The Boat That Didn’t Die

By Tom Neale, 10/3/2013


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

She was a log canoe and I found her lying on the shore of the marsh after a hurricane. It'd been a particularly strong storm and she was washed far in from the water. I knew they hadn't built log canoes for a long time and this must be a very special lady. When I parted the marsh weeds around me and stepped out on the riverbank and saw her, I stared in amazement. Some log canoes were built out of one huge log from one huge ancient tree. But those hadn't been seen for a long time, at least not by many of us. Others had been built by adding logs together after carefully shaping them to fit. They were beautiful creations. This log canoe was one of those. The more tawdry log canoes had been joined together by metal bolts, sometimes galvanized, sometimes not, always rusted into nothing. This boat hadn't been put together like that. There was no rust running down her sides. There wasn't the mess of orange granules of metal that you see down in the bilge when a boat has rotten spikes and rotten bolts. While you could see the separate logs, the boat seemed to be one solid massive structure. And I knew why. She was built with pegs. They would have expanded with the moisture and the years. As the boat worked they would have worked and become one with the logs.

Old boat melding with the marsh border=
Old boat melding with the marsh.

There was only one little problem. This boat was old. This boat had worked more than any boat should. It had worked to gather and transport seafood, it had worked carrying cargo and people, and it had worked its timbers as it did all this work. You could tell that she was old before you even saw her. You could smell that smell of rotten wood and salt water and mud that had soaked into the logs over many generations. To me it was a good smell. To others it just meant another rotten boat. You could also smell the smell of an old engine. For when I first looked in I saw an old one lunger diesel sitting there, low in the bilge; rusting badly. The black oil that had been seeping from her over the decades now permeated the wood. This also smelled good if you loved old boats. It was the smell of a working boat. I dreamed that maybe I could get that engine running again. But there was no crank to see if she would turn over, and it's probably a good thing because the compression relief valve was frozen solid. If I had a crank, and if I'd been able to move the piston, I probably would've broken my arm. So I sat in the boat, surrounded by the smells of rotting wood and oily wood, dreaming and planning.

I came to the realization that she was my boat because I had found her abandoned and no one came to claim her. I told people in the town what I had found, but they just said, "You know what you've got boy?" And no one seemed interested. So I began to make some plans. My first plan was to build a cabin on the bow so I could sleep in the boat. I quickly thought better because, after all, the boat smelled — some would say stank — and I didn't want to come home smelling like that. I don't think my mother would've liked it. My second plan was to clean up the boat. It was a good idea and I trudged through the marsh bringing buckets and soap and brushes and heavy rags. Of course I couldn't carry in freshwater; the walk was long, the mud in the marsh was deep and the water would've been very heavy. And I knew this was going to take a lot of water and a lot of soap. So when I got to the boat I filled up the bucket with brown water from the river's edge. I got down on my knees in the bilge and started scrubbing with a brush. I knew there was a lot of dirt coming out; I could see it on my brush. But the wood that I was scrubbing didn't seem to be getting any cleaner. And, interestingly, it seemed to hollow out. A concave area appeared where I had been vigorously scrubbing. I looked again at my brush and found that there was more than dirt on it; there was also rotten wood. This wasn't good. I was scrubbing a hole in my new old boat. But there was something even more alarming.

Tom's Tips
Tom's Tips On Restoring Old Boats

1. Many people do this and find great joy in the process, but then find they're not interested in using the boat because they've burnt themselves out or for other reasons.

2. There's nothing wrong with this ... whatever turns you on. Maybe you can sell it and do another.

3. But never underestimate this job. Even fiberglass boats may have rotten timbers that support the glass, the replacement of which can necessitate cutting out and then restoring the glass.

4. Unless you're really good at all the skills required and own or want to buy the necessary tools, consider getting a pro to help you with at least certain phases of the job. A faulty restoration could cause injury or worse, and you want to have fun.

Click Here for More Tips

As I sat there watching this hollowed out area, I noticed that water was seeping into it. "Oh no," I thought. "I've scrubbed a hole in the bottom of my boat and she's going to sink." But then I remembered that the tide was low and that even if the tide was high the boat was far up beyond the high tide line on dry ground. I looked over the side hoping I was wrong. I wasn't. But where was the water coming from? As I watched, the answer to this question dawned on me. It wasn't an answer I wanted. My log canoe was totally and thoroughly waterlogged. There was so much water in the timber that it was seeping out.

My plan had been to wait for the next extra high tide. This could come from a nor'easter, new moon, full moon, or tropical storm. I had hoped that any of these could have made my boat float again. Now I had my doubts. But she had floated in there on the last storm, hadn't she? She hadn't been there for long. I would've seen and known about this ancient boat from the past. I would have smelled her as I passed near, even if I hadn't seen her. Could she be a phantom boat? I couldn't understand this riddle, but I decided not to worry about it. I decided to just wait for the next very high tide, and hope.

We heard the news on the old AM radio in our house. A tropical storm was blowing in from the southeast. This storm was expected to move right up the bay and bring a lot of northeasterly wind and a lot of water. This was going to be my chance. I trudged through the marsh in the growing storm with lines and anchors. I anchored her carefully. I rigged the anchors so that they would hopefully hold her off the shore this time, and also so that they would keep her from blowing away from me. My lines were strong and the anchors were good ones. I knew I had to get out of the marsh before the storm came. I sloshed back through the rising waters, my boots filling with every step. I had considered staying on the boat to ride out the storm. But then I thought, suppose she really doesn't float. Suppose she is too waterlogged. And what would my parents think? I waited anxiously during the storm and when it was clear the next day I walked back down to my boat. I hadn't needed the anchors at all. The boat still sat there; it had not moved an inch. The anchor lines were still slack. I could tell that water had come completely over the boat and washed in debris. It dawned on me hard and heavy. My log canoe was nothing more than rotting wood and dirt. It still held its original lines from the past, but it was growing into the marsh, melding into that from where it had come.

All too soon, summer ended and I had to go back to school. Early in the fall another tropical storm blew through. The tides rose high as the northeasterly gale blew down the bay. I wondered about my rotting boat that I had left, both dying and living at the same time. Finally I got to go back out and take a look one late fall weekend. She wasn't there. I couldn't understand how the storm had taken her. The wise grown-ups on the shore, the ones who never walked in the marsh, the ones who never sat in old boats, the ones who never dreamed of making old boats new, all told me that she had just washed away in the storm. Maybe so. But as I walked away, I tripped over something hard. It was that old one-lunger, half buried in the mud, half covered by the grass.



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