Silver Fox

The tide was at its lowest point when I saw her for the first time from atop the marina’s tall and rusty retaining wall.

Looking down from above, one could see her true form, as she must have appeared in the eyes of her designers some forty years before.

Forty-two feet in length from stem to stern, with lines well proportioned, she was a blend of traditional naval architecture and modern accents closely echoing the trends in automotive design of the early 1960’s.

Making my way down the steep ramp to the dock, I could appreciate how her champagne bow elegantly faired into the gentle tumblehome of her after-quarters. In hand painted letters across the varnished Mahogany of her transom was her christened name: Silver Fox. 

Fox seemed almost out of place amid the gleaming white fiberglass boats all around her that summer of 1998. Conceived in a different era, the newer boats tied to the dock were built by modern methods of laying up or spraying layers of fiberglass into molds. 

By comparison, Fox was built entirely of Mahogany and Teak, her ribs and planks carefully fastened by screws of bronze, using the same methods developed by shipwrights over the course of centuries.

Fox was the type of boat I sailed aboard during my youth and stepping aboard stirred a sense of familiarity, like looking at an old photograph. 

Raising her two large deck hatches revealed her engines; twin Chrysler 440’s, each topped with four barreled marine carburetors.

When stepping down between those engines I was presented with a unique blend of odors that could only be found within the hull of a gasoline powered wooden boat. It’s hard to describe, but its main elements are seawater, engine oil, ethylene-glycol anti freeze, hi-octane gasoline and mildew. I know it sounds disgusting, but for me that smell was like coming home to mom’s kitchen when she was baking cookies.

God help me, I love it so.

It was aboard Fox that I was to receive an advanced tutorial in boat handling by the person who I valued the most to offer such a lesson, Joe Lovas.

To some perhaps, Joe seemed to be a bit rough around the edges, but I had known him long enough to really respect him. I had been fortunate enough in the past to be mentored by unusual but skilled people like Joe who defied being pigeonholed into any sort of standard description.

When Joe offered his time to teach me boat handling aboard Fox, I knew it was an opportunity not to be passed up. One of those rare people you meet that seems just a little bit larger than life, Joe was the stuff that local legends were made of, tough and gritty, and a real mariner.

Having sailed with him before, I knew that Joe’s knowledge of the local waterfront was extensive. Our craggy stretch of New England coastline, punctuated by rocky coves and inlets, had been well explored by Joe over the course of some sixty odd years.  When Joe would nostalgically point out where he first went clamming or caught his first fish as a boy, it was like being guided through his own personal album of memories.

With his face highlighted by weathered skin and a body scarred by a lifetime of working with machinery, Joe expressed his wry, sarcastic wit through the puffed smoke of a well chewed on cigar.

Having been born of a later generation more attuned to cultural sensitivities, I had often cringed as Joe brazenly expressed his unvarnished opinions. From the “Old School” and politically incorrect to say the least, Joe always remained defiantly unrepentant.  

Usually found in his work clothes, Joe wore a ball cap featuring the embroidered silhouette and name of the U.S. Navy destroyer he served aboard, Charles H. Roan.

To know something about Joe, one needed to know something about destroyermen. To know something about destroyermen, one needed to know something about destroyers

Unlike larger surface warfare ships of the era such as cruisers or battleships, destroyers such as Roan were built with no defensive armor whatsoever. A destroyer’s defense was its speed and agility, and it was understood by all who sailed in them that to take a hit in battle, be it by missile, naval gunfire or torpedo, meant that you would likely be killed either by the blast itself, drowning, or a horrible scalding from superheated steam.

The destroyer’s size and lack of protection earned them the nickname of Tin Can.  And those who sailed aboard Tin Cans were graced with the title of Tin Can Sailors.

Sleek and graceful, the destroyer’s speed and offensive capability gave Tin Can Sailors a certain sense of esprit de corps.

On a Tin Can, one couldn’t rely on armor for protection. Sailors could only count on the skill of the captain and the competence of their shipmates to stay alive.

It is from this heritage that Joe exuded a sense of salty experience.

Joe’s grease stained work clothes belied the fact that he was a talented engineer, unrivaled by most in his seasoned knowledge of things mechanical.

Unsung heroes of America’s twentieth century industrial age, engineers like Joe were a breed apart, a unique fusion of inventor, engineer and mechanic.

 When considering the engineering feats of Joe’s generation I do so with respectful admiration. Once considered the marvels of their day, most are now forgotten or taken for granted. Precision machines and landmark structures that have performed flawlessly for tens of decades all had been conceived, designed and constructed well before the advent of computer aided design or automated construction techniques.

Perhaps most impressive of all was that the mathematical calculations and technical hurdles that needed to be worked out during the design and construction of such machines and structures were solved by men like Joe using nothing more than their cerebral cortex, a sharp pencil and a slide rule.

 With all of this in mind, I knew that crewing with Joe would be a windfall of knowledge.  Joined by only one other person, Joe, Troy and I arranged to meet every Wednesday night during the summer and fall. Once a week without fail, dry weather or pouring rain, we boarded Fox, andcarefully worked our way out through the forest of masts towards the open water.

As we cruised into the inky blackness, the broad white expanse of Fox’s foredeck seemed to glide effortlessly over the virgin water beneath us, leaving behind a frothy green wake softly illuminated by our stern light.

What my crewmate and I experienced on those mid-week evenings proved to be much more than repetitive maneuvers and the bland application of theory. With Joe as our instructor, we had been challenged to discover not only the limitations of Fox,but ourselves.

Although Fox was a relatively large vessel, I became comfortable being at the helm once I developed a feel for her. I had handled a steel vessel before and quite a few fiberglass boats but hadn’t helmed a wooden craft since I was a teenager.

A wooden boat has a different feel from a vessel with a fiberglass hull and cuts through the water differently. Fiberglass boats have a certain plastic hollowness not found in wooden craft, especially an older boat like Fox. The wood itself being an organic material offers a level of shock and sound absorbing quality unfound in other boat building materials.

Out of all the exercises and drills we would complete during these demanding cruises the one I looked forward to the most was docking. For me, docking was the real test of one’s ability. Here was the litmus test that would display, in front of all others, whether you knew what you were doing, or you didn’t.

Our boat slip within the crowded marina was in the worst possible spot. Intended for a boat somewhat smaller than Fox, the slip was bordered by a disintegrating retaining wall featuring jagged protrusions of steel. The bowsprits and overhanging anchors of sailboats stuck out from adjacent slips like menacing barbs.

Even in calm weather, backing Fox into her slip required skill and un-compromised focus.  Added to this were the variables of current, wind, and impaired visibility due to darkness and or driving rain.

To make things more challenging, the docking area opposite Fox’s slip was used for various boats waiting to be serviced by the yard. Therefore, the procedure you used to dock her last week would not apply this week because there was now a different boat that stuck out twice as far as the boat that was there last week.

One advantage at least, was the fact that Fox was powered with twin engines, giving her the ability to be spun around in a circular area roughly equal to her length. Newer vessels of similar size are often equipped with a bow thruster, greatly simplifying the task of maneuvering in tight quarters.

The helmsman needed to be ever mindful of any current within the channel that would carry Fox in the direction of the water flow. Especially when positioned broadside to the current, Fox presented a large underwater area to be worked against.

No less a consideration was the wind. Like the current running beneath her, the large mass presented by Fox’s topsidesbecame a large sail area to be blown upon, driving her downwind and unforgivingly onto anything in the way.

It was therefore the helmsman’s task to accurately assess any and all factors affecting his craft, and the formulation of a plan designed to compensate for the anticipated effects of such factors. Another important element to be added to the sum of those already considered was the variable of the operator’s emotional state.

Imagine for a moment that you are at the helm, ready to make your approach toward the end of a narrow channel lined on either side by jagged protrusions not unlike the jaw of a barracuda. At the end of the channel, your task is to smartly bring her about and place her, stern first, into her slip.  From the upper helm station, you look down and see crew standing with lines ready for the throw when the boat is in the proper position to tie up. Depending on the season, and time of day, there will usually be other people on the dock and on the decks of surrounding boats, all who are about to witness your docking technique.

Having made your assessment and plan of action, you begin your approach. The twin transmissions’ controls are skillfully handled back and forth. But somehow you have misjudged the force of the wind and now find yourself bearing down onto the protruding bow anchor of another vessel. Your attempt to make corrections have little effect and you realize you are rapidly losing control of the situation. As your anxiety and heart rate escalate, your judgment slips away. Each move you make at the helm seems more desperate and abortive than the one before. In a matter of seconds, you are upon the bow of the other boat and the crew scrambles to avoid a collision with the menacing anchor, and serious damage to either or both vessels.

Even if a collision with the other boat had been narrowly avoided, you might find yourself suffering a degree of panic at this point, made worse by all the eyes now focused directly upon you.  I have seen many a person crack under the pressure during this exact scenario, the helmsman’s expression revealing a sort of shocked terror.

I will never forget the panic I felt as a teenager one rain swept afternoon when I came close to losing one of my limbs aboard a sailboat off Execution Rocks. Inexperienced and overconfident, I had sailed recklessly into a situation I simply was not prepared to deal with.

And that was the central theme that carried through all of Joe’s instruction, the importance of preparedness.

There was another lesson though; passed on to me by Joe during those dark and rainy nights, that has since transcended any practical application on the water.

Before making that final approach down to the end of the channel where I would then back Fox into her slip, Joe encouraged me to take the time to make a proper assessment of the situation in its entirety. With the boat in neutral, I took a good look around. Were there any flags or pennants flying? What direction were they fluttering in? What clues were there as to the direction of the current? Was the boat drifting on its own without the application of power? What was my “Plan A” for dealing with the cluster of boats ahead? My “Plan B?”

Joe coached me to forget about everything else but the task at hand. Never mind that the entire crew was eager to tie up and go home. Never mind the voyeuristic onlookers who were now watching. Never mind the fact that the gash in the side of the hull from your last mistake had just been repaired at considerable expense. Never mind that your reputation as someone competent or incompetent was on the line at that very moment.

With Fox still idling in neutral, a final review: Current: check. Wind: check. Plan of action: check.  Both engines: ahead.  Now moving forward, I headed Fox down the gauntlet towards sweet victory or the agony of defeat.

Fortunately, with Joe’s patient instruction and much practice I eventually learned how to handle Fox. Aboard her, as well as with other vessels that followed her, I have generally been able to dock successfully on the first pass, achieving sweet victory.   

In the case of defeat however, I have noticed that the problem many people run into is not so much that their set up was flawed, but that in the stress of the moment they become locked into a sort of tunnel vision, desperately trying to recover from what is now clearly past fixing. No longer able to think rationally, some keep trying to futilely maneuver when what they really need to do is back away, calm down, assess what just happened, and come up with a better “set up” before making another approach.

And therein lay the wisdom of what Joe was trying to tell me. Instead of frantically hanging on, remaining futilely committed, fixing and re-fixing that which turned out to be based on a bad set up, have the guts to back off, re-assess the situation and make a new approach that makes sense based on what you just learned.    

Now, all of this may seem to be nothing more than common sense. I can only say that from my own observations, be they from the deck of a boat, in sessions with clients, or life in general, I routinely encounter those who suffer from a continued investment in failed enterprise. Failed even by their own criteria, they cannot seem to let go.

In a downward spiral, as one throws more and more resources at a failed endeavor, the more one rationalizes its worth and continued investment.

Inevitably, to assuage one’s own ego, a certain level of irrational, or fantasy thinking becomes required in order to justify the whole mess.

Now hung up on hooks of their own making, people needlessly suffer due to their stubborn refusal to admit to any sort of defeat, even if it means that their relentless determination to win that particular battle might cost them the whole war.

Joe’s lesson embraces the axiom that there is a time for persistence and a time for un-hesitating adaptability. Put another way, you have to know when to apply more throttle, and when to back off.

Too many people see it as an intolerable loss of esteem to admit that they made a mistake, especially when so much time and effort has already been expended on it.

While some desire to appear strong by repeatedly hammering away at something, their purpose might better be served by having the wisdom and courage to back down, taking a deep breath, reassessing the task at hand, and having the guts to try again.

Joe might be surprised to learn that I have adapted his wise lessons of seamanship to many I have counseled, especially since the majority of these persons will, in all likelihood, never set foot aboard a boat.

Like all of the exceptional people God has chosen to grace my journey, Joe will always remain within my mind’s eye. I can hear him now, mumbling through that damned cigar:  OK Art, put her in reverse and back clear…now go to neutral.  Take a deep breath and calm down. Forget what all those jerks on the dock are saying about you right now…it doesn’t matter. Take the time you need to re-assess the situation; don’t be intimidated into making a move too soon. Remember, YOU are at the helm. When you are ready, put her in gear and TRY AGAIN.