The 2012 Belle Isle Toy Yacht Regatta

Posted by jdg | Thursday, October 18, 2012

In San Francisco we lived close enough to the Golden Gate Bridge that we could hear the foghorns and the prolonged, echoey blasts of container ships signaling to each other as they passed in and out of the bay. What once startled us soon sank into the din of everyday life on our street: the homeless man in the top hat ("Ace") who fought with his girlfriend every morning at dawn, the zing of the MUNI buses sparking along their wires, the old Chinese ladies digging through our recyclables. I wish I could say I miss it, but we're fortunate enough to live just a few blocks from the Detroit River (still a busy waterway for shipping vessels) and we still hear our share of signal blasts, rumbling and distant and mysterious as Triton on his conch, a constant reminder that we live where we live because of the sea. 

When we were up north this summer I saw my daughter standing on the shore of Lake Michigan with a string in her hand. The other end was attached to a cheap plastic catamaran she was guiding into the wind to let it drift further out into the lake until finally she lost it. It was the sort of thing you might find in a dollar store, but she was pretty bummed out so I promised her when we got home we would make one that was much better. Once back in Detroit she kept pestering me to make good on my promise. To be quite honest, I don't know shit about boats. Many years ago a lawyer mentor took me out on his sailboat and it was so beautiful out there on the open water I went right home and looked up sailboats on craigslist and with a gasp at how much they cost to store and maintain I never even thought about sailing again. At least not until my daughter asked me to make her a sailboat. After initially shaping the boat I made her sand it smooth and then we cut up dowels and old napkins to make the sails.

I let my daughter do most of the work on her own little sloop, but for the ship I made my son I might have nerded out a bit to make a brig just like the Pilgrim from one of my favorite old books, Two Years Before the Mast. 

After the first boat flopped on one side and circled like a one-legged duck during its maiden bathtub voyage I looked up "ballast" on Wikipedia and then clicked on "keel" before bashing forehead with palm heel. Not knowing much about most things has never really stopped me from doing much, which can be both a blessing and a curse. So a made a couple of keels (filling them with random steel hardware and concrete patch) and attached them with dowel rods and wood glue. It worked!

I let the kids each paint their own ships, and once they were dry they were eager to get them into local waters. For years I've noticed the unused Belle Isle Model Yacht Basin and did some research and quickly learned that for more than 70 years local schoolchildren held an annual Regatta there with the boats they built (rather than fill this post with the lengthy history of model yachting on Belle Isle, I decided to do that over here, with lots of pictures).

Today the Belle Isle Model Boat Basin is long-neglected, overgrown and full of garbage.

Despite my embarrassment at the shoddy quality of our "yachts" after looking at all the beautiful boats built by the talented kids in those pictures, a few weeks ago we decided to let them have their maiden voyages in those hallowed waters:

The edges of the yacht basin were so degraded and the water was so mucky and thick with aquatic plant life it was a real challenge to get the ships out to deeper water where the keels wouldn't drag and the sails could catch the wind.

But you should have heard her excitement when they did.

Frustrated with our inability to guide the boats by the string, we decided to untie the Pilgrim and let her sail across the water on her own. We could hardly believe it when the wind pushed her free from the reeds and the muck on the western edge and she sailed east past us in a straight line. She was riding a little low in the water, but she was moving. We stood in silence and for a second she was the NiƱa, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria; Hudson's Discovery; La Salle's Griffon.

Just a dozen feet from the far shore she stopped, stuck in the reeds. I looked down apologetically at my boots and blue jeans, accepting that they would likely soon be soaked with that filthy water. I could already hear my feet squelching back to the car and just prayed I wouldn't come across a poorly-disposed-of dead body. Just as I was ready to go in, I looked around at the ample supply of garbage for something I might throw to loosen her. Among the many choices, an empty bottle of Amstel Light seemed to have just the right amount of heft, so I chucked it sidearm and somehow managed to dislodge the ship and watched in wonder as it floated right into my daughter's waiting arms.

People in cars stopped to stare at us and see what we were doing. They were cooking Canadian whiskey over in Walkerville. That wind blowing the sails brought air like bread and the kids had to swallow that they wouldn't be leading their ships along like kites, that their expectations for the day wouldn't match the reality. But at least no one got wet, which is always a sign of a successful day at sea.