Growing Up on Lake Champlain
I grew up in a house right on Lake Champlain’s Adirondack Coast in Westport, NY., where we had a pretty extensive lake shore, complete with a dock, a swim beach and a boat house with an antique winch system to easily launch boats right into the lake and pull them back in to store for winter.
We could see the big lake, and Vermont on the other side, from our house. When my sister and I were young kids, we watched from our living room as the big sailboats and large cruisers passed our bay; over a mile off in the distance near the middle of the lake. There were always small outboard fishing boats and circling motorboats towing water-skiers closer to shore. And we still remember the distinct low hum of the big cargo barges as they slowly meandered across our view, bringing big crates north via the Champlain canal in the south to Whitehall and then north on the big lake to the Richelieu River to Canada and points north.
Over the 30-plus years that my parents owned the place, we had a varied fleet of watercraft ourselves. I was only 3 years old when we first moved in, but I remember that for the first few years we were there, the boat house contained two vintage wooden boats; a Cris Craft named Tuffy and a small blue and white painted speed boat.
The Sailing Years
The Cris Craft was replaced one year by a 34-foot wooden sailboat. My father painstakingly restored it by himself over what I remember being a year; painting and finishing mahogany trim. When he finally launched the Tuffy II, we sailed quite often. My sister and I “learned the ropes” as we served as first and second mate. Mom came along too, but she was primarily in charge of refreshments.
Lake Champlain is awesome for sailing. The broad lake allows even the biggest sailboats to zig zag for long runs before needing to tack, or “come about”. In summer, the water from the Lake Champlain Bridge in Crown Point all the way north to Westport and beyond in New York and Shelburne and Burlington in Vermont are dotted with sailboats whose home ports are in neighboring Canada, east coast states and the Great Lakes.
During the “sailboat years”, the speed boat was sold. Since the sailboat was moored in our bay, we had a rowboat to access it. The rowboat was a 14 foot aluminum boat, and my sister and I begged our father to put an outboard on it so that we’d have our own “speed boat”. He never did, so we resigned ourselves to rowing around in our bay, pulling up on shore in different places and pretending that we were traveling to far off lands to search for treasure and all sorts of lake-accessible adventures. In hindsight, it was a good thing we didn’t have a motor.
We were friends with the folks who owned the summer camp next door, and they had all kinds of floating toys that they shared with us too, including canoes and small sunfish sailboats, so we were never without a way to take advantage of our liquid backyard.
Enter The Ugly Boat
We had that sailboat for a number of years, but I think the necessary maintenance of a wooden boat finally became overwhelming and time consuming. My sister and I, now “tweens”, and Mom and Dad all agreed that we missed having a power boat to cruise and waterski. So Dad sold the Tuffy 2.
And he replaced it with The Ugly Boat.
Parked at the dock, one could see it easily from afar - a bright mustard yellow-colored motor boat. Here it was, the roaring 1980’s and we had a 24-foot 1970’s vintage aluminum Starcraft cuddy cabin cruiser. From close up, it had even more ugly traits. The upholstery matched the mustard yellow exterior paint, too. The cabin had room for two to sleep on mustard yellow cushions and a tiny sink that we never hooked up to water; all accessible by what we called the “kitchen door”, which looked like a miniature paneled aluminum screen door. Despite its appearance, it was powerful. The boat had a big inboard/outboard engine, and could easily pull a person on waterskis with 8 people on board.
We hated to love it, begging Dad to have it painted white. We saw our big chance for a makeover when he decided to have the upholstery redone; “how about white?’ we asked. In an accidental compromise, the seats were redone in a lovely white AND mustard yellow. The exterior remained entirely mustardy.
As is customary, a boat’s name is typically painted on its stern. Dad threatened to put “Tuffy 3” on it, but we argued that EVERYONE calls it The Ugly Boat. This was never resolved, and in all the years we had the boat, the only identification was its official registration number on the side. Its name, one could assume, was implied.
Note that despite our distaste for its appearance, we never said no to a sunset cruise or trip to a lakeside dining establishment with Mom and Dad.
As teenagers, we were allowed to take The Ugly Boat out with our friends. As Captain, I’d typically drive a boat full of girls, my “crew”, stopping at the Westport Marina and The Galley for mozzarella sticks and fuel before heading back out for more sunbathing and water skiing and tubing. We were a common site on the water in those years; a group of girls on a bright yellow boat. We usually toured north out of Northwest Bay in Westport along the tall cliffs of the Palisades to Essex, waving to the more beautiful, fancy white fiberglass cruisers and sailboats along the way.
College years and beyond, The Ugly Boat remained the primary form of water transportation at our parents’ house. My husband and I enjoyed weekend cocktail cruises with my parents for several years. Finally, my parents sold the house and soon after, The Ugly Boat too.
Today, my husband and I prefer human-powered sports like paddling. Throughout these years, we also had kayaks to explore the lake - ours were versatile boats that work well in smaller rivers and on the big lake. We’ve even considered acquiring sea kayaks, which are ideal for longer treks and navigating the sometimes choppy waters one finds on a large body of water the size of Lake Champlain.
My former Ugly Boat “crew” and I still reminisce about those days when we wished we had a newer, prettier boat, laugh at our younger selves for so disliking its color, and wish we could still live on mozzarella sticks.
Looking back, those Ugly Boat years represented our transition from childhood to self-sufficient adults, and I now positively associate the color the boat we hated to love with the pleasant hues of... a sunset.