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Sentimental Sounds

Nostalgia about old boatbuilders, designs and marine shops is a romantic memory for many of us cruisers.

When I first signed on to write this column, my first action (after jumping up and down and cheering) was to look at what is known in the magazine biz as a media kit. In this, Passagemaker explains (to potential advertisers) who you readers are. Based on extensive research, you’re avid cruisers, average age 67, 88 percent of you are boat owners, and 80 percent of you have more than two decades of boating experience. You’re clearly old enough for this.

This idea came about because my wife and I were enjoying a leisurely lunch at a waterfront bistro near our home, so I was already in a romantic mood. As I sipped my umpteenth Bloody Mary, I heard a strange sound coming across the water. “What’s that?” she asked.

Suddenly, this magical sound whisked me back to my youth, when I worked in a boatyard much like the one across the channel. It was the sound of a mallet against a caulking iron, as a seam in a wooden yacht was being paid with cotton. The sound in a boatyard today is more likely to be a power sander biting into fiberglass, but there was something romantic about seams that
needed to be packed with cotton so they wouldn’t leak. Iron men and wooden ships stuff. I realized that some of the romance of yachts and yachting has been misplaced, leaving only my memories as I munched the celery from my drink.

Marine hardware stores today are mostly squeaky-clean big boxes with shiny aisles filled with gimbaled drink holders and plastic sextants. They have everything you never knew you needed for your boat, except romance.

The marine hardware stores of my younger years were dark and fascinating places to explore, with boxes of fittings and not a sunglasses rack in sight. They bore the aroma of tar and spar varnish, and they were staffed by people who may not have had criminal records, but certainly had eclectic pasts.

There were big spools of line that had been grown and not brewed in a laboratory. Even now, I can almost feel the coarseness of hemp, long before it became known as cannabis.

Modern marine hardware stores have the inventory control of computers, but I liked it when I would ask for a 6-inch bronze cleat and the clerk would lean on a battered counter and think for a moment. He would then lead me down a cluttered aisle. He would root through a box of gear and emerge triumphant with exactly what I needed.

While I meander down memory lane, I might as well take a shot at modern yacht designs. But, before I enrage every boatbuilder and designer, let me explain. I grew up when there were few boating magazines, and I found romance on the design pages. There were offerings from the likes of L. Francis Herreshoff, Bill Rhodes, Sparkman & Stephens, Alden and others. I was enamored.

Today, sadly, all the drawings are from heartless computers that do not have a romance key. But back then, Herreshoff would painstakingly draw in the button-tufted upholstery, and add each deck plank. He would label various cabinets, such as the “oilskin locker,” and I could imagine shucking off my wet slicker before heading to the “liquor locker” on a foul night.

Bill Garden’s designs were easy to spot: He faintly sketched a helmsman at the wheel, usually with a pipe in his mouth. Bill Crealock was more realistic: He put bottles in the booze cabinet and wood grain on the dining table, and often left a chart and parallels on the nav table. Bruce Bingham was memorable for always hiding a cat and mouse somewhere around the design, and more recently, Alan Andrews hangs clothes in the lockers. On one design, he left a checkerboard on the salon table. Rhodes’ designs sometimes had something whimsical, like a tablecloth on the salon table.

I could lose myself for hours in these line drawings, because each had a distinctive look. I could picture myself on that cozy settee with a good spy novel while a fire chuckled in the small fireplace.

I know that computers have improved yacht design immensely, but I feel sorry for boat-crazed youngsters who live in a world of homogenized designs and sterile hardware stores.

Maybe I’ll find a well-used caulking mallet to stand in the corner of my office, just to remember a more romantic world. 

This article was originally published in the November/December 2022 issue.