by James Cowan
Like most men, I’d never thought about love until it hit me. It was July, 1977. I was thirty-four, grubbing for clams in a Cape Cod pond when an elegant workboat ghosted by. I didn’t know then that she was called a Kingston lobster boat.
As I stared through the fog, I could see how a man who followed the sea might have singlehandedly hauled traps as he sailed this boat, this tool—as precise for the work at hand as a scalpel. It struck me that the designs of such laboring craft also must suit their native waters. The sleek Kingston lobster boat slicing through the chop of Massachusetts Bay; the high freeboard of the Swampscott dory off Boston’s rough North Shore, the stout Eastport pinky steady in the open seas of the Gulf of Maine.
From that day on, when I was in my car, I got in the habit of slowing down, pulling over to ponder old hulls, triangulating in my mind their use, their design and their hailing port. A South Jersey Beach skiff. The Chesapeake skipjack. I bought used books on vintage boats and snooped around out-of-the-way yards where I discovered the skeleton of a Block Island cowhorn and the rotting remains of a stubby catboat and then a real find: a Long Island Great Southbay built in the legendary boatyard of Gil Smith.
That was as close as I got to the water. I was an elementary school teacher with a spouse and four-year old son, renting a weathered cottage. I couldn’t afford a Kingston lobster boat.
I could make a half-model of its sensible grace.
Before half-hulls were collectables, they were step one in the boat building process. Shipwrights would skewer together flat wood pieces—like a baker assembling a layer cake—then carve the whole into a hull-shape. Next, vertical lines called stations were drawn on the hull; the tapered dowels holding the layers were pulled; and the loose pieces scaled up so templates and full-sized plans could be drawn. When the workers were through with a half-hull, it got displayed in the master builder's office as a trophy—an example of that establishment’s accomplishments.
I reversed the whole process. I would scale down real boat measurements to dimensions for a half-hull model.
I set up a shop in the cellar, a miniature boatyard.
It would be my refuge and an escape from a marriage with little form or function, that played out on the floor above but never descended to the level of my basement workplace. To make fair lines and sweet curves, I taught myself drafting and finishing skills. I discovered the sensuousness of boat forms. I found I had good hands, would run my fingertips over my emerging half hulls, maybe a Nantucket whale boat or the slim Woods Hole spritsail, feeling for what was not quite right and caressing what had become perfect.
Fifteen half models down the road, and after the births of two more baby boys, and subsequent to my wife’s declaration that she’d filed for divorce, someone entered my life who was more fun than a piece of wood. Lois and I first set eyes on one another across a crowded room in the Cape Cod town where we both lived. In that instant, she electrified my head, my crotch, my being.
We were antipodal, socially different people. I, a tightly wrapped New Englander focused on appearing cool, was the kind of guy who would never walk around his house with his shirt off. My new love, a no-nonsense South Florida gal, was warm and comfortable in her own skin. Yet at gut-level we were simpatico; both of us were either unbelievably boneheaded or brilliantly bold enough to clutch the brass ring as we gambled away our old lives, to be with one another, never looking back.
Lo, as I called her, and I would move to Maine and embark on our first real estate deal—a two year long construction project, the transformation of a redundant Victorian church into four residences. I had no time and no need for half-hulls. Running the operation with Lo, I had come out of the cellar.
Besides, by then, I had a real boat—a fourteen-foot peapod, a gift my by-then new wife Lois had told her dad I’d love for my birthday. My father-in-law was one of my favorite people and I named the vessel after this bear of a man. Joe Griz is what I called him and the name I wrote on the bow of my peapod.
Peapods are small open boats propelled by oars, sometimes by sails. They were used by fishermen in Maine well before Massachusetts men pulled traps from Kingston lobster boats. In 1988, when I got my peapod, it was a rare and ancient lobsterman who still fished out of these little boats. Instead of stacked-up algae-coated pots full of black-eyed lobsters, the nimble double-enders were tenders for restored yachts, moving clients to and from shorefront restaurants. In midcoast Maine, where Lo and I lived in sight of the forest of masts in Camden Harbor, ‘pods also were carried on windjammers along with day-trippers in search of the way life used to be.
Lo and I took our own day trips—to confer with my peapod’s builder James Steele in downeast Maine, to follow the construction. I asked Jim to build in two rowing stations. Once he trailered the boat to me in Camden, I sanded its rough hull with a coarse grit, then finer and finer. Lo and I picked colors as if we were decorating our bedroom. I painted it myself.
‘That’s a fine boat,’ men who knew about such things would tell me.
Lo and I drove north from Camden to Orono to a firm in the oar-making business since 1858. At Shaw and Tenney’s, we had to put down the top of our convertible to carry the two sets we’d ordered. At home I detailed their shafts with the boat’s signature colors.
The four ash oars with their leather chafe guards were two lengths and weights. My plan had been to sit amidships with the longer set of oars, forward of Lo. She would use the smaller set, the stern oars. I could see her but she wouldn’t be able to watch me. Once onboard, I kept forgetting that whoever was in the mid seat, closest to the stern, was the one who set the stroke. That wasn’t me but I found it impossible to surrender control.
Bent at the oars, trying to pull in unison, resulted in more than a few words. After an effort to together sing Row, Row, Row Your Boat to establish the cadence, and the continued vexing crashes of oar-on-oar, it was Lo’s idea to switch stations.
Now I sat before her. She was behind me at the beamiest part in the boat, her open knees just clearing my back.
She was the one pulling the longer heavier oars.
It was a mating ritual or maybe a waltz. We dance well together. Vacationers watching us from the town wharf would point and stare and, when we tied up, ask us if we really were married. We certainly were, and the Joe Griz became an affirmation of our togetherness, how we pulled through life together. Time spent in that seakindly peapod was better than a hundred therapy sessions. Whatever was going on in our lives, it was enriched and softened when we teamed up, manned our stations...and rowed.