Capt. Eric Knott has spent 35 years on the water. A native of England, he followed his father into commercial fishing in the North Sea, Irish Sea, English Channel and environs.
He is now unofficially leading another generation into a life on or around the salt. The 58-year-old Knott is a willing mentor for his grandson Peter Mottolese, as the younger leads the elder on a series of adventures around the islands in Stamford Harbor in Connecticut.
I knew immediately we had the right sea dog for dispensing more tried-and-true wisdom on the topic of kids and boats when he emailed us his grandson’s “Expedition Guide,” which you can read by clicking here.
In an email accompanying his grandson’s tales of summer adventure, he thusly sketched his credentials and those of his shipmate:
“Twenty years commercial fishing in northern Europe, 17 as Master, 10 years cruising in 42 Grand Banks and large Fairline motoryachts and now work for a major tug company. The best fun in my life? Cruising Stamford Harbor in a 9-foot Zodiac powered by a 15-year-old single-cylinder outboard under the command of tyrannical 7-year-old. The trouble is he has now decided he wants to ‘upgrade’ to electric start!”
I interviewed Capt. Knott on Tuesday, when he was in Louisiana doing internal safety audits on several tugs in the 100-foot range.
His advice for getting young people on the water is spot-on:
“Make it fun, make it accessible, and keep it cheap,” says Knott, a safety manager for a large U.S. tug company. “Let them take ownership of what they do. Keep it simple.”
Grandfather and grandson keep their boats at the Czescik Municipal Marina in Stamford. The Zodiac belongs to young Peter, who also has his own marina key, a nice tangible symbol of responsibility. Knott owns a 23-foot Steiger Craft.
Here’s another bit of wisdom from Knott: “It’s not the size of the boat that matters,” says Knott, no stranger to large vessels. (He holds a 200-ton Coast Guard license and held a 3,000-ton license in England). “It’s the size of the smile at the end of the day.”
When he was running a marine training center in England, Knott saw families lose their passion for the sport when they moved into larger boats that over-stretched both their budgets and their skill level.
He practices what he preaches with his grandson. “I think I paid $100 for that Zodiac four years ago,” he says. “It has to be the scruffiest boat in Stamford Harbor. What we have is cheap, cheerful and expendable. It’s not the boat you’ve got but the fun you have with it.”
Amen to that.
Knott is also instructing the youngster on safety and responsibility. Knott himself had a sea change regarding safety when the 65-foot steel crab boat he was skippering caught fire and sank in the 1970s — “before they invented safety” — chasing him and his six crew into a life raft. The crab boat carried but a single life jacket, Knott recalls.
“That was the catalyst for where I am today,” he says.
He is passing those lessons on to young Peter. “Ever since he’s been 1, he’s been coming out with me,” Knott says. “He loves it. And he’s very safety-conscious. He reminds me to put on my life jacket if I forget.”
He adds, “It sounds corny, but I try and instill in him that he can do anything he likes as long as he does it safely.” The boy uses a hand pump to keep his inflatable dry and will instruct anyone within earshot: “Bilge levels must be kept to a minimum.” Wonder where he heard that?
Peter’s father manages Riverscape Marina in the Cos Cob section of Greenwich, Conn. Eric says his grandson helped him remove canvas from the boats at that marina when Hurricane Sandy was approaching last fall. Peter wore kid’s work gloves and a hard hat and was a “big help.”
The soft-bottom Zodiac, named Zoey, takes its share of bumps and bruises as the young skipper beaches her on the harbor’s rocky islands that he is so fond of exploring.
“There’s a lot of duct tape on the boat,” Knott says with a chuckle. “My fishing heritage dictates my repairs.”
The captain is now on the lookout for something a little sturdier for young Peter. He’s thinking that a wooden skiff, 11 or 12 feet, might be just the thing — something that can take the abuse of landing on hard shores and be easily repaired.
Something cheap, cheerful and expendable. One more formula for introducing the next generation to the wonder of boats and the water.