The Old Man And The Fishing Boat

By Rich Morris

In honor of Father's Day, a son pays homage to the man who quietly instilled his love of the water.

Photo of the author with his dad and sister, setting out from Ship Bottom, New Jersey

The day was perfect, 15 knots of wind and calling for a glorious weekend. The Morgan Out Island's genoa was full and taut, the mainsail a nearly perfect airfoil. We were close-hauled about 10 miles southeast of Atlantic City, and I was driving the heavy boat hard and loving the ride. It was May 1975, and I had the perfect summer job from college. I worked for a marina out of Brigantine, New Jersey, and was crewing for an orthodontist and his young family, a long weekend cruise to Cape May and back.

As captain of my college sailing team, I was pretty full of myself when it came to sails and stuff. I was sure that if we could hold our heading, we'd make Absecon Inlet around 6 p.m. Then, we could motor to the dock while enjoying a perfect sunset. The doctor was steering, and while we were chatting, he asked me if my whole family were sailors. I said no, my sister sailed a little, but my father was a fisherman. He pressed on, curious to hear how I'd built my world around a sport without a family history.

My father loved the sea and boats, I told him, but he's always loved the thrill of the deep-sea hunt more. His 30-foot Ulrichsen, Wanderer, was well-known as a fishfinder. You could hear the chatter on the radio when he hit the inlet, with people guessing where he was going, boats following at a respectful distance. If I decided to sneak out on the bay and bottom-fish some afternoon, I'd have to get on the radio and explain that Dad was not aboard, because an armada would form behind me. The boats would disperse, leaving me to look fruitlessly for fish. My father was the fish hawk, not I.

When I was small, my dad worked two jobs, teaching physical education in the Philadelphia school district, and moonlighting as a sporting goods salesman. Most times I wouldn't see him from Sunday night until Saturday morning because of the hours he kept. When I was 6, he brought home a new product, a Styrofoam boat with a sail. It was 11 feet long, and he'd paid 50 bucks for it, with his discount. I was thrilled! No one knew anything about sailing at our house, but Dad had noticed that when I was on Wanderer, I loved watching the sailboats more than the power craft.

After we rigged the small boat on the grass, I sat in it for hours dreaming of what it would feel like on the water. My family nicknamed my penchant for doing this "corn going," a mix of "Hornblower," sailing the cape in my head, but actually being in a field on a boat.

Photo of the author with his first small sailboat

On Sundays, his day off, my dad would throw the boat on top of the car and take me to one of the little ponds around our home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Then he'd rig the boat, put me in, and push me off like a little toy. I'd sail across the pond, ground on the other shore, and dad would stroll around, turn the boat, and push me off again. I'd do that for an hour or so, then he'd load us back up and we'd go home. Eventually I figured out how to turn, and soon I was sailing around in the tiny ponds. I got pretty good at tacking, so my father would bring a lawn chair, and sit and watch, puffing on his pipe while I sailed to Jamaica or England, or wherever my imagination took me. I loved those sails, and my dad seemed to love them, too.

As I was dreamily recounting my story, the doctor was paying attention. I imagined he was wondering how he could do the same for his two kids, playing down below. He wanted them to love sailing as much as he did. As we continued to talk and I told him more about my dad, I noticed a blue speck to seaward. Over the next hour or so, I watched as the speck, a fishing boat, grew larger and larger, obviously heading to the inlet, too. It was moving slowly, a blue lapstrake hull with nautical white trim, the outriggers set and trolling. As the fishing boat rolled and yawed along, I knew this boat would be the perfect ending for the story I was weaving for the doctor. With a little course adjusting, our sailboat would pass above the fishing craft, on almost parallel courses, allowing us to see into the cockpit.

Photo of the author looking up a the sails

As I continued to talk about my father and his fishing prowess, the doctor interrupted me to point out the boat we were approaching. We crossed his path about 400 yards behind him, far enough to avoid the lines, and then I bore down a little to stay close. The orthodontist became a little fidgety, as we were on a fine reach, footing past the boat. He didn't want to upset anyone on such a perfect day, and I assured him that there would be no problem. As we drew nearer, we could see the lone fisherman, puffing on a pipe, with the wheel lashed in place, four lines out, and a pole in his hands. This was my father, of course, in his element, as happy as I'd ever seen him. He was pumping a line for effect, and his face broke into a huge grin when he saw the sailboat approaching. He waved with his free hand.

A Perfect Sunset

The doctor called to his children below to come up, and his wife woke up from her nap on the foredeck. The doctor and his family shouted their greetings to my dad, and he asked them good-naturedly if I was taking care of them all right. "He's been a wonder!" said the doctor's wife. "You should be proud!" My father beamed with happiness.

Photo of the author sailing a small sailboat

For years my dad would recount that oceanic meeting, telling his friends how proud he was of his son. I'd laugh, and we'd talk of each being where he belonged. Sometime during the ensuing years, I came to really appreciate how my dad had taught me to sail without knowing how himself. He never said much, except to comment when I threw a tack well and the boat kept moving, or survived a jibe without going in. But he was there, and I was there, in a safe environment, with plenty of support, and when those factors are present, almost anything can grow.

My father passed away shortly after celebrating his 80th birthday, but at some point in my life before that, it had finally occurred to me that after all those years of him being proud of me that day, I'd been just as proud of him. Thankfully, I was able to share this essay with him before he left us, just to let him know. He said he already did. 

Rich and his wife Lisa live in central Florida and have two grown children and three grandchildren. He holds a United States Coast Guard captain's rating and has sailed and run powerboats professionally, up and down the Eastern Seaboard. He cruised Julia Elisa, a 33-foot Morgan Out Island, for 12 years all over eastern Florida before making the transition to a 41-foot trawler, Wanderer II, named after his late father Roy Morris' fishing boat.

— Published: June/July 2013

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