- by Carol Standish
John E. Conway ...
About this time of year most of us begin to doubt our memories of sun-sparkling seas and us upon them, casting “short shadows.” Catboat Summers by John E. Conway (Sheridan House, 224pp, $19.95) is the perfect February book for northern boaters because it restores belief, not only in the existence of the boating season, but the utter joy of it. In this case, “it” is not just boating but boating with family.
In ten endearing chapters, Conway relates cat boating adventures, mostly in Buzzard’s Bay over the past ten years. His crew variously and singly are his two daughters, Abby and Caroline, son Ned and supportive but scarce wife, Christine. The kids become more involved every year and the adventures become more elaborate. Among the many charms of this book is the family photographs which accompany the text. In a variety of sailing and swimming postures, the children and other family members unvaryingly wear wide grins.
Conway’s quirky, self-deprecating humor laces every scene. He calls himself an “addled middle-ager,” the boat, “the family-infected woodpile” or “the old bucket.” The kids all have nicknames according to their function on the boat. Among the most favorite activities aboard are napping and eating. “Hunger [often] took the driver’s seat.” In almost every adventure, homage is paid to the food aboard by way of detailed menus. It’s a big part of the fun.
Buckrammer, the scene of the action is a venerable 24-foot Crosby Catboat, named in the Conway incarnation after an “ over-sized street-smart breed of cat [purportedly] developed by the railroad to counter the rat problem in the South Boston yards.” Conway’s grandparents lived nearby. When the grandchildren visited they were cautioned against approaching these fearsome beasts. Thus, Conway piles his own happy childhood memories into his ample boat.
Needless to say Buckrammer, in her 90s when Conway purchased her in 1993 has to be restored before she’ll float. With a love of woodworking, a basement workshop and a background in engineering, Conway is up to the task. Although well aware of his responsibility as a steward of the antique vessel, he isn’t a fanatic about restoring it to museum quality. His priority is having adventures on her with his crew. The book addresses restoration and maintenance in the form of two appendices, one of sources and the other describing the details regarding “favorite” projects.
Conway messed around in boats as a youngster growing up on Cape Cod. One of the best adventures as an adult on his own boat was taking his parents, sister and two young nephews on an “extended family” picnic. “Experience, both good and bad with my own gang over the years has given me some understanding of how to introduce kids to the pleasures of boating,” he says. So instead of taking them all on a 24 mile sail to Cuttyhunk, he decides to take them a mile or so up the salt-river to a sandbar and deep water hole where swimming would be great. Ten minutes away from their destination, one of the kids asks the “dreaded” question: “are we there yet?”
The swimming (and the food) were great and Conway and his Dad got to instruct the youngsters in the “high art of [swimming] hole jumping...in short order we had passed on to our attentive pupils such legendary jumps as The Geronimo, The Turn Around Wave Bye Bye, The Atomic Cannonball, The Wile E. Coyote and the seldom performed, Holy Cow (don’t ask!).”
Other adventures include Buckrammer’s benighted participation in the tall ships parade in Boston in 2000, several diving and treasure hunting expeditions, explorations of the harbors of the Elizabeth Island chain, an encounter with a ghost ship in the fog, winning the annual Catboat Association race by coming in last and a family visit to the Crosby yard.
When I finished this delightful book I had three wishes, that the book hadn’t ended, that I’d been a Conway kid, and in lieu of either, that summer would hurry up.