I was straightening up all of my (too many) boat photographs
yesterday when I came across this one. It has always been my favorite,
from Douglas Boyle, off the internet. Once I was that boy with
a model and such generous dreams.
This young fella lived in Nova Scotia around 1912. The image
is taken from a lantern slide with the title on the back of, 'The
Captain of Tidy Little Ships.'
The caption on the back said-
'Harry is a very lucky little boy. He has a kind father and
a kind mother. They love him so much that they like to give
him things he wishes, when they can. His mother gave him Curly,
his cocker spaniel. Curly likes the water as well as Harry does.
He can swim even better than his master. Harry's father gave
him this ship because Harry wants to be a sailor when he grows
up and sail away in a big ship. In just a minute Harry and Curly
and going to climb down the rocks an sail that ship with Harry's
friend Jim. But now Harry is thinking what he will do when he
is a man. He has told his father that he wants to sail across
the ocean and find new lands just as Columbus did. His father
said, 'Maybe you won't find any really new lands, Harry. You
see people know more about the world now that when Columbus
was alive. There aren't so many lands now that we don't know
about. But you can be a brave sailor as he was and perhaps you
can sail your ship way around the world.'
I have thought about the poignancy of that kind father's words
often. It's about not quite letting go of dreams, of innocence
without which we become uncivilized, and of friendship with Jim
There's something about that long flat water which invites our
imagination out there across the sea. Harry is surrounded by his
land, the home which will always take him back in, even if his
future is out there beyond his own seeing.
I can remember my first attempt at a sailing novel. It had such
promise, the first chapter was perfectly written and rewritten
and written again. And yet the rest of the novel never lived up
to its original promise. That's probably why it was never published.
Still, that disappointment kept me going, writing and striving
again. I never did capture the atmosphere of the first page again,
but at least I kept one copy.
And then I remembered the first time I put my own Elegant
Punt in the water, here at Bachman Lake in Dallas. It rowed
so easily, even with my barrel-body weight in it, that I laughed
out loud. Such pleasure in plywood. But it wasn't quite a topsail
schooner. That twinge of disappointment kept me going to build
Pointy Skiff, and then Teal.
I suspect that disappointment opens us up to see through our
own pores. Just kneeling on a shore doesn't satisfy. There's a
line from Shakespeare something like:
There are more things in heaven and earth than are contained
in your philosophy, Horatio.
I probably don't have the quote exactly right, but there is a
quality in that sentiment. Philip Bolger's boats certainly satisfied
my boat building skill, but just sitting there holding a line
while the day went by wasn't enough. Disappointment is like a
dream inside out, it shows you what you really desire.
Over the years of writing fiction and nonfiction, the disappointments
of a piece not turning out the way I hoped have become smaller,
and that's a tragedy. It's because I've learned to attempt less,
which is a kind of mental brake. Thinking ahead, I've learned
to turn away from what I can't already do rather than risk the
impossible, like Harry. I'll never return to a young boy's imagination,
dreaming of writing famous works, the haunt of that first page-
Midnight approached mysteriously into the harbor of Eden Island,
capturing the village in darkness. The water lay strangely still,
glimmering with silver moonlight that disguised the empty shapes
and lines of ships, the harbor keeping them with a secret lapping.
Those days of believing that are long gone. Nowadays I don't
attempt anything like that, I know I can't pull it off. And yet
I can remember where that place is. That's probably the point.
I'm glad I gave it my best shot, like Rocky Balboa. Today, building
a plywood boat is not a dream come true, but a method of balancing
wood and glue and shape. I have made friends I never would have
known otherwise, so I've replaced risk with consolation. I've
ruined one apartment carpet, a piece of furniture, some saws and
nails and tarp sails and my favorite sweatshirt. Chuck gave me
the opportunity to write about boats, something that would not
have happened until after I had written so many pages that didn't
So I hope you take a tip from the ancients: carpe ductum-seize
the duct tape and build. Take that risk while you can, be out
there with Harry's dream, somewhere between heaven and the deep
blue sea. Don't look back until it's too late.