“Training Wheels” A Touching Short Story By Alex Watson

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Training Wheels

Have you ever picked a boat name, and then sought out the right boat to bear it?

I did. The name I picked was “Training Wheels.” This was to be a “kidsʼ boat.” An entry level to learning how to operate the bigger, more powerful, and more expensive classic wooden boats in our family. I wanted a boat that would be inexpensive to buy, inexpensive to operate, inexpensive to repair (for obvious reasons), reliable, fun, not too fast, and that would have similar handling and controls as my other wooden boats — meaning inboard power, a wheel-mounted spoon (throttle), and a separate gear shifter (not a Morse).

The boat picked me. Well, actually, I was pressured to buy it via a hurry-up offense from Matt and Texx, Chad Durren, Mike Mayer, Matt Byrne, and Paul Harrison, who ambushed me with an e-mail campaign to “ACT NOW.” To this day, I swear they had bets going whether or not they would succeed.
So I did what any responsible boater would do (he said, sarcastically). Based on a handful of pics and a limited description, I clicked the eBay “Buy it Now” button and bought the boat sight unseen for a bit less than $6,000.

Cavalier sale ad

Cavalier sale ad image

The next day, one of the above conspirators sent me an email asking if Iʼd bought it. Here was my reply:“Yes I did. Or at least I think I did. It’s all kind of a blur. It was an on-the-road-for-days-with-three constantly-rivaling-kids-and-the-beer-had-stopped-sedating-me impulse buy. With more than a little pressure/mockery from my “friends.” I now know what that blonde girl felt like when she woke up next to me back in college and didn’t know who I was. Wait a minute. That never happened. But I see from the email chain, the boat thing did. Whatever happens, Chad might save the day for me. He’s offered to have me pick him en route for the inspection wet/test. Should make for a much more interesting day.

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Image from Ebay listing

Plus, since he neighbors Iowa, perhaps he speaks the language. Then again, perhaps, he’s a WoodyBoater plant, to monitor my heart rate or something, just for reader amusement.”Then even more mocking emails started coming in. From the same guys who pressed me to buy it!

Chad referred to my purchase as: “…the consummate Slow/Stop sign holder’s vessel.”

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ebay image

The boat I bought was a 1959 Chris-Craft 15ʼ Cavalier, weighing in at around 1,300 lbs, with its original fiberglassed bottom (an option in 1959), its original Model K, 6 cylinder engine, plus trailer. It had incorrect seat cushioning, incorrect oak slats on the floor, an incorrect Perko aftermarket stern light mounted right next to the (correct) flag pole, incorrect logos on both sides, 2 incorrect vents, and 5 dash gauges — 4 of them incorrect and none which matched. On its windshield, it didnʼt have an ACBS sticker. It had “Mr. Woodpecker,” the cigar chomping cartoon logo of Clay Smith Cams, not to be confused with “Woody,” the even angrier looking (but non-smoker) cartoon logo of Thrush Exhaust.


Perfect! Because, the way I saw it, all those incorrects added up to one incorrectly correct (or correctly incorrect) “kidʼs boat.” The less fancy and original, the more peace of mind Iʼd have. Better to damage a “relaxed” user boat than an original barn find. The kids wouldnʼt even know (or care) about correctness. All theyʼd care about is how cute it looks and the freedom and fun of operating it.

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Incorrect Perko stern pole outlet. Come to think of it, incorrect fuel filler too. And non-matching bow and stern lines. Making the boat even more “incorrectly correct.

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”Incorrect, though practical, addition of oak floor slats.

Between purchase and pickup, the seller wet tested the boat so there would be no surprises. He found a leaking head gasket and replaced it. Uncommon integrity. He wrote: “I honestly don’t think you will have any unpleasant “surprises” once you see the boat.” Common fallibility. (Youʼll see why in the next para.) Chad accompanied me to pick up the boat in Iowa. Owing to flood levels and swift current on the Mississippi, we were unable to water test the boat. On good faith, based on the sellerʼs evident character, based on the low cost and simplicity of the boat, and given I was 604 miles from home, I took possession anyway. After dropping Chad off back in Naperville, IL, I brought it up to Hessel, MI. Upon my arrival, my now late friend Tommy Mertaugh of Classic and Antique Boats, looked over the boat and informed me the hull sides were soft in spots. (Sigh.)

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Chad knitted me this cool monkeyʼs fist key fob on our return trip. Thanks pal.

While the news that repairs were needed was disappointing, I remained certain the seller did not intend to deceive. He demonstrated far too much goodwill for that, given the engine work he had done voluntarily, given the detailed binder of records, receipts, and photos he provided me, given the life jackets, fenders, lines, and paddle he included with the boat, given how nicely detailed the boat and trailer were for my pick-up, and given his limited knowledge of boats overall (he was a car guy).
So, the guys at Classic Boats proceeded with repairs and we launched the boat in early August of that summer. It was now a member of the family.

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Welcome to Hessel, T.W.

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John Grenier of Up North Studios, our local lettering artist, painted her name, perfectly proportioned and arched in that classic understated Les Cheneaux way. No gold leaf on this baby. At last, the name had a boat!

But this story isnʼt about “Training Wheels.”

This story is about the impact this unassuming, incorrect classic boat had on me as a parent, and on my teenager. Not just any teenager though. A girl teenager, who happens to be my first born. Since this involves a teenage girl, I suppose you could call it a suspense story. (Cue the Twilight Zone theme.) It was Boat Show day, August 9, 2014. My plan was to take scads of photos for WoodyBoater, then write up the Show. I was kind of at a loss what to say, though, because I had covered our show in 2011, 2012, and 2013.


Well, I ended up not writing about the Hessel Show that year, because what happened later that day became a far more compelling story idea for me to relay. Like many people that sunny, Boat Show day, I stood on the Hessel break-wall and watched the boats fire up and depart Hessel Harbor at the end of the Show. I went back to my boat, “The Majestic,” a Scripps- powered 1948 25ʼ Sportsman, which was a “Feature Boat” that year, and burbled the 1/4 mile back to our cottage. The Show was over. But we had a gorgeous Les Cheneaux summer evening ahead. After dinner, my 14 year-old daughter asked me if she could take her friends, who were staying with us, for a boat ride in “Training Wheels.” Because she was still learning how to operate a boat, and because this particular boat was still new to us, I said yes, but that I would accompany them.

We left the dock, three teen girls sandwiched in the front row, with the fourth girl and me in the back row. As I usually do, I brought along my point and click camera and began to take random pics.

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Starting out on our boat ride. Beautiful, glassy conditions.

As I watched my daughter at the controls, I was overcome with a sense of gratitude. Here I had taught her everything she knew about operating a classic boat. Here I had bought her and her younger brothers a “kidsʼ boat” of their own, to learn on. And yet I was the one feeling gratitude? Yes. Because she was giving me back something far more precious. Proof that my efforts had led to a competent and confident young boater. It was wonderful seeing her run the throttle just as I had taught her. It was wonderful watching her enjoying the freedom to weave the boat wherever she wanted to go.

It was wonderful watching her smile and laugh behind the wheel. And it was wonderful knowing she was loving the moment she was in. There are few things more gratifying as a parent than to watch oneʼs children demonstrate talents one knows they picked up from you. Itʼs like verification that “yes, all these years, they actually have been watching, and listening, and learning.” They donʼt need to thank you for imparting this stuff. Watching them do something you taught them correctly is a heart-load of thanks.

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Controlling the spoon with leverage, just like Dad taught her.

As we boated around, I patted myself on the back for a job well done. Great idea, this little “kidsʼ boat.” Great name for it too! Here was my daughter, operating the boating equivalent of her first bicycle (though Dad was along for the ride, just in case).

Since I wasnʼt talking on the ride (with four teen girls aboard, I was in fact, the only one not talking), I kept on observing and thinking. My thoughts turned deeper. And thatʼs when a realization hit me, square between the eyes.

“Training Wheels” wasnʼt just a boat for her to learn on. And it wasnʼt just a boat to help her become an expert boatsman. It was a part of her learning to be an independent, confident young woman. And in becoming that, “Training Wheels” was, in fact training me to let her go. That boat ride made me realize moments like this would soon be in the past.

Many times Iʼd heard parents of older kids tell me to treasure my own at their young ages because the times we were having were fleeting. But I didnʼt get it. I didnʼt feel what they were telling me… until this boat ride. It was then that I began to miss my daughter. Even though she would still be living under our roof for a few more years.

As I watched her, suddenly I could see her driving off in a car. I could see her packing her bags for college. I could see her packing her belongs after college, heading to her first apartment. And I could see myself giving her away in marriage. It hit me that, day by day, I was losing her to independence. All this, as I watched her laughing with her friends and delighting at the boat ride.

Anyone who has kids who are college age or older will probably identify with this story, especially when it concerns a daughter. Perhaps you had a similar realization as yours became closer to the first step away from the nest. Well, it was here, on this unassuming flyweight toy of a boat that I realized it.

I guess my reason for writing this story was to share with Woody Boaters yet another connection between classic boating, especially this singular classic boating experience, and memory making. Only in this case, it was also a powerful connection to parenting. I consider myself a pretty romantic guy. I love the romance that only a classic wooden boat can offer. Iʼm so grateful my daughter is, in some meaningful way, developing her wings behind the wheel of this one.



Though I began this story way back in 2014, for some reason I set it aside. Probably because life comes pretty quickly at a father of three busy kids who are constantly changing. In the case of my bright, headstrong daughter, it felt like I was trying to write about a moving target. Soon after the above ride, Marion took her first solo ride in a classic boat. It was “Training Wheels.” I took photos from the dock. A few days later, I gave her $50 and asked her to drive the boat to Hessel marina and fuel up. Yes, this doesnʼt sound like a big deal. But it was her first time taking this next responsibility for operating the boat. I took photos from the dock. Two weeks after that, Marion took friends out in “Training Wheels” without an adult on board. I took photos from the dock.

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Departing on her first solo. Note her Outward Bound hat. She had just returned from a 3-week expedition in the Boundary Waters (northern Minnesota). Adversity builds character. And in this case, the courage to do this with her Dad watching.

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Arriving after her first solo. Gingerly, perfectly docked. Check out the “as if there was any doubt” facial expression.

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Docking after her first solo with friends. She looks like sheʼs off to battle! Her friends look…well…skeptical. Wisely, theyʼre not saying anything. (She did great, incidentally.)

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“Another boat ride with friends. Check out Zach, the poor fellow riding shotgun. Yeah, he’s confident. Probably wishing he was in a boat with a crash pad.”

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Need more proof Zach was nervous? Check out his expression now that “docking was imminent.” The guy on the motor box? Thatʼs my son, Sandy. Though typically a lighthearted boy, here, he looks to me like Donald Trump.

This past summer, 2015, when Marion was with us at the cottage, she took “Training Wheels” out for a spin almost daily. I soon stopped taking photos from the dock. My confidence in her had grown, as had her self-confidence (though I still worried a little and watched for her return).

By summerʼs end, she had graduated to “Lush Life,” our beautifully restored 1946 22-U. I watched her first solo in that boat. And I watched her, and 6 (!) of her friends, ride off in it for ice cream and to catch the sunset. I took photos from the dock. It was beautiful.

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Loading up Lush Life for ice cream. Count ʻem. 7 teenagers!

The teen machine.

It won’t be long before I let her drive my more powerful, and much costlier boats. I think Iʼll be OK with that. “Training Wheels” hadnʼt just trained a daughter to drive a classic inboard. It had trained me to trust her. My good friend, Mike Mayer tells me this is nothing like giving her the keys to the car. ( And yes, she has her learnerʼs permit now.) But hopefully, “Training Wheels” will help me make that transition too, to let go just a little more.

Woody Boater NOTE, Here is the original story on Woody Boater that sucked Alex in! In 2013!


36 replies
  1. Dan T
    Dan T says:

    I’m a little long in the tooth and not very well behaved, but I love working on and maintaining wooden boats. I am available for adoption. Will you be my dad?

  2. m-fine
    m-fine says:

    Great story and great idea to get a training boat. Bad idea succumbing to peer pressure from that group of characters though! You also need to teach your kids about the importance of hanging around with the right crowd, resisting peer pressure and avoiding impulse purchases. At least you haven’t exposed the boys to Troy and his photo collection yet. 😀

    • Alex
      Alex says:

      What the…?! I don’t remember that at all, Troy. ADD impulse move no doubt. Hope I’m standing on the motor box and not the covering board. At first I thought you photoshopped that pic. But then I zoomed in on Mayer at the back of the boat. Yep, that’s genuine Mikey.

  3. m-fine
    m-fine says:

    Impersonating Tricky Dick while standing on the gunwale of a moving boat, with no life jacket no less. More setting of bad examples!

  4. Shannon & Scott K
    Shannon & Scott K says:

    We know nothing of this peer pressure that you speak of.

    (Somewhere in Tennesee as an Orange Glastron follows us home from Florida)

  5. John A Gambill
    John A Gambill says:

    This is a beautiful story, beautifully written, brought a tear to my eye. you are a very lucky man.

  6. Wilson
    Wilson says:

    Great story…As a father of two grown girls I can relive some of those moments…regrettably I didn’t know there were any wooden boats left when our girls were growing up and so a 17′ fiberglass Cobia with a Merc 115 had to do…But like Alex I watched them learn to drive it, learn to pull their friends on water skiis on the lake behind our house and even hook it up behind a 20′ motor home and drive it to the coast. Unlike Alex, I watched them go off to college, come home marry and start their own lives and now we are repeating with their children, one of whom I had in Tavares last weekend. Life goes by much too fast.

  7. Wylie
    Wylie says:

    Life in the UP. Thanks for the personal story, deserves a quote from one of Michigan’s finest.

    “Life is sentimental. Why should I be cold and hard about it? That’s the main content. The biggest thing in people’s lives is their loves and dreams and visions, you know.” Jim Harrison

  8. MikeM
    MikeM says:

    Great story, Alex. Although I’ve sort of “lived it” with you your story was well written and moving. Regarding Troy’s photo….its not very clear on my iPad so I’m hoping I’m holding up a bottle of beer and not flipping off the Woodyboater universe!

    • Tom Gruenauer
      Tom Gruenauer says:

      Great story. It brought back a memory of watching my daughter Shannon dock the glass inboard last summer with her friend on board. She spun it around and back it in like a pro. She is working on her masters degree in deaf education. Very proud.

  9. Dick Dow
    Dick Dow says:

    Wonderful story and reflections, Alex. There is nothing like the expression on a kids face behind the helm as it changes from “first time” to “I’ll take it!” over the years. Last night after our Easter dinner I took my granddaughter Jordan, who will be 10 in July and showed her the 15′ Dakota outboard in the shop. I told her the plans her mom, dad and I have this summer for her to learn to drive the boat and that it would be available for her family whenever they want to use it. She was very happy and excited with the idea and I look forward to passing the boating tradition on to another member of our family. She’s going to be a good little skipper!

    These moments are priceless and they pass so quickly!

  10. Mr. Holm
    Mr. Holm says:

    Just when I thought it was safe again to ply the waters of Les Cheneaux Islands, Alex goes and gives the monkey fist to a non-adult. What are you thinking? a re-creation of the tragic On Golden Pond incident where the Chris-Craft ends up on the rocks and I will have to save them in my trusty Century Mail Boat? These whippersnappers are taking over the hobby leaving me and your friends up on the porch in our rocking chairs as they burn up the remaining barrels of non-ethanol fuel. And wait, as your son becomes a piston head and re-powers the Cavalier with a 454 , I’ll see you at the Mackinac County jail as the water patrol cites “driving too fast for conditions”. You know not what you have done. Give them more video games; keep the waters for Adults Only. BTW, the ACBS Rules & Regulations explicitly cites a mandatory one point deduction for all stern poles over one, lighted or un-lighted. As this is late in the day and nobody will read this, I’m sending it onto the Rudder; they’ll publish anything once. Close the Bridge!

  11. floyd r turbo
    floyd r turbo says:

    Excellent story Alex. Shows another positive aspect of boating that families experienced in the past that we so fondly remember ourselves. Having 2 daughters and a younger son we went through a different experienced as they all groused about me barking orders on our Hacker whenever we approached the dock or hauled out or launched. I told them everyone had a responsibility, one on lines, another putting out fenders and another fending off and jumping out on the dock to receive and tie up. They thought they could just sit back and relax with no responsibility. Eventually, I sold the Hacker after complaints about constant cleaning and they really couldn’t enjoy it because of the pressure. My middle daughter didn’t seem that interested in boating or so it appeared. She didn’t show interest in the events that her siblings demonstrated but to each his or her own, I wasn’t going to force them to attend events. That would really turn them off.
    Eventually, this middle child who really only enjoyed the cardboard boat building event at our Lake Chatuge show spent her first summer on the university rowing team before even attending her first freshman class. I was astonished and proud but wondered how long that would last. Four AM wake ups with calisthenics, then onto the river for rowing practice all before 8AM in the morning is not most teenagers dream, but it was boating and I was happy to see her participate. And for this we had the pleasure of paying over a $1000 to compete each season. One would think the university would offer some sort of athletic scholarship you say? Dream on. At her invitation we attended the end of the rowing season celebration dinner at the local rowing club’s hall, I met the university rowing coach, a no b/s kind of guy who required focused and committed participation from his students both from the rowers and the coxswains. But he also recognized them and rewarded the high achievers with special “medallions” he created (no participation awards for everyone). I was so proud when he gave her a most team spirit and most improved award.
    During 4 years of fall “head” races and spring sprint racing and 3:45AM wakeup calls she was named captain of the woman’s team, president of the university rowing club and had coxed the men’s elite four team to the fastest time on record for the university. The coach requested her to cox the men’s team at the Head of the Charles to compete in the 2nd largest rowing event in the world. Having advised her myself when she did double duty as a cox and a rower when she first attended that event 2 years before as a freshman we went over the course which is punctuated with narrow bridges you must pass through with river and tidal currents causing changes in your boats direction not to mention other natural factors. I feared she had a tremendous burden to perform if wind or wave became significant factors. Coming through the competition without crashing their boat into a bridge abutment was a major accomplishment and an event for all of them to remember. If you’re not familiar with responsibilities of a coxswain, they start by leading the rowers in exercises finding weaknesses and calls for more work to build speed and strength. Then directing the rowers to “march” and launch their boat with military precision. This is no time for foolishness, it’s a very serious procedure. And finally, the cox steers the boat by calling the stoke count of the rowers and knowing when and how quickly to sprint to achieve best times in the event. When the coached named her to search for a replacement coach when he announced his retirement, I felt her contribution to the team had certainly been significant.
    I can’t help but think the lessons she learned from our family boating experience was a major factor which she drew upon for this experience. I’m sure Marion will draw on her experiences you gave her through life as well, Alex. Maybe someday they will come to us and acknowledge that before we go to that great Viking boat funeral in the sky, lol.

    • Alex
      Alex says:

      floyd r turbo, what a wonderful story of its own right! Congrats to you and your daughter. You have every reason to be proud. Who knows whether the Hacker, or just being on the water, had any part in lighting a fire. I’m sure your daughter doesn’t even know. But it can’t hurt. Maybe she has your passion for being on the water, only it’s competitively rather than recreationally.

      Re rowing, I have some familiarity with it. I rowed a 4 man shell in high school. We didn’t have a cox, though, so your comment today taught me quite a bit about their role. We didn’t race competitively, it was more of a club sport. I really enjoyed the purity and speed of being out there.

      As a runner these days, I row (indoors, on a Concept 2) for cross training. Rowing is perhaps the single best zero impact exercise out there with little risk of injury.

      I’ll think of you when I see rowers on the Charles in three weeks. It’s beautiful to behold. Thanks again for sharing your great story.

      • floyd r turbo
        floyd r turbo says:

        Thanks for the compliments Alex. Looking forward to the future for your daughter, its a great sport and a tight group of people to share their experience. Here’s the cox and crew in Boston

  12. Troy in ANE
    Troy in ANE says:

    I hope ALL of you make them do some of the grunt work too!

    Gives them an appreciation for what it is all about.

  13. thomas d.
    thomas d. says:

    my first woody was a 1957 cc cavalier back in 1973. my fondest memory of it was clearing a rope out of the prop and a friends girlfriend leaning over the stern helping me.

  14. Ed S
    Ed S says:

    Back in 1957 Dad bought a leftover 1955 Johnson 5 1/2 that we clamped onto an 11′ plywood rowboat I used to explore the East River out around Fort Schuyler and onto Long Island Sound. With the years the vessels got bigger: 4 years at Maine Maritime Acad; several years on merchant tankers; a tour in the Navy and, finally, back to the old Johnson.
    As each of our kids turned 10 and took the Young Boaters Safety Courses and earned their ticket, they were fitted out with a wood boat they “earned” thru sanding, scraping, painting and polishing…plus the old Johnson. “Niff’s Skiff” was a 1952 Roberts Rocket. “Cub’s Tub” was a Pen Yan Swift.
    The year Cub earned her ticket, we had guests at our cabin… and a blackout around the lake. Our guest’s daughters – and their fiances – were out on the lake as darkness feel and their mother went ballistic (afraid the Dark Demon would eat them?) Shortly after the guest’s hysteria abated, Cub called::”Hi, Dad. I’m over at Unks and will head home shortly.” We saw the running lights come on and watched her chug her way unerringly home despite the pitch darkness. Proud Poppa!
    Couple of years ago a friend told me he had always been impressed enough with the easy, confident bost handling he saw in my kids that he decided he would fit out his own grandkids with a basic boat and motor.
    Today that old Johnson hangs on my work bench waiting ready to train the 3rd generation of watermen.

  15. Kelly Wittenauer
    Kelly Wittenauer says:

    Wonderful story, Alex. You so well captured the mix of pride, hope, sorrow & apprehension that comes with watching ones’ child begin to make their own way in the world.

  16. Amy Mertaugh Izzard
    Amy Mertaugh Izzard says:

    Beautiful story, Alex. Your children will cherish these memories in LCI and your confidence in Marion will help build the strength and maturity she needs to be a successful young lady. You wrote a beautiful tribute to our beloved Tommy and my husband, Mark, thank you it meant so much to our family.

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