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Making Scents of the Sea

Many have tried, but none have gotten it quite right.

I should have recognized that the First Caswellian Law of Boating applied. It is: Anything that seems simple, isn’t.

I just wanted to buy my friend Leo a Christmas gift. He’s had a number of boats and is married to a woman who used to do the varnish on the legendary Ticonderoga. Nuff said.

My wife suggested a nice cologne, something she thought might remind him of the sea and wonderful days on the water. I must have missed the doomsday bell tolling, so we set out to find just such a nautical cologne, shunning the Houses of Dior and Versace and even English Leather (my fave from the ’60s).

First stop, a big box store, where we found Azul, which (says the box) evokes “ocean winds over old wooden sailing ships drenched in salt and storms. Black volcanic rocks plunge into an incredibly blue ocean. Volcano offspring summon distant shipwrecks.”

Wow! This had some possibilities, containing the extract of geranium bourbon (try asking for that at your local pub) and ambergris (you know, the whale goo). It promised to transport me “back to days at sea on choppy waves.”

But when it described itself as “a marine fragrance with green undertones,” I put the box back. I’m OK with ocean winds and being drenched in salt, but I’ve had a lifetime of green undertones on choppy waves, and I couldn’t share those with Leo.

To gather my sea legs, my wife and I moved to another store, where we encountered Acqua Di Parma Blu Mediterraneo Fico di Amalfi. The sales booklet promised, “the Italian breeze from the Mediterranean, combining lemon, mandarin wood and fig milk.”

Right off, I’m leery of fig milk, after overdosing on Fig Newtons and milk as a kid and not liking the memory (or the aroma). Back on the shelf.

Final stop, Tommy Bahama. There, we found Maritime, which seemed a winner on several fronts. First, it came in a bottle with a chrome cleat on the top wrapped with a black piece of line. No matter that they don’t know how to belay a line to a cleat. The description referred to “the effervescence of the sea” and “celebrates undaunted spirit.” It promised to take Leo to a place where “the golden hour meets the happy hour,” but I think he’s already been there. Several times.

Sadly, Maritime is made from nothing faintly resembling the sea: violet leaves, nutmeg, saffron. Hmmmm.

Tommy was a bit closer with his St. Barts, which he says was “island-inspired.” It’s made with an exhilarating blend that includes sea vine and blue agave tequila. I recognize that many skippers (myself included) have had up close and personal face-plants into sea vines, particularly after enjoying a considerable amount of tequila. But I may not want to remember my bouquet the next day.

At this point, I realized I was looking for something that didn’t exist, except in my memory. The scents of the sea, to me, are those of turpentine and varnish and coffee wafting up from the galley, and the faint aroma of diesel fuel on my hands after I tinker with the engine.

Wake up on a boat early in the morning, and there’s that unmistakable flavor in the air that says, “I’m on a boat floating in salt water.” I love that smell and it comforts me, but I’m not sure I want to wear it as aftershave.

Boatyards used to be an amalgam of fragrances: the sweet scent of oak and mahogany; the oily musk of teak; the tang of bottom paint that reeked of poisons no longer allowed. And that wonderful, unmistakable aroma of fresh varnish.

Today, youngsters are more likely to grow up thinking that a boatyard smells like the Tupperware in the kitchen, but there are still a few good boatyards—and boatbuilders, as well—where you can introduce your kids to the real perfume of a wooden boat under construction.

I think a perfume that evokes yachts should come from ingredients such as the sanding dust from Burmese teak or Honduras mahogany, the scent of English spar varnish. From the distilled essence of well-worn paper charts, infused with the zest peeled from salt-stiffened foul weather jackets and blended with Dinty Moore beef stew laced with cheap red plonk.

In days past, the scent of the sea (and marine hardware stores) would evoke tar and hemp (not that kind!), beeswax and enamel, and marline twine. But would it sell? Probably not.

Perhaps one day we’ll be able to buy fragrances to match our particular interests. I’d certainly buy an ounce of Eau de Rigid Inflatable, a travel size of Night Watch Magic, and certainly a large bottle of Palmy Anchorage. I’d probably skip past Boatyard Barnacle Musk, Gelcoat Passions or Cummins Exhaust.

Come to think of it, I’ve been to enough cocktail parties with a blue smudge of Woolsey bottom paint behind my ear or a glob of Z-Spar gloss varnish on my elbow that I could probably get into the perfume business.

Stand by for the House of Caswell.