A Boat (Owner’s) Life

The saying goes that the two best days of a boat owner’s life are the day of purchase and the day it’s sold.

Over the past nine months, Josh’s incredible wooden cutter, Syrinx, sat patiently in the Berkeley marina while Josh and I sailed Far to Mexico and lived aboard in warmer waters. Before I met Josh, the only thing I knew about wooden boats was what my dad used to joke: You know what the problem with a wooden boat is? It’s made out of wood.

Even as a newbie to sailboats, Syrinx caught my eye. Creamy-colored freeboard, polished cabin with round portlights, and dark green lines slice through the water under the cutter rig: a main sail and two forward sails, one anchored at the end of her prominent bowsprit and the other on deck.

Josh at the helm of Syrinx in San Francisco Bay.

Josh at the helm of Syrinx in San Francisco Bay.

 

Syrinx is a 1984 Lyle Hess-designed Bristol Channel Cutter built by Tony Davis under the tutelage of Arno Day. Who are these guys?

At 20 years of age, college just “wasn’t working out” for the young Tony Davis, so his dad made an agreement with Arno Day. Arno was building sturdy and striking lobster boats on Deer Isle in Maine, and Tony’s dad would pay him the money he set aside for Tony’s college tuition if Arno would take this kid on. Three years later, a pile of white oak became a polished sailboat. The man who sold Tony the plans for the boat, Lyle Hess, called it “magnificent,” from the Latin magnificor, meaning “doing great deeds.”

Josh bought Syrinx in 2010 at the insistence of his friend, Burke, who desperately sought the best owner for her. Burke saw in Josh the skill, careful eye, and love for (wooden boat) sailing that would mean that Syrinx could be on the water. I met Josh when both of our boats were hauled out for work. This tall, lanky guy with wire rim glasses and an aura of friendly calm smiled at me from under the hull of his shiny wooden boat as my mom and I walked around the yard. As I learned more about the history of Syrinx, it was amazing to me that this laid-back young man was the owner of a lauded work of art. But young sailors were her history, after all. The boat world is full of crotchety old dudes with money to spend on pretty boats. They have tales and advice to recount from the long-past days of sailing (if you don’t believe me, go set up shop in a boatyard for a couple months.) But Josh and Syrinx defied this trend not only with his youth and honed skill as he cared for her curves, but also as he took her out to play.

Syrinx flying upwind through the chop.

Syrinx flying upwind through the chop.

 

Josh could often be found with his leg balanced over the tiller, out in the Bay.

Josh could often be found with his leg balanced over the tiller, out in the Bay.

 

On my first sail on Syrinx, we left the Berkeley marina before dawn, catching a cold, windy ride on the rising sun to San Francisco’s city front. We picked up Josh’s friends Lowell, Jocelyn, and a bunch of Jocelyn’s family, old and young, and we took Syrinx under the Golden Gate Bridge (at times going backwards from the tide) and into the swirling mess of ocean outside the bridge. She plowed through the powerful mire where other sailboats had to turn and flee. Josh, Lowell, Jocelyn and Syrinx swept around in a nearby cove, playing the currents and winds together as we dropped and retrieved crab pots in a chaotic ballet of lines, pots, sails, and family members. It was a whirlwind to me as I labored at the main sheet and we spun through the pots. Jocelyn’s parents, despite their silent terror (which they confessed later), were committed to catching crabs, and her mom had her steely sights set, fear be damned. Turns out Vietnamese moms are SERIOUS about food. As the tide started to shift, I suggested (demanded) we not fight the tide again under the bridge, and we took our 9 handsome crabs back into the Bay. As we sailed San Francisco’s waterfront, we munched on marinated quail and other delicious food prepared by Jocelyn’s boisterous family. We dropped everyone off and turned Syrinx east. Sailing home in a blazing sunset, exhausted, Josh and I couldn’t stop grinning.

Jocelyn and Lowell, people that define delightful.

Jocelyn and Lowell, people that define delightful.

The whole family on the deck in San Francisco.

The whole family on the deck in San Francisco.

The old Bay Bridge making way for the new on the way home to Berkeley.

The old Bay Bridge making way for the new on the way home to Berkeley.

 

Josh and I had many adventures on Syrinx, including an unintended night sail and spontaneous sleepover at Jack London Square, and a howling downwinder from Sausalito to Berkeley. We lived aboard her tiny space in a quirky marina in Alameda. When underway, I loved to sit in the hammock under her bowsprit, inches above the water, watching her bow cut through the Bay with three sails flying. Her bowsprit always sparkled as she plunged into the sea. Syrinx and Josh taught me a lot about sailing, and I think she taught Josh a lot about living.

Syrinx sails.

Syrinx sails.

 

A cold, early morning through the backwaters of Oakland, one of Syirnx's adventures.

A cold, early morning through the backwaters of Oakland, one of Syirnx’s adventures.

 

Uly was adept at vaulting up and down the ladder from the settee in Syrinx. He also didn't mind being head level with the humans.

Uly was adept at vaulting up and down the ladder from the settee in Syrinx. He also didn’t mind being head level with the humans.

 

As we prepared for our 2+ year adventure on Far, Josh carefully weighed his future with Syrinx. Ultimately, he decided that a wooden boat cannot and should not sit in a slip for two years. When Lowell, the adventurous crabber on board that day under the gate, heard that Josh was thinking of selling, he negotiated with Josh to buy the boat. When we returned to Berkeley in May, Josh and Lowell spent hours together going through the boat, and three weeks later, Josh signed the bill of sale. Syrinx is in the hands of another incredibly competent young man excited to learn from her.

As we sat in the warm evening breeze in the cockpit of Far last night, thousands of miles from Berkeley, Josh confessed that he had been silently processing letting the boat go. Before now, he had only expressed relief that Syrinx was in good hands that weren’t his. But, Josh proceeded thoughtfully, he liked being not just a boat owner, but a wooden boat owner. His projects on Syrinx were slow, methodical, and with a constant and cautious eye to maintaining her aesthetic. He’s carried that thoughtfulness to Far, and he gestured to the mockup he made for the future bimini (that shades the cockpit) above our heads. In this way, Syrinx endowed him with a lifelong respect and alertness to history and the details therein, whether visual, practical, or both.

Coffee on Syrinx's teak decks in Alameda.

Lovely decks, lovely mornings: coffee on Syrinx in Alameda.

 

An image of her hull under construction sits quietly on the cover of Wooden Boat magazine in 1985, and a long article weaves the beginning of her story. The image belies what would be her sturdy prowess in the sea, but it speaks to the education that built both Tony Davis, the young student, and Syrinx from her creation.  In the article in Wooden Boat, the author concludes,

“What a liberal education is supposed to do, after all, is to bring one along somewhat in one’s possession of a great tradition–call it the humanistic tradition of western civilization, or call it simply a culture. It seems to me the tradition that Tony Davis received through Arno, that he now lives in and will no doubt transmit, is a thing very much like that larger tradition, and it’s certainly a resonant part of it. The part . . . contains the whole: a seeker, a mentor, a boat, and then oceans of the world.”

Through her planks and sails, Syrinx transmitted this tradition to Josh. I imagine that the seeker, the mentor, and the boat float together on the tides, filling different roles as they all move from the slip, boatyard, bay, and sea. Because of this wise young boat, Josh gets to be the whole: the seeker, the mentor, Syrinx, Far, and the oceans of the world.

Sailing is more than hoisting sails and watching the wind: it contains a deep history of exploration, suffering, and adventure on a vast area of the planet still largely unknown. Syrinx was built by and for the young, the ambitious, and the gently bold. May she continue on her steady seeking path, bringing her gestalt of lessons and practical beauty to all those she educates. We should all be so lucky to have a Syrinx sail into our harbor, but even more importantly, depart. When the ocean calls, she slips away on the evening tide, and though her sails fade into the horizon, her spirit continues to beckon those who would make their living and life in the deep history of wood, salt, and spray.

Wing on Wing, meeting her future.

Wing on Wing, meeting her future.

One Response to A Boat (Owner’s) Life

  1. Janice Bernauer July 2, 2015 at 7:26 pm #

    Beautifully written as always, but you also brilliantly capture the spirit of Syrinx and of Josh!! Thanks for understanding and expressing it! We’ll miss her too! She’s a very special, really sweet boat!!

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