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Bill Orton
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Going out for coffee: Something small can also be big.

Two Years on the Water
by Bill Orton

Father's Day -- like my birthday -- doesn't mean a whole lot to me. My own parents divorced during my childhood and the holiday was never a big one in our home.

Now, my daughter is a teenager and while she knows that I love her for all the world, I don't pay too much attention to whether she remembers my birthday or Father's Day.

So two years ago, when I booked the father's day weekend at the splendorous Humphrey's Half Moon Bay hotel, on the water in San Diego, it caught my daughter off guard. I told her the purpose of the trip was to buy a nine-foot wooden rowboat that I had spotted on CraigsList for $300. She was excited about the hotel, which was as magnificent as the newly acquired boat was humble. The lush landscaping and room design focused all attention to the tropical paradise of the pool area, which, as it happened, a mallard family had decided to share. I had never had a better father's day weekend, swimming with my daughter and a gaggle of ducklings, with my second-hand rowboat tied securely on the roof of our car.

I never would have thought that a humble little dinghy could help change my life.

I learned that something can be both small and big at the same time. A nine-foot boat is insignificant against the water on which it rides, and yet my first thought when I tried to manhandle it alone was, "wow, this is big." It rested unused inside our garage for almost a month while I figured out how to transport it the short distance from my apartment building to the water.

I decided that the device on which I moved the boat should be something that I built, giving me a reason for an escapist project. With bamboo and string (and a limited number of metal clasps to reinforce the wheel-and-axel structure), I constructed a rectangular rickshaw and began regularly making my way down the sidewalk and across several streets to our local beach, where I'd slide the boat down the poles directly into the water.

Disbelieving pedestrians walking home late at night from the neighborhood bars and restaurants would watch me waiting for the streetlight as I pulled a rickshaw and rowboat to the beach. I'd slide the boat into the water, clamp on navigation lamps, toss the flotation device onto a seat and climb in.

After a few weeks, I no longer felt lame in the water. That first summer, I rowed pretty much every night. Quickly, I learned the value of rechargeable batteries for the navigation lamps. I rowed mostly at night, when I had the bay to myself. I could circle the Naples canal and look at the multi-million-dollar homes with their docks and yachts and Duffys, wondering who it was that could afford such lifestyles. Or I'd row in a crisp mid-day wind, spending a couple hours circling Naples Island, or beaching the boat on the sand and imagining I was on a tropical vacation.

But what I learned about most was not the boat or the rhythm of the water, but about my father and our relationship. It was unexpected but fitting that a gift I bought for father's day would directly lead to a closer relationship with my dad.

When I grew up, it didn't strike me as a treat that my parents would spend virtually every weekend taking us kids sailing or camping. I liked it fine, but our 36' ketch, the Tamara, appealed far more to my folks than us kids.

As I learned the feel of the water under my own oars, I would send email to my dad telling him joyfully about how it felt to be in this little boat under the moonlight. I wrote about the fear and awe of rowing the boat to the end of our jetty, more than a mile past the shoreline, to the mouth of the open harbor, where I could feel the power of the tide underneath me. Or my panic as I rowed at full retreat from a local seal who had seemed to take an interest in my boat and I knew if he slid in, he'd swamp the boat for sure.

And my dad told me about his first time on a boat, at 18, when a friend took him along and they spent the entire day sailing the length of Long Island, a journey that forever married my father to the sea.

Because my childhood coincided with the end of my parent's marriage, it was a story that I had never heard. Throughout that first summer, he told me snipets that explained why he had kept one boat after another for decades.

At one point, when my automobile suffered a catastrophic engine failure, I was limited to a bicycle, my feet and my boat to take care of basic errands. I'd row to a local 24-hour grocery store with a public dock, shop at midnight, fill the boat and row home with groceries.

I rowed my daughter to the movies and to dinner and shall always remember fondly seeing her at the bow, seated forward, legs hanging over and looking at the reflections and ripples on the water and the ducks flying overhead.

Just as the boat was a gift that helped me understand my own father, it gave to my daughter an insight as to who I had become.

All of this came together one day last September when my daughter and I rowed across the bay to join my dad, uncle, brother and other family on board a 70-foot schooner for a memorial service to be held for my grandmother.

It was not an elegant arrival nor a speedy one, but as I approached the schooner, I could see in my dad an amusement and happiness that said quietly more than he would say in words.

It's now the weekend of father's day, two years since that time in San Diego. The ducklings from Humphrey's Half Moon Bay are likely parents themselves. And my humble little rowboat has seen oarlocks and nav lamps go overboard, an oar snap and rainwater virtually swamp it.

But I love that little boat and it's helped me to figure out that I also love my dad.

Happy Father's Day.

Bill Orton is a writer and historian living in Long Beach, California.