The incoming tide brought with it the smell of salt and decay, the scent of adventure and a promise of a day on the water. My mother had got the four us up early, dressed and fed us, and with warm clothing issued for the day, had sent us packing. The days adventure; a rowing expedition with my father on Mayland creek. My father’s motley crew — ranging in age from three to nine — now stood waiting for the mornings activities to begin. And, while we stood, the tide crept inch by inch up the muddy beach. My father became a different person near the water, more focused, kinder, gentler, and this morning he did what he always did well, issued commands.
“Socks and shoes off.”
“Roll your trouser legs up.”
“Stand up straight, while I put the life jackets on you.”
I think my father in his past life had been on the Titanic. The preparations for a simple rowing trip were monumental, with orders being given and directions to be followed with no protest. Us four brothers standing in a line, tried not to smirk or laugh for fear of being excluded from the trip, as we tried with all our might to comply to each barked command.
“Arms in the air.”
Next came the donning of the cork lifejackets. Where had my father found these? In 1963 they were an antique relic, items we all secretly believed were World War II surplus. They consisted of a bulky cork front and back covered with orange canvas with straps that ran over the shoulders, and then were secured in place, by a large belt that ran under the arms, and was secured in front.
“Lets have a look at you then.”
This was the final inspection before we marched down to the water’s edge, where the old small clinker built row boat sat waiting patiently for us with it’s four shipped oars, a bailer and a painter attached to the bow.
“OK lets have you on board, eldest first.”
“But Dad, why can’t I sit up front?” I pleaded.
“I want you near to me so I can help you learn to row” was his constant refrain.
And he did just that. He gave me the gift of the creek, the river, the sea and the ocean, with little fanfare, much patience and certainly zero appreciation from me. It wouldn’t be till later in life, as I guided a seventy foot schooner out of a harbor and set it’s array of sails, that would I fully comprehend the immensity of the gift.
Once we were all seated in the small craft my father would push off and step in to the back where he could maintain a watchful eye over his boys, his crew, his life.
“Oarlocks at the ready!”
This was the command to place the “oar holders’” as I liked to call them in the holes in the rail.
“Oars in place.”
This was a time for my father to help my youngest brother and me with the placing of the oars in the oarlocks. He would then place our hands in the correct position so we would be able to start rowing on his command. My two older brothers up front had already mastered this task and in a second I would hear from over my shoulder their loud reply, “Oars at the ready.”
“On my command, oars back” my father would shout, with a grin. His firm hand would envelop mine and my oar would lift out of the water and would smoothly glide towards the front of the small craft in perfect time with my older brothers oars.
“1-2-3, dip oars and pull.” Gently my father’s hand would guide my oar, whilst his other hand guided my youngest brothers, and together, the four of us would propel the small craft out onto the creek. We not only rowed, but embarked on an escapade that involved dark and grey mud banks peppered with mud crabs, stranded jelly fish left high and dry by the last ebb of the tide, old abandoned boats left at the head of dead end inlets and the obligatory bailing of muddy salt water from the leaking dinghy. And washed in with all of this was the magic of the unknown and a sibling bond that few activities could ever replicate. And I was hooked.