My first memory — and it was very real — was of a lake in the park. Somehow I knew the park lake had been a boating pond before the war, that it had been left unattended and that the outline of the gunnels in the mud was a rowboat that had sunk and filled up with silt.
Years later my mother told me that I could not have been older than three, and it was impossible for me to have known about World War II.
I desperately wanted to stop and look at the boat, but the big people were shouting at me to hold hands with another child and catch up with the snake of children stumbling along the un-kempt path.
When I was nine years old, we moved and I went to yet another school and found that nearby was a park with rowboats. To save bus money, I got up early and walked the 40 minutes to school every day, and after two weeks had enough to rent a boat for an hour’s rowing.
On Friday afternoon I rushed out of school to the park, only to be told by the attendant that I was much too young to rent a boat. But here I found what has been a repeating theme in my life — people who love boats will always help others who love boats.
The attendant then said he had seen me coming after school to watch others row and, if I prom-ised to stay near the boathouse, I could take a boat out. For two years I walked to school and rowed.
A friend of my mother lived in a small house on an island in the Thames above the first dam and lock and above tide range. For two summers we stayed there and I spent the whole time rowing an old metal lifeboat in little back creeks, reminiscent of Ratty in Wind in the Willows.
When I was 11, we moved to the Thames Valley and were only ten minutes from the river by bicycle. A year later I found that the old chain-ferry man would let me row after school in exchange for winding the ferry across the river on the weekends. The ferry was a flat barge with a large cast-iron wheel and a heavy chain. It held about 30 people.
Alas, somehow it was found out by the local authorities that I was too young to work, so I had to give it up and do an early morning paper delivery route to save for my next boating attempt.
By the next summer I had saved enough to buy some old oil barrels to build my own boat. My friends and I lashed them together and made an unstable raft which we hid in a backwater creek.
I spent more time in the filthy Thames water than on the raft, which probably explains why I came down with an unidentified illness that kept me in bed for six weeks. For a time it was feared that I was getting polio (which at the time was a common problem) so the health workers came around and I had to confess to the raft and its location.
Finally my stepfather gave in and bought me a canoe. Bliss! I would spend every spare moment on the water.
And then one day I went further downstream than usual and turned a corner to see a vision of an angel. My heart stopped. I was in love, and I still am 49 years later. The angel turned out to be a small sailing dinghy planing across the river in front of a sailing club, with lots of dinghies on the bank.
I rushed home and built a mast and sail out of the remains of a World War II silk parachute and was back in the canoe and on the water late in the afternoon. I did not stay “on” the water long, as I rapidly learned about stability, leeway, etc., and realized that I had to find the sailing club.
The club I found was part of the Thames Water Company, and to get to it one had to go through big iron gates that said “Keep Out,” down a long lane past the acres of sewage filter lakes stinking much worse than the pelicans on our Marina’s breakwater.
I plucked up courage and sped past the gate on my bicycle, hoping not to be noticed, and arrived breathless at the club, only to be confronted with signs saying “Employees Only.”
People were launching their boats down a steep bank and they allowed me to help, which I did for the next two weekends. Joy!
Then, one Monday evening, two ominous men from the club turned up at my home, asking to see my parents. They explained that I had been at the private club and they needed to talk. I was sent upstairs and I knew the end of my world had come.
What seemed a lifetime later I was called back down. The men had gone but had asked my parents to sign a waiver so I could become the first cadet member of the club.
That next week took forever to pass, but the following Saturday I was at the club and, after helping them put the boats into the water, I was asked to crew, in my first sailboat experience.
It was love at first sight and it has been ever since.
Peter Beale is a guest columnist in this week’s Argonaut. He was born and grew up in London, England, moved to the United States 22 years ago and has been an avid sailor for the past 50 years. Beale, who is qualified as a sailing instructor by the American Sailing Association, occasionally teaches sailing in Marina del Rey.