Monday, April 24, 2006

A Trickle of Dollars—How I found the Bristol
Never read Woodenboat magazine when you are craving a boat. Never. With my family in Ireland and me batching it for a month, that magazine almost hooked me. Before I bought the Bristol, the reason I found myself in Essex, CT was to look at a 1937 wooden sloop—money in hand, common sense having already taken wing and remained in Orlando. I found this boat in the classified section, called the owner who mailed me lots of pictures; called the owner several more times with detailed questions. Everything he said pointed to a finely kept vessel, seaworthy, ready for extended sailing. So , I asked for and received a recent survey of the boat. The survey didn’t speak so highly as the owner, and warned in legalistic terms that the boat should not exceed its intended purpose—whatever that means. But I was in a fever for her—she was cheap, only 7 thousand dollars and I wanted a boat. I flew up to Essex to meet the owner who was bringing the boat down from Mystic to be hauled for the winter.
So I found myself standing on the public pier in Essex, scanning the harbor, looking for the boat whose picture I was holding. Lots of boats moored there, Hinckleys and Aldens, Little Harbors, and Morris Yachts, Bristols and J boats; their Awlgrip gleaming in the afternoon sun. The picture in my hand shows a freshly painted white gleaming hull as well, but the only older wooden 30 footer is this rust streaked relic that can’t be the boat I’m about to buy. Yet, as I stand there, her owner comes on deck, waves to me and hops down into a half deflated dingy and rows toward the pier. Sure enough he is the fellow I’ve been talking to for the past month, but I’m convinced he’s on someone else’s boat. But we row closer and closer to it until we are along side and I am tying the dingy’s painter onto a lose, corroded stern cleat. He makes no apologies for his outright lies to me, not the fictional photos he sent; instead starts giving me the grand tour. I am speechless. There are mushrooms growing in cracks in the cockpit floor. The main shrouds flop around in the gentle breeze—puzzling why they are so loose and takes me a few minutes to figure it out. He has lost the main halyard up the mast, so we can’t sail her properly, and he can’t get the engine, an old rusting Atomic Four, started, so we sit at anchor and he proudly shows off his ship to me. He invites me below. Three days of dishes are in the sink. The cabin stinks of gasoline and exhaust fumes. I ask to be left alone and he goes topside. Then, in the silence I hear it. The trickle of dollars down the inside of the hull. Little trickles of seawater trickling through the planking. The electric bilge pump cuts on and off like clockwork. I take my pocket knife and push the tip of the blade gently into the hull planks. It is like poking a knife into a birthday cake; no resistance at all. Rotten planks, seams opening probably from his sail down from Mystic. Then I take a closer look around the junked up cabin. Not only is she leaking, she has sunk at least once—there is a scum line about half way up the cabin sides. Before leaving I take a gander at the mast step. Just as I suspected: the butt of the mast is sitting in a pool of black water, more mushrooms here too. The butt is so rotten the mast is being eaten away from the bottom up, and that’s the reason the boat’s rigging is flopping around in the breeze.
I ask the owner to take me back to shore—he hasn’t said anything. As I climb up on the pier, he asks in an upbeat voice, “Well, what do you think?” I give him a droll look and walk away quickly before I’m tempted to throw him off his dingy.
Later on the taxi ride back to the Hartford and the airport, I drive by Brewer's Yard, and catch a glimpse of the Bristol’s stern—she’s on jackstands in a long line of other boats. I tell the cabbie to stop and pay him for the ride; I’ll catch a later flight. Woodenboat went in the trash when I got home; I’ve never bought another issue.