Go ahead, call me crazy. Everybody else does. I mean, does it sound like SANE behavior to buy back your old sailboat for the third time?
I told our friend, Nancy, what I had done. “Have you gone crazy?” she asked. The only people who don’t consider my action aberrant are my wife and kids. They know the pleasure Kalea brought me over the past quarter century. It was a thrilling day when I beat a whole flock of people to the owner’s dock and wrote a check for her the first time, back when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. The seller, an English gent with the World Bank, looked at the folks descending on him in response to his ad in the Sunday Post and said, “I didn’t think people bought sailboats in a recession?”
Since he was Kalea’s owner, he should have known that -- even then -- his seven year old boat was a Sparkman & Stephens classic and, at $8,000, he had priced her too low. After all, he DID work at the World Bank.
Kalea is what S&S called a “midget ocean racer,” a Yankee Dolphin sloop, 24 feet from prow to stern, bulletproofed with the kind of piled-on fiberglass layers the better boat builders used back then. The Titanic should have been built to S&S specs. Below, the designer was improvident with his extravagant use of teak and cherry wood. Every inch of space was thoughtfully utilized, and she really did look larger than her spec sheet indicated. When the line was introduced back in the late 1950s, a writer rhapsodized that the Dolphin contained an amazing amount of room for such amenities as an enclosable forward compartment, a through-hull head, a two burner stove and adequate sleeping room for four (as long as they were good friends). Kalea did not look her size. I actually had to bring out a carpenter’s tape to prove to skeptical friends and crew that she measured only 24 feet.
I was shamed into campaigning her by the weekend beer-can racing guys at the local yacht club. “She’s a go-fast,” I was told repeatedly. So, we raced, we went fast and collected a mess of tin cups. Over the years, I learned that sisters of this mighty midget had cleaned clocks in many prestigious races, from Lake Michigan to New Zealand. But my greatest joy was taking her out on the river or bay and letting her find the wind. She was so perfectly balanced that you could leave the tiller unattended for the time it took to go below and grab a cold one. Back at the helm, you felt bonded to this little beauty. Everything seemed to fit, both on the boat and with the universe.
A few years back, W.W. Norton published a lovely coffee-table book titled “The Best of the Best, The Yacht Designs of Sparkman & Stephens.” There she is on page 136, Dolphin Number 18, sizzling across a white-capped sea, all canvas spread and taut on a starboard reach. The text explains that she first was built from a design by S&S’s Bill Shaw, first by the O’Day people, then by Yankee Yachts and, in her last incarnation, by The Pacific Yacht Company. The three companies produced 270 Dolphins before they lost the war to the Clorox bottle fleet that commanded the small boat market with Detroit-patterned marketing ploys.
My first marriage to Kalea lasted about ten years. During that time, she made two trips from Alexandria on the Potomac to the Bay. On one of those excursions, we picked up a bunch of real dolphins in Tangier Sound. They swam with us until we found ourselves in three feet of water, just barely enough to float OUR Dolphin, which draws 2’10” with the board up.
Since she drew so little, she was ideal for exploring many of the Bay’s little byways. We had firsthand knowledge that many of the creeks named “Broad” and “Deep” are neither, but, somehow, Kalea managed to negotiate them. One unforgettable moon-lit night, with the breeze building from the south-east, we made a 20 mile dash down the lower Potomac with Tony Tannelle singing torch songs on the tape deck and the boat sizzling along on a 30-degree heel. Paradise!
The boat loved to surf down a following sea. I’m sure we exceeded hull speed on our run up the bay. It was no accident that Kalea was named after a Hawaiian princess in Lahaina who, legend has it, would rather surf than make a strategic marriage for her kingdom.
OUR marriage ended when we moved “up” to a lovely Cheoy Lee Offshore 28 which we berthed in Annapolis. I sold Kalea to a nice guy who said his daughter, Kimberly, age 10, really wanted a sailboat. He was clearly a dad who would deny his daughter nothing. But Kimberly’s interest in sail boating proved to be short-lived. Kalea languished in her slip, unsailed, unloved. What the hell, I said, I’ll buy her back and keep her in the Potomac for weeknight sails. Weekends, we’d tool around the Bay in the Cheoy Lee. Kimberly’s father was eager to sell her back (as I figured he’d be), so for the next couple of years, I owned and tried to maintain both lovely boats. Sometimes, when people asked if I was into boating, I would answer that I had 52 feet of sailboat. After they’d express their respectful surprise, I would clarify that 28 feet were on Back Creek in Eastport and the other 24 were on the Potomac. I was spending more time commuting to that 52 feet of boat than I was having fun on the water, so I made the reluctant decision to sell Kalea once again.
The buyer this time were John and Gunnell Hansen, good friends and neighbors who were sure to give the old girl a good and proper home. Sadly, John took ill and Kalea was, once again, reduced to bobbing at the end of her dock lines. Two years ago, I sold the Cheoy Lee when we moved to the Eastern Shore. After nearly forty years of boat ownership, it felt strange to pick up a boating catalogue and realize I had nothing to adorn with a nautical toy.
My wife and I visited boat yards and kicked tires from Rock Hall to Oxford. There were plenty of nice boats for sale, but none really felt right to this aging weekend sailor who got vertigo just looking up an Ericson’s tall mast. I was resigned to spending my autumn years hanging around marinas, trying to cadge rides with boaters who were short a crew.
Then, this spring, the Hansens hinted they would be willing to sell her back. I was pleasantly surprised when I checked her out. The marine glass in her windows had clouded over and would have to be replaced, but there appeared to be no fiberglass, sail or rigging damage. Below, she was spotless. The Honda 5 purred to life after the fifth pull. We had a handshake and a celebratory bottle of beer. “I’m sure she’s going to have a good home,” said Gunnell Hansen. “You can count on it,” said I, the old voice of experience.
Driving back to the Eastern Shore that day, I was suddenly seized by what real estate agents call buyer’s remorse. Where the hell was I going to berth her? We were many miles from sailable water, although we planned on moving soon. Trouble was, where would that move take us? One thing was sure: I’d have to move Kalea from her present slip. I certainly wasn’t going to put her on blocks behind someone’s garage and let her rot. Now I was crossing the Bay Bridge, Kalea’s natural habitat. I promised her, and myself, that she would be loved and sailed down there.
And I’d never do anything crazy like selling her again.
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