Devotion to vessel steers family

September 03, 2001|By Lisa Pollak | By Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

The first time someone stole the stately wooden captain's wheel off the Sea Foam, owner Arnold Tippo replaced it with a wheel made of chrome, an original wheel for the 1959 vessel not being the easiest item to come by.

Years later, after he'd retired from the helm, Tippo took a weathered wooden wheel salvaged from a similar craft and spent hours in his basement painstakingly sanding and staining it. After countless coats of varnish, Tippo (though never completely satisfied with his handiwork) gave the refurbished wheel - as he had already given the Sea Foam - to his son John.

John Tippo inherited more than a 31-foot cruiser with two engines and an authentic wooden wheel. He was heir to a way of life as familiar as summer, where the question wasn't "Are we going to the boat this weekend?" but "When are we leaving?" After John got married, his wife, Lynn, became first mate; after their baby daughter April was born, her cloth diapers flapped from the bow rail. And every spring, after the boat yard opened, the laborious job of maintaining the Sea Foam began anew. Long gritty weekends of sanding and scraping and painting were the price to be paid for a wooden boat's beauty.

Years passed, and the baby daughter who'd been rocked to sleep in the Sea Foam's cabin became a girl who sat on the bow with the wind in her face, a teen-ager who cruised the bay with her high school sweetheart and a college student who left home in body but not spirit. Yet when April returned home after college, something had changed: Her parents, burned out by the Sea Foam's upkeep, had bought a fiberglass cruiser and put the wooden boat to rest in a shed.

The Sea Foam's engines had been cold for several years when April and her husband took their place behind the wheel, and the old boat, dull and peeling, had seen better days. April's parents warned the couple to pace themselves, not to overhaul the whole boat at once. But April felt a sense of duty she'd never known as a child, and her father - burnout seemingly forgotten - spent long hours toiling in the shed alongside her. There were days this spring and summer when the work was overwhelming, when it seemed like the scraping, sanding and painting would never end. But when the Sea Foam finally left the dock in July, everyone agreed it looked the best it ever had (though April herself is never completely satisfied). Her father gets tears in his eyes, wishing his father could see it.

Arnold Tippo took his last boat ride six years ago, when his ashes were scattered from the Sea Foam into the sea. His absence makes all the more painful the fact that the captain's wheel he refinished was stolen from the Sea Foam last winter. Though April accepts that it's probably gone forever, she wonders if any thief who knew the wheel's history would have the heart to keep it.

These days, the old chrome wheel is back at the helm, awaiting a wooden replacement that John Tippo will help refinish this winter. In the meantime, April spends weekends on the Sea Foam with her husband, Chris Loveless, the high school sweetheart she married two years ago at the yacht club where her grandfather was commodore. Their house in North East is a mile from the marina where the Sea Foam has stayed for 41 years. No wonder April feels like her life has come full circle, steered by a ship's wheel that knows no direction but home.

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