Mainer brings fiction to life by building Burt Dow's boat

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Sam Coolidge loved Robert McCloskey’s book, “Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man,” so much he decided to build Burt’s iconic boat with his daughter.

HARPSWELL, Maine — Robert McCloskey wrote and illustrated only a handful of children’s books, but they have delighted generations of young readers. 

In Maine, perhaps even more so, his whimsical stories have taken root in readers’ hearts in part because half of his books are set in the pine tree state, and they are classics: “Blueberries for Sal,” “Time of Wonder,” “One Morning in Maine,” and “Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man.”

While kids and adults love McCloskey’s books, no one is showing their love quite like Sam Coolidge, of Scarborough, and his daughter Hazel. 

“When I was young we loved ‘Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man’ written by Robert McCloskey,” Coolidge said. 

Coolidge grew up spending his summers on the harbor in Harpswell, working for local lobstermen and rowing his very own 8-foot row boat up and down the beach. 

“You couldn’t get me off the boat,” Coolidge remembered. 

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As a merchant marine, Coolidge still spends his days on the water working on a tugboat out of the New York harbor.  

It’s no wonder that the tale of an old fisherman who uses all his might and ingenuity to save himself and his leaky boat from a storm, (by seeking refuge in the belly of an obliging whale), was Coolidge’s favorite book.

As parents do, whether they intend to or not, they pass the things they love onto their children. Coolidge’s 8-year-old daughter Hazel has inherited her father’s love of old boats, and the character of Burt Dow.

“Hazel knew how to tie a bowline before she could tie her shoes,” Coolidge chuckled.

The life of a merchant marine is a challenging one. Coolidge works two weeks on, then two off. When he is home he likes to spend quality time with Hazel. During the pandemic, Coolidge thought it would be the perfect time to tackle a project he has been thinking about since his own childhood. 

“I always thought someone should make a real Tidely-Idley. It should be out there seen on the water passing by,” Coolidge explained. 

Tidely-Idley is Burt Dow’s leaky boat in “Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man.”

First, Coolidge found the perfect boat, a 1960s-era Coast Guard dinghy that was in rough shape, and headed to the dump. Inside was a six-cylinder Hercules diesel engine that hadn’t shown any signs of life in decades.

“A lot of people said, ‘Take it out. Get something more modern, get something new,'” Coolidge recalled.

Much like the character Burt Dow, Sam Coolidge is not one to shy away from a challenge. Determined to show his daughter that just because something is old doesn’t mean its not worth saving, Coolidge called in the help of friends, used a tractor to pull the engine out, and started rebuilding it in his garage. Hazel was by his side every step of the way, charged with one of the hardest tasks: cleaning decades of oil sludge from the old power machine. 

“I would say that my hands were brown when I made out,” Hazel remembered with a smile on her face. 

Pieced together with old parts and hours of ingenuity from Coolidge and others, the old Hercules finally turned over. 

“Sure enough, it touched off and we’re happy to have the original engine back in,” Coolidge said. 

It took him and Hazel a full year, spending their time together scraping, cleaning, rebuilding, and finally painting their new old boat in Burt Dow’s bright Tidely-Idley colors. The father and daughter worked alongside each other learning more than just mechanics. 

“The less perfect we tried to make the boat, the more perfect it became,” Coolidge said. 

Details like the hunter-green bilge pump, anchor, and the unique tiller of the real-life Tidely-Idley are catching people’s eyes. 

“Some people actually recognize that it is the Tidely-Idley,” Hazel said with excitement. 

A wooden seagull rests on the stern of the boat, just behind the tiller representing Burt Dow’s favorite seagull that follows him every day saying “tee-hee.”

The father and daughter have sailed their boat all around Casco Bay and Hazel is learning how to drive it on her own. The boat doesn’t go very fast. 

“We do about six, maybe seven knots with a fair tide,” Coolidge explained. That happens to be perfect for him and Hazel. 

At the behest of friends and family, Coolidge and Hazel began writing a children’s book that chronicles their adventure of building the Tidely-Idley. It is a blend of fact and fiction, leaning on Robert McCloskey’s original tale. McCloskey’s daughter, Jane McCloskey Roberts, has given her blessing on the book and even added some input. Roberts says she thinks the boat is terrific and she thinks her father would have loved it. 

Robert McCloskey’s Burt Dow character was based on a real man with the same name. The real Burt Dow made friends with McCloskey and was immortalized in the book. Jane McCloskey Roberts thinks the real Burt Dow would have liked the Coolidge’s real Tidely-Idley as well.

Coolidge is still looking for a publisher for his book, and whether or not it ends up on bookshelves someday is anyone’s guess but regardless, the story Coolidge has created for his daughter by spending a year building a boat with her is one she will never forget. Coolidge’s Tidely-Idley is a love letter to his own childhood growing up on the Maine coast and to his daughter who he hopes never grows old of the sea. 

“I couldn’t have done it without her,” Coolidge said. 

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