As Galveston dons the purple, green and gold of Mardi Gras and South Padre Island waits for the youthful, languorous stretch of Spring Break, Port O’Connor cleans its rods, repairs its reels and waits for the spring flounder run to begin. Port O’Connor knows how to party, but in Port O’Connor, Texas, fishing comes first. A little sleepy, slower in pace and rhythm than the cities to her north, Port O’Connor lies at the end of the coastal road, clinging to the edge of Matagorda Bay like a derelict boat that refuses to die. Salted with spray, rusted and grayed, weathered from decades of storms, she looks at first glance to be a sullen and unpromising destination, but beneath the surface of her bays redfish and speckled trout school and scatter. Beyond the intracoastal waterway, across the barrier island and over the dunes, surfcasters work the waves while, offshore, dorado and marlin, snapper, grouper and ling lure the adventurous and competitive with their promise of exhilarating combat.
Years ago, I traveled to Port O’Connor to varnish a beautiful, classic sailboat owned by partners who didn’t fish but believed boats were meant to leave the dock from time to time. Solitary as a tern, sun-lit and warm as a basking turtle, I labored through the days happy in the knowledge that evening would bring me the twin luxuries of simplicity and solitude. After shrimp or salad on the dock, a lamp-lit cabin and uninterrupted time for reading or sleep were there for the taking. If I happened back into the night to gaze at stars or passing tows, an old fellow who lived down the dock would stop and visit, glad to discover a few minutes of companionship.
He loved to talk. However truthful or tall, his tales were wonderful. He meandered through long, intricate stories about weekend fights outside local bars, harmless confrontations fueled by drink and boredom. He shared his astonishment at the woman who brought her easel and paints to capture the shifting seaside light and then, unused to nights filled with such deep, pervasive darkness, fled back to the city in terror. More delicious still was his account of the novice who went out to fish in a rubber dingy. Hooking the “big one” he’d always dreamed of, he couldn’t land it and ended by being towed all over the flats until his line broke. Between snorts and guffaws, the old man gasped, “Damn fool never thought to cut his line, but even if he’d had the thought, t’weren’t gonna happen ’cause he didn’t have a knife. No knife! Who goes fishing without a knife?”
And so it went. After a few stories, he’d share his recipe for ceviche or brag on the boys who fish the Poco Bueno and hang trophy marlins, or reminisce about the old days, when life was simpler, and good. Always, he’d end with The Storm. The Storm was Carla, Port O’Connor’s personal hurricane. Long before Katrina, Rita and Ike showed up to monopolize the news cycle like meteorological stars with peeps and press agents, she was the one who scrawled her story across the pages of people’s lives.
Carla was a Cecil B. DeMille kind of storm – vast, beyond belief and so compelling you couldn’t look away. Decades later, people still gasp at the memories. Carla drove wheat straw from farm fields into the brick walls of homes. Carla left rattlesnakes hanging from trees. Carla so unnerved a woman she ran into her back yard and howled at the storm in defiance until her panic-stricken family dragged her back into the house and made her drink whiskey.
Almost as an afterthought, Carla raged through Port O’Connor’s collection of boats. Skiffs and jon boats were scattered or destroyed. Shrimp trawlers plowed into fields; sport fishers were carried inland by the surge. A bit up the coast, even barges were forced miles inland, strewn up and down major highways like old-fashioned iron toys. It’s the same with every storm. After Ivan hit Pensacola, it wasn’t rattlesnakes left hanging in the trees but sailboats from Palafox Marina. Katrina demolished boats by the hundreds and then burned a Yacht Club for good measure. When Ike rolled through Galveston Bay, he stacked sailboats like cordwood and scattered trawlers like kindling. When it was all over, there was nothing to do but gaze over the scene in numbed astonishment and think, “Well.”
As much grief as the loss of a boat entails, loss to a storm does have the virtue of being understandable. When winds tear at the rigging, surge plucks at lines and waves batter increasingly exhausted hulls for hours at a time, some boats manage to survive. Others let go and give in to the blind, implacable forces of nature, tossing and tumbling to their deaths. It’s sad, but inevitable.
What isn’t so easily understood is death by inattention, the death of a boat that’s been abandoned, left neglected and lonely, allowed to rot away in marshes, at docks, or on out-of-the-way moorings.
In the world of “things”, nothing is sadder than a derelict boat. Like a dog or cat callously thrown into the world to fend for itself, unwanted and unloved boats know they’ve been abandoned, and they grieve. Deserted by owners too busy to give them care, relinquished in favor of other pursuits, cast off as no longer romantic or affordable, they are ownerless in truth if not in fact. Bereft of attention, they begin to decline. Unused hoses harden and crack. Unlubricated winches and cables seize up. Rust blooms, paint flakes and hanging gardens of algae ring the waterline, Eventually, as time and weather shred the canvas and sun dries out the wood, the boat begins to settle on her lines, leaning inexorably into desolation, forsaken and forlorn.
However much we humans love sunlight and water, it’s an unforgiving combination. Forced to endure constant assaults from sun and sea, a boat has to be used, loved and maintained, or it will die. Much of my own work is maintenance, tending to brightwork already in Bristol condition. But while the maintenance of beauty is pure delight, nothing is more satisfying than bringing a derelict boat back to life.
The process itself isn’t mysterious or complicated. The only requirements are a few simple tools, a good bit of time, enormous patience and a high tolerance for tedium. It’s also helpful to be convinced that miracles are possible, understand that 19th century techniques don’t always lend themselves to 21st century schedules and have a passing acquaintance with the basics of weather. But with patience, diligence and focus, even the worst damage can be repaired, bit by bit. With patience and persistence, wood turns silky, fiberglass takes on a shine and machinery that clanked, rattled and banged begins to quietly hum, like an absorbed and happy child.
As work progresses, the day finally arrives when a boat realizes she’s going to sail again, and you can see the transformation. A boat with hopes of leaving the dock rides differently in the water. The rigging no longer howls like a woman facing down a storm but sings in the breeze with overtones of satisfaction and joy. When a boat no longer feels abandoned, when she once again hears the call of the sea, you sometimes can surprise her gazing into the depths of her watery mirrors, rejoicing in her newfound dignity.
Working on derelict boats in hidden corners of world, it’s impossible not to think of parallels between their condition and the plight of assorted people who bob in the backwaters of society. Decades ago, “derelict” was a word reserved for bums, drifters, vagrants and tramps. To be called “derelict” was to face moral judgement and live with the assumption that you were negligent, undependable, unreliable, untrustworthy or irresponsible. The implication was that you were a person of lesser value, born of a lesser humanity, and well might deserve being left to rot in the backwaters of life.
Certainly there are irresponsible and deeply untrustworthy people in the world, just as there are people who choose to live as unproductive drifters. But some derelicts who wander our world have more in common with my derelict boats than with skidrow bums or amoral profiteers. Whether dressed in Brooks Brothers and Vera Wang or in resale shop markdowns, they are equally abandoned, equally neglected and cast off. Whatever their appearance, they share the fate of dereliction – abandonment by family, neglect by society, or rejection by the institutions and structures which surround them. Their dereliction is less a choice than a matter of circumstance. and it is essentially a matter of the heart. If dereliction is to be exchanged for dignity, it is the heart itself which must be transformed.
When it comes to transformation, what holds true for boats holds true for human beings. No matter how damaged a heart, no matter how hardened its lines, no matter how tattered its dreams or hard its grounding onto the shoals of unhappiness, there is nothing that time, patience and loving attention cannot transform. Repairing a heart does require dedication, an acceptance of the tedium of daily life and a willingness to engage in repetitively difficult or unpleasant tasks. Certainly it profits from steady faith and a willingness to believe that even when the past makes its presence known, even when its reflections linger and shimmer in the brightness of newer days, eventually all of the shabbiness, disrepair and simple ugliness of dereliction will be undone.
With Valentine’s day just passed, a day dedicated to exchanging hearts as tokens of affection, it’s worth pausing a moment to ponder the realities of life and love. Somewhere, docked at the edge of our lives, moored just beyond our concern, run aground in a marsh of indifference or neglect, a derelict heart leans inexorably into desolation, forsaken and forlorn. It may be time to aid its transformation.