Underway: On Inheriting a Boat

Written By: Mira  Dougherty-Johnson

How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy.

—Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes


For my grandfather’s ninetieth birthday, we gathered at my brother’s house in Shelter Island. It was June, right after the seventieth anniversary of D-Day. It was also Fathers’ Day, so there were many celebrants. My father, my father’s new wife’s father, my brother, my brother’s wife’s father, my husband Tim. There was a table for food on the recently built deck and a table for sitting. We were late—our sons had a violin recital that afternoon—but the pork was still on the grill, the wine warm from the sun. The cousins jumped on the trampoline at the edge of the sloped yard, a ribbon of golden phragmites just beyond their bobbing heads.

At some point, my grandfather, who is twice a widower, distributed presents. (Let me remember that one in my old age—to give gifts on your own birthday, to proffer and to receive.) The great grandchildren got assortments from the Sag Harbor Variety Store—silver mylar wrapping, generic triple A batteries, green plastic magnifying glasses. There was a big box they were to share, a remote controlled drone. Operated by an app on a smart phone, you can watch the flight video it makes, reduce good shots to stills, post them for the world to see. The grandchildren and some of the older generation got copies of Edmund de Waal’s memoir, The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. My cousin Molly got a paperback, but mine was hardbound, the illustrated edition, and I stuffed it back in the bag it came in quickly before anyone offered to trade.

Last year, my grandfather and I talked about this book while he explained why he was going to bequeath his boat, the XAPA (pronounced Hurrah, means “joy” in Greek), a sleek 45-foot wooden ketch, to his fourteen great-grandchildren. The boat, a Germán Frers design, was built in Buenos Ares in 1957, out of South American mahogany. She has had a full and happy life, racing and cruising, traversing the Atlantic, finding home in the rocky coastline of Greece and the glistening port of Sag Harbor. Right now, she is not seaworthy. Up on blocks in a warehouse in Rock Hall, Maryland, she waits for a complete strip and overhaul. When Frances Ann and I bought the boat, my grandfather said, we took a sabbatical. The boat, my grandfather said, is my netsuke.

It is not the words he used that confused me. Sabbatical, from the Law of Moses, every seventh year the land will go untilled, the debtors and slaves set free. Tim finished his dissertation on American epic poetry during his first sabbatical. And netsuke, I know that one too. During the unit on Japan in Global History, I show my students the big lustrous museum books in the library. We look at pictures of ancient curved swords, helmets made of bamboo, traditional kimonos, and the tiny wood and ivory carvings called netsuke, the ornate button-like toggles that take the shape of humans, rats, even octopi. But how is a boat a netsuke? What do you take a sabbatical from when you live off a family trust?

When we bought the boat, Frances Ann and I, my grandfather said, we took a sabbatical. Yes, you sailed around the Greek Islands for ten years—like Odysseus—before you came home. You chased your dreams—like Quixote. You disappeared, you abandoned. You got very far away from the war and the Air Force and the bomber planes you flew. Perhaps you ran away. Or toward something else, toward something different. A mess in your wake but your bow pointed spiritedly toward more water, more weather.

And yes, your boat, this enormous expensive thing—this puzzle of wood, sailcloth, and line—is somehow akin to de Waal’s vintage collection of miniature, carved creatures. But no one will be able to put this boat in a pocket, twirl it around, feel its precise curves with our fingertips. No one will be able to display this boat in a vitrine in a parlor. We cannot parse this boat between fourteen great-grandchildren. There is no dividing up these boards, this winch, those cleats. Like de Waal’s collection of 264 small antique carvings, though, I think you mean this boat to tell a story. You want something whole to survive. Through this vessel, you want your great-grandchildren to know things, to own a vestige of their past. You are trying to give opportunity, chance. What skills you learned, what pure happiness you had, you are gifting it to them. You want a dynasty of joy, a dispersal of pleasure throughout.

These fourteen great-grandchildren, ages eleven (my oldest son) to just born (my cousin Sierra’s Jasper), are to share the XAPA for perpetuity. During their eighteenth year, each gets sole custody of it, can live and sail on it as they please. A whole year of freedom, a young body, the wide-open sea. And every year, these young boat owners, many of whom have not even met, are to write an account of their goings-on to send to all the rest. It is their tithe. My grandfather’s ninety-first birthday is the first deadline. Every June sixteenth, these distant cousins will tell each other their lives. These letters—a forced annual correspondence, a training ground for reckoning with private history—may well be worth it, but there has been no talk of finances, harboring, or even of learning to sail.

There is something I am trying to take from this. A 45-foot sailboat shared by children who don’t even know each other, who don’t all live off inherited trusts, who don’t yet know how to captain is, in many respects, ridiculous. It holds the potential for more harm than good. And yet I am buffeted by the idea, the intention floating there. This comes from love. It is marred by a history of mistakes, an overwhelming impulse for self-preservation, an innate opposition to the practical world, but it is showing itself here. It is shimmering in the desire for these children to chart their lives, to coil coarse rope in their callused hands, to grip the sun-warmed deck rolling under their feet. It hangs and flickers, invites me to seek out what is good, to steer with a gentle hand, to hold the reins lightly.

Perhaps next year, my grandfather will sail from Maryland back home to Sag Harbor. Maybe next summer, he will navigate the early warming waters of the Chesapeake, the East River, the Sound, and the Peconic Bay in his shining black boat. He will email everyone from his phone as he gets close, and he will be met at the dock by all his childbearing grandchildren, by a bevy of young people with nice cheekbones and pretty teeth. When he alights, he will shout “Huppah!” His patterned espadrilles will lightly touch the shore, his loosely buttoned oxford will flap open in the wind. He will throw his head back and hold out his sunlit arms. We will all step in.