the boats to explore little islands, and best of all, we went fishing. I had learned to fish at my father’s side when I was just 5 and loved it. Now at 11, I also had the “boating bug.”
My father was happy about my newly found love for boats and he and I got an empty cigar box and started a boating fund that fall. Every spare nickel was tossed into the box and about once a week I counted it. We didn’t have a lot of money in those days and so it built very slowly. By the spring almost 2 years later in about 1973 we had saved just over $300 (please don’t laugh!) and were looking for a first boat we could afford when my father stumbled across an old wooden boat that he decided was perfect for us. We bought it for $100, leaving us some money to buy equipment and also to pay for some help with hauling it out, scraping the barnacles, filling in spots with wood filler as needed, and painting it. We were willing to do the work, but we were still learning how.
|similar vintage boat
I have no pictures of this boat, but I can paint you a picture in words. It was a very old wooden v-hull boat, about 18’ long, and painted white. There was a flat windshield that, like the rest of the boat, looked cobbled together. I think this flat windshield with three window panes may have been converted from a porch window. Forward of the windshield was a small compartment for the anchor and life jackets, and aft of the windshield was just an open boat. The deck or floor of the boat was wooden decking sections that lifted out to reach the wooden bottom of the boat.
I remember that there was always a little water in the bottom of this boat as if something was always slowly leaking. In those days, it was common to bail a boat out with a small bucket or a used Clorox bottle with the bottom cut off, thus making a scoop with a handle. A few years later, we got a kind of bilge pump that looked like a bicycle pump. It was meant to be placed on the deck of the boat and the handle at the top pumped up and down so that the water would be pumped out through the hose which was placed over the side. That was a luxury! Today, by comparison, both my boats have electric bilge pumps with a float sensor, so they turn on and off on their own, and neither boat leaks at all unless something is very wrong. The pumps are mostly to handle rainwater and wave splash.
The steering system of this first old boat of ours was a set of cables and pullies rigged to a steering wheel below that awkward flat window windshield. The cable looped around the shaft of the steering wheel and when you turned in either direction it caused the cables and pullies to pull on metal brackets mounted on each side of the engine, causing the engine, and thus the boat to turn. The steering wheel was a comically small version of a ships wheel with spoked handholds.
Everything about this boat screamed ‘jalopy’ but we didn’t care. We had a boat of our own and if we kept up with the maintenance and saved every penny to pay for parts and labor, we could go fishing whenever we wanted to. And we did! We fished from April to November those first few years. My father was an expert fisherman, and he knew how to read the waters. In those days we had paper charts and no electronics at all. As a former Navy man, my dad had a knack for finding his way back to favorite fishing spots by triangulating landmarks on shore with buoy locations. It must have worked well because we regularly caught more fish than all the boats around us.
The boat lasted us only a few years as the wood filler couldn’t keep up with the cracks and holes. We eventually had to junk the boat, which was sad, but replaced her with a fiberglass boat of similar size and more modern affordances. Over the course of more than 45 years, I’ve had no fewer than 9 boats, but that simple and ugly wooden boat was the first. This year as the boating and fishing season gets underway, I remember how it all started.