My Father's Boat

by David W. Kersten

The boating season lies ahead. For me, it is a season of grace and wonder as I’m privileged once again to return to the waters. And yet, as the call of grace comes to me again and again, I have to admit my own resistance to grace. My father surprised me with a phone call late last summer. Hemming and hawing, he finally said he would like to give me his boat. Now mind you, this is not just any old boat. This boat has been in my family for nearly 50 years. It was first my grandfather’s—a lovely piece of painted and varnished mahogany, 26 feet long, 8 and 1/2 feet wide—a 1953 Chris-Craft Express Cruiser with plenty of seating aft and a delightful little two-person cabin forward. The boat’s name is Keeper and it truly has kept and held the attention, love, and loyalty of my family for many years. My dad’s love for the boat has not waned, only his ability to care for it. The awkwardness for me comes in the fact that I already have my own boat—a 1955 Chris-Craft—one with a rich heritage of its own, first owned by the Dodge family of Detroit motor car fame. It was the tender to their yacht, the Delphine. It spent most of its life in the boathouse of the Dodge mansion, carrying kids and groceries out to the yacht or riding up in the davits of the yacht to various ports around the world.

But more to the point, this was a boat that I had done most of the work on, repairing, painting, sanding, and varnishing, for the last six years. My dad, in offering his boat to me, wanted it to be a sheer gift. He was going to have a new bottom put on at a boatworks in Port Baron, Michigan, the sides fared out and painted, and all the bright work redone to the nines. So what’s the problem, one would ask? And I wasn’t quite sure I could name it at first, but then it came to me in a vision: while docked at Harriet Island this summer in my dad’s newly restored boat, an admiring stranger comes by and asks what type of boat it is, but most importantly, “Did you do all the work yourself?” I won’t be able to respond, “Yes, it took six years, but I did it all myself.” I doubt the stranger would be interested that it was a gift from my dad and that my dad loved me so much to give me his most prized possession on earth. You see, I really do have a problem with grace. But I can tell you what melted my resistance to such a gift.

While rummaging through a box of pictures last summer, I found a picture of my dad, at the age of thirteen, coming out of the cabin of my grandfather’s earlier boat, a 24-foot lapstrake Soarg. It’s a bright summer’s day-off on the deep blues of Lake St. Clair and my dad’s eyes are wide, and a faint yet growing smile is coming across his face. I showed him the picture, and he said it was the first time he had come to the Island. My dad was raised at the St. Francis Home for Boys, an orphanage. He finally had permanent foster parents, and they had a cottage on Marsen’s Island in the St. Clair River and they had a boat. The picture captured the story that a whole new life was opening up for him. Somehow, in the face of a boy soon to be a man, there is the realization of the gift being given to him. So, in a few weeks, I’m going to pick up my dad’s boat, take it away from the Island and the river where the founder of Chris Crafts, Christopher Columbus Smith, first built boats. Then I’ll bring it to the Mississippi River in St. Paul and begin to take hold of this gift and share it more fully with my family and friends; I will live this legacy of grace so freely given.