Messing About in Boats

This is about boats, so of course it’s about desire. The beautiful forms of boats arouse the longing to have one, and to go places you couldn’t without it. 

My father had this bad as a kid. In the summer of 1932 in Duluth, he talked his friends into building the next best thing to a boat: a raft. Scavenging scrap lumber and driftwood, they dragged the stuff down to the shore of Lake Superior, nailed it together, then pushed the ungainly craft into the water and paddled out furiously with some old two-by-fours.

Some ways out, they began to feel a nice breeze from the south. The city receded, and they felt like they were really going places. They were. They were headed for Ontario, at speed.

Unfortunately the wind, which had seemed so gentle when they were closer in, grew stiff out from the lee shore. They paddled ’til their arms turned to rags, then tied a couple of guys to the raft to swim it back. They went numb from the cold water, but finally, by evening, the wind relented and a faint northeast breeze pushed them to shore.

When I moved back to Duluth, after my grandparents’ and father’s deaths, I had the same trouble. In Duluth, you see the vast blue wherever you go. I couldn’t stand seeing the water every day and never going out on it. But I couldn’t afford a boat.

Still, for a couple of years, I mooned over catalogs and websites, looking for kit kayaks. Then, late in the fall, I spotted a kayak on sale in the REI catalog, a Perception Swifty. Hardly what people think of as “real” kayaks, Swiftys are ten feet long (about half the length of Greenland-style sea kayaks), beamy, and fat. They’re made of a heavy, flexible rotomolded plastic, as opposed to the lighter, stiffer fiberglass. But the make is good. And, better yet, this little red pod was about one-tenth of the price of one of its longer, more elegant cousins—two hundred bucks plus delivery. So I ordered one up and put off the electric bill.

Lake Superior was frozen when my kayak arrived, so I couldn’t even throw it in the water. But come April there was a thaw, and the water was suddenly open and shockingly blue.

One day, I took the kayak out soon after sunrise and dropped it into the Lester River current. From there, I paddled out into the lake, over patches of skim ice. As I pushed through them, they sounded like glass waterfalls. The winter water was so clear, it was like I was flying over the huge rocks of the bottom dappled in the sun forty feet below. The kayak was different from any other boat I’d been in. I found myself not on, but in the water, the boat part of a newly invented aquatic body.

That evening I went back to the lake just as the sun went down. Paddling out into the blackening open water, I saw movement on its surface, something running. Looking closer, I saw the ice beginning to form, in needles that zipped over the surface, line connecting at angles with line, and more lines, a net forming, and then a skim of ice connecting the needles, this movement proceeding from shore out into the lake, wherever the sun slid off the water and left it dark. The little red hull glided through this, making no more noise than the whispering formation and soft breakage of the forming and reforming ice.

As all boaters know, every story about a boat is the story of the next boat. My father eventually ended up with a wooden thirty-two-foot lapstrake Chris-Craft. Last year I saw another Perception at REI, the Sonoma, bright yellow and white with a hull of light, rigid plastic called Aerolite. Fourteen feet long and half the width of the Swifty, it’s light and easy to carry to the water. I bought it, cursing it for its beauty, and argued with bill collectors the rest of the summer.