Man has probably loved boats ever since he floated down some prehistoric river on a dead log. Ever since I first stepped aboard one, I have loved boats. I have owned both power boats and sail boats. Not big expensive crafts, just humble fishing boats and pre-owned sailboats.
The fishing boats, propelled by outboard engines, measured no longer than eighteen feet. Although I am not a avid fisherman, these small vessels allowed my bother, Mike and I to explore the bayous of South Louisiana in quest of fish. Sometime we even went offshore and tied up to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to chase down our bounty. Even if fishing proved futile, drinking beer and catching up with one another saved the day.
Fishing, or at least boat riding, out of marinas at Lafitte, Louisiana always proved to be an adventure. Yes, Lafitte, the small fishing village south of New Orleans on Barataria Bayou, is named for the famous pirate that helped Andrew Jackson save The Queen City from invasion by the red-coated British in 1812.
But now it is home to fishermen–mostly shrimpers. Large shrimp boats equipped to stay at sea for a month and preserve their catch in freezers leave this port and ply the waters between their home port and Mexico. The smaller flat-bottomed Lafitte Skiffs that can cover up to sixty miles of water in one hour run flat out to the bayous between Lafitte and the Gulf. They scoop up their limit of shrimp, then race one another back to the docks to get the best price for their catch. Shrimpers driving Lafitte Skiffs powered by four-hundred-fifty horse power engines are not to be trifled with. Although they make little wake because the extreme stern and the prop of their concave bottom boats touches the water at full throttle, they may be coming at you at speeds matching a car on the interstate.
I have a passion for sailboats. They are beautiful creations. Let us remember that wind powered all boats prior to the mid seventeen hundreds. Well, of course slaves powered some vessels, but these crafts could not traverse oceans to bring home exotic commodities and discover new lands. This required grand sailing ships manned by tough, knowledgeable men. According to the maritime artist Thomas Hoyne, the ocean going vessels of yore were wooden ships manned by iron men.
My late friend Jerry Halford initiated me to sailing on his Morgan 30. One breezy Sunday we departed the municipal marina at New Orleans for a sail on Lake Ponchatrain. My friend turned the tiller over to me, gave me brief instructions on how to watch the tell-tales he had tied to the stays, then he proceeded to lap up copious amounts of Jack Daniels. He became ecstatic when we came upon a power boat with a stalled engine. This gave the old sailing man an opportunity to tow the power boat to safety with our sailboat. Jerry commanded that I stay at the tiller the whole time.
When the day of sailing came to an end, Jerry instructed me to sail the boat back to the dock. I suggested, “Should we not start the engine to bring the boat back into the harbor?”
“Hell no” Jerry bellowed. “Sail the damn thing back to the dock like a sailor.” It was his boat and I knew it was insured so I did as instructed, with no great mishap other than scrapping a little paint off the hull.
Johnny Donnels, a well known French Quarter artist and a land lubber, went sailing with Jerry once on a gusty day. After an exciting day on the water, Johnny posted a notice on his wall of infamy in his photography studio on St. Peter Street. The notice consisted of a simple piece of paper with the message, “Two reasons why I don’t go sailing anymore”. When you lifted the paper you saw two identical photos of Jerry.
Eventually I acquired my own sailboat–a twenty year old Cal 25. Thank goodness Cal 25s are forgiving crafts, otherwise I would probably not be writing these little stories. Gradually I learned to single hand the boat. Most of the time I had one of my children with me or some other “pick-up” crew who knew even less about sailing than I did. My court personnel joined me on occasions and at least pretended to enjoy the experience. Sometime Jerry and other experienced sailors chose to to venture upon the water with me.
Wednesday nights would find me and my apprentice crew challenging fifty or sixty other sailing vessels on Lake Ponchatrain in a contest created by sail maker Charlie Ericksen. Charlie dubbed the event as The Corinthian Yacht Club Race. Mind you The Corinthian Yacht Club had no physical home. Each Wednesday night, between fights about who won the last race, the club conducted its business at one of the many watering holes located on The New Basin Canal across from the Souther Yacht Club.
About seven years ago, I bought a twelve-foot aluminum flat bottom boat for $300 from the thrift store. The camouflage paint job on the humble little craft made it appear even more pitiful. But the grandkids pronounced it “Cool”. I powered it with a five horse power Tohatsu engine which cost three times as much as the boat. Over the years, the trusty little craft has ferried adults, grandchildren, fishing equipment and every item the passengers felt necessary for a good day on the beach across Eastern Lake to the beaches of the Gulf.
Two years ago, I took it out of the water, spent days scraping off barnacles and painting the bottom red with anti-fouling paint. The freeboard received bright blue paint. The grandchildren judged the new paint job as even “Cooler”. They will be here in about a week, at which time we will again venture onto the waters of Eastern Lake.
Four years ago I decided it was time the grandkids learned to sail. I would tell them, “Any fool can turn on a key in a boat. You need to learn to sail a boat.” To this end, My wife Karen and I found the perfect sailboat for Eastern Lake–a twelve-foot O’Day. The little craft was in fairly good shape. It had very tall single sail, a dagger board which had to be lowered to make the boat stable and a rudder that had to be lowered with a line and held in place with a jam cleat.
I had little experience with the little O’Day when grandchildren, Charles, age ten and his brother Nathan age seven arrived for a summer vacation. They seemed willing and eager to learn to sail. They trusted grandpa. With life vests secured, we boarded the little red boat from a neighbor’s dock on Eastern Lake on a day that ensured a moderate breeze. No sooner than we reached the middle of the lake things went wrong. The rudder jammed and could not be lowered. At the same time, the dagger board popped up–rendering the boat without any directional control. The light vessel spun on the top of the water like a water bug chasing its dinner. As if nothing else could go wrong, the sheet line controlling the sail jammed, not allowing me to ease off the sail. The breeze picked up a bit and the boat began to knock down.
The grandkids, whose only experience was in power boats that don’t heel over and ride on the rails, expressed concern. Charles just held on tightly with his white knuckles. Nathan, the more expressive one, exclaimed, “I wish my daddy was here. We are all going to drown.”
“We are not going to drown.” I assured him, but I continued “I am going to throw you over board if you don’t shut up.” We eventually sorted things out. Nathan chose to go ashore at first chance, but Charles continued to brave it out with Grandpa.
My friend John, and ex-navy man and avid sailor, and I are refurbishing the O’Day. New paint, a modified rudder and dagger board, new rigging, hardware and lines should make the little boat handle much better. I can’t wait to get the grandkids back on board.
Each year on the fourth of July the neighbors of Eastern Lake parade their boats. We start just before sunset and circle the lake until well after dark. The festivities continue until beer and fireworks (which my dog PJ and I disdain) are depleted. I relish parading with my wife, Karen and the grandkids. The little O’Day’s twenty foot mast carries the tallest American flag on the lake.
When the grandkids light Old Glory up with spotlights, the grand old flag seems to float like a ghost across the lake in the dark. It gives me shivers down my spine to think of the brave young men and women who have died and been severely maimed to keep this banner proudly flying.