Column: The lessons of the pulling boat


For the Valley News

Published: 01-19-2021 10:10 PM

Foghorn? Right here! Give it a toot; make sure it’s working. Thank you. Bilge pump? Port side of centerboard trunk. Is it working? I don’t know. Two plastic buckets? Right here! Fill one of ’em to check if the bilge pump’s working. Good. Charts?

And so it went, from the duffel bags and main sprit down to the water jugs and the pair of dividers in the chart case. It was like the takeoff checklist of an airliner. Everything had to be on board and working and stowed where it belonged.

Finally we cast off bow and stern, I quoted Bert and I — “Give the dock a push with the oar, Bert!” and we were off among the islands of the coast of Maine.

Teaching was my racket then. I’d been at it only three years when I stumbled across a Life magazine article about Outward Bound. Several unsuccessful job applications later, I was hired by the Hurricane Island school for the summer of 1965 as a substitute for an instructor who couldn’t make it. My wife and I loaded up our two kids and the 1954 Ford wagon and drove to the coast.

My first job, upon arriving at the pier at low tide, was getting Mother up the slippery green vertical ladder, which she refused to climb in a skirt. After that, it was building our 16-foot by 16-foot tent platform — “Lumber’s on the pier; tools are in the boathouse.” A run through the ropes course and initiative tests with the other instructors, and I finally met a pulling boat.

Thirty feet long, 8 feet wide, built like bank vaults, and, naturally, heavy, the school’s pulling boats — so-called because their main reliable source of locomotion was rowing (“pulling”) — were the central metaphor we were attempting to teach. A brighter person than I would have figured out much faster than I eventually did that all of the experiences on the island were metaphors. Our job as instructors was to ensure the transfer of the lessons of the experiences to the lives to which the students would be returning afterward.

Neither you nor I, probably, can climb over a smooth wall 14 feet high, even with the help of a friend who also must get over. A group of 12 teenagers — we called them “watches” — of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds can do it. But it takes some organization, leadership, testing and cooperation. The message hovering above every activity — morning run around the island and (for many) a terrifying leap off the pier into 45-degree water; initiative tests (the wall and a crocodile-infested canyon); capsize drill; cleaning stations — was that only when everybody in the watch succeeds does the watch succeed. One watch of mine had a 275-pounder. Confronting the wall for the first time, they asked, “Is it OK if he doesn’t go over but somebody else goes twice?”

And so to the pulling boats. Though there were often some yacht club members’ sons in a watch, it’s safe to say that none had ever wrestled a crowded 30-foot sprit-rigged cat ketch with a 12-oar auxiliary through the rocks, reefs and fogs off the Maine coast. It took a bit of time to get everybody familiar with port and starboard, coming about, jibing, stretchers, tiller, pintles, gudgeons and centerboard pennant. Then, finally, we could begin.

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That boat was their miniature planet: It had aboard it all they needed to survive for the length of their planned trip. It was their means of survival and of getting anywhere; if they broke it, they were going nowhere. It had to be watched around the clock, with regular log entries. At anchor, the watch had to record soundings every half hour, and keep a journal going through their shift (while their crewmates tried to sleep on a bed of oars laid lengthwise side by side atop the seats).

The stories of the crew’s adventures and misadventures would — in fact, did — fill a book. But my constant concern was that they could see how, in spite of all their differences in talent, physical ability, ethnicity and background, the great lumbering pulling boat was their world, and if they took care of it, would in turn take care of them. Also, that great lumbering 275-pounder who I dictated lead the morning run each day before breakfast — that boy could pull on a 10-foot oar fit to break it! When he rowed, the boat moved! And when it came to the tug-of-war contest at the end of the course, he was, as the old hymn goes, their fortress and their might. I watched them leave, waving happily, with the usual mix of relief and regret. And my usual fervent hope that I might get a dozen members of Congress into a pulling boat for a couple of weeks.

Willem Lange can be reached at