What a difference 24 hours can make. Today is as dreary as yesterday was delightful, but a perfect day for quiet reflection.
Yesterday was bright, sunny … what Pat Kyme (now Kerr) used to call “Sparkly”. I remember her describing summer weather at KenRay Lake that way. The sky would be a clear blue, bright sunshine glinting off the water which was just slightly broken by a light chop to make it sparkle, as if there were millions of diamonds floating on the water, catching the sun. It was that kind of day on the St. Johns River yesterday, and I was thrilled and grateful to be able to have my boat out on the water for an hour or so. Just about as good as it gets for the waning days of March.
Today, the wind has shifted from the southeast to the northeast. That wind, this time of year in particular, always picks up tons of moisture from the Atlantic Ocean and brings it in over the land. Radar is showing some light showers offshore, trying to come inland. It is a gray, breezy, chilly day, and this weather pattern threatens to hold for much of the week. Such is spring in Northeast Florida.
So on this Sunday of reflection, I started thinking about yesterday’s post about every vessel having a story, and the stories of the boats that I have known, however briefly.
My first recollection of a boat was my grandfathers’ pontoon boat on KenRay Lake. Dad and Pat (his real name was Ralph. I’d want to be know by something else, too) were building the cabin on the lake that would become so central to our lives, and I distinctly remember going with them one summer afternoon when I was about 4 or 5. The pontoon boat had a small outboard motor, 5 gallon gas tank on a rack outside the fencing that ran around the deck of the boat, a battery on the other rack for electric starting, a binnacle with the throttle and gear shift controls, and a small, spoked steering wheel … a miniature of a larger ships’ wheel made of injected plastic. But for me, at 4 or 5, not tall enough to see over the binnacle, she might as well have been the Queen Mary. I distinctly recall my dad and grandfather both on board as we putt-putted around the 100 acre lake, and being allowed to hold the wheel, peering off to one side. “Keep her right down the channel”, Pat had told me, knowing that in that part of the lake the water ran 40-50 feet deep almost right up to the shore … and the boat drew all of maybe a foot. Maybe that’s why to this day I don’t like to get outside the marks on the river, even though I know there’s plenty of water away from the shipping channel. I can still hear that voice in my ear.
The pontoon boat remained tied up at the floating dock at the cabin long after her motor gave out. We spent hours and hours and hours catching bluegill that schooled in the shade under the boat, dropping bits of anything on a hook from rancid bacon to bread to cheese. The little fin fish would get themselves into a feeding frenzy and sometimes bite on a bare hook. In an afternoon, we could pull dozens of fish out of the water, which Dad and his friends would gill and gut, skin, roll in bread crumbs and grill on an open Hibachi.
There were more boats with more stories on that lake than Carter’s got little pills. There was always a canoe or two pulled up on the shore. A favorite activity was to stand on the gunnels of the canoe and pump the stern with your knees … bouncing up and down, to push it through the water until you fell off. When the temperature was so hot the water was like a warm bath, we’d purposely swamp the canoes and just sit in them for hours. It was almost impossible to get us out of the lake. In the evening, we would take a canoe off into one of the little coves or fingers of the lake and know just were to put a floating Rapella lure or Hula Popper to catch nice largemouth bass. Those also made an excellent dinner. The canoes also took us up to into the creek that fed the lake, where the water was too shallow for our other boats. From there, we’d hike up the creek, finding crawfish and salamanders, and hundreds and hundreds of geodes … rocks which when split reveal a beautiful quartz-crystal core.
Dad bought more than one little runabout/ski boat to use on the lake. The one I remember best was a 16 foot Starcraft, aluminum hulled boat with a hatch up in the bow and a 110 horsepower Mercury engine / Mercruiser outdrive. I have no idea the number of people that learned to water ski behind that boat, but I know I was one of them. We’d haul 5 gallon gas cans down the hill from the car and run the boat all weekend on 10 gallons of gas for which we might have paid 6 dollars. That was the first boat I learned to drive by myself, and the first with a planing hull. On that boat, I learned basic boat handling skills, how to approach a dock, how to pull a skier. I’ll bet that boat went 10 thousand miles around that lake, one lap at a time, pulling skiers or just joyriding. I don’t know why, but the Starcraft wound up with George Kneisel, I guess because we’d literally run the guts out of it, and George thought he could repair it. Not so much.
Then, there were the home-builts. One was almost a wind-surfer that dad built in the basement. It was about 10 feet long, two layers of marine plywood with some kind of honeycombing in between, a daggerboard slot, rudder, and lateen sail on about a 6 foot mast. It was my first exposure to sailing, a love which follows me to this day. I don’t even remember what we called it, but I do remember that it was easy to sail, and easy to capsize. Like the canoes, that was kind of the plan on some of those hot, humid, but breezy days.
The ultimate, though, was the Dinky … and later, the Dinky II (Busy I). Dad and Bill Kyme built the Dinky series. They were about 8″ LOA, think of a john boat cut in half and a new transom slapped on. But they built them from scratch of marine plywood. It had about a 25 HP outboard motor, the gas tank lived just under the cross bar that provided stability and held the steering wheel, with a throttle control. You had to stand up in the thing to pull start it, and shift the gears using the lever on the engine. It was in easy reach, as was the choke/kill lever. For anyone resembling and adult, you had to gun the engine and lean out over the bow to get her up on plane … but once she was there … it was Katie Bar the Door. The flat bottom had about a 6″ “V” keel bolted to it, which gave the boat SOME level of lateral stability in a turn, but not a lot. It had a tendency to skid through turns, and leaning into them was only marginally helpful. Driving position was kneeling on a PFD, or sitting cross-legged on the bottom. There was no seat. And that little boat probably went 30 miles per hour. When you’re young, and that close to the water, you might as well be going 100. The original Dinky eventually was flipped one too many times (I never flipped it, as I recall), and it was re-engineered as the Dinky II, also named Busy I after my youngest sister, who is known as Busy to this day.
All of that in the first 20 years of my life. It doesn’t even begin to touch the boats on which I’ve spent thousand and thousands of dollars for the privilege of allowing them to own me. And I’d spend every nickel again to sail with my daughter, and let my dad sail MY boat, as opposed to the other way around. All those boats, and those were just the ones that were ours. There were houseboats on Lake Monroe. Three or four of dad’s friends had nice houseboats that we’d raft up at anchor in Allen’s Creek. Dad’s Dixieland band “The Residue” would gather on the top decks and play. THAT always drew a crowd.
Dad was a Commander in the local Salt Creek Chapter of the United States Power Squadron. Going through the attic at Mom’s recently, we discovered his old Burgees that I’m now very happy to have hanging at my house. So there were rendezvous on Lake Monroe and Lake Lemon. There were other people’s ski boats at KenRay Lake and Lake Monroe, houseboats and cruisers on the Ohio river … it seems that, even in landlocked Indiana, there was always a boat, or two, or three, and every one had a story to tell.
None of them ended up gallantly, as far as I know. Every one of those boats has gone on to what ever reward is fitting for an inanimate object that those of us who love them tend to anthropomorphize … give human qualities to. But each one touched probably dozens of lives, made each one a little more enjoyable, and gave each of those people a warm memory on which to reflect … on a gray and breezy Sunday, on a barrier island, at the continents’ edge.