This is the story of one of my earliest adventures. At the age of seven I "borrowed" a rowboat and went to sea. I didn't know how to row, but the tide was going out and I went with it. I was eventually picked up by a fishing boat a little after midnight. I was by then a couple of miles off the coast of Rockport, Massachusetts, where my family had a summer cottage on Back Beach.
It was a Sunday evening after supper when I took my drop line and sinker and a bucket of perrywhinkles and went over to Granite Wharf to go fishing. I hadn't told anyone where I was going. In those days, kids pretty much ran wild. I was only seven, but most days I would be out the door in nothing but a bathing suit, and maybe a T-shirt, and be gone most of the day, on the beach, around town, or in the woods that stretched from Granite street behind us to all the way across Cape Ann.
The fish weren't biting and at some point I dropped my drop line in the water, conveniently near where some fishermen's skiffs were tied up at the foot of a ladder. I climbed down into one of the boats from where I could retrieve my drop line and decided that maybe the fishing would be better from the boat than climbing back up onto the wharf. From there it did not take a lot of imagination to decide the fish would be biting more if I rowed out a ways from the wharf. So I got some oars from another boat and untied the one I was in and began to paddle out into the harbor.
It was already starting to get dark and as I drifted out past Rowe Point and Sandy Bay Ledge, I could see the lights and hear the music of the American Legion Post's regular Sunday night band concert at the other end of Back Beach from our house. By the time it got really dark it also grew cold. Then the band concert ended around nine o'clock and the music stopped and the lights went out. It was a clear night and the stars were bright, but I was steadily drifting further from shore. When I didn't turn up after the band concert, my parents became alarmed and reported me missing. The fire alarm whistle blew the signal for volunteers to report to the fire station. Normally this would be for fighting a forest fire or some such disaster, but instead they formed search parties and began to scour the neighborhoods and the trails leading into the woods.
The skiff had a small anchor and I put that over the side, but it only had about ten feet of line and had no effect. I decided to call for help, but precocious lad that I was, I hollered out "S O S" several times. In the meantime, someone reported to the police that their skiff had been stolen. This turned attention seaward and I soon saw fire engines on the high part of Granite Wharf playing their searchlights upon the water. But I was out of range. The Coast Guard was called in and the harbormaster enlisted the aid of all available craft from the fishing fleet and the yacht club.
As it was getting rather cold, I curled up under the stern thwart, which is where I was found by one of the boats in the search party. Newspaper reports say that I was asleep when they found me, but that is not true. I was pretending to be asleep in hopes that they would not spank a sleeping child. I was bundled up in a blanket and carried home. When I came in the front door of the cottage the room was filled with strangers, many in uniforms, police and fire and coast guard. I was given a cup of hot cocoa and put to bed. The next day a neighbor lady gave me a quarter because God saved me. I spent it on penny candy. I never get the spanking I so richly deserved.
Nautical Chart of Sandy Bay, Rockport, MA
The location where I was found was roughly in the top right corner of this chart, near where the two lines intersect at the number 106, which indicates the depth in feet..
Here I am as a pirate in some sort of costume parade on Back Beach across from the bandstand. That's Rowe Point behind my shoulders and Granite Wharf beyond that. Donnie Dolloff, my pal from up in back of us on Granite Street is dressed as a drummer.
Here's Back Beach looking South. The people walking in the road are about in front of our cottage. Above their heads, among the willow trees at the other end of the beach, is the Legion Hall and bandstand.
Here is what it looks like now. The red roof in the lower right is where our cottage was. The lower left quadrant was all woods in those days. Now it is all housing developments. Rowe's Point, which was just a hayfield then, is all condos now. Granite Wharf is in the upper middle. Somewhere out beyond the upper right corner is where I was found.
While my first attempt at going to sea was fortunately curtailed, it would not be the last of my nautical adventures. See Down East Adventure for the story of my cruising alone along the coast of Maine in a 12-foot sloop. And at the other end of the scale, see At Sea With Jeanie for the story of my sailing aboard the 123-foot square-rigged Jeannie Johnston, a reproduction of the 19th-century Irish emigrant passenger vessel of the same name.
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