Messing About in Boats by Jamie Kirkpatrick



Downrigging Weekend is almost here, Chestertown’s annual celebration of tall ships and all things nautical. Absent a polar vortex, hurricane, or squall, Downrigging is a nostalgic voyage into the days when canvas ruled the world, the days of topsails and jibs; moonrakers and spankers; ratlines and vangs.

Sailors are born, not made. I know this because I’m not one. I get running before the wind, but something as simple as sailing into the wind leaves me baffled. Over the years, plenty of good sailors have attempted to educate me on their art, but whether it’s the physics or the vocabulary of sailing, all-too-soon there comes a point in the conversation when my eyes glaze over and I feel the urge to excuse myself and go get another ration of grog from the bos’n.

Despite my ignorance of wind-driven ships, I love these leviathans of the deep. Even at anchor, there is an elegant majesty about them. Once they’re underway, the creak of planking, the luff of a sail, or the slap of a bow wave induces an atavistic memory deep within me that recalls some long-gone forbearer who came over to the New World on one of these transports to start a new life on the edge of the wilderness. (In my case, that would a seven-time great grandfather who was the last settler to be attacked by Indians in the wilds of western Pennsylvania. Presumably he survived the attack or I wouldn’t be writing this.)

As a child and young reader, one of my favorite books was “Wind In the Willows.” Toad’s motor car was indeed a marvelous invention, but what first captivated me was Ratty’s leaky old rowboat. “Believe me, my young friend,” says Ratty, “there is nothing—absolutely nothing—worth doing half so much as simply messing about in boats.” Now just imagine: if a simple rowboat was worth half so much as that, how much more fun would Ratty and his friend, that ultimate landlubber Mole, have had aboard one of the tall ships that will come sailing up the Chester a few days hence?

When it came time for me to own a boat, I opted for a canoe. Not just any canoe, mind you, but a beautifully crafted cedar strip and canvas boat built by an artisan friend of mine up in Canada. It’s a fifteen foot “Bob’s Special,” a model first produced by the Chestnut brothers of Ontario in the waning days of the 19th Century and named in honor of Lord Roberts who had distinguished himself in the Boer Wars. It’s a wide, stable, and relatively light weight craft that tracks well on flat water and while it lacks mast or sail, it is driven by a power with zero carbon footprint (me) and is just about perfect for messing about in Ratcliffe or Morgan Creek.

But canoes lack perspective. The paddler is only a foot or two above the waterline so the horizon is never more than a bend in the creek away. Maybe that’s why I am so enamored of our taller, fully rigged cousins. How I’d love to have been that lad aloft in the crow’s nest of a tall ship who, espying a distant shore, sang out “Land Ho!” after a long and prosperous voyage across the ocean. As in all things, perspective matters.

So… “If you really have nothing else on hand this morning,” said Rat to Mole, “supposing we drop down to the river together and have a long day of it.
I’ll see you down there.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

Letters to Editor

  1. Ashby D. Anderson says:

    Dear Jamie, This is beautifully written; I’m with you. I’ve climbed the rigging and set the sails of the whaleship Charles W. Morgan, and sailed a 130′ brigantine off the coast of Cape Breton Island, but I’d rather admire their beauty from ashore. I grew up on the water sailing on my father’s wooden, engineless Noank sloop, but I’ve never truly loved sailing. I’d rather read about Rattie. Thanks for this reminiscence. Landon misses you, and I hope you’re well. Ashby

    • Jamie Kirkpatrick says:


      Let me know the next time you’re in Noank and we’ll tie up at Abbott’s for lobster rolls.

  2. Roger D Brown says:


    Despite 10 years in the naval service I never got into sail. I was more comfortable with 70,00 horsepower per shaft though the aesthetics of sail are undeniable.
    Wind in the Willows was one of my childhood favorites. I still have the book gifted me by a great aunt.


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