My son was late in arriving. Nine months came and went without any stirrings from him. Another week went by. Still nothing. Cindy and I had both taken leave from work and we had time on our hands, so we loaded up the lapstrake decked canoe I’d built and headed for the lake. We had paddled a mile or so and it was then that Nathan, as he would be named, made his move. Contractions had begun, and not long after putting the canoe back in the garage we were on our way to the hospital. My entry into fatherhood the next day was marked by an unforgettable display of color. Nate arrived after a long and difficult delivery and his skin was a luminescent lilac color. Then, with each of the first breaths he drew, he turned, chameleon-like, a pink so radiant that I thought he’d be too hot to touch. Ten days later, we got Nate back out on the water as a newborn, not in the canoe, but in the Chamberlain gunning dory I’d built for my dad. He was a colicky baby, but was soon sound asleep aboard the boat and didn’t make a peep the whole time.

Two years and 11 months later, his sister was also digging her heels in well past the nine-month mark. Believing we’d discovered that the gentle rocking of a canoe was a sure-fire way to induce labor, we headed for the water again. Sure enough, the first contraction arrived while we were paddling in the middle of the lake. Alison, who has always been much bolder than her brother about approaching new and different experiences, was, as the doctor discovered, already locked and loaded when we got to the hospital. We took our infant Ali out on the gunning dory too. She was born in August, the height of blackberry season, so we rowed around the lake picking the berries that grew along the water’s edge. As we passed by one of the lake’s floating homes, the sight of a swaddled baby brought the lady of the house out on the deck.

“My, so tiny!” she said. “When was that baby born?”
“Yesterday,” we replied.

With my father aboard MOLLY MAY, circa 1956

Sound asleep with my father aboard MOLLY MAY, circa 1956

I was too young to remember when my father first took me boating—he is no longer around to tell me—but there is a picture of me wearing a life vest, sleeping against his chest. On the back of that photo, in ink that has faded from black to brown, is written in my father’s hand “sleepy little son.” We were aboard MOLLY MAY, my grandfather’s 31′ cutter, sailing out of Marblehead, Massachusetts, with my grandfather at the helm.

My grandfather, Francis Cunningham Sr., at the helm , sailing out of Marblehead

My grandfather, Francis Cunningham Sr., was usually at the helm when we sailed his 31-footer out of Marblehead.

Although I was steeped in boats while I was growing up, I took them for granted. Dad always had one, but I was more interested in riding my bike, climbing trees, skateboarding, and making explosions with firecrackers, calcium carbide, match heads, or homemade black powder.
In 1978, I was 26 years old when I built by first wooden boat, a Marblehead skiff, but it was as a means to an end: travel under my own steam. I was tired of carrying the heavy loads required of long backpacking trips and frightened by the cars and trucks that I had to share the road with while bicycle touring. When I finished the skiff, it met my expectations: it could haul more weight than I could ever carry and could take me places where I had the waterways all to myself. But when I began cruising in it, sleeping at anchor in a snug cove, cradled in the gentle rocking hull, brought an unexpected and profound sense of comfort and safety. Perhaps it touched upon the sense that all’s right with the world that I felt when I was a child asleep in my father’s arms aboard MOLLY MAY.

I built a few more boats specifically for voyages I wanted to make, but gradually veered away from building boats to take me somewhere, to building boats that were the somewhere. When I built a Caledonia yawl in 2003, I redesigned the interior around sleeping spaces for my children and myself. Nate and Ali would have a nest forward under a fully enclosed dodger, and I’d sleep on a platform in the main cockpit under a canopy that covered the rest of the boat. For several years we took summer cruises in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands and never took a tent nor ever slept ashore. Each night we’d drop the anchor, button up the cockpit, and play games until it was time to sleep. I’d often rise up before them and get underway with an easy row along the shore. Nate and Ali would slowly wake to the rhythm of the oars and the sound of water curdling under the laps. I’d get the galley box out and cook them breakfast in bed—scrambled eggs, pancakes, French toast, or scones.

Ali and Nate enjoyed a Dad-cooked breakfast in bed and were happy to spend the better part of the day and night in their nest in the bow of the Caledonia yawl. The dodger that covers them at night is folded forward for the day.

Ali and Nate enjoyed a Dad-cooked breakfast in bed and were happy to spend the better part of the day and night in their nest in the bow of the Caledonia yawl. The dodger that covers them at night is folded forward for the day.

We were never in a rush to shove miles underneath the keel. Whenever we reached a new island, given the choice of going ashore for lunch or eating on the boat, Nate and Ali always opted to stay aboard, where the floorboards yielded underfoot and the benches rocked when you sat down. Nate and Ali cozied themselves in a nest of pillows and sleeping bags, with everything they needed close at hand. The quarters were tight and we had few luxuries, but we were, as Germans so aptly put it, wunschlos glücklich, wishlessly happy.

Is there something innate in all humans that draws us to give ourselves over to the gentle motion of a small boat in the water, just as we are compelled to stare into a fire’s flickering flames? Or is it something that slips into an infant’s heart in unguarded moments in a father’s arms before falling asleep on a boat? Whatever it is, I am drawn to it still, that gentle rocking that soothed me when I was a child and that awakened in my children the urge to be born.

With Father’s Day in mind, my son Nate and I went for a row in the Whitehall I built in 1983. Thirty-five years had passed since I rowed that boat with my father, Frank Cunningham (1922–2013).Top: John Hartsock, Bottom: Lily Dickens

With Father’s Day in mind, my son Nate and I (bottom photo) went for a row in the Whitehall I built in 1983. Thirty-five years had passed since I rowed that boat (top photo) with my father, Frank Cunningham (1922–2013).