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The sailor returns to the sea -- almost

By MELVIN MADDOCKS / August 7, 1985



A friend has celebrated summer by buying a boat. He had waited to buy a boat more years than he cares to remember -- ever since finishing his stint in the Navy. The boat perches like a beached whale on his lawn, at the end of a dirt road, perhaps 25 miles from the nearest navigable body of water.

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It is very much a symbolic boat.

The new owner looks at it as he looks at the towering spruce outside his kitchen window or the sheep that skip like white clouds across his pasture or the sun that sets in gorgeous streaks behind a nearby mountain. The boat is a natural asset -- a presence that lends a charm and grace to his world. And who knows? Maybe it will even float.

The boat is a 16-foot sailing craft. If it were a dog, it would be described as a mongrel. It is white -- just barely. The mast is perilously tall -- 24 feet -- and rakish: a nautical leaning tower.

The new owner is guilty of cardinal innocence. He bought his craft out of water -- an act of faith comparable to purchasing land in Florida by mail. When did the keel last kiss water? The previous owner was mysteriously vague.

The new owner -- the old sailor returned to the sea (almost) -- has hoisted the mainsail, and, he reports, it flaps with a most satisfying smack. The rudder swivels neatly, with barely a squeak.

The day is coming when the boat will be launched, and what must be will be, one way or the other. But the once-and-future sailor is in no hurry. Everything in due time. After all these years of anticipation, he is in the habit -- content to anticipate a little longer.

There is a small pond nearby, so shallow that, even in the middle, bulrushes peep above the water. Here the old sailor plans to dip a toe, so to speak -- just sort of float his new toy and see how she balances, and if she leaks. But even before this shakedown cruise our captain has a long list of duties. Gotta do some caulking. Gotta get grommets. Gotta buy small line. Gotta paint the hull, Hatteras white -- even the name sounds salty.

Meanwhile, life on dry land has to go on. So the old sailor, carefully adjusting his skipper's hat, mows the lawn around his boat and gives it a full-nozzle spray when he washes his car.

At such moments, the boat simply sparkles, shining white with hope. Well, practically white.

It is August, and after two months the maiden voyage remains on hold. Will the boat stay dry through another winter?

Somewhere a breeze blows soft and balmy off the water until the nose thinks it can smell the fragrance of far-off islands. The old sailor and his boat sit on a hill at the end of a dirt road.

Besides planting an acre of beans and tomatoes and corn and peas and asparagus and squash -- and a whole row of Jonathan apple trees -- the old sailor did what a man should do when summer comes. He proved himself a chap of action, still open to adventure after all these years -- when, of course, the proper moment comes.

Only an insensitive friend -- really no friend at all -- would ask the old sailor when, or if, he's going to sail. You know, actually sail. The old sailor is so happy already, just thinking about a fair wind in Tahiti.

A Wednesday and Friday column