At Large: Saturday

At Large: Saturday

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— Photo by Ralph Stewart

My peapod is not just transportation. Not much larger than a Jetta, which gets you from here to there, the peapod makes you happy as you travel. She is 13 feet long, planked with with white cedar over delicate but strong, bent white oak frames. She is double-ended, and as curvaceous as Brigitte Bardot, when Brigitte Bardot was 20 years old and profoundly disturbing for a young man to contemplate. She (the peapod) was built in Maine by Jimmy Steele, now dead though his design lives on. I’ve had her for at least 15 years, and she’s showing her age and her life of year-round exposure, often towed behind the sailboat, more often sitting patiently on the shore in Vineyard Haven. She leaks a little, and the tan interior needs paint, but she rows like a dream, no matter the conditions, whether I’m by myself or with Molly, two kids, and two dogs.

There are two cautions I ought to mention. First when you are towing her, you should trail a coffee cup on a light line from her stern, to keep her from getting up on a following sea and scampering forward and downhill to slam with a vengeance into the transom of the towing vessel. Nat Benjamin told me that trick. The other is that no matter how you trim her, when your course is at an angle to a strong breeze, you’re going to have to make vigilant corrections with the upwind oar. She wants to lay in the trough of the sea that the wind stirs up. Otherwise she is as amiable as a better angel.

The storms of the last month used the peapod badly. The high water reached her where I had unthinkingly left her too low on the beach. The surf spun her broadside and half filled her with water, sand, and seaweed. It was the work of an hour or so to dig her out, bail her out, and clean her out, ready for use. Then it was cold for a week or so, and I fretted because I knew I ought to get out to Liberty to see if there had been damage and to run the engine to charge her batteries. It wasn’t till Saturday, when the air was finally mild enough and the wind was finally moderate, that I set out to get the job done.

I planned the trip for noon, when the sun would be at its sorry winter apex, about 63 degrees south of straight-up in late December. What I hadn’t paid attention to was the tide, which was dead low, indeed lower than normal, probably because of all the northwest wind we’ve had, blowing eastward over Vineyard and Nantucket Sound. The peapod was high in the beach grass at the brow of the beach maybe 35 feet from the water’s edge. She weighs 175 pounds or so and dragging her to her element took some considerable effort.

The total of boating activity in Vineyard Haven Harbor on Saturday at noon was me, me and the ferries. Sometimes instead of putting my back into it, which is what me hearties are always told to do in pirate stories, it’s pleasant to row facing forward, pushing the oars rather than pulling them. And on a nice day like Saturday, it’s especially pleasant to potter along that way, easily looking at where you’re going. Liberty was fine. All my fretting was wasted. There was no trace of lingering ice anywhere on deck or below. I opened the seacocks, started the engine, untangled one of the two pennants that attach her to her mooring, and sat in the cabin to pass the 45 minutes or so I wanted the engine to run to charge the batteries.

Sitting below, I remembered the occasion a few years ago, when my two boys and I went on a brief sailing cruise during the week between Christmas and New Years. The weather was crisp but bright, and the breeze was fair. We figured night would be cold, but the sleeping bags and parkas we had with us would ensure survival. No artist in the galley, I planned a couple of pressure cooker meals. Pressure cooking in cold weather aboard a small boat has many advantages. The stove is on for a while contributing welcome heat. The irregular release of steam from the cooker helps too, and the meals the pressure cooker is good at are just the thing you want when the weather outside is cold enough to freeze a fringe of ice along the boat’s waterline. We had pot roast and plenty of it.

There is a little wood stove mounted on the bulkhead at the forward end of the cabin. It uses a mixture of hardwood and charcoal for fuel, and it makes it possible to sit around telling stories in your shirtsleeves, but the heat never reaches the cabin floor, so heavy socks and slippers are in order. Saturday, alone at the table in the familiar surroundings, on a mild January day, there was no need for a fire. I took up a collection of quotations, many of them taken from children’s books and organized around topics that might be interesting to young people. About happiness, I read, from Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, “They dined on mince, and slices of quince/Which they ate with a runcible spoon;/And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,/They danced by the light of the moon…” I know you want me to define runcible, but why don’t you look it up.

But the one that caught my eye was by E. B. White, from The Trumpet of the Swan. White wrote, “Safety is all well and good: I prefer freedom.” Freedom and boats are all tied together for me.

The wind had piped up as I set out for the beach, rowing the normal backwards way. The peapod was, as she always is, entirely herself. The course was mildly bedeviling as the wind wanted to turn the skiff round to starboard, and a counterbalancing effort with the left oar was required to keep us going where we were supposed to be headed. But she flew across the water as usual, rolling gently in the wake of the ferry.

And at the beach, there was an unexpected addition to the day’s rewards. The tide had risen very little, and the prospect was a long uphill pull, when someone shouted, asking if I wanted a hand. I certainly did. Rob Douglas, had been keeping an eye on the day from his truck. A very fit fellow, Rob is just the sort of hand you want when you have to drag 175 pounds 30 feet up a hill. He made light work of it.