About five years ago, when I needed to make room for another boat in the garage, I moved one of my Greenland kayaks out and tucked it under the eaves on the north side of my house. It wouldn’t be as well protected there as it had been in the garage, but it would be out of the sun and only occasionally subject to rain. Perched with its bow resting on a downspout and the aft deck on a bracket clamped to the power meter’s conduit, the kayak’s cockpit crossed the windows of my study and its stern hung over the back door. While it was never out of view, it was soon out of mind.
While I “saw” the kayak several times a day, I’ve been blindered by routine and paid no more attention to it than I did the gutter above it. One dim gray afternoon this winter, a patch of color caught my eye and I finally took notice of the kayak. Half of its starboard side was no longer white but a mottled olive green where it had been hit by the rain. In that moment, I was struck by an ache for how forlorn the kayak looked. In The Wind in the Willows, when Mole first saw Rat’s boat, his “whole heart went out to it at once,” but while Mole had been moved by a boat’s beauty, I felt sadness for the kayak’s sorry state. Perhaps there is something inherent in a boat, no matter its state, that can evoke feelings normally reserved for living beings.
Beneath the kayak, in the meager shelter of the same eave, lie a snow shovel, a spade, leaf and garden rakes, and a lawn edger. They are all showing the effects of exposure to the weather—rust, peeling varnish, wood turned leaden gray—but “forlorn” has never come to mind when I see them. While I can let my yard and garden tools deteriorate to the point where I’d discard them and buy new ones, I couldn’t let that happen to the kayak. Even though I had no use for the kayak, as I did for the tools languishing on the walkway below it, to let all that work done with care by hand come to an end through neglect was unconscionable.
I set up a ladder and climbed up to take a closer look at the kayak. Along the sheer the canvas skin had pulled apart in a jagged 18″ tear, revealing the still-blond spruce gunwale beneath it. When I peeked into the hull through the cockpit opening, I expected to find a bird’s nest but saw instead a paper-wasp nest the size of a cantelope hanging from the keelson in the stern. I counted that as lucky—the wasps hadn’t made a mess of the kayak as nesting birds surely would have.
The frame was in very good shape, and the warm scents of oak and spruce filled the hull’s interior even in the cold winter air. The mortise-and-tenon joints between the deckbeams and the gunwales were as snug as they had been when I’d made them, and even the pencil marks I had made on the gunwale at those joints were still dark and sharp.
The kayak’s canvas skin and braided seine-twine lashings were materials I had stopped using decades ago when I switched to nylon and artificial sinew. Seeing the seine twine, I found I couldn’t remember building or paddling the kayak. I went to my study and checked some 30-year-old photos of kayaks I’d built, but the one under the eave didn’t appear in any of them. All of my other boats have histories that deepen my connections to them, but the absence of that connection didn’t diminish the feeling I had that this kayak deserved better.
I’d once had the same feeling for a boat that wasn’t even mine. A few years ago, a handsome 14′ cedar-on-oak lapstrake rowing skiff sat strapped to a trailer parked on the street a block from my home. It had no cover, and through the fall and winter rains it often filled with so much water that I feared the weight would tear the hull apart. That boat certainly deserved better. After a spell of rain, I’d walk to the boat with a 10′ length of garden hose and set it up as a siphon to empty it. The skiff survived the winter and disappeared in the spring. I never knew who built it or who rowed it.
While people may feel affection for inanimate objects—cabins, cars, furniture, works of art—what designers and builders put into boats make them unique. On the water, a boat gives back what it is given on land. And for boaters, being on the water requires trust of a kind that isn’t required of anything on land; it is easier, perhaps, to put that trust in something we feel is more than a senseless object.
The kayak will come down from the eaves and get the care it deserves. New Year’s Day is a celebration of what lies ahead, and my kayak has served as a reminder for me to see without blinders and to give attention to those easily overlooked, forgotten, and left behind.