The life of the wood-built boat is an extension of the life of a tree . . . A wooden yacht, built, not manufactured, serves no purpose useful to society or the state but requires art and skill. Therefore; have a care that you can take care of it . . . . such may be the last refuge of the individual . . .
By Donald Gerome Keleher (aka Great Uncle Don)
Twenty years ago I said “no thank you” to my Late Great Uncle Robert Keleher, Uncle Bob, when he offered to pay for sailing lessons at a high end sailing school. It was a regret I’ve been trying to reconcile for the last ten years of my life. In August, the year of The America’s Cup 34 in San Francisco, I took the helm of my Late Great Uncle’s 55 year old wooden Bear Boat Magic and crossed The San Francisco Bay through a fleet of young Red Bull Youth sailors. It was that moment I realized my uncle had indeed given me a valuable gift, one that inspired me to find my own path with values I didn’t even know I had.
Uncle Bob had passion and the highest of principles. He was primarily a self taught Naval Architect and made a great career for himself, mostly living a bachelor’s life. He loved boats, and he favored single-handing and racing. I still hear old acquaintances of his tell me “no one could beat a Keleher” which referred to both him and his brother, my Great Uncle Don. Uncle Bob and I spent many afternoons together hanging in his kitchen talking about life, politics, music, relationships and everything else. I’d bring homemade chocolate chip cookies, and he’d make tuna fish sandwiches, with a traditional highball. That was our thing.
Robert Keleher with his Bristol 29 – Skylark
I enjoyed sailing the few times we voyaged on his Bristol 29 Skylark (It’s still sailing!) from Alameda to San Francisco. It was an activity my parents didn’t encourage. My mom gets terrible motion sickness. By the time my uncle got me on a boat, I was the poorest of poor college students, working my way through school, more worried about holes in my shoes than burning holes into an already empty wallet – I figured sailing was a high end sport. Lessons were expensive and so I politely declined when he offered to pay for them. I was more intent on paying bills and getting a good job one day. Uncle Bob was getting old, and soon he sold his boat.
A few years later when he died, I didn’t go to the funeral nor to the burial at sea. I was pregnant, for one thing, but, more than that, I was not ready to accept that he died. We had squabbled at my last hospital visit. It was no secret that he was fiercely independent and had become an ornery Old Salt. He hated the nurses caring for him and he made sure that they hated taking care of him. I sternly told him to be nice in not such a nice way. He didn’t like my words at first, but then, like he found peace, he smiled and said “maybe you’re right.” He died the next day.
After my daughter was born and my financial situation improved, I discovered how much I hated my “good job”. Feeling the urge to escape the mundane, I found some affordable sailing lessons at a local community sailing school. I got hooked fast. And, I met people like my great uncle who had passion, too. Before I knew it, I was teaching sailing and racing. I learned quickly that the racing blood is not necessarily inherited. I always lost. But, the sailing spirit runs deep, and I learned that on a voyage down the coast of California. At night alone at the helm, fifty miles off shore, charging into the darkness, I connected with what feels like the universal heartbeat, that rhythmic pulse of waves. It’s where inconsequential noise and unnecessary complexities in one’s life disappears. Some call it spiritual.
I continued sailing with the organization learning more than just sailing. I started taking on leadership roles. Some sailors say you learn leadership on a boat. I’ll up the ante and say you learn brutal lessons while running a volunteer community driven, nonprofit sailing organization. I was experiencing it all meeting Good Samaritans, those who generously give, and pirate-like individuals, who want and expect everything. I also met people who came to find something to fill their lives. Perhaps they were dealing with a divorce or lacked purpose. An ocean sailing instructor claimed he “gives people back their souls.” And, I believe there is truth in that.
John Paul Watts, one of my mentors, was one who demonstrated this act. He spent many years passionately sharing his boat with anyone interested in taking the helm. He’d give them opportunity to learn from their own mistakes. He lived on his boat, it was his home, despite the fact he had grown up with privilege. He cultivated and inspired an incredible community of people all looking to find that same driven passion that was clearly filling his life. There was also Captain Richard Gillette who changed his life after a car accident that nearly killed him. He began dedicating enormous amounts of time taking thousands of inner city kids sailing, those hardened by life but who would melt with laughter back into happy children, while demonstrating high levels of responsibility and leadership with that proper time and guidance.
I was meeting the movers in the maritime community, those who inspire by simply sharing time, skill and conversation together without expecting much in return. I got more involved in spearheading efforts myself to get underserved kids sailing, and I learned the great reward is simply watching others get inspired.
I kept a trophy on my desk, a silver platter my mother gave me from Uncle Bob’s estate. Engraved, it read “Magic, First Place, Bear Boat Regatta 1967.” There was also a photo of my uncle sailing Magic that had been published in Diane Beeston’s 1972 Book Of Wind Fog Sail: Sailing San Francisco Bay. I knew very little about the boat, until one day when I was teaching a dinghy class on Richardson Bay and a small boat with a bear emblem on the sail came up close. I shouted “Do you know anything about a Bear boat named Magic?”
They replied “We ARE Magic!”
I got so excited, that I lost control of the dinghy, nearly lobbing the heads off my students. I swear I could see my uncle’s spirit in those sails. I know it sounds a little out there, but it’s true. I met the owners of the boat, The Maloney Family, and I’d get to know them better a few years later.
I had to share this news with somebody, so I gave my 70 year old second cousin Donald James Keleher in Alameda a ring. He grew up sailing with his father, my Great Uncle Don. I really didn’t know Donald well, but I figured he’d enjoy the call. We talked. We started talking a lot. He invited me to his house and introduced me to his daughter Stacey, now in her 30s, who also sailed with the great uncles. He showed me magazine articles on yacht designs my uncle authored back in the 60s, poetry and wooden boat essays his dad wrote and a collection of trophies galore. I started to feel connected to a family that’s been a big part of the San Francisco Bay. The Aeolian Yacht Club in Alameda where my uncles belonged was filled with more trophies and photos. It was a connection I never even knew about, despite the fact I grew up only twenty miles away.
The Sausalito Yacht Club Women’s Regatta was coming up, and I asked Donald and Stacey to crew for me, figuring they were the link to the Keleher master sailing skills. On the day we prepped for the race. Stacey said, “Barbara, don’t romanticize racing with Uncle Bob and Don. They’d scream and shout at one another, and blame anyone on board for anything.” It was hard for me to believe that. We practiced tacking and jibing. I’d give polite commands or ask for advice. Donald shouted at me first, “Take command of the damn boat if you’re the skipper.” I didn’t feel I was as qualified as they were, but he told me to do it. So, I did.
Stacey and Don discuss the loss at the SYC Women’s Regatta – “how did we lose so bad?”
I wish I could glorify the story and say we won that race. We didn’t, despite my dramatic Hollywood-like call to the wind at the start line, ”This one is for you, Uncle Bob!” But, one tradition we did keep and that was shouting and yelling at each other throughout the entire race “Sheet in faster!” I commanded with full zeal. “What the hell do you think I’m doing!” Donald snapped back. Clearly we were becoming comfortable with one another sharing expletives and family tradition.
Last year, Tim Maloney contacted me that the Bear Boats were sailing to the SF Maritime Museum, and Magic would be there for the annual event. I rallied my cousins and kids. Donald hadn’t seen the boat since he was a child. We arrived at the docks just as Magic was sailing in. Stacey and I stood back and watched Donald help handle the lines as if one were carrying for an old friend. We understood Donald was connecting with something more than a wooden boat. It was his childhood, his late father and his late uncle. We didn’t need formal introductions with The Maloney Family. They felt like an extension of our family tree. And, here we were, simply connected by an old wooden boat. It can do that. Donny, Stacey, my kids and I, representing four generations, piled into the cockpit of Magic as we sailed away into memories, feelings and dreams. Uncle Bob was there too.
This year, August 2013, Tim Maloney invited me to sail Magic back to the SF Maritime Museum again for the annual Bear Boat sail-in. We’d have to time it right to get through America’s Cup race course, as part of The SF Bay would be shut down. I didn’t rally my cousins this time. I needed this one for myself. My own life was getting more complicated and, even after 10 years, I was missing those afternoon lunches with my Great Uncle more than ever. This was all I had left of him.
Tim and I met in Sausalito and prepared Magic which Tim had maintained and cared for incredibly well. “You have no idea what this sail means to me,” I said to Tim. He replied with an all-knowing nod, “ I think I do.” He grew up sailing with his father, his ten (!) siblings and now his two sons. Sailing went deep for him, too.
Tim Maloney and Barbara McVeigh on Magic Bear.
Tim was gracious and gave me the helm pretty quickly once we were out in The Bay. It took me a while to find the groove upwind, the boat pointed very high, yet it felt like a part of me. We sailed straight through a full fleet of Red Bull Youth Racers on their downwind leg. I threaded our way through them, fully confident without having a drop of fear, even relishing the rush of their youth, determination and dreams as they passed by.
We spent the day at Hyde Street Pier, the center of San Francisco’s historical maritime community. The majestic Louis Vuitton races were the perfect backdrop, racing in the same waters as my great uncle did for forty years. I wondered what Uncle Bob would have thought of them. A practical and frugal guy, I could imagine him being critical of the cost of the event but having full respect and admiration for the designs and skill of the sailors.
Tim and I prepared to head back. We motored out of the harbor into The Bay, nose to wind. It was blowing like stink and the chop was strong. But, we thought we could raise sails anyway. I went forward to raise the main halyard but the hanks on the luff dropped off, dumping the entire main sail sloppily into the cockpit – my bad, I should have seen the sail off track. Meanwhile the jib got loose and was flapping widely out of control. I dropped to my knobby knees while the boat bounced like a bronco and became a slippery fish underneath me. My hat, a new hat Tim gave me with the Bear Boat emblem, fell off my head. There was no way in bloody hell I was going to lose that hat, so I clenched it between my teeth. Water splashed over my body, salt water blinded me, making me tear up. With one eye open, I yanked the jib harder as it flailed, rising. A line whipped me in the face. I resisted a burst of laughter thinking how fitting it’d be for me to fall off the damn boat. But, I was not going to fall. So, with every ounce of determination and strength I had, I yanked and pulled, bundling up the layers of that white jib, wrappingand securing it tight.
Now it was time to raise sails properly after the first mistake. Tim managed to steer us into a more sheltered area. I raised the main halyard with one hand and clipped the hanks in one by one with the other, slowly and diligently, neverminding the crazy wind around me. Wiping away the salty tears, I hauled up the jib, and it rose like a spirit can fly.
Completely sodden I nodded and smiled to Tim who must be have been feeling some sense of responsibility for my antics. “Are you good?” he asked. “All good!” I proclaimed, feeling I had made peace with those sails.
I sat on the high side of Magic as we crossed The Bay for home. More splashes saturated me but I didn’t care. I even welcomed them. Bay kisses, some call them. A red brilliant sunset dropped down under the Golden Gate Bridge.
After ten years of reconciling, I realized for me there was no racing, no trophies to be won. But, I had gotten what I wanted, plus so much more that I didn’t know I needed – passion, refuge, family ties, spirituality, deep rooted community, a story, and, most importantly, the chance to give a proper goodbye to the master racer, confident and friend, my Great Uncle Robert Keleher.