Adelaide Northrop is a 70-something housewife. She owns a 27-foot sloop; holds a pilot’s license; was an EMT and instructor for many years; drove vintage Grand Prix racing cars, and still skis.
That’s quite a life — and it started in Westport, where she grew up in the 1940s.
Adelaide recalls those days in a 1st-person account in the current issue of Soundings, the local boating magazine.
She spent hours with her father, she writes, “even in cold weather, rowing about the pond formed from the tidal marsh below our house in Westport, looking for driftwood to color the flames of fires on the large stone hearth at home.”
They “explored the meadows and hummocks in a heavy flat-bottomed workboat rented for 25 cents an hour from Capt. Walter Dewitt Allen” — of Clam House family fame — “who owned the shellfishing rights and much of the surrounding land.”
Adelaide “sat on the edges of his floating oyster and crab cars, listening to him discuss the fading health of the pond.”
Once, Adelaide got stuck on a mud flat. Her father told her to figure a way out. She went over the boat “in hip-deep mud full of razor clams, thus lightening the boat enough to float, and push us into deeper water.”
She learned the rhythms of the tides. One day she wanted to go through a long channel, from the Mill Pond under the access road to Sherwood Island, emerging at Burying Hill Beach a mile away.
Her father questioned whether the tide would be low enough for them to fit underneath the low bridge. She was pretty sure it would work.
As they were swept into the channel, she wasn’t so sure. Adelaide writes:
My attempts to seize vegetation on the banks and arrest our progress were fruitless, and I realized we were committed to my plan for better or worse. My father’s fate was suddenly in my small hands, and I realized that my decision, however ill-taken, had the ability to alter his life.
It was a scary ride. Debris and rushing water made passage under the bridge tight. But they got through.
I realized, as Dad looked at me meaningfully, that this was far more good luck than good management. He was pleased I had not panicked, but he clearly felt I had not known what I was attempting until it was too late to back out.
I knew he had shown me respect by allowing me to try, and I made up my mind always to learn all I could about risks I intended to undertake before indulging my impulse.
Those lessons stood Adelaide in good stead after World War II, when she helped her father scrape, sand and paint the bottom of a little Beetle Cat. Once launched off Compo Beach, she was responsible for emptying the bilges before each sail (and sometimes during).
She was promoted to “struggling with the centerboard as well.” She was allowed to take the tiller “only after I had demonstrated rudder-hanging skills and could define the terms ‘gudgeon’ and ‘pintle.'”
Adelaide’s Westport adventures ended when her father was transferred to Columbus, Ohio. But she retained her love for sailing — and her thirst for adventure — all her life.
Adelaide writes of her lifetime on the water with clarity and insight. Her decades at sea have made her the woman she is.
Yet none of it would have happened without the 1940s sense of exploration she felt on the Mill Pond, Saugatuck River and Long Island Sound — and the love and support of a father who let his daughter learn the power and joy of the water.
Even if she almost killed him in the process.