December has arrived, and once again the docks are all but empty on my little corner of the Hudson River. Activity at the yard, which had been buzzing along in high gear for the last two months, starts to scale back. For a few weeks there were people and cars and sounds of all sorts around us on the hard, but now the silence is returning. In another week or two, the only signs of life we’ll see around the yard are a few marina employees and the hardy little feral ‘yard cats’, occasionally soaking up a bit of low winter sun on a warm car hood. The season has ended and rows of boats have been sorted.
In most cases, when yards block up boats for winter storage, there’s a very specific order to where each one winds up, and why. Size plays a role, as does the all-important ‘When do you want to go back in’ factor. Last out is usually first in. Some owners wrap things up after Labor Day and don’t pull the cover until the end of May while others are geared up for fishing at the first signs of spring – don’t block them in! But there’s more to it. It’s no accident that the shiniest and newest of boats with custom covers or shrink wrap are closer to the main entrance and offices. For one, it just looks better and reflects well on the yard. It also keeps these boats where they’re less inclined to be visited by someone other than their owner. Further back goes to the boats with flapping plastic tarps or no covers at all. And finally, tucked in the furthest corners of the yard, backed to the brush and overgrowth, are the boats that have been on the hard for many seasons – the hopeless and the forgotten. They sit as testaments to abandoned dreams. At some point in their existence, each had been someone’s pride and joy. Now they stand as silent reminders of failed aspirations. Perhaps their owner had fallen upon bad times or eventually the reality of boat ownership outweighed the dream, draining and straining finances and relationships, sometimes past the point of no return. Like a novel in a desk drawer, these grand dreams fell victim to the harsh realities of day-to-day life.
Yet, glimmers of hope spring up in these forgotten corners, like a rose blooming among the oil drums and weeds. Every so often someone with the right mix of skill, perseverance, delusional optimism and determination sets their eyes on one of those forgotten boats, and you’ll see it re-emerge from death-row to float and sail once more. I recall one boat where the cabin and bridge had been partially destroyed by fire, though the hull and engine remained intact. It was placed in the corner to languish for years. But then one day someone new arrived. The fellow who repaired her did so the only way he knew how — with sheet-metal. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but year after year he’s out on the water happily fishing away. On the other end of the spectrum a friend of mine acquired an old ketch that had been caught in the wrong end of a shed collapse, and he restored that boat to exceptional magnificence. In both cases, these boats were brought back from the dead and each is a victory. It’s that ability to see beyond the work to the potential, to press on in the face of all adversity, hoping someday it will be beautiful — or at least float. I sometimes wonder how many of those resurrected boats belong to writers.
You know the one. Nearly every boatyard has a ‘work-in-progress’ tucked away somewhere. Likely it’s something unique or uncommon, a boat with character. Usually it’s old, often but not always wood. In most cases it has suffered declining or misguided maintenance in the hands of previous owners, or else it’s been abandoned altogether, and now some optimistic (delusional) soul is undertaking a stem-to-stern restoration. Passers-by pause and shake their heads as they study it with a mix of awe and sympathy. They politely mumble, “but it’ll be beautiful when it’s done,” and then back away as though this condition might be contagious.
For years I’d I sailed a lovely little gaff-rigged catboat. Unfortunately, due to a fear of capsizing that I may have ‘accidentally’ instilled in my husband when we first met, he was not a fan of sailing. In fact, getting him aboard my boat was like pulling teeth and most times I sailed alone or with our daughter. Once she left for college I was single-handing and silently dreaming of something with more cruising capabilities. Sitting among the ‘death-row’ derelicts at the boatyard where I worked was an abandoned 32’ Cheoy Lee trawler. True, she was a powerboat, but if I ever expected to cruise my choices were a stinkpot or a divorce. She was sturdy, full displacement and single screw with a deep, concrete-ballasted keel and a massive rudder. But she needed serious work, the sort that strains wallets and relationships. For years she’d been in the back of my mind… until one fateful day. My husband had stopped by during lunch and we walked along the river’s edge. He looked over, noticing the Cheoy Lee, and said, “You know, if you didn’t have your sailboat we could fix that trawler up.”
In the end we didn’t wind up with that particular boat, though fate paired us up with a sister-ship. She needed work as well, though in theory she wasn’t supposed to be quite so much of a project. In theory. You know how it goes: that little drip is never truly little and each project reveals several more lurking unseen. Where you draw the line is another post entirely, but for the last two years we’ve remained on the hard, watching the ebb and flow of boats around us as we toil away. In that time I’ve come to realize that restoring a boat is much like writing a book. It starts with a dream, but that’s not enough to see it through. At the far end of the boatyard a collection of boats sit silent and forgotten. Long ago each had been someone’s pride and joy; now they remain as lonely reminders of abandoned dreams and failed aspirations, much like manuscripts in a desk drawer.
Be it a boat or a book, if you want to see it through you’re going to have to work at it. There’s an order to the plan of attack: first you make sure everything in the hull or the plot is structurally and mechanically sound, then build out from there. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Everything takes longer than you can ever anticipate. Both undertakings involve a significant investment of time and sanity, none of which you can ever hope to recover. You’ll be met with looks of confusion from those who don’t understand what you’re doing or why, and it’s not even worth trying to explain. Odds are neither the boat or the book will make any financial sense, but when it’s all said and done that’s not what really matters. People will see the end result with no idea of the perseverance it took to reach that point. It takes a certain ability to see beyond the work to the potential, to press on in the face of adversity even while all seems endless and hopeless, knowing in your heart that it will, indeed, be beautiful when it’s done.
A sad reality, (and no, this is not my boat,) but with some skill, persistence, time and work, she could be beautiful.
It’s Friday, and I’m back down to the boat, getting a head start on the weekend’s projects. Today: some tedious prep work, but it’s one of those chores that I can really immerse myself into, and it won’t matter if my notebook is smudged up with epoxy – in fact, the scribbling I put down on days like this often outshines hours spent parked at my desk.
I’ve been making some changes lately, shifting my work routines, both in my writing and aboard the boat, into high gear. It’s a matter of priorities, of focusing on what matters. I see boats tucked in the furthest corners of the yard, backed to the brush and overgrowth. At some point in their existence, each had been someone’s pride and joy. Now they stand as silent reminders of failed aspirations and testaments to abandoned dreams. Perhaps their owner had fallen upon bad times or eventually the reality of boat ownership outweighed the dream, draining and straining finances and relationships, sometimes past the point of no return. Like a novel in a desk drawer, these grand dreams fell victim to the harsh realities of life.
To keep a dream going strong, to make it a reality that endures, be it a boat, or a book, or eventually a shelf full of books, requires persistence. Believing, and never giving up on what you believe. It’s been a long road, but the boat is coming together nicely at last. And along that road, I managed to write two novels. Now it’s time to really dig in and complete the third book, and the fourth, and the fifth, and to keep going. There were other ways to fix this boat. They might have been easier, faster, cheaper. But I’m in this for the long run. I plan to keep this boat around for a long time to come, and to travel far beyond where I am now. I’ve got plenty of work ahead, but I’m already well on my way. One plank, one layer of cloth, one word at a time…it’s just a matter of sticking with what you truly believe, and never quitting.