Book Review: “First You Have to Row a Little Boat” by Richard Bode

A casual search of the internet will reveal a substantial amount of acclaim for Richard Bode’s autobiographical tale – First You Have to Row a Little Boat (available here: Amazon). I read the book after my wife bought it for me as a gift back in the mid 90s. The experience has stayed with me ever since, and I tend to draw reference from the book at times when I reflect on my own love for sailing and the water. I admit, I’ve incorporated some of Bode’s story with my own memories of sailing as a boy. I cannot tell my memory of being drawn to the water apart from Bode’s own recollections of growing up on New York’s Great South Bay – a kinship in a way, I suppose – even if I only will it into being.

If opening lines are a way to determine a book’s worth – Bode captured me:
“When I was a young man I made a solemn vow. I swore I would teach my children to sail. It was a promise I never kept”

And so, we begin with regret. But slowly, as the story unfolds we come to understand this regret and how a life is shaped by circumstance and desires. Bode shares this in a time that was quieter than today. Noise and distraction are mitigated as we travel back to a time that some of us may remember, a time when, for better or worse, children were free to explore the world less hindered by the modern fear that has gripped us as parents.

At the start, Bode describes the loss of both of his parents as a very young child; his being taken in by his loving aunt and uncle and the eventual meeting of the captain at age twelve. We find that the captain will be for him a sort of sailing mentor and spiritual guide.
“Hour by hour, day by day, under the captain’s silent tutelage, I acquired a skill which, as much as walking or talking, remains fundamental to my view of the world.”

And then, we are witness to the lure of the blue sloop
Those who have read the book will know, the vision Bode paints of the blue sloop, the one that haunts him as a boy, is ethereal. The blue sloop becomes whatever beauty we understand in our own minds. Some may see long overhangs, others may dream of the plum bow of the sharpie or spoon bow of the Tancook. Whatever your blue sloop, it is the essence of what you find beautiful in a sailboat. Bode describes his boat:
“She was born of song and sculpture. I could hear it in the hum of her rigging; I could see it in the flare of her hull. She owed a debt to the epics of Homer and the fugues of Bach. She was an eloquent fusion of the war within ourselves, the war which tears us apart, the ceaseless conflict between science and art.”

Personally, this is one of my very favorite sailing books and would highly recommend it to anyone who loves sailing or not. Bode’s descriptions of the inexplicable beauty of sailboats and sailing provides the backdrop for his hauntingly intelligent exploration of human emotion and experience.

And for the curious…
I had to find out what the blue sloop, a 23 foot Timber Point, of Bode’s childhood actually looked like. Luckily, the folks at Wooden Boat Forum have a thread at ( with the following images. I was not at all disappointed in what I found…

Happy reading,

Timber Point sloop2

Timber Point Sloop