A Last 50th Anniversary Memory of One of
CIYC’s Ultimate Characters
Number 12 of 12
When the Board of Directors got into the planning details for our club’s 50th anniversary year, I offered to write up some personal memories of certain personalities who have passed through the club’s membership. We have been members of Caliente Isle Yacht Club for going on 40 years now so we’ve experienced or observed them all--several real winners, a couple of losers for sure but more than a few truly odd characters. So, I figured that I’d have no trouble if I volunteered an amateurish effort to write up one of these stories for each month of our anniversary year. Thanks for the positive feedback.
If you haven’t been paying attention, you can see eleven stories already on file at www.ciyc.org (go the “Blog” tab.) December is now upon us, thus here is story Number 12 of 12. It is of a CIYCer I knew well, indeed very well, because he was my late father-in-law -- and a real piece of work. Meet Fred Shaw, who with his wife, Jo, joined CIYC back in the 1960's.
As some of you know, I met JoAnne in elementary school. I was an older man at the time, actually just a ten year old traffic boy but I’m pretty sure she just couldn’t resist my official looking sweater, whistle and cap and no doubt the snappy way I slung my STOP sign into traffic for her. Of course, she has strong memories of this older guy. But I don’t have much memory of that particular little girl in my cross walk every morning and afternoon. We didn’t get together for another 11 years, eventually marrying 50 years ago, in 1968.
The day after we decided to get married, I thought it best to ask her father if taking his daughter off his and his wife’s payroll was all right with him (ok, she was working at the time), he being of that generation where asking a father’s permission to take a daughter’s hand in marriage was expected. I found him where he could be found every Saturday morning, working on his old boat docked at the Oakland Yacht Club on The Estuary. We knew each other of course, he being the one who gave me “the look” every time I came to the door to fetch my date over the preceding two or so years. He was aloof as ever and after building up my nerve, I managed to mention my intentions. He immediately asked me if I had ever noticed the ladder stored under JoAnne’s bedroom window. I pretty much missed his drift, till he said “I put that there to make it easier for you two to elope.” His humor was really dry and he didn’t smile much so I said something dumb like “We were actually hoping that you would pay for a wedding.” After some quick mental math, and another long look at me, he was okay with that idea and we got along quite well from then on.
Fred was always working on his boat, mostly because it was built in 1948 and thus made of what became very old and sometimes rotten wood of the kind needing constant work. JoAnne says the boat started out 28’ long but at some point Fred wanted it longer. So he commissioned some guy who hung out on the docks to design a cockpit extension of about four feet. He then went about finding the wood needed for the extension. All he could come up with were a bunch of boards that were 6’ long. Instead of cutting the long boards, leaving shorter boards as scrap, he told the boat yard to ignore the careful plans he had paid for and to go ahead and make the boat 34’ long rather than the 32’ in the drawings. Did I mention that Fred was frugal? The result, as you might imagine, was a boat 8’ wide and 34’ feet long. You could say it was shaped like an arrow. He was lucky that thing never tipped over during those summer afternoon winds on the Bay and Delta that we all know about.
It did sink once, however, near San Rafael and with JoAnne and her mom and their dog on board. Mom had gone down below to get something about the time they were going under the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, then under construction. She quickly came back up, telling Fred that the boat was sinking. Fred, a highly opinionated and bossy type, just shook his head and told his wife that she was crazy. “Take the helm” he said in that disgusted tone reserved for old school husbands. When he returned, he meekly said to her “you and kid better start bailing.” Sure enough, they were sinking pretty fast as a plank below the water line was missing something. That situation had them stranded on the mud in San Rafael much of one night, with the lasting result that JoAnne has never, and will never voyage out the Golden Gate or anyplace else that doesn’t have nearby mud to settle a boat into unless she is on a ship the size of the Queen Mary.
Fred was known around the club for his various oddities--extreme frugality being at the top of the list—as in really cheap. Fred’s boat was the only one in Caliente Harbor that was heated by a wood stove. No electric heaters for him. He generally found the wood for his tiny wood burner in Sam’s wood pile. Because it was scrap, in addition to short bits of 2x4s and the like, this wood often consisted of nasty old stuff, like busted up pilings which were made even nastier because pilings are generally soaked in creosote, as we would say today “a known carcinogen.” In the dead of winter, when it can be really still in the Delta, Fred would fire up his wood stove and sit inside nice and toasty. Outside however, were all of his neighbors who could barely find their boats for the cough inducing and eye-watering, low-lying smoke wafting throughout the harbor. He is lucky he wasn’t arrested by some kind of environmental police but at that time we were all breathing carcinogens all the time, which probably answers lots of questions.
Fred was also known to take a drink now and again, as in hourly when off duty. His habit wasn’t so unusual around the club because back then Caliente was pretty much known far and wide as a drinking club with a boating problem. In fact, most yacht clubs were seen this way. Our parties, even up to recent times, were made all the wilder by really cheap booze. Fred wasn’t the only old timer who threatened to quit when the Board voted to raise drink prices by as little as 25 cents, time and again. The old timers won those battles year after year and even up to a few years ago, our bar sold drinks for $2 and beers for a buck. One visiting club Commodore, when standing in front of all to thank us for our hospitality couldn’t help but remark “the reason I love coming to Caliente so much is that I can drink here for less than on my boat!” It is no wonder that Fred and his boating buddies pretty much always had a drink in their hand when not at the wheel (wink, wink.)
As he got into his 70's, there came a time when working on that old boat all of the time wasn’t working for Fred. After 40 years of doing his own maintenance he actually contracted some work out to a boat yard—to a friend of his who owned the old Hunter boatyard up in Suisun City. There was some kind of incident involving the yard’s lift. The friendship pretty much ended when the guy somehow managed to drop the boat while trying to re-launch it. I’m sure Fred took his friend’s apologies in the spirit in which they were offered, but at the time he probably didn’t know that something fundamental happened when the boat fell off the lift and onto something very hard. A serious leak developed that Fred and other real experts couldn’t find. Having a boat that leaked all the time was a tipping point for Fred—he had been talking about it for a while, but now it was time to find the old girl a new home. He tried to sell it, but no go. It was leaking, slowly to be sure, but the near constant stream out of side of the hull when the boat was under way was pretty much of a turn off for otherwise interested buyers. He then tried other means to get rid of the boat. Finally, the only buyer in line wasn’t a person with real money. Instead, it was a local Sea Scout outfit that took it off his hands for a $1.
Fred’s boat, the Jolly JoAnne (of course), was probably soon sold for peanuts by those Sea Scouts but it did seem to knock around the Delta for a few years after some kind of transaction. We once saw it on False River, looking reasonably good, sort of restored by someone. But the next time we saw it, 25 years ago, it was in one of those horrible harbors west of Pittsburg, listing badly, looking sad and resting in mud again which must have felt familiar to that old woody from the San Rafael incident. The last time we saw it was in 1998 at Vierra's boatyard on the Sacramento River -- and it was still floating!
Fred passed away in 1996. Unfortunately, he had dementia and was bed-ridden at the time. We would visit him regularly and every now and then he would grab something nearby, look me in the eye and say clearly “did you feel that?” I thought it best to put my head where his head often was and say “yep, you’re right Fred, the ship just rolled.” Being an active boater for something like 70 years, his smile told us he liked that because there can be no doubt that he was a boater to the end--and a true Caliente Character.
Happy 50th CIYC! You've turned out some real beauts.