Harold?" my friend George said. "That's a terrible name for a boat."
"It's meant to be," I replied. "After all, it's fiberglass."
Needless to say, this exchange took place some time ago when fiberglass was relatively new and scorned by lovers of wood. We'd owned a 34-foot, wooden catboat for 26 years, and when we could no longer keep her up and had to sell her, I felt guilty and desperate. Guilty for letting the catboat slide into decrepitude and desperate to find a replacement. So when we found a 19-foot, fiberglass sloop for the ridiculously low price of $800, we snapped it up.
I was ecstatic. No more boatyard bills, no more worries about leaking, or rotting, or mast-breaking. No time wasted in keeping up woodwork (there wasn't any) or scraping and painting. Just take the boat out and sail or cruise. (Our new boat had a tiny cabin, head, and two berths.) Use her. Abuse her, even. She already had an ugly patch on the stern deck where the boat had been crushed under a dock. What did it matter if the boat got banged up some more?
But could we really sail a fiberglass boat guilt-free? And then I saw my opportunity. The boat didn't have a name. We could give her a bad name, something that would show contempt for her plastic-ness. That would leave us free to enjoy sailing. We could name her Harold.
What's wrong with "Harold"? Everything. A boat's name is traditionally female - sailboats and work boats in particular. Or if male, it has dignity: the Nathaniel Bowditch! Male, female, or otherwise, boats are always referred to as "she." Harold is a ludicrous name for a boat of any kind; and we would make it still more so by always referring to her as "he."
The name was perfect for another reason. "Harold" was my term of ridicule for a simple-minded card game named "Harry" we'd been playing all summer. That would clinch it. No matter how much we might enjoy sailing on Harold, its name, and all that went with it, would protect us from any vestigial feelings of guilt.
All went well for a time. "Harold" raised eyebrows, but my explanation reduced people to smiles. And then one day an earnest-looking young man turned to me as we loaded Harold at the dock and said, "Of course - Byron." I looked at him uncomprehendingly. " 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,' " he said. "Very clever." Too clever by far, I told him. But the reference stuck. Childe Harold, Lord Byron's romantic hero. I must have tucked that away - an eddy in the mainstream of my thought.
We've owned Harold now for 21 years. And she (I can't seem to say "he") has served us well. Harold paid us back tenfold in charters and has taken us to every island and gunkhole in the area. The boat ran up on the beach once, having broken her mooring line in a storm. Harold was half full of sand, had a hole in her side the size of a medicine ball, and the outboard had been torn off the stern.
Six of us found Harold and managed to shovel her out and pull the boat onto a field with the help of rollers and a come-along. Except for the hole and a couple of cracked ribs, the boat was OK. Harold's indestructibility is a matter of legend.
"How's Harold?" says Don, who helps me haul my boats.
"Fine," I respond, as if we were talking about a mutual friend. We agree on a haul-out date, and as we chat about Harold's adventures that summer, Don smiles. He loves the fact that we do not treat Harold like a yacht.
"The old one's good enough for Harold," he says, after considering the question of a new main sheet. Harold is a work boat and must do her part. But Harold is also a member of the family, a beloved one at that. Perhaps our boat deserves a better name.
Rename Harold? I broach the subject to the family. Out of the question! That is like renaming one of the children. Anyway, what's in a name? As Shakespeare says, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
"Harold," let's face it, has become a term of endearment.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society