“I cannot, not sail,” —E.B. White

Fri, 01/13/2023 - 12:45pm

When I was a very young kid, maybe four or five, I remembered a day that my mom and dad took us kids to Bristol. It was a Sunday, and we parked across the street from what is now the Herreshoff Marine Museum. My dad pointed the car right toward the east passage of Narragansett Bay and we looked at the bumpy fetch caused by the afternoon’s southwest wind. There was no Pell Bridge in those days; just an empty body of water between Hog Island, Prudence Island, and Jamestown. As we sat by the edge of the bay I noticed a solitary boat bouncing, pitching, and yawing in the stiff breeze. It was a white, beamy boat and it seemed to move effortlessly and naturally in the wind and southerly fetch. It was what is known as a catboat. To this day that image has never left my mind, and has informed a certain aesthetic that to me is at the very core of a sailboat’s qualities: balance, lines, power, and assertiveness. This image spoke to me—still does.
On a recent trip to Martha’s Vineyard I learned about Manuel Swartz Roberts, who was a shipwright from Edgartown. Roberts built 200 catboats in his lifetime. These boats were versatile fishing craft, and were also used for hauling freight. They were beamy and had lots of room in the cockpit and cabin. These boats evolved from being used for utilitarian purposes and are now a suitable recreational watercraft. When a particular design works, it will perpetuate itself; because it works. Simple.
One Saturday at the ferry dock back in the mid-eighties, I was helping a guy get a boat and trailer onto the Manitou. The guy’s name was Andrew Menger and he had one of his Menger catboats on a trailer and was heading to the island to deliver the boat to a customer out on the north end. This boat was pristine, with clean lines and a right-out-of-the-box smell of varnish enveloping the boat. (The guy told me he just finished her the day before.) It was a 17-foot catboat designed and built by Mr. Andrew Menger and he was a very cool guy. While waiting to board the ferry I was picking his brain about the boat and he invited me to hop aboard and check her out; I climbed right into the cockpit and scooted into the cabin. I was gobsmacked by the amount of space in this slick little boat.
The first thing I did was open a hatch and noted a small, shiny, and newly painted diesel engine. It had two bunks, an icebox and a foldable table amidships. Moreover, it had a little sink with a foot pump. I loved the simplicity of this boat. Here was a trailerable, fiberglass catboat with a centerboard. I figured that this boat could sail in thin water as well as handily hold her own in open bays and sounds. Menger told me the mainsail had three reef points. He also gave me the lowdown on the price for the boat. It was not cheap; however, I could see that this was a first-rate product and that Menger knew his stuff. As I recall, the boat went for 15 thousand dollars. As the Manitou left for the island I remember feeling envious for the guy getting this Menger catboat. In the 80s I was a working stiff with three kids and was way out of this boat’s league, but I thought that maybe someday I could swing a boat like this of my own if I hustled and played my cards right. Hey, a guy can dream, right?
Since 1971, I’ve owned six sailboats and have sailed on a variety of them. I’m primarily a bay sailor and have seen a wide range of boats over a lifetime of messing around in them. Now, as a 72-year-old guy, I’m in total agreement with my hero E.B. White, who said, “I cannot, not sail.” I simply love sailboats. I like to sail them, look at them, dream about them and evaluate their designs. Hell, if I was capable of building something that was plumb and square—I can’t read a tape measure—I’d probably build my own. Since that day in Bristol, I was on a mission. As a kid I dialed in to looking at tugboats when I ended up in libraries. In picture books of World War II, I noted the beam of tugboats and their inherent power and stability. Today, while sailing the bay, as tugboats pass me I look at them the same way I did when I was a little kid. Block Island’s Rick Batchelder has a tugboat in New Harbor. It’s a formidable rig. Moreover, there’s a Block Island guy I know who likes all kinds of boats like I do. Walter Filkins will talk about boats all day long. He has a catboat. He loves his catboat. He’s fascinated by catboats. By now we should be noticing a theme in this column. If not, start reading it again from the top because it’s about to get interesting just about now.
In my last column I wrote about losing my sailboat Reverie. She came to a bad ending on 12/23/2022 in Newport Harbor, and I was heartbroken. I loved that old boat, and the older and more beat-up and careworn she became, the more I appreciated and loved the boat. (I think there’s some irony in here somewhere.) I had nicknames for Reverie. I called her: the Shed, Warhorse, the Yacht, and the Shanty Irish Express. If a guy has nicknames for his boat, it means he loves his boat. Just sayin’. A few hours after I submitted my column about losing Reverie I was walking around a boatyard. I mentioned to someone at the yard that if they saw a small sloop that was available to let me know, because I wanted to get another boat. Then, the person said, “There’s a Nonesuch 22 for sale in the yard.”
My wheels began directly turning.
Sometimes, life just happens and all we need to do is get out of the way and let it do what it’s going to do. This boat happened, and if I’d ever tried to make it happen, it never would have. Here was a trifecta of circumstances and I moved on the quick. My new boat is essentially a 22-foot geezer-friendly catboat, and all I had to do was be available for this turn of life’s events. My wife Cindy was in Denmark recently, and bought me a perfect little boat knife. Moreover, for Christmas she bought me a log book for Reverie; however, after the demise of our boat she was reluctant to give me the gift. (I don’t blame her.) Finally, I’m very glad she did give me this very special gift—the inscription reads: “Fair Winds and Tides, Husband.”
To Windward!