What are we doing here?

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PROBABLY you are thinking that what we don't need is another one of those ``nothing so lovely as messing about in boats'' self-confessions. Well, this is about old boat yards. It hardly matters to me whether I actually make it onto the water itself. I love walking around the boats, all propped up in the yard, in varying states of pride or decay. Boatyards have a special air about them. They are places of work -- and yet not work. This is labor of love and the yard seems somehow to know it. These boats are prizes to their owners, places of refuge from the office or shop. The work quotient of an eight-hour day spent in the office is many times that of a 12-hour day spent around or under the hull of a boat.

As a boater, I prefer fiberglass hulls. No leaks, minimum maintenance. As a boatyard aficionado, wooden hulls win my interest hands down. Just why they are much more interesting to look at is something of a mystery. Maybe because the peeling paint, sagging seams, scuffs, and scars are open doors to their lives, beckoning me to peek into their histories and to conjecture about future promise. Where has this boat been? How many family outings has it hosted -- swimming parties, trips ashore, quiet lagoons, stormy crossings? The gadgets and appliances that have been added to the boat are clues in this sleuthing. Swim platforms attached to the transom bespeak family fun. Holders for fishing poles indicate serious quests for offshore catches. And, most intriguing of all -- sailboats only -- self-steering devices must mean long passages to faraway places.

And then there are the more mundane matters. That gash at the stem tells a tale of a hapless skipper who suffered the ignominy of a grounding. A bead of gooey-looking sealant gives away a leaking cabin trunk.

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A ``FOR SALE'' sign on a boat raises it to maximum interest. With other boats, there is just the faintest feeling that you are, well, sticking your nose in other peoples' private lives. But a boat for sale fairly shouts, ``Here I am! Come look me over!'' ``Well, thank you,'' I always say, ``I don't mind if I do.''

All my analytical inclinations come into play. What's right about, and wrong with, this boat? Can it be fixed up? Could I fix it up, or is it a job for the professionals at the yard? How much is it, and how does that balance with the repairs needed? With the average market price for similar boats? With my pocketbook?

The buildings and other structures found at boatyards are delightfully in tune with the older ``character'' wooden boats. Sheds and shops have been added as needed, in various sizes and textures. Cradles, blocks, and cables lie about in functional disarray. There's rarely a formally marked parking lot -- pickup trucks and cars cluster around the office or wherever space is available. The one frequent exception to this pleasant anarchy is the dock.

The dock is, after all, the heart, if not the geographical center, of the yard. Clean, swept of extraneous gear, rotted planks replaced with fresh ones as needed, the dock is for serious business. It is here, for example, that we see that high point of all boatyard activity, the launching of the boat. Freshly painted, refastened, recaulked, varnished, fitted, tightened, greased, and tuned, boats wait with anticipation for lowering into the water. Mere observers such as I give wide berth to anxious owners and yard operators as they swarm about, checking and rechecking lines as the boat inches its way downward. Finally the boat is in the water, and it floats! We all breathe a sigh of relief inwardly, covered by outward nonchalance.

My wife, Jenny, is not a boatyard enthusiast. But she's a pretty good sport about it. As we drive by a boatyard and I look imploringly out the window, she sighs and says, ``Do you want to stop and look at boats?'' Well, I allow, I would kind of like to -- only if you don't mind, of course. In fact, she has learned to be interested in boats, but our different perspectives are immediately apparent upon entering the yard.

``Oh, that's a nice boat,'' she exclaims. Of course, it's a nice boat. It's about 50 feet long, in beautiful condition, has all the comforts of home, and costs an unimaginable amount. I head for a mongrel boat about 24 feet long, peeling paint, no rudder, a weird home-built addition to the cabin, and price tag of modest proportions.

``This one has a kind of charm, don't you think? Just needs a good cleaning up and a little fiberglass. We could have a lot of fun in a boat like this!'' She sniffs, becomes silent, looks at another boat. We work our way through the yard, but long before I have examined every keel, checked out every propeller, I sense unspoken ``It's time to go!'' messages from my spouse. Also the implicit, unasked question, ``What are we doing here?'' hangs on the air. So we leave.

What were we doing there? Is it true, what they say, that a boat is really a dream -- always sailing on the horizon of our fond hopes? Maybe when I actually own a boat (time and budget permit-ting), the fascination of these boatyard rendezvous will fade. But I doubt it.

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