RALPH BARTHOLDT: Remembering a sailor, and his sheepshank, bowline and hitches

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I learned the sheepshank not because he tossed me a line and told me to tie one, testing me, like Quint in the shark movie; but because he instilled a desire to learn it.

From the first time I recall seeing Dick Eveleth wearing a beret on a day as overcast and foreboding as lead; to the last time years ago, under a curled Western hat, holding his wife, Jody’s arm; there was always the hint of Texas in his voice, the flutter of a sail in his demeanor bucking a hard wind, and principle.

Between both times, 40-odd years had passed.

Dick Eveleth was a neighbor whose boat house was filled with projects, some of them going back to the days following the war, the Big One, when he had spent part of his time at Navy boot camp on the Farragut training grounds.

In his leaning boathouse — with its bats and rodents, its creaking timbers and oily rags — were remnants of engines from the 1950s. They were tuned and greased, their lower units sunk in buckets of water, their pistons briskly firing with one pull of the starter cord.

There were sailboats too, catamarans, punts and dinghies in which his boys had learned the nuances and color of wind on water, how a gale dropped like an anchor from the top of an island and how to sail, or motor safely through swells too high for a prudent swain.

In the vintage boathouse — strapped to pulleys, wheels and rails, screwed to the rafters — hung tri-hulls, aluminum single hulls, cocktail class racers made of wood, pointed as the snout of a pike.

The eight-passenger family boat was stuffed in there too, with its hefty Evinrude Starflite, its red and white interior and electric shifter.

We were the work party in the spring that helped put the boats in the water and pull them out come fall, pressing each into the boathouse that leaned a little more every year, but is standing still despite almost a century of snow loads, storms and floods.

It was in the summer though that Dick and Jody — as we called them, always the two, always together — made their mark.

We often watched them come across the bay from a mile away, leeward before having to cut hard into the blowing spray, splashing off the hull until they glided into the flat water behind our peninsula and trolled to our dock.

We picked blueberries, swam in remote parts of the lake, water skied, explored and worked. We painted cabins, cut cedar poles, built docks, moved rocks, tarred roofs and brushed trails. It was summer work and it was a good way for a kid to grow, and then Dick and Jody would have me in their sloop, the Moondance, a boat Dick had salvaged, hearing another language.

With words like forestay, headstay, shroud and aft, Dick taught me port wine is red — an easy expression to learn that a boat’s left side shows a red light at night, and he showed me bends and hitches, using the sheepshank to shorten a rigging line.

I was 4 or 5 the first time I remember seeing him. He brought over a freshly folded Stars and Stripes as a gift and asked my parents to put it on a pole and they did, on the lake side of the property, and Dick motored off into what looked like a storm coming.

Dick was a teacher most of his life, and twice a legislative candidate, believing every citizen had the duty to serve the country in some form.

When he died the other day at 90-something, I was sent a text message from across miles of water and wind, and storms somewhere brewing.

He hadn’t been in a boat for a while, but I imagined his voice with the Texas in it, telling us to come about, as the sloop leaned hard, its heavy keel cutting the aqueous black under the hull, and the mainsail’s boom swinging over our heads with sails fluttering before they caught wind.

He once undid a hitch I put on a cleat.

This way’s better, he said. Look. And he re-tied it.

I spent hours afterward as a kid by myself learning to do it right, fast and by heart.

It was the principle of the thing, and Dick would appreciate it.

• • •

Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at rbartholdt@cdapress.com.

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