Saturday, 17 October 2015

Saint May

This is a story about a boat.

Penny and I have known each other since we were around six or seven, and that’s a long time.  When we were eight, we each had a new baby brother join our families, one month apart.  Penny’s baby brother Peter is now a retired grandfather.  He has been an avid sailor since he was a little boy; a chip off the old block.

In his retirement he has revived his interest in painting, enrolling in art school classes.  To everyone’s delight, he has quite a talent which is not really surprising, as he comes from a strong line of artists, performers and singers. 

Let’s go back to the late 1950s.  We were teenagers growing up in the beachside suburb of Bronte which in those days was a middle-class family suburb with the beach as our playground.  Today you have to pay to even look at the place.  

It was around 1957 when Penny’s father announced to his family that he was going to build a sailing boat.  Where, asked his alarmed wife.  In the back yard was the response.  Now this was a tiny pocket-sized yard with room for a small flower garden and a clothes line. 

And build it he did, all on his own.  It took five long years of meticulous building in his spare time, but slowly out of that back yard rose the hull of the boat.  I can’t remember where the clothes line ended up, but Penny’s mother somehow fed and clothed the family of five without a word of complaint. There were times you could barely scrape down the hallway past the timber stored along one wall. 

Pencil sketches of the plan appeared on spare walls – beautifully drawn, as he was an artist.  Many a time we brushed off wood shavings as we left the house.

In 1962 Penny and I were living in London when the boat was launched.  How we would have loved to have been there to watch as a crane slowly drove down the street, much to the amazement of the neighbours, lift the boat over the roof of the house and transport it to Watsons Bay which was to be its home for many years to come.

Penny’s father christened the boat Saint May, in a loving tribute to his wife May who he acknowledged was indeed a saint for allowing him to fulfil his dream.  Inevitably the time came when he became too old to sail his beloved Saint May and he sold it to a member of a local sailing family.

Now we are back in 2015 and Peter recently had some of his works in an art exhibition at Balmain.  He was assisting with the setting up of the exhibition and wandered out into the courtyard where he struck up a conversation with a woman who was also exhibiting.  She lived locally and Peter mentioned that he had been sailing along the Balmain foreshore looking for suitable subjects to paint, when he was stunned to come across his late father’s boat.  Gone was the original timber mast, replaced with an aluminium one and of course it was painted a different colour and had a different name, but he recognised it instantly, as his father had deviated from the original plan in certain areas and designed them to his own specifications.

As he described the boat, the woman’s eyes widened and she quietly said, “That’s our boat.” 

She immediately rang her husband and when he arrived, Peter told them the story of Saint May.  They worked out that boat had changed hands about four times since Penny’s father sold her and the name had been changed at least twice.  But Peter was overwhelmed when the current owners revealed that the life savers and other equipment stored below still bore the name Saint May

I was told this story only yesterday when Tony and I met up with Penny and her husband Keith for a long-awaited coffee and cake.  As Penny came to the end of the story, we were both crying.  We two were transported back to those teen years, with memories of a remarkable man with a magnificent obsession and his understanding and supportive wife.

And the perfect ending?  The current owners are seriously considering re-naming the boat Saint May.  It has come the full circle.

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