Traveling in Watercolor

Travel Stories: Mr. Spencer built a boat in his backyard and then disappeared. Decades later, Michael Yessis tracks down his former neighbor and discovers an unexpected path to adventure.

A bright blue sky reflected down on Cabrillo Harbor in San Pedro. Rows and rows of boats bobbed in their slips. Mr. Spencer pushed an empty wheelbarrow up the ramp outside berth 33 and greeted me in the parking lot with a firm handshake. He’s a wiry man with blue-collar hands and a sculpted head of hair. He was in the midst of transferring supplies from his Plymouth Voyager for an upcoming trip to nearby Catalina Island with his daughter and grandchildren. I helped him carry a load down to the boat.

I wouldn’t have recognized Watercolor if I had been on my own. She was large and clean, the mast thrusting into the sky. I’d never seen her with the mast. Mr. Spencer climbed aboard and I handed him the backpacks and air tanks we’d brought down from the mini van. Then I climbed up for a tour.

The boat was built to hold four people comfortably. The forepeak in the bow contained two beds built for the girls and a toilet. A small fridge, a sink, books on a bookshelf and two long, narrow benches filled the central area he called the saloon. The master bedroom was in the aft cabin. A chart table and a television sat near the corner and half a double bed was hidden under the deck. After Karla and Danette went off to college, Mr. Spencer and his wife, Edna, had docked the boat and lived there for four years, cruising into the Sea of Cortez and other places whenever given a chance. I walked from cabin to cabin with a growing sense of pride. It wasn’t my boat, but I felt an attachment bordering on ownership. On some dreamy level, it felt like mine.

We retreated to the saloon where Mr. Spencer pulled two small boxes of his grandkids’ Shoutin’ Orange Tangergreen Hi-C from the fridge.

“I should have bought some beer,” he said.

“That’s all right,” I said, poking the tiny straw into the box. “This is fine.” I meant it. Being on the boat made me feel like a kid again, and drinking a kids’ drink heightened the effect. We sat across from each other on the benches, slurping, and I studied the cabin. Mr. Spencer leaned back, squeezed a shot of Hi-C into his mouth and reeled off the specs. The boat was a forty-two foot double headsail ketch rig with a hull and deck of ferro-cement. It sounded impressive, even if I didn’t understand most of what it meant.

He reached past me and pulled an old photo album from the bookshelf, flipping past family snapshots to a series of black-and-white images dated February 1977. In one shot the boat rests between the houses, its deck even with the bottoms of the roofs. In another, the boat, dressed in scaffolding, stretches from the tip of the garage almost into the street. Danette stands underneath it, shining in white against the darkened hull, while Mr. Spencer glances over his shoulder at his daughter. Fluffy is running between them, chasing something.

One particular image stood out. In it, the boat rests diagonally in front of the Spencers’ garage. The top of a palm tree rises behind the hull like fireworks bursting. In the foreground a dozen or so kids are sitting in the neighbors’ driveway. Some are small and some are bigger. Some are wearing shirts with horizontal stripes and some are sitting on skateboards. Two tall girls stand on the sidewalk with their arms crossed, and a blurry little boy runs into the lower left corner of the frame. Everyone is looking across the lawn at the boat. The image felt pulled from my memory.


“Can you see yourself there?” Mr. Spencer asked.

“That’s me I think,” I said, pointing at a boy with a bowl cut, leaning back on his skateboard. “I still sit like that. But I can’t remember that shirt.”

“I’ve often wondered what those kids thought,” he said.

I shifted on the bench and answered.

“I want to thank you for doing what you did,” I said. “I know you built the boat to expose your kids to the world but your actions created ripples, and those ripples reached me.”

I kept talking, bouncing from point to point, random detail to random detail. He listened and smiled as I detailed some of the adventure fantasies I’d projected on him and his family, how he helped influence the direction of my life, how I felt my travel experiences gave me, as he had described it previously, a directness of life.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m rambling.”

“That’s alright, I’ve never minded rambling. That’s what cruising is about.” He paused, studied my face, then let out a small laugh. “You just want to ramble in a fashion that allows you to enjoy unexpected discoveries.”

I smiled and relaxed, feeling we had both been doing just that.

Our conversation drifted from the photos to politics to family, and then it was time to go. I slurped the last drops of Shoutin’ Orange Tangergreen from the tiny cardboard box and thanked him for having me aboard. I climbed down the ladder and walked up the ramp to my car, alone. Street traffic was flowing and I sped past a series of mini-malls, gas stations and hole-in-the-wall food stands. The freeway onramp came upon me quickly, but I didn’t get on it. I made a left turn and took the long way home.

Michael Yessis is the cofounder and coeditor of World Hum. This story received the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Bronze Award in 2002 for personal comment.

No comments for Traveling in Watercolor.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.