Issue: September 2005
Little Big Boat

One thing I have learned is that it doesn't matter how humble your boat; what counts is how it makes you feel. So when my son Kaeo crouched at the transom of Luna this afternoon and tugged on a skinny line, drawing toward him a plastic cabin cruiser of about 10 inches LOA, and said quietly, "I think James had better come in for a while," I didn't even need to look to know he was a little sad.

Kaeo is eight years old and he's had James for better than half of his young life. We bought the boat in some tourist trap up in Lake George, N.Y., where we go camping most summers. He had a white hull and a bright red deck-hence the name James, for a little red train from Kaeo's Thomas the Tank Engine period. At first he was mostly a bathtub toy, but when Johnny rigged him up to a long piece of messenger line and tied it to Luna's stern rail, James started putting some serious miles under his keel.

When Johnny was growing up, his dad built him a little wooden speedboat, which also tagged along behind the family sailboat. Johnny spent hours watching it move through the water, pulling it in close then easing it back out, letting it carry his imagination on those long, hot summer days when there wasn't much else for a little kid to do. When James was brand new it was hardly in the water two minutes before Kaeo assumed the same position at the transom his dad had thirty-some years earlier, watching and playing and dreaming.

James was soon joined by a small fleet. There was Percy, a green-decked bass-boat (also named for a train from the Thomas the Tank Engine oeuvre) with a yellow bow chair and a black outdrive, which has long since disappeared. And last year Hydro, a snazzy hydroplane with purple topsides, joined the group. As soon as we leave the dock Kaeo and his sister launch the boats, and the steady slap-slap-slap of their hulls on the water is so familiar that if they're not out there the silence is unsettling.

Each boat has its own performance and character. Percy used to yaw all over the place until he lost his outdrive; now he's straight as an arrow no matter how rough the seas. Hydro can do some amazing stunts when Kaeo tweaks his line; lately he's been submarining upside down a few inches underwater and then flipping back upright, skimming brightly along. But of them all, James has traveled the farthest, with very little fanfare. His red deck has long since been bleached pure white from hundreds of summer days, and we figure he's got about 1,500 miles on him by now.

Which is why he needed to be hauled this summer. His deck had developed a severe crack. We strapped him up fore and aft with rigging tape, but the repairs seemed to have affected his laminar flow. His bow started digging in, and he was having a hard time handling seas much over a foot without threatening to go under completely.

So this afternoon, as we were sailing in a building southerly and the waves started piling up, Kaeo put James in dry dock. He did it with a certain reverence that most people wouldn't pay a little plastic boat. But anyone who's ever loved a boat as fine as James knows better.