North Coast Journal


by Miv Schaaf

Sublime moments, sinking rowboats

When I think of utterly idyllic moments, I do not think of wine at a sidewalk cafe on Boulevard Saint-Germain, or walking through springtime meadows in the Alps, or having tea at Claridge's.

I think of no foreign exotica at all; I think of a rowboat, just a rowboat. You'd think I could at least dream up a small schooner or a modest yacht if not a three-master, but no, they give way, like feathers on the water, to the blunt prow of your common, ordinary, everyday rowboat. Not so common either, for you see few in California.

It is years since I have sat in a rowboat, yet the woody realness of it is as hard as ever. There is nothing that seems as natural to me, as comfortable, as right, as sitting in a rowboat - I feel I know it; I feel it accepts me.

It doesn't even matter if it's in the water. I have enjoyed many a peaceful hour just sitting in a rowboat abandoned on high dry sand, its thick wooden gunwales, long wind-cleaned of paint by blowing sand, slowly turning to that sun-silvered softness, that color-leached smoothness that only time, sun and air give to wood. The oar locks are still squarely firm, ready for the strong pull, the iron squeak of oars again, but a rib or two rots into the sand - see, there is a small hillock of grass growing on one.

Between the ribs tar awakens to glisten. Melting a little at noon, it acquires a new sifting of sand, hardens as whippoorwills swoop to carve the twilight in the birch trees on the high bank, is asleep again before the loons come out to crease the night lake with their cries.

If there is any pleasant retirement, it must be that of such a landlocked rowboat, slowly settling into sand, resting in its old age.

In the water, of course, a rowboat has a different life altogether. I have never been in a rowboat that does not leak - that is part of the charm. You watch with unhurried, bemused interest the triangle of water caught in a corner of the rib and floorboard slowly enlarge to reach out and touch your toe.

You row a little longer, ship the oars, lie back with closed eyes to take a little sun, then reach behind you for the coffee can and begin a little leisurely bailing. Slooop - out it pours, a rather gray stream from the merry silver can - ploop it goes into the lake. If it is Higgins Lake in northern Michigan, it seems a shame to pour dirty water into such crystal greenness, but what is one to do?

Some intuitive estimate, rather than hard experience, gives you a mental timetable on the sinking capacities of rowboats. (Higgins Lake is so shallow, never over your knees unless you are right out in the deep middle where Mother never lets you go anyway, that you don't worry at all.)

A fairly tight rowboat with only one bottom leak can take a good two hours to sink if you sit carefully. The sinking part is awfully fun, although cries of the drowning doomed (my twin brother Marc and me) rouse our collie Lindy to a frenzy of barking.

You don't sink more than once or twice a summer, however, for getting the rowboat back to shore - is there anything heavier than a boat full of water underwater? - bailed out, hauled on shore, turned over and dried out is terribly hard.

Worth it though - you have to expect to pay a price for utterly idyllic moments.


Miv Schaaf, now a Fieldbrook resident, wrote a column, Things, twice a week for 15 years for the L.A. Times


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