Van Belle Clan, 1980s

Literary License, Unlimited Tonnage

Greg Van Belle My Boat Story

Van Belle Clan, 1980s

The Van Belle clan rows on Puget Sound in the 1980s.

It took me three days after my dad died before I could go into his workshop. When I opened the door I was faced with tools scattered everywhere, half-completed art projects, supplies and lumber staged for some project he had planned. It was chaotic but beautiful. Late in life, as Parkinson’s got the better of him, this is how his world began to look. Tools and supplies with great intentions were left in a state of half-completion. He was no longer able to focus long enough to bring ideas from his head to reality. I know he could see what he wanted to create, but his body and brain fought him.

In the chaos of broken tools, discarded sawblades, and empty tubes of thalo green paint, I could still see the order and the logic of it, but just barely. When I was a kid our garage was so strictly organized as to deter me from even using a handsaw. The black outline of the missing tool would give me away. Now saws and hammers were left everywhere.

“He would hate this,” I said to myself.

After a few minutes spent deciding whether to start cleaning, I noticed the pile of rags and tarps in the corner, under which was the wooden pram we built a few years before. Cleaning and organizing his other things was a therapeutic way to stay busy in the days immediately after his death, but something about that nine-foot dinghy buried in the detritus of his workshop stopped me cold. I couldn’t bring myself to look. I loved that boat. We built it together. It sailed like a dream, rowed perfectly, and looked as salty as you could want. Boats, and that little boat in particular, presented us with one of the few meaningful connections the two of us had. In fact, other than conversations about medications and doctor visits, boats were the only topic we ever really agreed on.

And yet, I never really understood my dad’s fascination with boats. I know now that it came to the surface far differently than my own. He never owned a boat until late in life. He didn’t grow up sailing. And despite living in full view of Puget Sound, he never seemed all that interested in boating as a hobby. A decade ago he had me find him a fishing boat, which I happily did. In two years of ownership he neglected it, let it slip anchor and wash up on the beach, and basically ignored it before telling me to get it out of his driveway. My brother and I once took him sailing in the Gulf Islands, a trip he professed to enjoy but seemed to sleepwalk through. He never once took the helm.

I turned my childhood fascination with boats into a full blown adult obsession. My dad somehow seemed content with the idea of boats. Going through his things after he passed away, I found an old dog-eared copy of Don Casey’s This Old Boat and a couple of Nigel Calder’s books on boat maintenance. These were casual reading for him. He loved the thought of boats. He loved the craftsmanship and the lore, but he was never a boater despite every opportunity.

Years earlier, more focused and more in control of his fine motor skills, Dad built himself a wooden kayak. It was the most beautiful boat I had ever seen, and I still don’t understand how one person can turn strips of five different types of wood into a functional water craft. He paddled it once that I know of, a few feet from shore in the calm water of the bay in front of his house. Now it hangs in the rafters, covered with a plastic tarp and full of sawdust. He was strangely content to have made it, even if he never used it. Even today I have no idea what to do with that kayak.

Van Belle Boat

In the garage, lovingly cared for.

 

When I finally pulled the rags and tarps off the boat in the corner, revealing its perfect cherry wood gunwales, exquisite brass fittings, and perfectly finished white paint, I started to make sense of things as I sat and sobbed. This little boat was everything I loved about my dad.

My dad was always reaching. He was never satisfied with anything, which is a blessing in business and a curse in family life. I think that for him having a boat of any size and shape gave him a window he could always open. There is something freeing about knowing you can cast off and sail away even if you have no intention of doing so.

Or maybe boats, stereotypical toys of the wealthy, always seemed like a dream for an immigrant contractor who spent most of his adult life working 60 hour weeks.

I caught myself, as I gathered all of the parts to the rig, wishing Dad got the chance to really enjoy the boats that he built.

But of course he did enjoy them. He created them from nothing. Though he rarely sailed or paddled them, he did know the joy of taking to the water in a craft that he built with his own hands. He got to see his grandkids float around on hot summer afternoons. He watched as I pushed her to the limit and capsized her. Only now can I imagine his pride in those moments.

And I think he would enjoy where that little pram is enjoying its second wind, as the tender for my own boat. I like to watch it quietly surf off our stern as we make our way through the Puget Sound. She seems happier out there, splashing around in our wake.

Sometimes the idea of a boat is enough, but I wish he had experienced the sound of water rushing past the hull with nothing but horizon in front of him.

Greg Van Belle

Written by

Greg Van Belle grew up sailing, cruising, and fishing Puget Sound. He lives in Seattle and teaches writing at Edmonds Community College. You can follow him on Twitter @gregvanbelle.

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