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PRIVATE LIVES

In 1972 I was 21. Recently married, my husband and I left New England on the sort of odyssey that many were making in this decade _ a quest to "see the U.S.A." We packed up our vehicle, a Citroen 2CV, with camp stove and lantern, camera, tent and cat, and set off determined to restrict our travel to back roads in the hope they would yield a true glimpse of America. The 2CV (deux chevaux _ French for "two horses") was a queer-looking but amiable little car incapable of achieving highway speeds; thus we were kept from acting on stray impulses to attempt interstate travel.

As the Northeast's autumn colors were bursting all around us, we left behind jobs, family, friends and closed bank accounts, planning only far enough ahead to sit out winter in the Southeast. Florida, which then held no intrigue for either of us, was our destination, as it promised weather that would keep us comfortable all season. In spring we'd make our way west _ to the mountains, canyons and deserts, and eventually, to California's redwoods.

We chose St. Augustine as our winter home, largely because of its historic quaintness, which seemed absent elsewhere in this comparatively youthful state. Finding a campground on the then-undeveloped beach that had attracted like-minded voyagers, we leased a site on a monthly basis. In what was an amicable arrangement for all, we traded services for campsite rent: cleaning bathrooms, clearing litter and conserving cash. With our new friends we marked Thanksgiving and Christmas with expansive dinners, collectively produced on an assortment of camp stoves. These remain among the most memorable gastronomical events of my life.

Florida in winter was an eye-opener. We learned about "northeasters" when our tent succumbed to a violent wind one night. As it tore loose from its frame, its corners buffeting wildly in and out, we fought to make repairs in the whirling wind and rain. We were certain this was a hurricane. (In fact, hurricane season was over and had passed that year without event.) A few days later, the weather turned cold, clear and dry. In addition to the cool air, the northeaster left thousands of shells along the beach, along with interesting flotsam from foreign ships far out at sea. High tides and wild seas had eroded the sand from beneath the foundations of the occasional pastel cottages along the shore.

Things are bound to happen in the absence of plans. When winter passed, Florida's spring found us heading not westward but still there, seduced by the state's ample waterways and beaches. Soon we were prowling around in boat yards admiring sailboats, and soon we had purchased a small wooden sloop built on the Chesapeake Bay in 1939. Like so many others, we were going to sail, maybe around the world.

On the advice of friends, we hired a surveyor to recommend for or against the purchase. In his wisdom, this contracted expert advised strongly against buying it; in our youth and foolhardiness, we did. Little did we know that it would more than a home; it would become a receptacle into which we would pour energy and funds that we'd never recover. We had been wooed by its simple elegance _ its mannerly bow, the graceful curve of its rail. Even though its mahogany had been camouflaged by more than 30 years of white paint, we could see clearly the rich hues of its varnished brightwork in our equally rich imaginations. We fell deeply, shamelessly, in love. As if that wasn't romantic enough, we later learned that the her builder had taken the sloop, fresh out of the shipyard, on his honeymoon trip.

We found a rundown boat yard in Fernandina Beach where we could haul it out of the water at minimal cost, and my husband took on the restoration with enthusiasm and skill, building beautiful new hatches from dark, red mahogany with bronze bars above the glass panes to protect them from missed footsteps. Together we refitted rotten and worm-eaten timbers, fastening every plank with Monel screws _ only the best for our baby. Cheap galvanized cleats and deck hardware were replaced by cast bronze, circa 1939.

The head and galley were meticulously detailed. Since we abhorred painted wood, every speck of paint was stripped from the trim and spars and replaced by marine varnish _ seven coats _ the minimum required to withstand the southern sun. A fresh coat would be applied annually; as purists, we were committed to the task. A Swedish diesel engine took the place of the ancient gasoline motor.

Despite the boat's tiny size, the project was endless, as we now know all boat projects are. Eventually, as throngs of sailors came and went from the boat yard, off to winter in tropical islands or pass the summer cruising the rocky New England coast, our enthusiasm began to wane. We wanted to be finished with our project and traveling.

Sea Dog took its toll; three years and much sweat equity later, it was finished, and so was our marriage. We had learned a few things: one, that "all work and no play make Johnny a dull boy;" two, that living within a tiny space leaves no room even for private thought. We agreed to a trial separation. Since my husband was more committed to the vessel and had done most of the work, he sailed north. By that time we had traveled as far as Cumberland Island, five miles across the sound, and I wanted to stay put. It was an amiable, though sad, parting.

After about a year, I received a letter from my ex, postmarked Annapolis, with a check for my half of the proceeds of Sea Dog's sale. The small check represented exactly half of what we'd originally paid for it, pre-restoration, pre-new engine, pre-divorce. Both of us were glad the boat sold; we needed the cash to pursue new sets of dreams.

The new owner was a nice guy, the letter said. He intended to rip out the interior to make the boat more modern, and the beautiful brightwork was going, too. The new owner thought annual maintenance of this kind was altogether too much work and would get in the way of his dream: to sail around the world.

Lum Pennington is a writer who lives in St. Petersburg. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.

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