“One thing about being at sea is that you don’t really get to stop. Until you arrive in port, you’re stuck, and conditions can always worsen, the boat can always break in new ways, whether you’re prepared or not. Even in port, you can slip anchor, blow against other anchored boats in crosswinds and currents, or run aground. A boat simply does not allow for genuine rest. Its essential nature is peril, held in check only through enormous effort and expense.”
A Mile Down; The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea
David Vann, 2005
So why would anybody in their right mind want to own a boat? Especially a sailboat?
I'll tell you why.
I grew up the son of a cop in the oil refining and heavy industrial City of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The town’s greatest endowment was its prominent location at the confluence of the Kill Van Kull, the oily channel separating Staten Island from New Jersey, and the Raritan River, which spills out of the Garden State’s famous truck farming region into Raritan Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Hence Perth Amboy’s moniker of “Queen City of the Raritan Bay Area.”
On Dad’s infrequent days off from patrol duty and moonlighting as an ironworker, a favorite family pastime was to spend the afternoon at the beautifully peaceful park and boardwalk that edged the city’s waterfront like the lacey hem of a pretty girl’s slip
It was there that I fell in love with the graceful sailboats that danced en pointe on the shimmering waters of the bay -- toy ballerinas on a mirrored music box.
The Perth Amboy, NJ, waterfront.
In the seemingly endless sunshine of a young boy’s summer afternoons, I never guessed back then that there would be no boats in my life for another half-century.
So it's significant for me that this week, Copy Cat, my 23-foot New England catboat, was taken from winter storage and is at her mooring off Buzzards Bay.
Copy Cat was designed by Bill Menger and fabricated in his boatworks on New York's Great South Bay.
The Menger catboat.
A catboat is not a catamaran, the twin-hulled sailboats most landlubbers are familiar with. Nor is it a sloop, the sleek, two-sail boat you frequently see heeled over to the point of capsizing. A catboat is a traditional working boat that was used by fishermen and lobstermen. It is low-slung, half as wide as it is long, and has only a single, large sail attached to a mast at the very front of the vessel. During the 19th and early 20th century, catboats were everywhere.
“Menger Cats” are unique among the breed because his 23-footer is equivalent to a 27-foot sloop. It can achieve a speedy seven knots, and it has enough headroom below decks for a six-foot-two man to stand tall.
What I did not know when I ordered my boat was that cancer would soon claim Bill … and that I had just ordered the last Menger Cat to come off the line.
I was turned on to catboats by Chuck Westfall, an audio engineer who works many of our company's corporate multimedia events. There’s only a single sail to worry about, Chuck explained to me, a hugely broad beam for almost unsinkable stability, and a big cockpit for entertaining guests. A cat was eminently easy to sail, he assured me.
Chuck Westfall, protector of refreshing rum drinks.
“On a catboat,” Chuck smiled, “it's practically impossible to do anything that might spill your refreshing rum drink.”
So I read up about catboats, and sure enough, Chuck was right. I fell in love with the looks and legends of a cat.
“You’ll be the fat guy in the fat boat,” he grinned when I told him I was going to buy one.
So here I am, another summer season of the “essential peril” of a boat – especially a sailboat in Buzzards Bay.
Buzzards Bay – the body of water between Cape Cod and mainland Massachusetts -- got its ridiculous name from colonists who misidentified a large bird they saw near its shores. It was actually an osprey, but the irreversible naming damage had already been done.
Buzzards Bay always makes the Top Ten lists of “Most Challenging” bodies of water in which to sail. The reason, I understand, is that in addition to brisk winds in the funnel-shaped Bay, there is frequently contrary interplay between tides and winds on the uniformly shallow waters – fewer than 50 feet on average.
Still, so many recreational boaters are drawn to it -- just as, from earliest times, our ancient ancestors clustered their dwelling places near bodies of water. As a species, we come from water and are so much composed of water that we instinctively regard it as our natural habitat.
Copy Cat brings my wife and me closer to our natural habitat.
In her memoir, Paris France, Gertrude Stein wrote:
“Writers have two countries. The one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic. It is not real but it is really there.”
I’d say this is true for not only writers, but for sailors, too.
In my next blog: “When in command”