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by Robert Craig

I started building boats in the garage five years ago. My journey turned out to be typical. Middle aged dad decides to build a boat to sail away from life. Not literally, I love my family. But the summer nights in the garage were just as much a voyage as an ocean crossing. I learned a lot about boats, woodworking, and making mistakes. It was months of hard work, countless trips to the boat supply shop and a running total that I didn't even want to keep track of lest the wife somehow extract the information from me. You can't confess to what you don't know. But in the end I finally had my own boat! It was all of seven feet long, but if you looked at it from a distance you couldn't see the imperfections. She was a Portuguese Dinghy designed by Hannu Vartiala, I called her the "tweedle dum."

When I launched the "tweedle dum" I was surprised at how lightly she floated on the water. Tippy, yes, but from the moment I sat in a vessel I had built with my own hands, I was hooked. One of my first trips out I took her across our lake to meet the family at the local swimming beach. A small circle a bit over a mile across, the maximum depth is less than ten feet, and the official state designated bottom of the lake is described as "muck." But when I was halfway across and the wind started to whip up I had a moment or two of sheer terror. The waves were cresting at least six inches high and there were a couple times I had to shift my weight to keep from being uncomfortable. I was sure that if I lived through the journey I would be a different man. Hardened by the sea.

Fast forward a few years and I'm piloting my Steven Lewis designed Chugger, the "After You" 80 miles down the Mississippi. I was headed to the Lake Pepin messabout. I'd never been to a messabout, had only seen some pictures on the web, and didn't know what to expect. The only thing I knew about boating on Lake Pepin was that she was a monster when it got stormy, and this was spring in Minnesota. My father sailed our 16 foot Snipe as often as he could and took her to Pepin once. I'm sure the stories got better as the years wore on, but they were all I had to think about on my way down the river.

I launched into springtime water, fast and furious. I didn't get a chance to wave to the wife and kids because I was trying to keep the boat pointed downriver. Grey clouds turned to rain, and by the time I passed through "barge alley" in Saint Paul there were whitecaps. I would take spray all the way back to the cockpit, but that little boat wouldn't stop. She handled the waves, the eddies, and the wakes of the towboats with ease. That night I slept aboard a boat for the first time. A boat I built. I slept like a baby, partly due to exhaustion.

The next day was full of adventure and misadventure, my first pass through a lock I was standing stock still in the cockpit trying to let the downpour drop straight off me. The second lock later in the day was much more comfortable, and I shared it with a collection of bass boats whose beams were my LOA.

By the time I made it to Lake Pepin I was ready for anything. My craft had proven herself in good weather and bad. My gear was fit for rain and cold, sun and wind. I had successfully navigated my way all the way down to the lake, already over 60 miles. I underestimated the distance I had to travel down the lake, so that nap in a quiet bay once the sun came out might not have been a good call. But it sure was a nice nap. Boat rocking in the light spring breeze. I made my way down the lake slowly. The wind wasn't against me but the waves were, and they were beefy waves. I ended up having to tack down the lake to keep my nose at a quarter to the waves, and finally just gave up and went to the middle of the lake where the waves were less obnoxious. Without the frame of reference that passing shoreline gives you, time seemed to stop for a few hours. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and the wind was loud but not out of control. All I had to do was keep moving. I sang, I played my concertina, I talked to myself, I had a great time. I might have been getting a little stir crazy, but eventually made it those 15 or so miles down to Hok Si La, the campground at which the messabout was being hosted.

As I approached the shore I started to understand how little I knew about the messabout. Where do I land? How will I know who the boat folks are? Will they point and laugh at my little boat? My fears were immediately put to rest when I saw an older gentleman running along the shoreline in a pirate hat yelling "Ahoy! Ahoy!" I knew I was going to be fine.

Pulling in to the beach I stepped off my boat for the first time in 25 hours, something I built with my own hands - to me it was a big deal. A small crowd of people came out to meet me and check out my boat. They turned out to be welcoming and thought my 80 mile voyage was crazy, but in the best way possible. Not only did they refrain from mocking my little boat, they asked me questions about it, admired it, took pictures of it, and showed me their own boats. I even got to meet the designed of my own boat, Steven Lewis! I know that if I had shown up with no boat, just a twinkle in my eye of a desire for that adventure, I would have been welcomed just as warmly.

The rest of the messabout was a wonderful weekend of stories, boating, meeting people, and making memories. I swore I wouldn't come down the river on the boat again, that once was enough. I was reminded of that the next year when I landed on the same beach after the same journey, but that's another story.

PostScript:  I have since been handed the baton and have taken the responsibilities of organizing the Lake Pepin Messabout.  This year it will be May 30 through June 1.  More information about the messabout can be found at

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