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Starting Small

The gift of a toy boat swells into a full-size yachting career.

By Dudley Dawson

My entire life has been connected to boats in one way or another, but I’d never really given much thought to how that came about until my family was sitting around on a hot, lazy summer day a few years ago. As we swatted flies and consumed sweet tea, the South’s nectar of the gods, we watched the grandkids play aboard the several family boats that populate our shoreline. Out of the blue, one of my offspring asked, “Dad, how did you first become interested in boats?”


It was a question that took me back half a century to the days of round-screen television sets and Ike’s first term as president. After a bit of reflection, I speculated that it had all started with a toy cabin cruiser, Marlin, that I owned when I was still too young to handle a full-size boat. The little model featured a white hull (as a proper yacht should), a varnished deck, a red Bimini top and a swept-back “banana” mast in the streamlined style of the day. Best of all, she was powered by a miniature Evinrude outboard.

Marlin was a gift from both my parents, but my dad was the one with water in his veins, raised on my grandfather’s Virginia farm that fronted a wide spot on the Potomac River, a parcel that is now the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I was raised there on the bay, too, and spent many idyllic hours wading off the beach and burning through the D-cells that powered Marlin’s motor.

She taught me lessons about boats that would stand me in good stead as the years flashed by. As my experience grew, so too did my boundaries and my boats. It wasn’t long before I docked Marlin in my toy box, preferring instead a Huck Finn existence exploring the many tributaries that fed the bay. Later, I was entrusted to make runs across the bay to buy crabs by the bushel from the commercial fishing docks in Maryland.

I eventually left Marlin completely behind, much like Woody in Pixar’s “Toy Story,” forgetting her as I went off to study naval architecture at New York’s Webb Institute. I sailed the world with the Merchant Marine, then served as a U.S. Coast Guard officer before beginning a rewarding career in yacht design with Jack Hargrave’s studio in Florida. It wasn’t long until I had the opportunity to meet Ralph Evinrude, the boating legend whose family name adorned Marlin’s little motor, as we worked on a refit of his Defoe yacht, Chanticleer.

With their three sons grown and gone, my parents eventually sold the family home and moved to Florida. Many of their no-longer-needed belongings and some of mine, too, apparently including Marlin, were given to relatives and friends. Unbeknownst to me, after I mentioned the long-forgotten Marlin to my kids, they began a quixotic search for the old girl. Against all odds, they located her in a box in my niece’s attic, where she lingered after my grandnephews outgrew the little model’s allure. Neglected for years, Marlin was in pieces, but almost all the parts were there, including her little Evinrude motor and her original Bimini top, now a more muted shade of red from her joyous days in the sun.


My kids undertook Marlin’s restoration and, through their hands, she finally completed her own great-circle journey, returning to me as a surprise Father’s Day gift. She now rests comfortably on a shelf in my home, a memento of how my lifelong fascination with boats began and, more important, a treasured reminder of my father’s love for his son, and in turn, my children’s devotion to their father.

If you have generations past, present and future who enjoy sharing family time around the water and boats, you are richly blessed, having need of nothing more. Enjoy Father’s Day this June, and remember with thanks whatever your Marlin might be.