By Nancy Garrison
“Tide’s Turn” first appeared in Curry Arts Journal 1994.
Few within that charmed company would have understood why I hated Jenny, but I loathed her with the considerable venom of a brooding thirteen-year-old, for Jenny had seduced my father.
Not sexually of course; nothing so overt as that, although there were undercurrents of feeling which I could not then comprehend. But, in an important sense, and in a milieu which we both understood, Jenny had bested me in the manner of women, eyes steady, mano a mano, in an atmosphere of competitiveness which we had absorbed from earliest childhood.
The circle in which her family and mine revolved during the nineteen-thirties and –forties focused their lives, as their nineties counterparts still do, upon and around the Nawansett Yacht Club. Sailing was their passion, old or young, and racing was its consummation. Long summers were spent discussing it: training crews, readying boats, plotting the cut of a jib, the balloon of a spinnaker, the relative efficiency of one mainsail against another—and above all the tactics of winning with off-hand sportiveness which effectively sheathes the honed blade of fierce competition. A well-bred fiction prevailed which championed the sport rather than the winner.
The Nowansett Yacht Club sits compactly, snugged back into the northwest curve of the harbor’s edge, looking straight ahead at its sheltering craft within a protected basin. On its left is a small pebbled beach which, in the days before fiberglass bottoms, afforded yachtsmen a convenient venue for hauling and scraping the fouled underpinnings of their racing boards of weed and barnacle. To the right of the clubhouse is a shallow creek and overhanging marsh, its high water level falling barely below the small parking area so that on a full moon tide both beach and marsh are inundated and the tires of members’ cars are lapped with a flotsam of eel grass.
The clubhouse crouches on sturdy pilings well above the flood tide mark, its sloping roof and long gables seeming disproportionately large in the spare shingle style so beloved by Brahmin Yankees at the century’s turn. A single “eye” window studies the harbor unblinkingly from beneath its curved eave and two flagpoles rise decorously from either corner of the porch flying the American flag and the triangle club ensign. Each summer evening as the sunset gun is fired and the Captain strikes the colors, members rise and observe silence for a long moment as the bright descending flags whip restlessly and the brass cannon’s echo reverberates on the water and fades against the granite steadfastness of the breakwater. In this brief seafaring ceremony the daily illusion is perpetuated of shipmates bound together, conjoined and isolated on their vessel of privilege, a select company upon a charmed voyage.
The Yacht Club’s atmosphere and essential character are defined by an ethic of coldwater simplicity, and although the substantial Bostonians who made up its charter member-ship could not have been called humorless, yet they enjoyed their sport with a certain seriousness. Visiting yachtsmen from the less spartan enclaves of Edgartown or Marblehead have frequently been taken aback by its austerity as they row ashore from their guest moorings. The clubhouse contains no restaurant or snack bar; not even a vending machine. Liquor was for many years forbidden on the premises, even at summer dances, inviting ingenious arrangements in automobiles since prohibition days. This stricture has been only recently relaxed by a relenting House Committee and an occasional four-hour license from the Town Fathers.
In its general air of sobriety the club conforms with its setting. Nowansett Harbor is a small one. The channel, which is narrow, demands periodic dredging, and at low water must be navigated with knowing precision. For even the smallest boats under sail it necessitates, in certain wind conditions, consummate skill to avoid running aground. This caveat has shaped, over the years, certain requisite standards for the sailors and lobstermen who daily use this channel. They are a terse and agile brotherhood, at once laconic and good-humored, who will courteously rally to tow a stranger gone aground yet at the same time relish the inaccessibility of their harbor and their own nonchalance in regularly negotiating its approach.
Within such a freemasonry, where the emphasis is unequivocally upon sailing, there is a cheerful but nonetheless rigorous acculturation of its youngest members. Jenny was a graceful extension of this hearty tradition, the very sum of its expectations. Just my age, smiling, wholesome and what is today described as perky, she was as well a formidable sailor. At the age of five she skippered her own Rookie, capsizing it merrily and then setting it straight with great good humor to continue sailing it until dinnertime. By the time she was nine she had her own Herreshoff twelve-footer and the summer she turned thirteen she was racing 110s.
I did not pay much attention to Jenny in those earliest years because she was a “summer person” whose family came down from Boston to their rambling house on Jericho Road only when the sailing season began. During the winter she went to school in Brookline. I was a “year rounder” who lived in Nowansett and went to school there, a shade of difference which held an ineffable significance.
Like Jenny, I had been started on sailing very early because it was my father’s obsession. Our paths diverged, however, some time after we launched and routinely overturned our first Rookies; an exercise designed with the hope—vain in my case—of our acquiring “sea legs.” I thought then as I do now that capsizing Rookies was a stupid pastime. They were uncomfortably hard, damp little bathtubs whipped about by the wind, demanding constant attention to keep afloat. In order to navigate it was necessary to hold the tiller and main sheet in one hand and operate the creaky little centerboard with the other. Not surprisingly they are no longer used to initiate young children.
What I did enjoy was sailing with my father in his sleek Manchester 17 on a mild day with a gentle southeast breeze, lazily trolling for mackerel and talking. I loved the exceptional days when my mother put up a picnic for us of cold chicken and deviled eggs and baked bean sandwiches with the crusts cut off—a family favorite—and my father would pour me a small paper cup full of his Ballantine’s ale which was kept cool below in the bilge. I can still taste the faint bitterness of its bubbles and savor the kinship of drinking this adult treat, we two together. But these were rare occasions. For the most part my father was all business when afloat. He was a fierce competitor who preferred a stern course and a stiff breeze to casual drifting and fishing, who barked orders at a step-lively crew of one—and in that capacity I was not invited to serve. I remember him as a sincerely gracious sport when he had lost a race, yet the fact that he was a nearly perpetual winner surely contributed to his bonhomie.
And so perversely I abandoned serious sailing beyond the Rookie experience, gradually becoming bookish rather than athletic and professed boredom with the Yacht Club life. This sadly aggrieved my father. He felt there was something malcontent about a girl who preferred reading in a hammock to racing, and sketching pictures of boats to sailing them. The summer that I read Jane Eyre, Gone with the Wind, and Wuthering Heights—an orgy of discovery which, while in its throes, left me groggy and oblivious to all else—saw my rebellion solidified. It was 1942 and I was twelve years old. My father was Commodore that year, a position of honor, and he was ashamed to have bred such a misfit. On Labor Day at the annual Chowder Party which marked the official finish of the sailing season, he presided with genial grace presenting the Club’s polished challenge trophies with words of encouragement to competitive youngsters who had accomplished yachting feats in the best tradition, while I sat far back in the crowd munching oyster crackers and pretending not to care. Like all rebels I was sorely torn between following my own way and conforming to curry favor. I adored my father, but I would not follow his passion simply because it was his; and so I was sulky and defensive as mavericks always are, and as school began and fall evenings darkened, the tension at our dinner table became palpable and the air often heavy with suppressed resentment.
In New England’s yachting communities of 1943 the rebirth of April found aficionados stripping paint, caulking teak decks and scraping spars as usual, and in that atmosphere of awakening Jenny presented herself to my father and to me in a new dimension. As friends worked at Osborne’s Boatyard separately and together, families each intent upon their own boat’s needs, trading varnish lore and sandpaper secrets, it was clear that the makeup of our group had undergone a striking sea change: there were no longer young men among us. As summer advanced this dearth asserted itself in terms of racing, and Jenny, the prodigy, gradually took over as crew for my father in the highly competitive Saturday series and the scarcely less intense Sunday meetings. As a team they became invincible—the Commodore and his daughterly crew.
During the next two years I lived drearily with implied comparisons, generally unspoken but tacitly acknowledged. Jenny, who was wholesome, gifted and fun had stepped into the breach to rescue my father’s weekends as his young men went off to war. He gave Jenny a beautiful present to commemorate their time of sailing together. It was a little silver loving cup with an engraved message. I have never known what it said.
Not long afterwards wartime austerity canceled the Yacht Club’s racing schedule. In 1945 I went away to boarding school and in 1947 to college. Father died quite suddenly during my freshman year. I know he loved me in many ways, and there was a cautious happiness in those last years, yet he never really forgave me for not being the sailor daughter of his heart’s core. We lacked the opportunity—or, in our Yankee silence, the will—to resolve this.
For much of my life I have assumed that the bruise I felt when I dwelt upon those wartime Yacht Club summers was the sore chafing of envy and anger toward Jenny. But lately I have come to believe that what I experienced was a gnawing dissatisfaction at myself for being so arbitrary a rebel. The dual forces which characterized my young life were, on the one hand, the lingering need to conform and, on the other, to diverge—not for the sake of divergence as a virtue, but simply because it is the way I am. What I railed against inwardly was my otherness, at the same time knowing and valuing it as I would a rare lens through which my vision takes on a sometime-clarity which would not, I think, otherwise exist. Yet some part of me still hankers to be a bona fide member of that secure sunset-gun ship’s company. There is a far self within who still is one of them and who judges by their standards the contrary girl who was welcome in a select league, but instead turned sulkily away. At last this has come to bother me less and less. The angst I felt was that of an alien, though alien by my own choice.
Father would say I have steered a risky directional course, tacked my way out of the flotilla, willfully sacrificed the enveloping comfort of fellow travelers. Yet would he? Conceivably I have misjudged him. After all, we could not really have known each other. My sadness is that we were never adults together.
A charismatic man of great charm and humor in whom introspection had never been encouraged or developed, my father was above all a creature of action engaged in the sport which was his life’s passion. A conscientious man and loving parent in a generation not noted for the empathetic fathering of daughters, he can be forgiven his exasperation at what must have seemed to him the inexplicably perverse withdrawal of a moody adolescent from the world he valued and loved.
Jenny lives in Palm Springs now. She comes to Nowansett for a month or two each summer to sail and play golf. We’re cordial when we meet at the occasional cocktail party even when she tells me again – as she seems compelled to do – that her dearest possession is the memento my father gave her a long time ago. She is a pleasant woman whose days are encompassed by a circling of social sports, her face tan and lined from a life spent in their sunlit pursuit.
Recently I was asked to present the memorial trophy which wears my father’s name to the young sailor who best exemplifies the kinds of sporting values he so fervently championed. At this annual Chowder Party the present Commodore wished also that I would speak a little about Father and about my memories of the Yacht Club fifty years ago in this, its centennial season.
The friends my family knew then are dispersed to warmer latitudes or have died, but none ever relinquished their deep love of Nowansett. A succession of new sailors have flourished and faded since the sharp-sweet summers of my rebellion. The clubhouse remains changeless in its defiance of time. Fashions in boats have altered: the 210 has replaced the Manchester 17 as a favored racing vehicle, but the ascetic absence of such amenities as dining rooms and tennis courts still prevails.
I stood very straight in front of the members gathered on this important day in the big plain room I remember so well with its silver cups and Paul Revere bowls burnished and glancing on the trophy table, and I said respectful words about my father’s record as a yachtsman and a Commodore. I retold one or two of the self-deprecatingly funny tales that he loved to tell about himself with, I hoped, an echo of his wit. As the September sun dazzled on the harbor beyond the windows and the boats nodded at their moorings, bows into the wind, I saw again the young sailors who had crewed for Father: one sunk by a Kamikaze at the battle of the Coral Sea, another lost on submarine duty in the North Atlantic. There were only a handful of my contemporaries in the crowd, and none of my parents’ generation, but I exchanged smiling clear-eyed contact with one tanned face and said how dearly my father had loved sailing with Jenny Lawrence Potter in the years before his death.
You find yourself doing things you once thought impossible. I never even trembled. Somewhere along the shore of years a tide had turned and anger was washed away. Above the stillness of courteously intent members I could hear the slapping of halyards against the twin steel flagpoles and catch a glint of brass cannon—and for those minutes I recognized silently the process which leads through rebellion to an identity not dependent on any group, and felt jubilantly the reconciliation of an otherness which can yet, from time to time, still find itself within the pale.