People have been giving boats to Ray Hartjen all his life, but lately it's getting ridiculous.
When he was a Brooklyn boy spending summers in East Hampton, L.I., he remembers the mailman saying, "You're the only kid I know who has a boat for every day of the week." True, Hartjen laughed: "I had seven boats in the yard."
A leaky rowboat drifted up when he was 5 years old. Later, a man built him an eight-foot pram. He bought a canoe for $2.50 and a kayak for 50 cents.
Now at age 52, Hartjen still attracts boats. A few years ago, his father-in-law gave him a cabin cruiser; he found a classic wooden canoe in the trash; a friend turned over a 20-foot day sailer after its deck worked loose in a storm; and Hartjen built himself a $20 rowboat with two-by-fours and some plywood.
Along the way the notion that a fellow to whom boats gravitate ought simply to relax and enjoy it somehow eluded him. Hartjen found himself in a career as an educator, replete with doctorate, his own nonprofit corporation called Educational Alternatives Inc. and a nice government contract.
But boats kept chasing him home and last year he finally succumbed. Struck by a "vision" of himself teaching the joys of the water to less fortunate souls, he placed an advertisement in Woodenboat magazine soliciting donations of small, traditional rowing and sailing craft.
His idea was to use the boats to start a "poor man's yacht club" advocating a return to the basics of boating. In this nonprofit club he would teach the public to use his little boats for a small fee.
Half as a joke, he added a request in the ad for some sailboats in the 30- to 50-foot range. True to form, that's what he got.
Hartjen's ad, which Woodenboat found so noble it ran for free, appealed to folks with old boats who realized their gifts to his nonprofit corporation would be tax deductible.
Last month found Hartjen steering a lovingly restored but not-quite-finished 55-foot skipjack, the Mary W. Sommers, 40 miles up the Potomac River from St. Mary's City to its new home in Port Tobacco.
The Sommers, built in 1903 to sail the Chesapeake Bay after oysters, was a gift from St. Mary's artist Tom Rowe. It joined a 26-foot sloop given Hartjen last fall by an Ohio dentist. This month, he expects to take delivery of a 50-year-old, 40-foot motor yacht to bring his big-boat fleet to three.
Just what he'll do with his new vessels and any others that may come along is still a little unclear. Hartjen's poor man's yacht club plan came to him after he ate too much at an educational conference in Gatlinburg, Tenn. He woke up in the middle of the night with a stomachache and a vision of "Port Tobacco Seaport."
He hopes that, once he's set up, city folks will drive the hour down river from Washington and enjoy with him the serenity and historical significance of this town, a major port in colonial days, off the Potomac River.
Hartjen wants to combine his fleet of big boats and some smaller ones he is negotiating for with a plan for a historical and nature park on some Port Tobacco land donated to his corporation five years ago.
For now, he has his hands full maintaining his burgeoning fleet and keeping in touch by newsletter with 100 or so "Friends of the Seaport." Bit by bit he hopes to expand interest in his alternative-boating scheme but admits, "To say I have the money dimension of this thing in hand would be incorrect."
As to the many facets of his plan, Hartjen said, "Some people say talking to me is like talking to infinity, but I'm comfortable with that even if they're not."
One thing he is decidedly not vague about is what to do with his yachts once he gets them home. He'll sail them.
Last week as he walked a visitor around his fleet the wind picked up on the Port Tobacco River.
"Sailing breeze," the visitor said. "Let's go," Hartjen said.
And in moments, without benefit of an auxiliary engine, Hartjen had cast off lines, made sail and was happily pounding along through a gentle river chop.