When my Father was at the Helm


My father bought a 24 foot Chris Craft Cabin Cruiser to celebrate his appointment to the bench in  Bergen County, New Jersey. Pop had never had a boat nor had he spent much time on the water, so, in his usual fashion when taking on a new interest, he proceeded to teach himself all he needed to know about boating making short day and weekend cruises on the Hudson River for the next five years. It was in the summer of ’59 that he made the first of many long cruises up the Hudson River and through the Champlain Canal to spend his one month’s vacation cruising Lake Champlain. My mother stayed home with the first five children, of college or high school age, but sent along with him the two youngest, my brother, 8, and myself, 6.

I have many memories of these long, spacious  summers on board the Stella Maris with Pop. One, however, is most vivid, dating to that first trip, and it concerns the  mahogany trim on the side of the Stella warmEd from the summer sun. Sitting on the stern bench seat, my hands  held onto the trim, and my chin rested on my hands. The warmth of that wood resonating with the vibrations of the Stella’s reliable engines and my father at the helm assured me that I had not a worry in the world – a feeling I have relished over the years.

I grew up cruising many rivers, lakes, and canals with my father, who could navigate any waterway while I watched from the stern seat  as the banks of numerous waterways slip by for hours and dream the dreams little girls dream safe knowing my father was at the helm, my father knew the channel, my father knew where the next marker was. He knew what time we would reach the next lock, he know how  many feet we would go up or down in that next lock, he knew when it was a good time for me to take the helm under his guidance. Pop was in charge, and I was with him.

The Stella was sold the same year my father died, the same year I turned twenty one.   A few years later I  married a Naval Academy graduate, who is an accomplished deck officer with many years at sea. Our oldest son is a Coast Guard Academy graduate where he raced ocean-going sail boats for four years.We have, as a family, chartered boats on the Chesapeake Bay.The two of them sit side-by-side and navigate from the helm. I sit behind them worrying. I continuously scan the sky for a weather change, check the depth monitor, keep an eye out for other boats, check our position on the chart. I never relax in spite of the two experienced, capable men at the helm. Lord knows I try, for there is nothing I want more than to recapture that feeling on the a summer’s  day heading north on the Champlain Canal.

But I have come to terms with the fact that I will never recapture that feeling. For when I was on the Stella with Pop, it was as if I were in the cradle  of my father’s making,  gently rocked, warm, safe, loved. Every woman should have such a memory of her father.

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