Amanda Belle


A boat builder in Maine with a good eye carved her model in 1928, using soft pine — his thumb on the wood and a carving knife tucked inside his fingers so that he could bring thumb and fingers together as if he was milking a cow. He was a holdout, didn’t like the scientific ways of wave-form theory and testing tanks.   His hands knew best, better than those guys with the slipsticks for damn sure. He had an eye for the sweet curve in a boat, especially its sheer line, or the precise outline of its deck seen from the side. His wife once said that an elegant shoe was like that and ever since, he looked at women’s feet, not lustfully but with a curious sense of appreciation for the occasional beautifully shod appendage, the keel of a woman, so to speak.

Around two years after he had carefully set up her frame – her bones — chocked and braced from the floor and the crossbeams overhead, then started hanging the planks, he called for a heavy truck and pulled the new boat along skids and rollers out of the building shed, leaving a woody placenta of bits and pieces and scraps. When she was launched in the early spring of 1930 with great celebration and the blessing of the town’s Congregational minister, she floated in level, serene peace, the waterline just where he figured it would be. Her name, Amanda Belle, was painted in gold leaf on her transom.

Her owner – the man who commissioned her – was a man of lifelong experience with the sea, understated wealth and honed taste when it came to boats. He and his family summered in Maine in Dark Harbor, and soon Amanda Belle (named after a python in a book he read as a child) was a familiar sight in Penebscot Bay. Sometimes she could be seen emerging from fog banks with a bone in her teeth under the press of a southwest wind, or at other times just ghosting along in the faintest of breezes, every stitch of sail set, filling and collapsing when little ripples came and went on the glassy water. In those moments, sometimes the most lively thing about her was her reflection on the surface. She was beautiful, even when she was still as a stone.

When the owner died, Amanda Belle was left to his children. By then they were all married and with children of their own. Eventually, to end the inevitable and now more frequent quarrels that came up whenever something costly had to be repaired, not to mention the labor of keeping her varnish bright and her brass bell shiny, they decided to sell her. It was wartime now, they told themselves, and no one went “yahtin’” any more with a good conscience.

Since her builder had only used the best of materials, Amanda Belle didn’t lose even a quarter-inch of her shape in the years that followed while she was on the hard. A young man finally bought her for way too much money, a former naval officer who had been discharged in the great shrinking of the military that followed right after peace had been declared. He was in love — what else can you say? He stripped off her old paint and dressed her in perfect dark forest green with a gold stripe just under her rail, setting off that sinuous sheer. The stripe ended with a grape leaf cluster at the bow, giving her a necklace that might have been made of the finest pearls.

And could she sail? Can a fish swim? Can a bird fly? She was in her element in a stiff wind, heavy weather that would keep most boats at the dock. Then the young man would stand at the helm almost dancing, his knees flexing and his body thrilling to her motion, the way she would meet and rise to each sea, throwing spindrift over her weather bow and letting it rattle along her deck, just as Katherine Hepburn might carelessly toss a long cashmere scarf over her shoulder.

Even after he reached middle age that thrill never left him. He never married, although there were several love affairs. They all ended at one point or another when he had to make a choice: “Either the boat goes or I do” the woman would say. After they went, they would talk sadly to their friends and their mothers about this idiot who threw away a good thing because he was so selfish. “You’re better off without him,” and “good riddance” they would hear from their mothers and friends. “Plenty more fish in the sea,” they would say with a hug.

They didn’t understand a certain kind of love.

He began to spend less and less time in his office in Manhattan and more time aboard Amanda Belle as he got older. Without a family, he had nothing else to spend his money on, and finally sold his house and moved aboard, selling most of his possessions so as not to be burdened by them. He only owned one thing now. When he was in his late 70’s he broke a hip climbing ashore, and after he came back from the hospital he never took her out again, but stayed aboard, tied to the dock, winter and summer. Then, one deep winter day, a marina employee noticed some broken ice between the boat and the dock – they found his body a few weeks later after a thaw. A short obit appeared in the New York Times saying that he “died suddenly” and mentioned his war service and his business career. Amanda Belle, by now in bad need of paint, was seized by the yard for back bills and hauled out.   She stood on jack stands for a couple of seasons next to a few other abandoned boats, her once-bright teak trim now gray and shabby and, here and there, a stain of rust led down her side from an old oxidized nail.


Then one sunny, gusty February day another young man saw her with her torn canvas cover flapping like a short skirt on a windy street. That sweet sheer showed through everything – it couldn’t be concealed. The breeze was cold and invigorating and the light was a living light, full of life. He came across her by accident as he was wandering through the boatyard because it was by the sea, and the sea just smelled good, as did the yard itself with the odors of paint and pine tar coming through the nearly melted snow.

He found a ladder nearby, set it up, and climbed aboard.   Under the canvas, sitting in the cockpit, he discovered that he was blissfully comfortable, the coamings at his back were just the right height and angle and her bronze wheel, now a weathered green, was perfectly stationed. After a while, he shoved the sliding hatch forward and went below.   Even in the gloom he could see the elaborate cherrywood paneling, the gimbaled oil lamps. The cushions were all gone and there was no trace of mold.   Standing there, he knew he was home.

He didn’t have a lot of money – still owed the bank for his tuition – and was on the bottom career rung in a large architectural firm, spending ten hours a day at the office and quite a few weekends also, but the path forward was clear and the promise of advancement and a much higher salary was implicit. He had been told – and believed it himself – that once he had paid his dues he would be able to finally relax and enjoy life. On the other hand, as he was sitting in that cockpit under the canvas, he knew life itself was right where he was. He didn’t have to move an inch.

The yard practically gave her to him for a very low price, with the provision that he start paying for her storage. The cover came off in early March and the young man spent every spare moment aboard, sanding and painting, but here and there she needed some more serious work. After she was launched, it became obvious that some of the planks along the keel – the garboards – were allowing a steady trickle into the bilge – even after she had soaked up for a week and should have been tight by then. There was no getting around it; Amanda Belle was a tired, old boat.

The young man was now drawn in opposite directions by his job and Amanda Belle. He doubled down on everything. Now he had no time for any kind of social life. He ate quickly and cheaply whenever he had time. He moved aboard to save money and connected to the world only through his cell phone. Fortunately he was within biking distance of the train, so he could get to work without a car. Every spare dime, after paying down his tuition loan and the docking fees, went into the boat. Yet, when he could find a few hours and the weather was fine, he would cast off and under old and patched sails, glide on the water, balancing in the most joyous way between wind and water. Amanda Belle was yet alive, and could still give happiness to those who loved her. In those moments the young man forgot all the hardship that he had willfully chosen from the moment he first sat in her cabin.

He grew older, and like the last owner, remained single – and for the same reason. She was getting older still, and despite constant patching below the waterline, her bilge pump ran more and more frequently. That lovely sheerline began to sag. When it rained, the deck leaked and forced him to move his bedding now and then. When there were no other places to move, he discovered that by pushing a thumbtack into the leaky spot overhead and running a waxed thread off to the side, he could deflect the drips harmlessly away. Before long, the cabin resembled a spider’s nest. Now sensitized to the sound, he would wake whenever the pump started — and it had begun to run almost constantly. He could finally sleep only after several drinks at night, and after a few months, several more. He started showing up at work late, unshaven, rumpled and even slightly odorous until his boss finally had to talk with him. Rather than changing his habits, he began missing days in the office, calling in saying he wasn’t feeling well. His firm, besieged every day with newly licensed job applicants who would willingly work for less, finally and not so regretfully, terminated him one Friday morning. They allowed him to empty his desk and provided him with a large cardboard box for his personal things. They were mostly photographs of his boat.

Back aboard that day, even though it wasn’t even lunchtime, he opened another bottle of vodka and, dropping heavily on the settee in the main cabin, took a long drink. And another. The pump was never quiet now — he stopped even noticing it. Finally he fell asleep, his head on his arms and the empty bottle on its side. That was when one of the garboards next to the keel finally jumped free of its screws, 80 years since it had been carefully, yet forcefully, bent into place, and its forward end spewed suddenly and noiselessly out from the stem. The water started to rise much faster now, and climbed quickly in the cabin. He didn’t wake up until it was neck high and then his head was under water and he was confused and disoriented. He thrashed and struggled, but at the last moment he knew that it was the most natural thing in the world. He relaxed, finally, and he smiled.


This story was published in the 2014 issue of Temenos Journal



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