A yellow banana, an old skiff and the first time the old man heard me cuss

There is a 13.5-foot yellow “banana” on the top of my Toyota 4Runner. Veteran Miami charter skipper Bouncer Smith would blanch at the thought of a yellow boat, especially one resembling a banana, which in Bouncer’s world portends bad, bad luck for anglers.

But this is a brave new world. And with deference to Bouncer, when it comes to kayaks, brighter is better, yellow included, because it means you’re more easily seen, which is a big plus in terms of safety.

The yellow rotomolded “plastic fantastic” is the kids’ beach boat — a big, wide, stable double kayak built by Perception. Forty years ago, it would have been a leaky lapstrake skiff or rowboat, which is how many of us got our start.

The world is changing, but the pull and attraction of the water is timeless, which is truly our ace in the hole. Not only do small boats like kayaks and paddleboards get new people out on the water, but they also get the young (and not so young) comfortable being “in” the water. Comfortable with the concept of “tippy,” and getting wet and having a ton of fun.

It is the Tao of the wet-foot tribe. Want to reach millennials? Make it fun, make it simple, make it affordable. Get them hooked — and comfortable — being in, on and around the water, and you’re paving the way to eventual boat ownership for a certain percentage of them. Small boats worked their magic on us.

Our small-boat fleet today consists of three kayaks, two powerboats (one soon to be sold) and a Laser.

* * *

The lapstrake skiff shown here was built by my grandfather (standing to the left) many moons ago. Norwegian-born Olaf Berentsen, or simply “Cap” as he was known, came from a family steeped in the maritime trades. A World War I veteran, Cap worked for several years aboard J.P. Morgan’s great yacht Corsair, and during the 1920s he captained yachts for several wealthy families from New York and Philadelphia.

He swallowed the anchor when he met my grandmother, but he never lost his love for the sea. He made ship models, walked the harbor in the evening, talked with the new generation of captains and, relatively late in life, built the skiff you see in these photos.

I know he liked everything about putting the boat together, and there are photos of the old captain rowing in the harbor in a dress jacket and hat. My father also had his adventures in that boat as a young man, and his three sons got their feet wet in the skiff, too.

The little boat is asleep in the loft of the family barn, but one day we will wake her, do the necessary restoration work, and relaunch her with good memories and stories.

* * *

We ran this photo in Soundings magazine about two years ago. It’s one of my favorites because I think so many of us can see ourselves in those young faces.

The boy in the middle is 10-year-old Bill Lieblein, shown with his younger brother Peter, to the left, and his older cousin Herman. The trio is sitting in one of the rental boats at Port of Egypt Marine, the family boatyard on Long Island’s North Fork.

Today, Lieblein is CEO of the 150-slip marina, and he looks back on those early days with fondness — even those rainy days when he had to bail the 60-some-boat fleet for a nickel a boat.

* * *

As kids, Peter Giordano and I used to row a leaky old tub around a farm pond, catching bluegills and largemouth bass. Soft planks, coffee-can bailer, three bench seats, no life jackets. It was pulled up on the shore, turned upside down with the oars beneath it, and anyone could use it. My father accompanied us a couple of times.

I remember clearly that it was on one of those outings that he heard me curse, albeit mildly, for the first time.

“Damn it,” I said as a little bass shock loose.

He looked at me over narrowed eyes but didn’t say a word. “Sorry, sorry, dad.”

About 10 minutes later, a second fish got off.

“Damn it,” I said again.

Almost 50 years later, I still like small boats, and I still swear like a sailor when I lose a good fish.


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