RFD Maine — A Requiem For Old Boats
I winterized my boat last week. By that I mean I covered it and then moved it to a safe, out-of-the-way place. This is a 16-foot aluminum runabout and for far too long, it was allowed to sit outside all year, unprotected from the elements. But a few years ago, my buddy Dan Woodrow made a reusable frame for it. Each stick of wood was labeled with numbers and little arrows, indicating where it went and what it attached to.
Dan also made a cover to go over the frame. The cover has grommets and to these we tied lengths of rope. The ropes secure the cover to the trailer, so despite the meanest winter gale, my boat remains pretty much as it was the day it was put to bed. And in spring it’s easy to take off the cover, remove the frame and store it in the shed until the next winter.
Sometimes in my travels I’ll run across a boat that will never, ever, float again. The majority of these are boats that people stopped using — maybe just got tired of or didn’t want to pay the boat tax on — and have allowed to deteriorate in situ. Weeds grow up around these forsaken vessels and no doubt, rodents make their winter homes in them and wasps build their nests there. To me that seems so sad.
Sometimes in spring I’ll hope against hope that the owner will decide to resurrect the old boat, but that hardly ever happens. Oddly enough, most of these forgotten boats are fairly large, meant for big lakes or light salt water use. It’s rare that a 14-foot runabout, the kind meant for fishing, gets “decommissioned” in such an impersonal way.
Most of these forgotten boats have motors on them. And without a doubt, these motors are full of gasoline that has turned to smelly shellac. Most of these could not be made to run again without being torn apart and rebuilt. It’s a real shame when you consider that when the boat was last used the motor was probably still running.
The saddest such hulk I have ever seen sits back in the woods. Someone had hauled the old boat down a wood road and then pushed it off the trailer. The boat, a fiberglass, 18-footer, sits surrounded by trees and shrubs that have grown up around it. Fiberglass outgases and becomes brittle with age and exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Even so, much time will pass before all vestiges of the old boat are finally gone. The windshield may last another 1,000 years.
Lots of times I’ll see one of these old discarded boats and wonder what places it visited, if it ever went on the ocean and what kind of fish, if any, came over the transom. I can picture the thing, clipping along with a low hum, neatly cutting the waves. And to see it now is to realize that all things are mortal, even old boats.
Not all boats languish in the ghostly boatyard of forgotten watercraft. Some see a second life, with a totally different purpose. These are wooden boats that have fallen victim to dry rot and other enemies of wooden boats. Most of these are skiffs and dories, but some are of a more elegant style. And for some reason, it doesn’t bother me to see these boats in their new settings. After all, it beats the alternative.
The most common use of an old wooden boat is as a planter. It’s easy to do. Just fill the boat with soil and plant it with flowers. Most everyone chooses annuals for these old boats, rather than perennials. Perhaps they’re thinking that perennial plants would outlast the boat and thus create an awkward situation. Maybe they choose annuals for another reason. I just don’t know.
Often, the old wooden boat gets a fresh coat of paint before beginning its new life as a flowerpot. That seems fitting.
Some people equip these flowerpot wooden boats with oars and even anchors, probably to enhance the nautical effect. That, too, works out fine.
Old wooden boats can last a very long time. Sure, they continue to deteriorate, but the basic structure remains unchanged. Thus, a repurposed wooden boat can host its complement of pansies and petunias for many years.
Perhaps the most eloquent use of a wooden boat that has seen too many tides is as a centerpiece in a restaurant or bar. In most cases, only half the boat gets used. It can be either half, too, as in cut in half lengthwise or cut in half in the middle.
I’ve seen small wooden boats all gussied up with a fresh coat of varnish, standing in a barroom, with racks inside for holding glasses. Other times, a seafood restaurant will suspend an entire boat from the ceiling. Usually, a bunch of buoys, some pot warp and perhaps a section of netting will be artfully attached to the boat. Looking at such boats, I’m comforted that as long as the restaurant or bar lasts, the boat will last. And even if the place is sold, the boat will more than likely see a similar use under the new management.
Finally, some old boats continue to serve the purpose for which they were originally intended. These are usually owned by very fastidious people, the type who wipe the boat down after each use and remove and clean the spark plugs before setting out again.
Some of these boats and motors go back 50 years or more. The light green of Johnson Sea Horse and the steel blue of ancient Evinrudes appear as brilliant as ever. Even the decals remain intact, a testimony to the care the owner has lavished on the thing over the years.
Some of the shapes of fiberglass boats of yesteryear were quite whimsical compared to the more practical lines of today’s watercraft. I wonder how many people ever made the connection between the fins of a 1959 Chevrolet and the definitive styling of boats from that same era?
It’s true, though. Fancy fins and even more whimsical lights were the trademark of both automobiles and boats in the days of Beaver Cleaver. And to see a boat and motor from those times still in working condition is a real treat. At least for me it is.
And so it goes. Some boats get unceremoniously abandoned out back or in the field. Some become planters or bar glass holders. And others keep-a-turning, just as they were meant to.
Try and think on these things the next time you see an old boat, because for sure, there’s more to it than meets the eye.