Good Grief, Fathers Never Fail
by Peter Shelton
Jun 16, 2011 | 2214 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
What are fathers if not heroes to their sons?

My dad agreed to take me trolling aboard the Good Grief. I had a new trolling rig, a scaled-down version of one of those stout fiberglass rods with the massive reels you saw being cranked by marlin fisherman off the tip of Baja. If theirs were the size of coffee-tins, mine was more like a can of beans.

But I was stoked. And my friend Strany was stoked. We flung our bright-feathered jigs over the stern as Dad accelerated out of the calm water inside the jetties. I think we caught a couple of bonito right outside the breakwater. That got us jacked, but we were hoping for yellowtail, or something even bigger.

We were rolling downwind, southeast along the coast from Newport Harbor. The Laguna hills poured down into rocky coves. Dana Point was just visible through the sea haze. Dad thought we might get that far before turning around.

We hardly noticed the swell. It was maybe three-to-four feet to start, and growing. But when you’re running before a following sea, and at a leisurely seven knots – top speed for the Grief – you hardly notice the swell. With Dad at the helm, I sat on the transom eagerly eyeing my rod tip.

The Good Grief was our second boat, and second Navy surplus hull. The first was a double-ender, a “whaleboat,” 27 feet long, actually a Navy lifeboat, built of three-inch thick oak planking. Dad picked it up at a yard in San Diego. We added decks and a small cabin, and a Gray Marine engine, and called it the Mister Robert’s. My dad’s name is Robert, and he liked the John Ford movie. I think it reminded him, at least a little, of his own time on a supply ship in the Pacific near the end of the war.

We didn’t obey the rule that said you are supposed to give boats girl’s names. We did abide by the lexicology: “Bring her up alongside.” “Wow, she’s doing an honest seven knots!”

We didn’t name the Good Grief. Friends of ours had done the conversion (and come up with the moniker), turning the 36-foot liberty launch into a rustic cabin cruiser that could comfortably sleep six. Whereas the Mister Robert’s was really just a two-man boat. Same hull speed pretty much. Same solid seaworthiness. But the longer, beamier shape meant we could take the whole family, including my mom and three younger siblings.

Some time in the early 1960s, when I was 11 or 12, Dad sold the Mister Robert’s and bought the Good Grief. I know it was hard for him. The Mister Robert’s was the more nautically elegant conversion. Dad had done a lot of the work himself. On weekends, beginning when I was about 8, he’d take me down to the boatyard with him, and he’d give me a job varnishing handrails or sanding the dark blue hull.

This was down in old Newport, which in those days still stank of canneries and shimmered with rainbow fuel slicks. Dad would send me out to get hamburgers and strawberry shakes for our lunch. All by myself. I was in heaven.

We didn’t have the same hand-rubbed relationship with the Good Grief. The Grief’s superstructure had been slapped together by comparison. But we loved her, and for the next half dozen years she took us back and forth to Catalina Island on scores of summer weekends – to clear-water anchorages where father and son and abalone and seals and rocky wild beaches fused into one.

And, somewhat less frequently, we motored up and down the southern California coast on day trips like this one: the Grief’s bow slicing the deep blue water, the aft wake boiling white and falling away to the sides like a center part, engine exhaust burbling out the transom.

Somewhere off South Laguna Dad decided to turn around. The sea had risen to probably six-and-eight foot swells with an accompanying wind. Dad figured it would be slower going with our bow into the weather, and he wanted to take it easy. In bigger seas the Grief tended to slap down into the troughs, especially if you were pushing to make time.

Strany and I hadn’t caught anything since the first bonito, so we reeled in our lures and settled in for the wet ride home. There was plenty of spray. As the Grief labored up the swells and pounded down the backside, saltwater lashed the cabin windows.

It was messy, but also exciting. We were warm and dry inside. Then the engine stopped. Dad managed to get it going again once. But then, nothing.

With the seas heaving and the engine box open amidships, and my super-competent dad, hands dark with grease, bent over struggling to understand what the problem was, we drifted slowly toward the rocks.

To be continued . . .
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