What life aboard a battered boat taught me about letting go

BY David Roper

9th Nov 2023 Life

5 min read

What life aboard a battered boat taught me about letting go
After a blissful childhood spent sailing up and down the Maine coast, one writer learns that nothing—not even an old, reliable cutter—can last forever
Phyllis. She was a vessel so pretty and able that, even now, when I look at her picture, I smile.
The 28-foot cutter had been built in 1939 in Connecticut. My grandfather had the boat made, but eventually she was given to my father, who in 1941 married and took his young wife on board for their honeymoon.
That honeymoon lasted a long time. They cruised together on Phyllis for nearly 40 years, through calms, storms and three sons.
I came on board as a one-month-old in September 1950, carried in a basket that was wedged under the deck beams in a forward-cabin bunk.
We spent many happy summers exploring the Maine coast. A close family, we were held even closer by a common interest in the old wooden cutter.

Learning on the job

View of sailing yacht and feet of swimmer floating in sea
Phyllis taught us many lessons, not the least being the importance of playing by the rules. She taught us to watch ourselves, to be wary of missteps. Each of us boys fell off her in our turn.
I was five when it happened to me. We were anchored in a cove for the night. Dad, my mother and my two brothers were down below, preparing supper. I'd been told not to swing from the rigging, and certainly not to leave the cockpit without my life-jacket.
But I couldn't resist breaking the rules. My feet slipped on a wet rail. Suddenly the world turned dark and silent; water invaded every pore. Then a new pain came from the top of my head as Dad reached into the sea and grabbed me by the hair. I rocketed out of the water, landing like a flopping fish on Phyllis's deck.
"Each of us boys fell off her in our turn"
Phyllis taught us the importance of self-reliance and resourcefulness. To this day I marvel at my parents' ingenuity in operating her.
To determine boat speed, they threw drink cans off the bow and timed them until they reached the stern. For "radar" in foggy weather, my dad shouted through an old megaphone. His voice would bounce off land, enabling him to find and gauge distance from obstructions.
Watching my parents work together taught me and my brothers the importance of humility—and forgiveness. Once, while plotting a course along the rocky Maine coast, my mother sent back the confidence-instilling statement of "Course 224…I think."
"Watching my parents work together taught me and my brothers the importance of humility"
A mile further on, a short, heated argument flared up between my parents about the foreboding-looking, partly submerged "something" directly ahead.
"There are no rocks shown on the chart," Mother said.
"But there are rocks ahead," Dad replied at the tiller.
"That's just seaweed—it has to be," she argued. "And besides, if I've looked at that chart once, I've looked at it a hun—"
Minutes later, Phyllis floated off the rocks with a swell from the rising tide. My mother looked back at the rock, shaking her head. "Either someone moved that rock there or the oceanographic surveyor was drunk," she said.
"Darling," Dad answered, his eyes twinkling, "that's one of the things I love about you. You never give in."
Sailing boat floating near rocks

The end of an era

Phyllis helped make each of us independent and self-sufficient. She also united us when we needed to be. I even got engaged on her—the night it all ended.
It was a hot August evening in 1980. The air was thick and still as our family sat in the cockpit at our mooring in Marblehead Harbour. I was holding my future bride's hand, planning the best time to announce our engagement, when I noticed the rain and wind heading for us from across the harbour.
We all hurried down below. The rains came, and we continued our party in the cosiness of Phyllis's cabin.
Some time after my fiancée and I announced our plans, my father made an announcement of his own. He was selling Phyllis. My brothers and I sat in shocked silence. When the rain had run its course, I waved my brothers up to the cockpit. "We can't let this happen," I said. "He can't sell Phyllis out of the family."
"She's given us 40 wonderful years. Now it's time to move on"
"We'll just have to buy her ourselves," my brother Chris said. We all nodded in agreement and went below.
"Dad, we'll buy the boat," I offered.
"No, you won't," he said with authority. He paused, gathering his thoughts. "Look, boys, she's too old. You don't know what I know about her. She's tired. Worn out in too many places. You won't find enjoyment in owning her. Only burden."
He looked at us intently for a long moment. "Everything comes to an end," he said finally. "You need to know when to let go. She's given us 40 wonderful years. Now it's time to move on."
And he sold her right out from under his own three sons.

Returning to Maine

We were upset for several years. Then we learned one of Phyllis's new owners had to replace many of her parts. Later we heard she had actually sunk. It seemed Dad had been right.
Ten years passed. My parents purchased an easy-to-handle, 20-foot motor boat with a tiny cabin.
Then, several months before my parents' fiftieth anniversary, our family gathered to talk about summer plans.
"Fifty years ago we spent our honeymoon on the Phyllis," Dad said. "That's how we should celebrate our golden wedding—sailing. Let's charter a yacht for the eight of us—your mother and me, and you three boys and your wives. We'll spend our fiftieth cruising where we've always loved to cruise, the Maine coast."
In July 1991 we set sail on board a 54-foot ketch, and headed east along the coast. "We'll just go where the wind blows," Dad said. He was thrilled to be sailing again.
We travelled across the bay and anchored for the night. Then we continued east, sailing in harmony with each other and the nearly perfect weather.

Reunited with an old friend

yachts in harbour
One day, alone at the wheel, I casually scanned the empty, hazy horizon. A speck appeared in the distance and grew larger until I could see the faintest outline of a mast and hull. It appeared to be crossing our path, perhaps a mile off.
There was no particular reason for me to fix on it, yet something drew me to the binoculars. I put them to my eyes and focused on a hull—incredibly, it was Phyllis!
"Everybody—you're not going to believe this!" I yelled. "It's Phyllis!" They all gathered on the deck, straining to see if it really was.
When the two boats were 100 feet apart, we hailed the young man and woman at the tiller, shouting, "We're the Ropers! We used to own your boat!" The couple invited us on board.
"Phyllis's planks hadn't swelled properly, and she had sunk"
Walter, the owner, asked my father dozens of questions about the boat's past. Then he told us of his own adventures with Phyllis.
According to him, one spring when the boat-yard launched her, Phyllis's planks hadn't swelled properly, and she had sunk.
Scuba-divers swam down to her in 20 feet of water and placed empty air bags under her. The bags were filled with compressed air, and she was gently lifted to the surface and pumped dry. By then her planks had swelled tight and she didn't leak. After some clean-up and engine work, Walter and Phyllis sailed up and down the Maine coast.
Soon we realised he was as loving an owner as my dad had been.

Moving with the tides

Later, as I stood alone manning the charter boat, I felt a swelling within me, like a wave rising out of the deep sea. As a child, I had slept under the deck beams in one of Phyllis's forward-cabin bunks. Unlike my father, I don't remember a time when her planks and beams were new, uncracked and untested, a time when the wood was green.
I do remember waking up in the night as a child, feeling the liquid shudder of the sea and seeing the strong oak beams above me— and feeling safe. And I remember smelling the aged wood and staring at the furrows and cracks that appeared in her with each passing year, like the veins and wrinkles in my father's face.
"On Phyllis we learned that life passes like a cloud over the sea"
He had been right to sell her, I realised now, because he knew the ageing Phyllis couldn't be kept just for her memories—any more than we can continue reliving any other experience over and over beyond its time.
We have to move on. And he'd seen that earlier, even when his eager young sons had not.
On Phyllis we learned that life passes like a cloud over the sea— here, there and gone. All we can do is cling together for a while, remember the pleasures and give thanks for the passage.
Banner credit: , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr
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