Story of a Boat

“And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”
—John Masefield, Sea Fever

American Angler
July/August 2014

My brother finally got a boat, and for the past week he has been notifying me via email, post, and text message. His updates contain pictures of the boat. Video of the boat. Him in the boat. His dog in the boat. His teenage son manning the tiller of the boat, throttled up and grinning like a monkey on roller skates.

I have a boat, too, so I know the feeling. Mine was a kind of early endowment from our father, who for years has slipped his offspring small sums of cash as a way of dispensing life savings beyond reach of the tax man. Call it trickle-down inheritance. Anyway, one time the gift was a boat, not because he didn’t want it anymore, but because he knew I needed it for my sanity. And for the sense of Ahab-ness that comes with owning even the most meager of vessels.

In truth, it’s not much of a ship, being a fourteen-foot aluminum johnboat, circa 1980, featuring a battered hull with modest lines. And the motor—an eight-horsepower Johnson more befitting a push mower—is best described as: “Yep.”

Some twenty years ago, when my Dad owned the boat, it used to have a bigger engine. We lost that after leaving the bow padlocked to a dock on an even bigger Georgia river, which, after a midnight gully washer, rose up to swallow the dock, the boat, and ten feet of river bank all before dawn. The next day, I dove half-naked into the muddy torrent with a key in my mouth, swam down to the dock, blindly followed the chain hand over hand for another five feet, and with ears popping disgorged the key into my hand, slipped it into the padlock, and delivered my Pequod from the depths. We donated the drowned motor to a cousin who lived in a trailer, which meant he could fix anything. My dad repowered his boat with the new used Johnson, and, now understanding my devotion to seafaring life, gave the salvaged rig to me.

The trailer is its own commentary on small-boat ownership, with tax and tag documents that still list the contraption as “Homemade.” Bent and twisted to one side, the center shaft is actually welded together amidships, literally a butt-joined section of steel pipe that, if I accelerated too fast, might leave my trailer wheels sitting at the stop light. I’ve replaced the wheel bearings two times, rewired the tail lights three times, and rebuilt the carburetor five more. There is no jack stand on the trailer tongue, so every time I lift the front end off the ground to set it on the hitch, I worry that I will rupture a disc. I came close to that ten years ago when my wife backed over the trailer and snapped off its hitch coupler, leaving me spleeny and incommunicative for weeks.

Despite her flaws (the boat, I mean), she’s a fish-catching machine. With two people she can be a tad boggy, but I usually fish alone: skimming upriver in ten inches of water to reach a favorite trout hole; or dragging her over shoals to reach my smallmouth bass spot, then paddling her back through the shoals like a canoe; or poling for carp from atop my Yeti cooler; or anchoring up on a big bend below the lock and dam to swing flies for shad; or trolling the lake edge for largemouth and bluegill. My fly rods ride across the center thwart with butts resting on the rear deck, elegantly held in place with a bungee cord. At the fore, my homemade casting platform is best described as: “Don’t lock your knees.”

We tooled around a cypress studded lake for hours, catching largemouth bass on flies and getting acquainted in the way that only a small boat affords.

From ship to shore, I have pursued all manner of fish and game. Last October,
 I arrowed a buck by motoring across a sprawling TVA reservoir toward otherwise inaccessible public lands. Coming back at full throttle in the dark, Maglite held high overhead, I watched the hull torque like
 a twisted rag on every wave crest. It was a little sketchy, for sure, but just last night I had venison sausage in marinara sauce.

A couple of years ago, I hosted the owner of a premium skiff manufacturer on my little ship. We tooled around a cypress studded lake for hours, catching bass on flies and getting acquainted in the way that only a small boat affords. The smaller the boat, the better acquainted. The man sells forty-thousand dollar skiffs, and the first thing he said when he saw her dragged up on the bank was, “I love little boats like that.”

In times of reflection, I do think about the future, being one of those rare individuals whose wife is actually lobbying for an upgrade (the boat, I mean). She grew up in Florida and wants a center console. I’m trying to convince her that a poling skiff would be better for her core strength. But either way, it means I’d have to get rid of my little johnboat. For years I tried to figure out a way to send it to my brother far across the country that didn’t cost more than the boat was worth. But now he has Big Red, so I know someday the inevitable will happen. There will be an ad in the newspaper. There will come a man to my doorstep, probably accompanied by his son, with a few hundred dollars in hand. There will be a handshake, and a lump in my throat. And they will ride down the road with half my sporting life in tow.

Or, just as likely, I’ll tell them I don’t know what the devil they are talking about, and send them on their way. ✦