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By William Kelly

Three boys, a homebuilt raft and a slow-moving river, launch a lifelong love of boats and the water.

After owning our Spencer 35 sailboat for almost 30 years, Anne and I recently sold her with the intention of getting a roomier vessel for two teenage boys, an energetic terrier and us. Our old boat headed for a new life on Vancouver Island and seemed a good fit for the new owner.

After helping deliver Sway to the island, I returned to the marina on the Fraser River where she had rested between our many cruises up and down this rainy coast. There was nothing much left but a small anchor and some rusting chain – I think I just needed to check that Sway was really gone. Out past the red beacon at the marina entrance I could see the current as the river ran on into the late afternoon light. I thought of another river, a childhood river where my journey with boats began.

This was the Credit River in suburban Toronto – where I took my first voyage on the water in a small vessel, a raft of logs made by myself, my older brother Bob and his friend Sal, who did most of the work. I had travelled on ships with my parents but this was my first voyage in a vessel so close to the water. It was an unforgettable day and it altered the course of my life.

Sal Petruccelli, the oldest son of Italian neighbours, was a breath of fresh air in our otherwise WASP neighborhood of Applewood Acres, now part of Mississauga. His big laugh and shout at the end of the street signalled to kids within earshot that egregious events were in the works and it was worth dropping whatever you were doing to see what was up. Sal was worldly, interested in everyone, and shared his entertaining views on most things in life. He listened patiently to my befuddled take on how people came into this world and replied simply, “Ahh, I don’t think so, Guglielmo.”

Sal’s father worked at Grampian Marine in nearby Oakville, and I can still see the painted paddleboat Mr. Petruccelli made one summer and placed on their front yard with a “for sale” sign.

So it was very like Sal and my generous brother Bob to invite me, four years younger, to join them on a rafting adventure on the Credit River one summer morning. Sal had a bag with a hammer and some spikes while Bob and I brought lunch.

We hiked through fields past an abandoned farmhouse until we reached a place Sal knew above the steep riverbank. Down we went, away from the familiar, to a strange shore with a view across the mighty Credit to where cattails and rushes held down a low marsh. (I didn’t know it then but the Credit and its tributaries extend over 1,500 kilometres and drain an area of more than 1,000 square kilometers. It has a significant trout population to this day.)

Sal told Bob and I to gather large logs along the bank, while Sal scrounged planks for the platform that would hold the raft together. Soon, we were ready to launch our vessel and, to my amazement, it floated. But what amazes me to this day is that it stayed afloat with the three of us on board!

Sal warned me not to venture too near the edge of the raft for fear it would flip and toss us overboard while he and Bob, equipped with poles, gently shoved us off the bank and into the current. Out of the shadow of the overhanging trees we broke into the morning sunshine, free of the sullen land. I can still see that moment, my eyes filled with the sun that transformed the rippling river water into a glittering carpet of jewels. Everything seemed within reach.

We drifted across the river, Sal laughing as he urged Robouski, as he called Bob, to push hard to get us to the other side. We all laughed as we made it across and landed at the edge of the marsh, striding about our newly discovered world like conquerors. We sat on the bank, ate lunch and relaxed.

Soon, we felt the urge to press on and we shoved the raft off the beach. What a sensation – skipping away from the shore to drift down a slow-moving river. Eventually, though, we drew close to the river’s mouth at Lake Ontario and our adventure was at its end. Sal hauled the raft up on the beach near a bridge where rattle and jawing of the real world could be heard overhead. Exhausted, we mounted the bridge and began the long march home in silence.

In the years to come, I would gaze out the windows of various classrooms and offices and find myself transported to that scene. I moved to the West Coast and eventually had enough money to buy a boat and embark on fresh sailing adventures with my wife and children. My brother, now retired, lives nearby and still gets out on a boat to fish. Sal, however, passed away a few years ago but, like his father, retained a keen interest in boats, the wind and the water to the end of his life.

Eventually, I stopped gazing at the red beacon and the Fraser, collected the chain and anchor, and headed down the dock. Outside the marina, the tide was still ebbing and the muddy river just ran on.

William Kelly’s sailing adventures have taken him up the West Coast as far as the Gulf of Alaska. With Anne Vipond, he is the author of Best Anchorages of the Inside Passage.

Photo Captions:
Photo 1 - Sal and son Nick sailing on Georgian Bay in 1980.
Photo 2 - Sal Petruccelli was a veteran raft builder, shown with his sister Carmela.