A Sailboat For My Son

By: Patrick Metcalf

Volume 15, Issue 8, August 2020

In 1948, Johnny Mercer recorded a song called "The Thousand Islands Song (Florence!)". My Aunt Carol stumbled across it a few months ago on YouTube and texted it to me. As the story and the lyrics go (I'm roughly paraphrasing here) the protagonist lost his girlfriend (Florence) on one of the Thousand Islands, but he can't remember which one.  So he rows up the River Saint Lawrence, hollering "Floor-rence! Where can you be?"  He can't take a nap, he's got to watch the map, "That was Island 793!" He rows from shore to shore, knocks on every door, and proclaims in exasperation, "How many Thousand Islands can there be??!"  Quite a predicament for a newbie on the River!

A few weeks later, I was brain-storming about what to get my soon-to-be nine year old son for his upcoming birthday in July. Like many kids today, Lee spends quite a bit of time with his "screens" (iPad, laptop, video games, smart phone, etc). I wanted to give him a present about which he would be excited, but also something that would perhaps offer some lessons and insights that could prove useful in the real world.

In years past, I had noticed that the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton offered sailing courses for kids. I knew nothing about sailing, but I have always been impressed with the level of skill, knowledge, and enthusiasm of those who pursue the sport. A Sunfish, perhaps? That was the only type of sailboat I had ever been on.  When I was in middle school, I had a friend whose family owned a cottage on Keuka Lake, which is one of the Finger Lakes near Penn Yann, NY.

His Sunfish was named Veloche, which I was told means "speedy" in Italian. She was fast! Once we took her out on a day when the lake was covered with whitecaps, which we crashed through over and over again, taking us further and further from the dock. It was a rough ride and we covered a lot of water. Without warning, the wind slowed, and then stopped completely. We just bobbed around for a while, wondering what to do. Eventually, we waved down a passing motorboat whose driver was nice enough to give us a tow back to our port of origin. It was quite an adventure!

So a search for a used, but capable, Sunfish sailboat began. Little did I know that the story of the boat that I would eventually purchase as a gift to my son, began even before I was born. In 1970, a different father was buying a present for his son, as a high school graduation present. The red and white Alcort Sunfish was originally purchased just outside of Philadelphia, and saw her first action just off the beach at Ocean City, NJ. The seller of the boat, whose name is David, had many fond memories sailing her. He told me that his father was a terrific sailor, and taught him most everything he knows about it. He had also often taken her out with friends and family, and David's son had learned to sail on her. She was a boat with a rich history, and was much loved. David said he wasn't up for sailing anymore and was dealing with some shoulder issues. I could see he was sad to part with her, but I could also see that he was pleased that she was going to find a new home, and would teach another son all that the art of sailing has to offer. She was in great shape for a 50 year old boat. There were a few small scratches, the deck had been repainted, and the sail was a little thin, but she was more than seaworthy.

Some pre-launch yard work

All that she needed was a name. It seemed fitting that boat with so much character should have a name. I sent a few excited pics and texts to my significant other, Jessica, who quickly suggested the name Florence. It was perfect! I told David the story of the Thousand Islands Song as he was packing her up for me to take her home. He smiled and said, "I like that. She never had a name." And so she was reborn as Florence... of the St. Lawrence!

Lee was very excited to see his new boat. We decided to pull the boat and trailer into the middle of the yard and rig the sail. I realized that I had retained very little of what I observed when David had her set up in his driveway. I got online and watched a few YouTube videos about rigging a Sunfish. There was an immediate problem with the confounding terminology. Main sheet?  Halyard? Mast ring? Spars? Fair lead? I felt like I was listening to someone speak a foreign language! So we rigged her up the best we could. I plopped Lee in the boat and let him practice holding what I was pretty sure was called the main sheet, and then duck under the boom a few times when it swung over and caught the wind. I attached the rudder and Lee pulled the tiller back and forth a few times, pretending to steer the intrepid Florence through an imaginary storm. I was pleased with our efforts and took a minute to snap several pics and text them to David, who politely pointed out that I had a few things kind of backwards. I was glad I sent him those pics!

An eager student of the River!

A few weeks later we arrived at our cottage near Clayton with Florence in tow, excited to get her out on the River. The timing of it worked out beautifully, allowing us to take her out for the first time on the very day of Lee's birthday. Unloading, rigging, and launching her was a very new experience, and would not have been successful without the help of a few generous neighbors. (Thanks again to Ernie, Elissa, and Jake!)  Our first time out was awkward, but certainly fun. The wind stopped and started a few times, and changed direction more than once. We actually did some successful tacking, and neither of us got hit in the head with the boom. A few times we went really fast, and once or twice I thought she'd toss us off, making it necessary for me to go get the pontoon boat to search up and down the St. Lawrence hollering "Floor-rence!  Where can you be?" Canada perhaps.  Or Island 793... Despite our lack of experience, we were able to bring her back to shore successfully.

Maiden voyage! (Calumet Tower in the background on the right]

I spent some time thinking about what lessons Lee might take away from learning to sail that will hopefully benefit him for the rest of his life. If I had to venture a guess, I believe these are some of the key concepts from Professor Florence's course syllabus:

Know which way the wind blows.  Wind and current are powerful forces, and in life these come in many forms. Situational awareness is essential in any endeavor, and deciding to go completely against such forces is a challenge that has to be weighed carefully. Often, there are better ways to cooperate and pull in the same direction, to end up where you want to be much more quickly and easily. It's always important to know whether you are bucking the wind, or using it to your advantage.

The necessary path to achieve a goal does not always come in the form of a straight line. Life brings challenges, and the wind is often not in your favor.  Obstacles may require you to re-plot, develop a new plan, and change your course. Unfortunately, you may capsize, and the skill of recovering from a mistake is extremely important. Don't expect victories to come without significant effort, and know that it is the struggle itself that builds your character and that gives your hard-fought successes real meaning. If you do not quit, you cannot fail, no matter how far out of your way you had to go to get there.

The River is fair, not cruel. The River does not care what you look like, whether you are rich or poor, or where you came from. It only cares if you are competent and prepared... or not!  And that is always in your hands.  Do the work that is necessary to be prepared for what lies ahead.

Happiness and contentment are in all of us. It cannot be stated strongly enough that life moves too fast, and it is important to make time to do the things you love. There is such an immediacy to sailing; feeling the spray as you cut through the waves, the exhilaration of accelerating as the wind picks up, the main sheet pulling harder and harder against your hand as you gain speed, and leaning back over the water with your full weight to counter-balance the pull of the sail. It is unique, and it bonds you to each instant in a way that makes you feel very focused and alive. Soak it all in. Just be right there, in that simple and joyous moment in that beautiful place. To quote one of my favorite movies Ferris Bueller's Day Off, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it!"

All of this and more, I hope Lee gains from learning to sail.

There is a picture on the refrigerator of Lee when he was two years old, getting a bath in the sink at the cottage. Time moves so quickly. It feels like next week he will be graduating from high school and off to college, and then out into the big, wide world. When that day comes, I certainly hope he takes with him a little of the wisdom that Florence and the River have so graciously offered.

By Patrick Metcalf

Patrick Metcalf began vacationing in the Thousand Islands, more than 20 years ago, when his grandmother and her two sisters rented three houses for a week, each summer in Fine View on Wellesley Island, and invited their families from Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida. Patrick spends as much time as he can each summer, on the River, near Clayton, NY. He began writing to entertain his son Lee, who is now eight years old. Patrick resides in Shippensburg, PA, holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration, and is a Marine Corps veteran.

This month we present two pieces from Patrick. "Only the Tower Remains."is his poetry submission.  See all of his TI works here.

Posted in: Volume 15, Issue 8, August 2020, People, Places, Sports

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