I have lived most of my life on land. Yup, that’s 69 and a half years out of 70. Now I live on a boat, and after only 6 months I like the boat life much better. Why?
“Oh for God’s sake Rick. Who cares? Nobody cares.”
I know this. No one gives a shit! It’s like flying under the radar. Invisible. Unseen. That’s why I like it! You’d be hard pressed to find us because we’re floating on our own little island, meandering here and there, never knowing exactly where we’ll end up. If we find a nice place we’ll stay awhile. If not we move on like mysterious vagabond gypsies. It’s kinda romantic, no?
Since last September we’ve been ambling south on the Intracoastal Waterway, a series of inland rivers and canals that follow the coastline. It’s usually much calmer than the open ocean, and more interesting because there’s lots of things to look at. We float past the backyards of waterfront homes from plain to palatial, sprawling cities, lush green wilderness, and everything in between. All the sights, sounds, and the diversity of American life along this passage is ours, and anyone’s, to experience.
The ICW is wondrously scenic, but it’s not just a pretty face. It functions as a superhighway for tugboats and other commercial vessels that supply the nation with all sorts of goods. This is probably why the Army Corps of Engineers maintain it at considerable cost. Boaters like us enjoy the benefits.
In the southern states dolphins are everywhere. I love those guys! They seem so happy with all the jumping and playing about. We usually see them from a distance, but one day the XO and I were standing on the dock talking to a friend. Suddenly, a dark grey dolphin surfaced right next to us. We all gasped. It was less than two feet away! This magnificent beast looked me square in the eyes before chuffing and disappearing under the water leaving nothing but a small wake and the most incredible feeling of awe. I’ve tried and failed so many times to get a good dolphin picture, they’re elusive that way, so I asked the XO to draw a rendition of her recent kayaking experience.
There are lots of pelicans too. Squadrons of them swoop in and skim across the water. Their wingtips mere millimeters above the surface, sometimes touching it ever so slightly so as to leave the tiniest ripple. I’m convinced they do this just because it’s fun and daring.
There are all kinds of vultures, weird ducks and other creatures not seen in New England where I’m from. Bald eagles too! They use branches as thick as your arm to build nests as big as Volkswagens.
I’m wicked fortunate to have this, the new backdrop of my life, made possible by a series of events much too personal to recount to you, dear reader. I hope you understand. It’s not you. It’s me. I am unwilling to relive the past, nor will I tell a story that is not mine to tell. But the end result is a good one; I get to live on a boat with my love.
It sounds so highfalutin, doesn’t it? I mean, here we are traipsing about in our 46 foot motor yacht. The XO cautioned me about bragging, but ours is not a fancy boat and we aren’t living extravagantly, in fact, many aspects of our boatie life remain the same as our life was on land.
We do most of the maintenance ourselves, shop for food at the grocery, cook and eat on board but occasionally go out to a restaurant or order takeout. We pay bills, watch TV at night, read, ride our bikes, exercise, spend hours online, do laundry, and enjoy our hobbies and interests. Then there’s the usual drinking, smoking and other privileges of being an adult. The main difference is the scenery and the neighbors change more often.
Dirt house: A term used by liveaboard boaters to describe a house on land. The XO and I lived in one until recently. I had so much free time I wore an ass groove on the couch in front of the TV. For the normal person free time is not always a bad thing, as for me, I could take the couch potato thing to the next level. So much so that I developed a method for motivating myself by using my guilt-laden inner conscience.
“Yo Rick. Get your fat butt off the freakin’ couch and do something.” “But Let’s Make a Deal is on.” “The grass ain’t gonna mow itself.” “And then The Price is Right.” “Rick, dude! The damn car needs an oil change!”
The self-shaming usually worked, but if it didn’t I could easily be lost for the entire day, beer in hand, bag o’ chips, Netflix, Roku, Prime Video, etc. Thankfully, I had the good sense to avoid the hard core stuff. I’m talking about the highly addicting world of Video Games. You go down that rabbit hole and you may never be seen again. Ask me how I know.
“Hey Rick! How do you know?”
I was hooked once. I bought my young son a gaming system and we enjoyed playing together. It started out so innocent, father and son doing something fun, Donkey Kongbonding if you will, but like most addicts I went too far and started sneaking games while he was asleep or at school. I spent an inordinate amount of time playing, and when I wasn’t playing I was thinking about it. I beat that drug cold turkey and never looked back. Now I’m just another recovering gamer as well as a recovering couch potato, because when you live on a boat free time is a rarity, a specter, a phantasm that at one moment seems so tantalizingly real, then dissipates like a puff of smoke in a gale. The following is a typical scenario that could happen anytime. Usually while relaxing, eating dinner, or sleeping.
“What was that?” I asked. “I heard it too. Sounds like water running,” the XO answered. “I’d better check it out,” I said and headed into the engine room, the most likely place for unusual water-based sounds. “Anything?” “Yup. Hose blowout. Turn the water off. Will ya?” I asked. “I thought you replaced that hose.” “Different hose. Don’t worry. I’m on it.”
On our boat Jane Marie there is a seemingly endless list of things that need to be done, but ya can’t work all the time. Where’s the fun in that? You’ve got to manufacture your free time. I call it Perceived free time. It’s not really there. Not on a boat. But I’ve always believed that there’s nothing wrong with just sittin’ around enjoying the day or doing something that makes you happy. Currently our to-do list is a manageable 9 items, not bad, but add in all the routine chores and you could have quite a bit of work to do.
The list is fluid and evolving, bloating and shrinking like a living creature that we strive to wrangle whenever the motivation strikes. Do what you can when you want to is the general rule, but you can never count out the unexpected…
…and you can never count out the weather. It’s gorgeous! Maybe I’ll crack open a cold beer and play my guitar for a while, or perhaps just sit here and peck away on my laptop. See how I talked myself out of all that work? It’s one of my super-powers! Once again my cranky inner conscience fights back.
“Rick! You lazy bastard. Get up and do something.” “But, but, music is good. Writing is good. Ya know, for the soul.” “Jeez Louise! What the hell am I gonna do with you Rick?” ” I promise to do all that stuff before we leave this marina.” “Well see that you do! No screwing around this time. I mean it!” ” Okay. I got it. I’ll get right on it. Right after I take a blast on my E-bike!”
The new bigger boat can’t be trucked over the road. Too wide. Somebody has to sail her from North Carolina to Massachusetts. Naturally, I assumed it would be the XO and I, but it occurred to both of us that we don’t know anything about our new possession. Geez, we’ve only spent a couple of hours on her. Since the previous owner is retired, it made sense to ask him to go along. He readily accepted but said he’d need two weeks to settle into his new house in Wisconsin. A month went by. Suddenly it was late September and the Cape Cod nights were getting damn chilly. Something had to happen soon, so I called the guy. “We’re heading down to the boat to hang out until you get there,” I said. “I hope you left the keys at the marina office.” “You can’t,” he said sounding a little freaked. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why. “We can. We are. We leave tomorrow morning. See ya there.” “No. I need another week. I have the keys,” he said. Oh great. This guy has the only keys to our new boat and he’s in Wisconsin. “Why didn’t you leave us the keys at the office?” “The boat’s a mess. I have to put stuff away,” was his answer. “We don’t care about the mess. We’ll clean it up.” “I have the keys,” he said again. “I’ll find a way in,” I countered. There was a long pause. I was getting a little pissed off. It’s like buying a house and hearing someone say, what? You want to move in? Was this some kind of elaborate scam? “There’s a way in,” he said. I waited for him tell me how, I mean, besides a brick. I could hear him muttering to himself, something about– gotta tell Sue (wife), need a flight out— then the phone went dead. It was so weird. All I could think of is maybe this guy has someone living on our boat, or he’s dealing drugs or something. It’s more likely that he just plain forgot.
We packed up the car and made the 850 mile trip in a day and a half. He was there when we arrived and the boat looked nice and tidy. I guess he dumped the bodies overboard. After going to the supermarket for provisions, the XO and I had our first overnight stay on our new boat. It seemed so luxurious. You can walk around the queen size bed! That’s a big deal on a boat. The next morning the XO left for home in our car PonyBoy, and the Old Captain and I left in our boat Jane Marie for the trip north. “You’re like Yoda, I will watch and learn,” I said to the Old Captain as I motioned with two fingers to my eyes, then pointing them towards his. It was more than just a common gesture, it was like sign language; he was hearing impaired. I took the helm shortly after we left the dock and drove for 34 hours straight! I learned quite a lot about myself and my companion, but unfortunately, nothing about this boat. I’ll tell you the story.
It was a lovely late September morning when we left the fuel dock at the Port City Marina in Wilmington, NC. Temps were in the mid eighties and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I had just put 200 gallons of diesel in each of the four fuel tanks and they all showed half full. Let me run that by you again. That’s 800 gallons and it’s only half full! I guess that’s why they call it a long range trawler. “That should last a while,” I mused. “About four years!” By comparison our old boat held about 200 gallons total.
All manner of boaters were out enjoying the beautiful weather, including the marine cops who politely asked us to move over so an ominous looking military spook ship could slink by. This huge vessel was muted grey and had absolutely no markings on it. Judging by all the flat panels at odd angles, it obviously employed the latest in stealth technology, probably obtained by reverse engineering all those captured UFO’S. I tried several times to take pictures, but every one came out blurred. Coincidence? I think not.
Okay, only kidding about the blurry picture, but let’s just say I want to believe. I had the helm as the Old Captain was busy deploying the stabilizing outriggers which made this boat look so much like a commercial fishing vessel that a dozen hungry pelicans flew along beside us. “We don’t have those in Massachusetts,” I said. I suspected he didn’t hear me so I repeated it louder. Still no response. “I bet you don’t have those in your neck of the woods,” he said, confirming my suspicions. Lesson #1: small talk will be difficult. Lesson #2: the stabilizing outriggers slow down the boat to about 5MPH.
We put the stabilizers away because 5 MPH is just too slow. The outriggers are a part of this boat that I never liked. They’re meant to keep the boat steady in certain unfavorable conditions by dragging 50 pound winged weights (birds) through the water at a depth of about 15 feet. Obviously, they can only be used in the open ocean or large bodies of water like The Great Lakes. The tethered birds have been known to fly out of the water and smash into the hull. The biggest problem is they have to be deployed manually while the boat is stopped. The XO and I don’t plan on crossing oceans and if the weather is bad we’re not going anywhere. We’re seriously thinking about removing them.
I followed the aids to navigation eastward out into the Atlantic a few miles to avoid the treacherous Frying Pan Shoal. The boat felt good, strong, responsive, and fairly quiet considering he had two engines going. Why was he running the 12 kilowatt generator along with the main engine? Seems like a terrific waste of fuel.
“Okay. We need a course,” I said. The Old Captain took out his dividers and parallels and laid them on the chart which was spread out next to the big steering compass. “Interesting,” I thought to myself. I was expecting a GPS coordinate. But what the heck, back in the stone age before GPS, Dead Reckoning was the only way to get anywhere on the water. It’s very cumbersome. On your paper chart you draw a pencil line to where you want to go, get out a tool called a Parallel, line it up with the pencil line, walk it over to the compass rose on the chart, and read the number. That’s your course. You’re supposed to write that number on top of the pencil line. You need another tool called dividers, and using the distance key on the bottom of the chart, set the dividers and figure out how far it is to where you’re going and write that number under the pencil line. Now you can use math to figure out how long it will take you to get to your destination based on your speed. Like I said, cumbersome.
Nowadays, a mariner can simply enter the latitude and longitude into an instrument and like magic, it will give you the direction, tell you how far it is, and what time you’ll get there. Or you can simply follow your chartplotter, which is a dandy instrument that shows your exact live location on a screen that looks like a navigational chart.
“Head three three zero,” he said. I looked hard at the chartplotter and the compass “Can’t be,” I said, shaking my head. “I checked it three times.” “Look, it’ll take us over the shallow part of the shoal,” I pointed it out on the chart. “That’s our bearing,” he insisted. I seriously wondered if he was looking at the same chart as me. Just for the heck of it, I swung the boat around to his suggested 330 degrees. Our heading was a deadly one. “Into the rocks? Dude, I’m not going there.” I pulled out my trusty handheld Garmin GPS and entered the coordinates for the nav aid that guards the Cape Lookout Shoal, which is, for the time being, the easternmost point I would have to go around. It’s located south of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. The display read 050 degrees NNE and a distance close to 300 miles. ETA of 30 hours. It’s going to be a long night. Lesson #3: Don’t trust the Old Captains navigational skills.
I have never cruised in the open ocean at night. There’s no reason to. It’s dangerous enough boating in broad daylight. The Intracoastal Waterway, which follows the eastern coast of the United States is so much nicer than the ocean because it offers protection from the wind and waves. Plus, it has things to look at. There are marinas and anchorages where you can park the boat before nightfall and do whatever you usually do before going to bed. So civilized.
As the sun dropped below the horizon, and the lights from the shoreline twinkled weakly and then faded away into the darkness, I regretted letting the Old Captain talk me into this ridiculous overnight crossing. “I will never, ever, do this again,” I vowed to myself. But there we were, all alone in the North Atlantic Ocean. There were no boats and no land in sight. There’s only the stars and the reddish glow of my instruments. I felt so small.
At 2:00 am it was still warm enough to have the cabin doors open on each side of me. Ocean in stereo! Looking forward from the helm, the inky Atlantic was indistinguishable from the horizon. That and the northeast current pushing us from behind at about ten knots made it difficult to steer in a straight line, so I was following a star that happened to line up with the mainstay (the cable that runs from the top of the mast to the bow). It wasn’t the brightest star, but it seemed to be going my way. I got to know it well by it’s position among its peers. Occasionally, it would wink out, maybe behind a cloud, and I would go off my course. Minute steering adjustments were needed or we could end up broadside to the waves. The concentration needed to do this was making me very tired. I cursed the broken autopilot and woke up the Old Captain who was stretched out on the day bed behind me. “Gotta crash,” I said and immediately regretted my choice of words.
Suddenly, I was startled awake by a violent shake that tossed me off the day bed like a rag doll! The microwave, pizza oven, toaster, and coffee maker crashed loudly on the floor next to my head. There was another violent shake and everything else that wasn’t nailed down joined the debris party on the floor. To add to the mess, four gallons of drinking water in plastic jugs toppled off the counter and spilled their entire contents. Everything was loudly sloshing around. “What’s the hell’s going on!? I yelled and jumped up. “We’re going backwards!” the old Captain croaked. “We’re 180!” He was fighting the wheel, and as the compass spun west I knew we were moments away from another broadside wave hit. I quickly sat back down but couldn’t find anything to hang onto. The next moment I was flying across the galley and into a cabinet. We leaned over so far I was surprised we straightened out. A lesser boat would have capsized. I quickly scrambled to my feet. Gotta get to the helm before we loop around again. “Here, let me take over,” I said, and put a hand on the wheel. He was incensed! “Don’t ever grab the wheel from me!” he screamed. His eyes were spinning in his head. I felt like knocking the guy over but then there would be two crazies on the boat. Instead, I took a deep cleansing breath. “Okay, sorry,” I said in a calm, even tone. “But I’m pretty good at this.” Thank God he finally relented.
The big steering compass was not properly lit, and the electronic compass on the chartplotter is displayed digitally. Just numbers that change rapidly making it hard to follow. I prefer a digital arrow, fortunately, my hand-held Garmin GPS has one. I fired it up and began the slow process of getting this boat back on course. The biggest danger is overcorrecting, but it was a clear night and I was able to steer from star to star, again, using the mainstay as a pointer until we were back on course, and whatta ya know, I found my little star I’d been following all night. “Hello old friend.” I said. “Welcome back, Rick,” said the little star. “So now I’m talking to stars?” “Apparently, Rick. This is what happens when you only get an hours sleep.”
“Dammit!” I said. “The depth sounder is out.” This is a huge problem in a boat that needs four and a half feet of water to float. In the melee, something could have fallen on a wire, or maybe a connector shook loose. I opened the access door to the area that held all the gauge wiring and started poking around. “Hey! Don’t touch that!” The old Captain shouted. I shot him a look. “I mean it!” he snarled. “You know this is my boat, right?” I said. I’m an easy going guy, ask anyone, but this not the first time that bastard has talked down to me like some wet-behind-the ears greenhorn. Hey, I’m a wire guy! I know something about wiring and electronics. I was wicked ticked off and the resulting jolt of adrenaline was better than three cups of coffee, which was good because my brand new Mr. Coffee lay in pieces on the floor. I started thinking, he hasn’t shown me anything about this boat that I couldn’t figure out myself.
“Hello Mister Sun,” I said softly as he crested the horizon. “Good morning Rick, How was your night?” Oh boy. Delirium had set in, but what the hell, if I can talk to a star I can talk to a sun. I’m an equal opportunity nut job. I slapped myself hoping I’d return to sanity, but what I really needed was a cup of coffee. I checked the fridge for a Coke or something. “Excellent!” The XO had left behind a bottle of her homemade cold brew! A choir of angels sang as I held up my prize.
Daylight at last. With still no land in sight, I discovered I could stay on course by keeping the sun centered in one of the portside windows. It worked well until it rose above me, but by then my marker was in sight. Yay! We were approaching the Cape Lookout Shoal. The Old Captain was busily studying the chart with his parallels and dividers. “You’re not where you think you are,” he said. “What?” I got a scared rush. Could he be right? “We’re over here somewhere,” he said. His finger was pointing to a spot about a foot off the chart! “No way,” I said. “I checked it three times. We’re way over here.” Now his hand was two feet off the chart. “I’m exactly where I know I am,” is all I said. I wasn’t going to argue with the guy. This boat has two chartplotters, radar, and two GPS units. They’re all telling me the same thing: the Old Captain’s wrong.
There was a storm racing north from the Bahamas. It’s hundreds of miles away but I could feel the ocean’s unrest when we rounded Cape Lookout. The waves were hitting us at an uncomfortable angle. “We should use the Intracoastal,” The Old Captain said. “On it,” I said and opened my laptop to Active Captain, a greatest website for boaters ever developed, and it’s free! “Ooh! We just passed Beaufort,” I said. “I’ve been there. It’s a nice deep water port right on the Intracoastal Waterway, but it’s 30 miles in the opposite direction. Not so bad.” I said it aloud, but it still felt like I was talking to myself. Funny how easily I got used to that.
I banged a yooie but the wave action was worse. No way could I do 30 miles of that. I turned back around and a quick phone call secured us a slip at the Anchorage Inn and Marina on Ocracoke Island. I set a course for the closest inlet through the North Carolina barrier islands.
I’ve never docked a single screw inboard boat. Most of my experience has been with twin screw inboards, single screw stern drives, and single outboards. This new boat is a different animal all together. “Show me how it’s done,” I said with a hand flourish so the Old Captain would understand. He got my meaning and slid behind the helm. When I radioed the marina to announce our arrival and get a slip assignment, I got an urgent message. “If that’s you at the inlet you’ve got to hug the greens!” the voice on the radio said. “I repeat. STAY LEFT NOW!”
The Old Captain failed to hear the warning. I waved my arms like Carlton Fiske right in front of the guy but it was too late and we came to a rather abrupt halt. After some aggressive maneuvers involving the bow thrusters and then flooring it in reverse, he somehow wriggled us free then approached the tee dock way too fast for my liking. My number one rule for docking is: nevergo faster than you want to hit something. He came in for a port side tie-up and things got ugly fast. The ass end started sliding away but the dock hands held onto the bow line and the big boat completely flipped around. So now we had a starboard side tie-up. Hey, what the heck, any landing you can walk away from… Lesson #4: Don’t trust the Old Captains driving.
We left Wilmington, NC. 34 hours ago! Boy! Did I ever need and cold beer and a hot shower. When the Old Captain chewed me out for not having his back at the inlet, and not having the fenders ready for the docking debacle, the seeds of discontent were firmly planted. He wasn’t teaching me anything about the boat, and in fact, he kept everything a secret. One time he was working on some wiring. I was curious and walked up to him. “Whoa,” he said. “So now you’re gonna come up behind me?” “Want me to solder those wires for you?” “I’m perfectly capable of soldering wires,” he said rather bluntly. I thought he was gonna bite my head off.
One day when there was no dockage available in our cruising range, I announced we were going to anchor out for the night. “Right here,” I said and put my finger on the chart. “It’s good depth, and not too far off the channel.” “Good protection from the northerly winds if you tuck it in right over here.” He said, his knobby finger traced the shoreline. I thought we were in agreement, but when I pulled up to the anchorage, and faced the bow into the breeze, he gave me a weird blank look. “This spot looks good,” I said. He just stood there. “Please go to the bow and deploy the anchor.” I said. He looked perplexed for a second, then obeyed. I shut down the main engine and joined him on the bow for a look around. “Well, here we are,” I said. “You are not a hero,” he said, obviously miss-hearing me. “There are things I could have done to prepare if I knew we were anchoring.” I couldn’t believe it! It was bad enough that he forgot we were anchoring, but now he was chewing me out again. I lost it. “WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM, ASSHOLE,” I yelled right in his face. “WHERE DID YOU THINK WE WERE GOING WHEN WE LEFT THE CHANNEL BACK THERE?” I swept my arm towards the line of boats anchored nearby. “WHERE THE HELL DO YOU THINK WE ARE?” I stormed off and immediately began charting a new course.
The next morning was as grey as my mood, but I was buoyed knowing my plan will soon be enacted. “Where we goin’?” the Old Captain asked. “Havre De Grace,” I answered. “What. Why? It’s only 10 miles away.” “It’s a big enough city for you to rent a car and go home,” I said.
I texted the XO about what was happening and she arranged for an Uber to meet us and take the Old Captain to Enterprise to rent a car. We weren’t at the dock ten minutes when the Uber car arrived and he was gone.
After looking around a bit, I discovered that both alternators attached to the main engine were disconnected. The Old Captain was running the huge 12 kilowatt diesel generator to power a dinky old Sears battery charger. I reconnected the alternators and started the engine. No output, they were both junk. It was baffling. Replacing them is so easy even for a novice. I also noticed the inverter– the gizmo that changes 12 volts DC into 120 volts AC– was disconnected as well. At anchor, this particular inverter can easily power the fridge, microwave, TV, lights and other stuff that doesn’t demand too much amperage. And finally, the water heater was not plumbed to the engine cooling system. Hot antifreeze can be circulated to heat water cheaply and efficiently while underway. Well, now I know why he was constantly running the generator. The so-called professional surveyor we hired failed to mention any of these very important things. Geez! It’s his job to notice! While I’m on the subject, the survey stated the beam (width of the boat) was 16’2″ but at the Salt Pond Marina in Hampton, Virginia, I couldn’t fit the boat into a slip that was 17’6″ wide.
Two days later the Old Captain called and apologized for being such a jerk (his own words.) I asked him why he disconnected the alternators. He said he thought they were dragging the batteries down. That answer didn’t make any sense at all, but I let it go. “Sorry I flew off the handle,” I said. “No hard feelings Rick. Call me if you need anything.” “Will do, Take care.” I lied. I’m not calling him.
I felt good about my decision, he absolutely had to go, but it bothered me that I failed to keep my cool. Swearing and yelling is just not like me. I pride myself in my ability to let things roll off my back. I should have been more compassionate, after all, he was giving up this beautiful boat that at one time held all of his dreams. He talked about how he was going to cruise the Caribbean with his wife, and how happy they would be living the romantic life of vagabond Gypsy sailors. But life caught up with him and he couldn’t fulfill his dreams. Hey, that would damn well take a chunk out of me. I’d be a total dick after that too.
The Old Captain possessed the bearing of a man who’s had some hardship in his life. His personal story, as interesting as it may or may not be, remains a mystery, but I would have loved to learn more, and talk with him about his life on the water as a professional delivery captain. I’m sure he had many adventures to talk about, and I would enjoy laying some of mine on him, but as I mentioned before, small talk was difficult. It’s too bad.
The unforgiving sea, relentless and full of dangers, is no place to become surly and absentminded, yet many of us are drawn to it regardless of the perils or our state of mind. I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere, but sometimes it’s not about what you’ve learned, it’s about whether you wear your scars, or your scars wear you. Lesson #6: Always be kind.
It was a warm July night. Not warm enough for air-conditioning as is often the case on the South Coast of Massachusetts. All the windows were open and a sultry sweet breeze ruffled the curtains behind the big couch where I sat with my feet up, beer in hand, TV on. Johnny Gilbert announced “THIS—IS—JEOPARDY” over the familiar theme music. Could this be the night I outplay my wife? Not likely. She seemingly doesn’t pay attention then blurts out the correct answer in the form of a question. Sometimes from the other room. But, ever the optimist, I gave it my best shot.
“Let’s live on the boat.” she said. This surprised me. After completing The Great Loop in 2018 I thought the XO was through with boating. Oh, we’d go visit our boat Ginger Lee once in a while to sit on her aft deck and enjoy a sunny day, but nothing like pre-Loop when we would cruise every place we could get to in a reasonable amount of time. Hell, we knew every port west to Fishers Island, north to Gloucester, east to Provincetown, and south to Chatham. Nowadays I’d often go boating without my wife. Day trips to Sippican, Phinney’s harbor, Onset Bay, or maybe around Basset’s Island–I have way more free time to do this–but I miss the old days of long term cruising.
“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” I said in my best Roy Scheider. “Yes!” she quickly agreed. Had she been thinking about it? Jeez! the XO is full ofsurprises today. “What about this boat?” she asked and turned her laptop screen towards me. “Ooh shiny,” I answered. It was a pretty 42 footer with a rounded aft. Her unusual design attracted us both. The fact that she and the XO had the same name was more than just cool, it was a good omen. The ad was very detailed with lots of pictures, and the words “walk around queen sized bed” caught our attention. So luxurious! With boats and their limited space, anything you can walk around is a plus. Ol’ Ginger Lee has a smaller “climb over your spouse” bed.
This particular vessel has a single diesel engine. A Caterpillar 3126 of which I know nothing about, so I texted my old friendCaptain John Skerry, who is an expert diesel engine guy. As soon as had I typed in “Cat 3126” my phone rang. It was John. “Too much to stuff to text,” he started. “First of all, what’s the application?” “Its in a trawler I’m looking at. Displacement hull.” “Okay,” he said. “This motor is a direct replacement for the 3116, a terrible engine. They all failed. Caterpillar had to come up with an engine that would drop into the same footprint so they made the 3126, but it got a bad rep because they put them in big Sea Rays. The owners invariably overrevved them causing them to overheat and eventually break. That being said, if you’re just ticking slowly along in a trawler, it’s good. Should last a long time.” “Great!” I said, and after thanking him, I hung up and immediately dialed the number on the ad. To my great surprise a real person answered the phone. Another good omen. The broker told me the boat was in Somerset, Massachusetts–practically next door– and he would contact the owners and arrange a viewing. “This is going good,” I thought to myself. Well, it was a littletoo good because that was last I ever heard from him.
BOAT PORN If you’ve ever looked for a boat online you know the listings are endless. One must narrow the parameters. Thankfully, the dealer websites have filters. I typed the words diesel and trawler into the appropriate boxes and, voila! My screen was filled with many possibilities, and thus I dove headlong into the inglorious world ofboat porn. A term coined by the XO, mostly in fun, but still, with all the enticing words and detailed pictures, it’s as close to real smut as I’ve been in a long time. I spent hours salaciously flipping through attractive and tempting photographs. I looked at so many ads my eyes glazed over. Marine Trader, Monk, Grand Banks, De Fever, Albin. All good looking trawlers, but so similar you’d think they were made by the same company.
Trawlers are a specific type of boat. Webster’s dictionary describes them as “boats used in netfishing,” and they still are, but this style of boat was adapted for pleasure cruising, originally by conversion, then by purpose building with nicer interiors and no provision for commercial use. In a nutshell they are yachts that look like real fishing boats, have diesel engines, and go slow.
CONTACT Dealer ads are made to be easy, you simply click on the vessel you like and up pops an email box where you enter your contact information and send it off. I did so with several choices. I imagined ravenous salespeople falling all over themselves to goad us into emptying our wallets. But no, I got nothing, nada, crickets. I returned to the dealer websites, got the phone numbers and dialed every one, but nobody answered the phone. I left messages to no avail. What the heck is going on? Am I doing this right? I needed professional advice, so once again I called my budzo Captain John Skerry–who is also looking for a bigger boat–and the same thing was happening to him. “I left messages all over the place. How do they sell boats?” he asked. “I have no idea,” I replied. “It’s like nobody’s home!”
A week later, out of the blue, early on a Sunday morning while I was tinkering around in my garage, I got a text message containing several pictures of a diesel engine. “Who are you?” I texted back. “You asked for info on this boat,” was the answer. “WHAT?” I thought to myself. “Out of all the boats I showed interest in, only one of the dealers decided to get back to me.” Ridiculous, I know, but there it is, contact.
The engine was in a boat the XO and I really liked. She was listed simply as a 46 foot long range trawler, and according to the ad, she was truly one of a kind. Built in Cape Town, South Africa by a company called KSJ International. The main engine, a Gardener 6LXB, is a well regarded British six cylinder diesel. They use them in those double decker busses so popular in London. It also has a Perkins diesel generator with its own transmission, shaft, and propeller so if the main engine fails you can make it home. If both engines fail, it has a sail!
Okay, we found a boat and have contact with a broker. Yay! But here’s the rub, she’s 850 miles away in Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s a long drive but it must be done. Used boats, like used cars, should be seen in person. You know what that means? Road trip!
ROAD TRIP After packing the car with snacks, water, music, and clothes, we kissed our cats Pete and Josie goodbye. “Don’t kill each other,” I said as I locked the door.
It was great day for a road trip, sunny and warm, and I was feeling damn good. Our destination is Port City Marina in Wilmington, North Carolina. We won’t travel the 850 miles in one day. Nope, it’s way too far even for an old road dog like me. The plan is to drive until our brains turn to mush, find a motel, then rinse and repeat.
The traffic sucked. “Where the hell could everybody be going? Why are you on my road?” I said aloud. Then it hit me. “Oh DUH! It’s a beautiful summer day. A weekend day. DOH!” I was so psyched to check out this boat that I didn’t even consider that so many other people would on the road. I wished we had left earlier, but no matter, we’re quite comfortable in Pony Boy our Ford Mustang. We had the AC cranking, garage rock on the radio, and tasty snacks in plastic containers. Traffic? Pffft! Who cares? We’re going to North Carolina to check out a big-ass boat!
It was dusk when we rolled into Deltaville, VA. What little brains I had left were oozing out my ears, but we had made it two thirds of the way. The Country Suites Inn was a bit pricey but the room was very nice and had two TVs! The only food available was right next door. Hey, I’m okay with Wendy’s, but because of Covid it was drive-through only. Oh well, I forced myself back into the car. Ten minutes later I returned to the room with the booty. I had a double cheeseburger, large fries slathered with ketchup, and an ice cold Bud in a long neck bottle; a three course meal! The XO had a more nutritious Caesar salad with chicken.
Because of the pandemic, the free continental breakfast advertised on the motel website consisted of a bottle of water and a frozen Jimmie Dean sausage muffin that you are supposed to take back to your room and nuke. The coffee was serviceable but apparently Light Cream is forbidden past the New England border. We’re expected to use those thimble sized cups with the peel-off top. I’m not sure what’s in them, but it can’t be real cream because it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, and after I dump 20 of them into my coffee it’s still not to my liking. That’s why I smuggled in my own supply of light cream!
All in all it was a grand road trip, complete with gas station snacks, souvenir refrigerator magnets, and Icees. The 70 MPH speed limit implemented everywhere south of Delaware is surprisingly easy to get used to, but the Southern drivers seem to derive great pleasure in blocking other cars from changing lanes in front of them. They’ll speed up when they see your directional, supposedly to scare you into staying in the lane, and if you don’t, they’ll flash headlights and flip you the bird. I asked a Southerner about this phenomenon and she said, “Oh yeah, the road is mine for at least a half mile in front of me.” A half mile! Screw that! If there’s no one beside me I’m taking the lane, I don’t care how close you are. It’s like rule number one in the Masshole Driving Book. I may even use my blinkah, but don’t count on it. The best thing to do is veil your intentions. Just casually hang in your lane so they’re lulled into thinking you’re staying put, then hit the directional at the same time you drift in front of them. That’s how it’s done on Route 128!
The Sun was ablaze when we arrived at the Port City Marina in Wilmington. It was so hot I had to change out of my black shirt. I grabbed a white one out of trunk and off we went to meet the boat and its owners.
They were a very nice older couple took great pride in their floating home and it showed. Everywhere we looked was neat and organized. I liked that about them. Sure, they knew we were coming and they scrubbed and put stuff away so it would look good to us potential buyers, but this is exactly what I do when I’m trying to sell something. I would never sell a car, boat, or anything without giving it a good cleaning. It says something positive about a person, and let’s face it, whenever you’re selling anything, you sell yourself first.
Living aboard a boat is the stuff of dreams for so very few, and for over ten years our hosts were among that special breed of boaters. They lived on their boat exclusively, in fact, they sold their house in order to buy this boat. Whatever happened to that dream? Somehow I feel the answer is intensely personal, and I’d rather not be burdened with what instinct tells me is a sad story, especially since it results in my happiness. But I would be negligent if I didn’t inquire. “Why ya sellin’?” I asked after we agreed to buy, figuring it may negate the need for any dramatic response. The question hung there for a moment or two. Apparently my ploy worked, I simply nodded at the casual explanation offered and left it at that.
There’s an old saying among boaters, “The two happiest days are the day you buy your boat, and the day you sell it.” We boaters buy and sell because there is always a better boat. Better doesn’t necessarily mean bigger, but so far, all my boats have been successively larger. I love screwing around with boats. If I’m not with them, I’m thinking about them. Sorta like being in love! Selling them doesn’t make me happy but what can I do? I can’t keep them all. Can I? “No Rick. You can’t.” “But why not?” “Because they’re big and expensive. You don’t have the room or the money.” “Oh yeah. There’s that.” It’s not like guitars or jack-knives–God knows I can’t have too many of those–it just feels wrong to give my heart to more than one boat at a time.
The XO and I wanted a bigger boat, but in order to do that we had to sell our old boat friend Ginger Lee. That was really hard emotionally. For well over ten years she took us safely and comfortably to wherever we pointed her bow; so many miles; so many memories. We ran out of new ports to visit in New England so we didThe Great Loop. In all the years we had Ginger Lee she never asked for anything more than a couple of fan belts and a fuel pump. Nevertheless, we sold her to the right person for not so much money as we have lavished on her. Not even close. Boats and cars have this in common, you can never get back what you’ve put into them. It’s better to turn them over to a new owner for a reasonable price knowing that you have made someone happy.
Did you ever have a car that always ran well? One that didn’t ask too much of you or give you a hard time. It’d always start up even on the coldest mornings and would idle there making lovely engine music. “Lum lum lum lum lum”. It made you happy, and you felt that good driving it. How ’bout that car that left you stranded on the side of the road? It would often fail inspection and always needed brakes, or lights, or something. Mechanical things like cars and boats have personalities. Why else would we name them?
I’m not sure why, but buying a bigger boat has proven to be difficult. Maybe it’s the times we live in–the pandemic and all–but even after we found an awesome vessel it was a solid two months before we obtained physical possession. At one point during the whole ordeal I asked the broker: “How ’bout we send you the money and you send us the title?” That brought a chuckle to the guy, then he went on and on about the process and how everything has to be done right and in a certain order and in a certain way so that everybody is protected. “It’s for your own good,” he said. Blah, blah, blah. I suppose he’s right because there’s a lot of money involved, but it seems to me the process could be streamlined. For instance, about a month prior a prospective buyer had a complete survey done. Do we really need another? According to the surveyor who took our money we certainly do. And so did the captain we hired to drive the boat to the marina we paid to haul it out so said surveyor can re-inspect the bottom. Geez, it took less time and effort to buy our house! But I get it. Boats are not houses. They have engines, they can move around, they float, they can sink, and the inherent dangers of the environment in which they operate is obvious. Getting insurance was a bear. Our old boat Ginger Lee was insured by Progressive for liability and an “agreed upon value” which was also what we paid for her. Unfortunately they have a limit as to how much they will underwrite. We had to look elsewhere but eventually got it done. The funny thing is, we had to insure it before we actually owned it. Just one of the many hoops we had to jump through.
We are all travelers in this universe, sailors on the sea of life, if you will. The course we set for ourselves is merely a guideline. What truly transpires during our precious journey is sometimes as unpredictable as life and death. The longer I live the more I understand this. Shit happens, lives change, and for reasons beyond our control the XO and I found ourselves in the enviable position of being able to afford a bigger boat. Well, we got one. It’s a done deal and we are very happy, but it’s not the end of the story. Oh no, in fact, it’s just the beginning. With a boat like this the XO and I can literally go wherever the wind takes us. Even a dreamer like myself never imagined that this could be possible at a time of my life when such romantic notions seem unlikely; I’m freakin’ old! But here it is, a new episode of our lives together, and best of all, dear reader, I can indulge my narcissistic self by writing all about it.
A row of streetlamps cast a yellowish light over the cracked and aging Yonkers side-street. Under their electric beams, a warm breeze swirled the humid night air into long flowing patterns. Overworked air conditioners droned on, echoing off rain streaked brick and cinder-block walls. City borne dust and grime collected on every car parked along the curb, giving them all the same matte finish, dull and lifeless and begging for a good scrubbing. Detective Pete Jansen unlocked the drivers door of the black SUV and slid inside. The suspension creaked under his weight, then settled, and it was quiet. He sat there and stared at nothing, keys still in hand, playing back the tape in his head, trying to wrap his brain around what just happened between him and his now ex-partner, Gerry Sharpe. The fragrance of her hair lingered on his clothing where she had laid her head. He wanted to stay. She had asked him to. “Why didn’t I?” he wondered. “She had wine! She offered me wine for chrissakes,” he said to himself, well aware of the implications. She felt good in his arms. Warm, yielding, so unlike the hard-nosed detective he’d come to know over the past few years. And now he’d have to come to work each day and look into the face of a new partner across his desk. “Probably some old guy with BO and nose hair,” he thought. “Or even worse, a young pipsqueak greenhorn cadet fresh out of the academy.” He suddenly felt very lonely. “Aw crap!” he said aloud, then jammed the key into the ignition switch and started the engine.
The tide on the Hudson was at its lowest, exposing two feet of dark slime on the wooden pilings as well as the boulders and rip-rap that lined the shore and angled sharply up towards the street. The inky water was becoming more active as it began its twice daily northward migration, and with it, a parade of brightly lit tugs pushing their barges filled with unknown commodities towards unknow destinations, their Captains taking full advantage of the fair current. Spotlights, intensely bright and white, criss-crossed in front of the big vessels. The low pitched hum of powerful engines and the sounds of water rippling past the dock joined a chorus of peepers for the evening serenade. On land the only thing going on was a graffiti covered box truck lumbering noisily up the street and a pudgy old man walking a little black dog.
Gerry Sharpe sat in the comfortable pilothouse of the Great Harbor GH37, her bare feet resting on the gauge console. She cupped a glass of red wine in her hand. From her perch she could see it all and reflected on its beauty. “So this is how the other half lives,” she murmured and turned her attention to the array of gauges, switches, and levers under her feet. “Now if I can just figure out how to run this thing,” she said aloud. “How hard could it be?” Her head was still reeling from the recent life-changing events, but she was comforted by the fact that she was now quite literally in the drivers seat.
“I just don’t know. It’s too risky.” the man said. “Yes Layla, it is a pretty boat, but perhaps we should make do with what we have and move on.” The pair made their way along the waterfront sidewalk to the restaurant that overlooked the Yonkers free dock. The upscale eatery, now empty and darkened, became as unattractive as all the other businesses on the street, shuttered and locked-up tight against the world. The man pulled on the wrought-iron gate on the side of the building and the piece of wood that he had jammed into the catch fell to the sidewalk. He picked it up and placed it where he could find it again. They continued on to the chain-link gate that guarded the docks below. It was wide open. A broken padlock lay at their feet. “Well it’s about time,” he said to Layla. She looked back at him and remained silent. Together, they went down the long aluminum gangway. He helped Layla up onto the gunwale of the white trawler, unlocked the cabin door, and let her in. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “I’d better check the lines. The river’s getting choppy.”
“Hello!” a voice rang out. “Oh. Hello,” the man said. “I didn’t see you there. You startled me.” “Sorry. Nice night for a walk,” Gerry said. She was looking down from the open pilothouse door, wine glass still in hand. “Yes it is. Quite nice.” He lifted his chin towards the gate. “It’s open.” “My friend did that with a bolt cutter. I don’t think he liked the idea of crawling under,” Gerry said amiably. A small wake rebounded the boat off the fenders. Gerry steadied herself and spilled a bit of wine. “Haven’t got my sea legs yet.” “New boater?” “Yeah. New boater, new boat, new life.” Gerry looked straight up to the starry sky. “New everything.” “How long have you been looping?” he asked, pointing to the white AGLCA burgee. “What time is it?” she asked. The man looked perplexed as he checked his watch. “Almost one,” he answered. “‘Bout four hours then,” she said. “You? That’s your boat, right?” she sloshed her glass towards the tidy Marine Trader 34 docked in front of her. The name Breeze written in bold blue letters across its transom, up front on the bow rail it had a little flag like hers. “Actually, I recently acquired her. Looks nice on the outside but a bit messy inside. Haven’t had a chance to clean yet.” “Well, maybe I can help you, I’m pretty good with a mop.” “Thank you for the offer, but I’m very particular. I’d probably work you to death.” “Not if I shoot you first!” she quipped. “Beautiful boat, the Great Harbor. I used to have one.” he said. “Oh!” Gerry perked up. “I could really use a lesson.” “There’s not much to it really. I’m no expert, but I’d be happy to show you what I know. My name’s Lee.” “Gerry,” she said. “Pleased to meet you. “Permission to come aboard Captain?”
“Okay. You have two engines.” he began. “More specifically. two Yanmar 54 horsepower diesels. Very fuel efficient but slow. Don’t expect to go faster than ten MPH.” He scanned the console. “It looks like a lot of gauges but that’s because there’s two of everything.” “Where’s the speedometer?” Gerry asked. “The gauges only monitor the engines. Speed is reported on your navigation and GPS screens, but we’ll get to that in a minute. These two big ones in the middle show RPM.” “Like in my car.” “Exactly, and just like a car, you don’t want to over-rev, but it’s a lot easier to do in a boat, so keep it below the red line here,” he pointed. “Looks to be 2400.” “Got it.” “You got oil pressure, water temperature, and voltage.” he tapped them all in a row. “You want to see them in the normal range indicated by the green section, but sensors on the engines will cause an alarm to sound if there’s a problem. If you hear an alarm, check the gauges and shut down the problem engine. The best thing about twins is you can make it to port on just one.” “Then what?” “Well, you’ve got to figure out what’s wrong and fix it, or have it fixed. Most of the time it’s something simple, like a broken belt, or a coolant leak, bad alternator, or maybe a loose wire.” “Okay. Pretty much like cars. Got it. What if both engines die?” “You cant pull over to the side of the road and wait for Triple A, but you should drop the anchor to keep from drifting, and call for help on your radio,” he pointed to the marine band radio. “Keep this on channel 16 while you’re underway. Every boat within broadcast range can hear you.” “That’s good.” “Yes it is, even if you can’t see anyone you’re rarely alone.” “So how do you know where to go? Are their maps?” “Ahh. You really are a novice,” he said. “There are maps, but they’re called charts.” He opened a cabinet. “I see you have paper ones. Very nice, but nowadays it’s all electronic.” He reached over and switched on the Furuno chartplotter. The instrument booted up and glowed. “See. It looks just the paper chart but it moves along with you anywhere you go. That little triangle is you, this boat, and that magenta line is where you want to go. Your speed is also displayed here,” he pointed. It read 00.0. “That’s about it rookie. The engines start like a car.” He jingled the two ignition keys, one in each hand. They had yellow floats attached. “Diesels like a good warm-up. Fuel level is here,” he said pointing. “This is your holding tank level, you know, waste.” He flipped a switch. “It’s reading one quarter full.” You pump it out every once in a while.” “Where?” she asked. “Most fuel docks have a pump-out station. I usually do it when I fuel up. Or they can do it for you, just give them a tip. Five bucks is good.” He flipped another switch. “This your fresh water tank. You got 100 gallons, pretty good. Fill it with a hose at the fuel dock or while you’re in a marina. It’s fairly straightforward. Use the deck-key hanging over there and unscrew the fitting and stick the hose into it, same key also unscrews the pump-out fitting on the side of the boat. Everything is labelled.” “What about electricity?” “Ahh, follow me,” he said. They went to the aft-deck. He lifted a small hatch cover and pulled out a thick yellow cable. “Plug one end into the boat here,” he pointed. “I see it’s already connected. The other end goes into an outlet on the dock. There’s no power to connect to on this dock.” “Why do I still have lights?” Gerry asked. “Because you have a bunch of batteries somewhere on the boat. They wont last forever, but they’ll go a long time. They charge up by running the engines, like a car, or you can charge them if you’re on shore power, ya know, plugged in to the dock.” “What about hot water? I don’t seem to have any. It’s kinda lukewarm.” “There’s a hot water heater. Your batteries won’t run it. It requires too much juice. You have to be plugged in, or if you run the engines for awhile, they’ll heat the water. It takes a good half hour. Let’s start them up so you’ll have some.” “Great! I could use a hot shower.”
“How long are you staying?” he asked. “I’m not sure,” Gerry answered. “A forensic team is coming because this boat might be a crime scene. It’s a long story, but for now, I’m stuck here.” “Forensic team?” “Like I said. It’s a long story,” she answered with a dismissive hand gesture. “Hopefully they wont take too long, but as a retired cop, I know they’ll probably take their sweet time.” “How long have you been retired?” “What time is it?” “It’s one thirty.” “About four and a half hours,” she answered. “Well Miss Gerry, I’ll take my leave. I’m sure it will all work out. Maybe I’ll see you on the water.” He faced her and made a little bow. “It was very nice to meet you.” “You too. G’night Lee. Thanks for the lesson.”
He made his way back to the little trawler and opened the side door into the helm. Layla was laying on the couch and looked up sleepily when he came in. “We’ve got to go Layla,” he said. “Right away.” He turned the key and the Lehman 120 diesel engine rattled to life. Layla looked at him questioningly. “I know it’s dark,” he said. “Just go to bed. I’ll wake you when we anchor,”
The iron smell of blood, though now darkened and dry, still permeated the air in the tight galley. The heap of what once was a living human female lay on its side under an old blue tarp that was unceremoniously thrown over the gruesome scene. Gorey bits of brain tissue, bone, and hair, that clung to the side of the stove and cabinets could not be so easily covered. Layla got off the couch, and after carefully stepping through it all, plopped into her bed with a sigh.
“Memory is a strange thing, It doesn’t always work like you think it should. I remember moments I shouldn’t, and forget the ones that I should.”
I had a dream recently. My wife and I were boating in waters so shallow that we were afraid to start the engines. We could ruin the running gear, or clog the intakes with muck, so we got out of the boat and into the water, me in front, her in back, and pushed and pulled. I clearly remember the feeling of sand and silt giving way under my feet, and getting stuck in it, making it very difficult to move, yet I kept going, one foot in front of the other, until the danger was over. Metaphorically speaking, there’s a lot going on in that dream. The push and the pull, fear and danger, failure and success, working together towards a goal, that thing where it feels like your feet are stuck in clay. It was a good dream. I don’t often remember the good ones as much as the nightmares, but that one stayed with me. I liked the Yin and Yang of it.
I don’t remember boating after we returned from our Great Loop trip. Which is crazy. I must have gone for a ride or two. Didn’t I? I know we removed her from the water much sooner than usual because she needed some maintenance after being afloat for so long, but that was in late August. We arrived home in June. Could I have ignored my old buddy Ginger Lee for nearly two months? I feel like I lost an entire boating season.
Here we are in the Summer of 2019, our Great Loop trip is in the books, Ginger Lee is all spiffed up, and I’m excited to be back cruising. We locked up the house, gave our good neighbor Joe the key and our float plan, and walked a few blocks to Swifts Neck Beach. It was not a great day weather-wise. Steel grey clouds tormented the sky like a schoolyard bully. It felt like rain.
What’s a few raindrops between friends? Besides, the marine forecast wasn’t so terrible–one to two footers–so we loaded up Salty II and motored out to our Trojan F-32 Ginger Lee patiently waiting for us on the mooring.
One of my favorite things about living in Wareham is its access to Buzzards Bay, our super-highway to the world with exits to Vineyard Sound, Nantucket Sound, Rhode Island Sound, and the Cape Cod Canal. For our first stop we had planed to go east through the canal, then north to Green Harbor in Marshfield, but that didn’t happen. I’ll tell you the story.
After doing our pre-cruise rituals, which include cutting away the fishing line that I criss-cross along the bow rail to keep the birds away, and taking down the Gull-Sweeps that spin on the roof, also to keep the birds away, the XO dropped the pennants, and once again, after a year long hiatus, we be cruisin’!
It felt good to be thinking like mariners again, free of land-based concerns, reading the charts, checking the instruments, feeling the motion of the water as we carve our way through it, and breathing my favorite cologne Eau DeDiesel. The familiar sound of the engines working in unison made me smile. I may have let out a giggle as Swifts Neck faded away behind us.
We left the Wareham River and headed southeast around the Stoney Point Dike, then turned northeast into the Hog Island Channel where you never know what to expect. Even on a day when the marine forecast predicts small waves, this busy channel can be whipped up from boaters who ignore the 10 mph speed limit. Apparently there are not enough patrol vessels to enforce the rules. A spatter or two met the windshield as we passed between Mashnee Island and Widows Cove. Somewhere between Onset Bay and the Mass Maritime Pier, the rain became steady but light. We were focused on catching the fair current through the Cape Cod Canal and timed our arrival at its west inlet pretty darn good, but shortly after we went under the Bourne Bridge, it became obvious we needed a new plan. The weather was tanking fast. We weren’t going to make it to Green Harbor. Turning around wasn’t a good option because we’d be fighting the three mph current, not so bad, but in a boat like ours, whose top speed is perhaps eight, it’d take us a long while to get to the safety of Onset Bay, the port we passed thirty minutes ago.
“Whattaya think,” I asked the XO. “Harbor of Tears,” she answered quickly. The XO refers to the SandwichMarina Harbor of Refuge located inside the Cape Cod Canal near the east end. A while back she heard an account from another boating couple who ducked into the Sandwich Marina to get away from the weather. Their experience was terrible. The wind came from the wrong direction and rocked them unmercifully all night, so they coined that name The Harbor of Tears. It just sounds so romantic doesn’t it? I think I’ll write a song! Take heed all ye sailors of all of your fears for the sea won’t be kindly in the Harbor of Tears It was pouring wicked hard when I called them on the phone. The wind had picked up as well, but when we cruised into the marina, everything inexplicably went slack. The rain, the wind, the currents, everything. It was like somebody hit the pause button. Must be all those good karma points I’ve been saving up. We got a slip assignment as we passed the fuel dock. Its attendant leaned out of his little hut and pointed us in the right direction. As usual, the XO wrangled the dingy, hung the fenders, and prepped the lines for an unassisted docking, bow in, starboard tie up. It all went smoothly, but the very instant we got the shore power cable and water hose connected, all hell broke loose. Mother Nature: “Now?” God: “Hang on a sec, there almost hooked up.” Mother Nature: “Jeez! You’re killin’ me here. How ’bout now?” God: “Almost. Rick’s having a little trouble threading the hose into the pressure regulator. Ooh, looks like he’s done now. Okay Mama, let ‘er rip!“
There was a tornado in the area! This is very rare in New England. It wasn’t a big one, we weren’t going to be blown to Oz or anything, but for about an hour the weather was friggin’ scary. The wind was whipping and howling, rain was sideways, trees bent over. It was nuts!
Thank God it was a fast moving storm. By early afternoon we were able to leave the boat and stretch our legs. We’ve never docked here in Sandwich, it’s quite nice. There are no less than three restaurants within the marina boundaries. There’s also a seafood market, ice cream parlor, clam shack, and a whole shopping center across the street.
Well, we didn’t make it to Marshfield, but since we had a reservation there at the Green Harbor Marina, I called them to let them know we’d be delayed by a day. They were very understanding about the situation, but we had already paid for two nights on Dockwa, an online marina reservation service. Because of their policy of ignoring the fact that boaters are slaves to the waves and weather, it was too late to cancel without a penalty. The manager of the Green Harbor Marina was super nice and we worked out a great deal. We would come back on our way home and he would comp us for the day we paid for but didn’t get to use. Sometimes all you need is a little cooperation.
The morning greeted The Harbor of Tears with overcast but clearing skies. A light breeze tickled the burgee and smelled of good weather, good enough to warm up the engines and head out. At the east end of the canal we turned left and went north up Cape Cod Bay. The day was getting better by the second as we cruised past the expansive Plymouth Bay, Gurnet Point, the never ending Duxbury Beach, and into the mouth of the Green River. Its rock jetty welcomed us with open arms. Great rays of sunlight streamed through the retreating clouds, warming my face and my soul. Is that a choir of angels singing? I immediately fell in love with the place.
People go on adventures to find things they never knew were out there. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. “Why have I waited so long to visit this beautiful place?” I think I know the answer to that question. There are warnings about how shallow it is here, but they are misleading, well, I was mislead. After being here I realized that the depths are not dangerous for the prudent boater. Maybe if you had a sailboat whose draft was, say, five feet, typical for many, you might have a problem at low tide, but there are many such boats in this harbor. Certainly a boat like ours with its three foot draft can come and go at any time. Even though this has become an overnight stop for us, I’m happy we discovered the truth about this hidden gem. I’m looking forward to returning on our way home.
The next morning brought us bright blue skies and that sweet July heat that us Bay Staters love to complain about. Bye-bye Green Harbor, seeya in a bit. After leaving the Green River and winding our way around the many working boats pulling up their traps and making their living, we headed directly for the most visible landmark in this area, the famed I Love You lighthouse on Minots Ledge. Not called that because of its phallic appearance, but rather for its light that blinks 1-4-3.
We decided to check out Spectacle Island, one of the many Boston Harbor Islands open to the public. This one has moorings you can rent. You may also anchor, but because it’s near a boat channel where everyone ignores the NO WAKE signs, mooring is the best bet. A big wake can dislodge your anchor.
To minimize the wake problem, we chose a mooring close to shore. The distance made the wakes turn into slow rollers, not so bad, and later on in the day, when traffic diminished, the wakes were not so much of a problem.
Spectacle Island has a rich and pungent history as a place for horse rendering. Later on, they built a trash incinerator and it became the city’s dump. When the incinerator closed, they simply heaped the untreated trash there for thirty years! What the heck were they thinking? In the 1990’s they continued the tradition by dumping all the dirt from Boston’s Big Dig project, covering up all that trash and nearly doubling the islands size in the process. If you like beach glass, this is your happy place. You cannot walk one foot on its shoreline without finding the best specimens you’ve ever seen. I filled my pockets in five minutes, then I decided I would keep only one, making it all the more precious.
After a few days we somehow managed to tear ourselves away from the Spectacle. Peace and serenity gave way to busy downtown Boston at one of my favorite destinations: the Waterboat Marina.
I’ve been coming here off-and-on for nearly twenty years, and it still remains one of the nicest and friendliest marinas anywhere on the planet, and believe me, I’ve been to quite a few. It’s so close to anywhere I want to go in the city of Boston, a place I used to call my home. A place where a part of my heart still resides. I am reminded of that fact every time I visit.
Boston is not a part of The Great Loop. It’s a week away from Hell Gate in New York–the closest Loop route–so many don’t even consider Boston as a viable side trip, but I was surprised at how many here people recognized the gold burgee and what it means. It’s a real conversation starter. Apparently we’re experts! Sometimes I wonder: Did I really do that or just dream of its beauty.
We made friends with a few of the permanent resident live-aboards. They all wanted to hear something about The Great Loop. It’s difficult because there is just too much to talk about unless they want to know about something specific, and that doesn’t usually happen. “How was it?” That is the hardest question to answer. “It was…long.” “It was…good.” “It was hot.” “It was cold.” “It must have been incredible!” “Yes. Sometimes. Sometimes not so much.” I usually ask if there is anything they’d like to know about it. That sometimes spurs the conversation. If not, I’ll lay a few facts on ’em. “We travelled just over 6,000 miles in 11 months.” For some reason everyone wants to know how much we spent on fuel. “A bit over $8,000,” is my answer, but nobody ever inquires about the single most costly expense: health insurance. It was tempting to go a year without it, but ‘cha know, if anything happened to one of us, we could lose everything. Peace of mind is expensive. As it turned out, we stayed healthy. Yay! You can dazzle them with the basics all you want, but I get the feeling that people really want to hear something exciting, inflammatory, or crazy. “C’mon man. Get to the good stuff.” It’s not so easy. I can write all about the good stuff when I have time to sit down and organize my thoughts, make the corrections and edits, observe the proper elements of style, and pour myself a nice glass of cabernet. Contrary to popular beliefs, I’m not outgoing enough to spontaneously spew anecdotes to total strangers.
For my birthday the XO got us tickets to see the Red Sox play the Yankees. We caught a cab at the Marriott in front of the marina. Our gregarious driver got us within two bocks of Fenway Park, quite a trick with all the traffic, but the guy knew his back roads well, and we tipped accordingly.
In the early mornings, before the heat of the day kicked in, I walked a lot. I did the same routes I remember walking when I was much younger. The Financial District, Government Center, City Hall Plaza, Beacon Hill, Boston Common, the Theater District, and the North End. It sounds like a lot of walking but Boston is small, everything is very close. As a lad in my twenties, I remember routinely walking home from Kenmore Square after gigs at the Rat, a popular and infamous Rock and Roll venue. Picture a young musician with long flowing brown hair, guitar case in hand, “echo’s of the amplifiers pounding in my head,” confidently striding down Comm. Ave. at 2:00 in the morning just to avoid the stuffiness of a Green-Line subway car, and to breathe some fresh air before hitting the sack.
I was heartbroken when it finally came time to leave. My wife, with her unwavering kindness, consoled me. “We’ll be back.” She’s right. We will be back. As we backed out of our slip and headed down the fairway, the friends we met waved good-bye from their floating homes as they got themselves ready to go to work. I wondered if they were envious of us, untying the lines and becoming the vagabond travelers all boaters wish they were. But it was I who admired them. Living on the water on their boats, the amazing Boston skyline to awake to each morning, and the calming waters of Waterboat Marina to lull them to sleep every night.
It’s time to head back to Marshfield where we’ll have much more time to explore Brant Rock. The nice people at the Green Harbor Marina told us to pull into the same slip we vacated, which is great because we knew exactly where to go.
Brant Rock is a small and humble village. People still smile and say “good morning” as you pass, unafraid to make eye contact, and inspiring me to do the same. I imagine it’s been exactly the same for many years. I pray things will never change.
The mornings were hopeful, the days were long and hot, the sunsets breathtaking, and the nights cool and sweet. Places like this make me feel so happy to be alive.
We concluded our Summer cruise with a pleasant stay in Onset bay, another hidden gem but one we’ve visited often, and hopefully will continue to do so as we travel around Buzzards bay and beyond, our regularly scheduled waters.
The best thing I can say about Dad is also the best thing I can say about anyone: he was a nice man, a regular guy. He wasn’t tall, he wasn’t short. He wasn’t rich, he wasn’t poor. He was not powerful, his weaknesses were few. He was just your average Joe going about the business of supporting his family. In his era, that is what men did. The lessons he taught me were by example. The most important of which is there is honor in working hard for a living. That one got through my thick skull. I’ve always had a job. Growing up, I’m sure I was his biggest challenge. Oh, I wasn’t terrible, but I had my moments. He handled my shenanigans with kindness and compassion, never fighting my battles for me, but instead, pointing the way, and gently kicking my sorry ass towards the proper direction. I may not have lived up to all of his ideals, but at least I knew what they were. When I sat down to write this I said to myself, “Rick, you shouldn’t make this about you,” but dammit, it is about me. Isn’t it? My feelings, my emotions, and after all, I’m writing this to make me feel better about losing him. I should have been closer. In life we don’t always have clean endings and good-byes, but we have memories to bring us through.
“When standing on the precipice of the unknown, you do what you always do, the familiar.”
In the Summer of 2017 we left Wareham Massachusetts to cruise this 6500 mile boat trip they call The Great Loop. The art of cruising was not new to us. Living on our boat for a year was. Before leaving we became members of Americas Great Loop Cruisers Association. We followed their website diligently and still didn’t know exactly what to expect. How could we? How could anybody? When it finally came time to leave, I remember standing at the helm that warm July morning. The engines were warmed up and my wife was on the bow waiting for my signal to untie us from our mooring that we wouldn’t see for a year. Something was tugging at my gut. Was it fear? Dread? Excitement? I’ve always worked, always had a job, always had a hot rod to tinker with, always played in a band and quit a really good one to do this. So many things that defined my life will be put aside for an indefinite amount of time. “Jeepers creepers Rick! You picked a hell of a time to have a moment. Dude! Shake it off!” My inner voice was absolutely right. After fighting so long and so hard to become one of the fortunate few, such feelings suddenly seemed inconsequential by comparison. If I’m willing to leave everything I hold dear on land to take a leap into the unperceived, what does that say about my mindset? “This is your dream Rick, and the most important thing rightnow is to be true to your dreams.” So I rolled with that. We said our goodbyes, cast off the pennants, and dove headlong into a world where everything is different, unknown, and temporary. Where each day we found ourselves in a new place both physically and mentally.
After a while, the shine of the new began to dull into a well worn patina, and we settled into some semblance of a routine. Our boat Ginger Lee, a 32 foot Trojan, was our home away from home. A warm and cozy place to live as we ventured outside the boundaries of the familiar. I can’t tell you how your particular experience will unfold as you travel around the inland waterways of Americas Great Loop. I can, however, share with you a glimpse of what our life was like on any given day, and hopefully, provide you with some insight about what to expect.
I’d wake up early and make the coffee. The XO always slept later than me. Early mornings alone in the dark with my thoughts and a warm mug somehow made everything seem possible again. A reset button. A quiet voice before the uncertainty of the day kicked in. There was always uncertainty.
After coffee I would take a long walk, sometimes for hours. Even when we were at anchor I’d hop into the dinghy and head ashore. It could be a beach on a deserted island, a quaint little town, or a busy big city street, I enjoyed hiking them all. I’d like to think the XO appreciated the quiet time alone. She was usually awake when I returned. “How was your walk?” she’d ask. There was always something to tell about my walks.
We became Gypsies on the water, never lingering too long in any one place. Always leaving before we became too well acquainted. Sounds so romantic doesn’t it? There was a little of that going on, but even us romantic Gypsies had chores that needed to be done. Cleaning was ongoing. Windows, dishes, carpets, counters, sinks, the toilet, and the entire exterior of the boat. We’d have to take out the trash too. Just regular housekeeping I suppose, except for the things that the boat required mechanically.
We named our Lehman diesel engines Castor and Pollux after the mythical twins. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but they became like good friends, each with their own personalities. Castor, the starboard engine, was fond of chewing up vee belts, and he would squeal loudly if that belt was not adjusted just right. Pollux, our port engine, would just stop running if the fuel filters were not fresh enough for his liking. It’s a good thing Castor was not so discerning. On three occasions we came in on his power alone. I quickly learned to change the darn filters at regular intervals. The primary every 50 hours, the secondary every 200. We became so attuned to their voices that we could tell if something was amiss. But–knock on wood– that did not happen a lot, and I think it’s because I kept such a close eye on them. I stocked the boat with a damn good set of tools and I am blessed with the ability to use them. We managed to avoid paying for any mechanical services.
The transmission fluid and anti-freeze levels had to be monitored, and we had eight large batteries that all needed to be topped off with distilled water about once a month. I did three engine oil changes during the Loop. Filters and motor oil are readily available at any auto parts store or Walmart. “Gee willikers Rick! What did you do with all that used oil?” you may ask. “I dumped it overboard!” NO NO NO! Only kidding! I repeat. I AM KIDDING! Just wanted to see if you were still paying attention! Never ever dump anything into our beautiful waterways. It’s irresponsible and totally illegal. Wildlife dies. Huge fines occur. People will hate you. Here’s what I did instead: I’d put the used oil into plastic jugs, and when we stayed at a marina that offered full mechanical services, I’d ask if I could use their oil dump. Simple as that. The answer was always yes. Then I’d load it all into a dock cart and deal with it. Usually by pouring the used oil into a 55 gallon drum in the service area, and giving somebody a big tip.
We did the grocery shopping at least once a week. If the market was within walking distance we’d bring along our rolling cart. Sometimes we’d use our bicycles, but the courtesy car was always preferred. I was surprised at how many marinas offer this very cool thing. You could reserve the car for yourself or share with others, which we sometimes did. What the heck, we were all going the same place anyway. To the Walmart! Boaters love Walmart so much these cars could drive themselves there. I’ve never been to so many Walmarts in all my life. Here at home, I don’t go there a whole lot.
Neither one of us were big on lunch, but dinner was sacred. We barbequed on the Weber Q100 grill we brought from home. Steaks, burgers, chicken, and my newly discovered favorite, brats. We’d maybe toss a zucchini or summer squash on the grill along with the meat. We also had two Kenyon butane stoves. They work well and you can stow them away after you’re done for more counter space. Another nice tool is the slow cooker or crock pot. Its wattage is low enough to run on our inverter so we could use it while underway. Did you know pizza shops will deliver to your boat? Oh yes they will, as long as you’re on a dock and you can explain to them where you are. We ate very well, and were always on the lookout for interesting breads, fresh fruits and vegetables, and good cuts of meat. Screw the canned stuff, fresh food is plentiful everywhere along the Great Loop. We came home with most of the canned goods we initially stocked.
Death, taxes, laundry, the three constants of life anywhere. Doing the laundry kinda sucked without a washer and dryer onboard. It reminded me of my younger days when I had to haul it down a Boston street. I’d sit there in the laundromat until it was done, because if I left I might come back to find my clothes dumped on the floor by some unknown person who needed the dryer, or a pair of pants. We’d seek out marinas that had an onsite laundry even if it cost more to stay there. We strived to wash our clothes once a week, but it was more like every two. Two weeks would sometimes stretch into three, you know how it goes, but in general, when the laundry bags’ girth started blocking the companionway, it was time.
Choosing what clothes to bring was tough. We each had a hanging locker, I had four drawers, she had five, so we couldn’t bring everything, and we didn’t know a lot about the weather conditions we would encounter. The XO brought a sensible mix of clothing, like wool hats, warm socks, sweaters, and items she could layer. I, however, chose poorly. I thought we’d be fighting the heat most of the time so I had plenty of shorts and tee shirts. Boy was I wrong!
In mid October the cold weather caught up to us in Grafton, Illinois. Guess who had to buy warmer clothes? The further south we went the colder it got. In Fairhope, Alabama, it snowed and the temps dipped into the low 20’s. Same thing in Carrabelle, Florida, where they got their first ever winter storm warning. There is something wrong about snow on palm trees. We bought two electric space heaters to augment our boat heater that burned denatured alcohol. We used gallons upon gallons of it. In every port my first order of business was to find a hardware store that sold it, then I would buy out their whole stock at $10 to $15 a gallon. In retrospect, I should have invested in good diesel heater. The cold followed us all the way to the Gulf Coast of Florida.
One of the more important things we had to do was figure out where to go next. No problem. We’d simply go online to Active Captain, get a list of marinas within our cruising range, and start calling them on the phone. Sooner or later we’d get a reservation. Then we’d enter the coordinates into the navigation system and that’s it. Easy-peasy. Not only would the GPS direct us there, it would calculate our ETA.
Our three rules for navigation: (1) Never plan more than the next days trip. (2) Never travel in bad conditions or darkness. (3) Don’t go anywhere without a marina reservation, anchorage, or free dock picked out. That being said, we had to be ready for the curve ball that life sometimes threw at us.
One fine August day we left the Forest City Yacht Club in Cleveland, Ohio, expecting a pleasant 25 mile jaunt to anchor in Lorain Harbor, also in Ohio. But fickle Lake Erie would have none of it. The course was west, the wind was north, and we were getting uncomfortably broadsided by the chop. “I can’t do two hours of this,” the XO said after only 20 minutes. I agreed. ActiveCaptain listed 3 marinas in Cleveland and the first one I called answered right away. “Edgewater Marina.” “‘Mornin’. Got room for a 32 footah?” “Ahh. Yeah. I have one spot left, if you don’t mind staying on the end.” “Mind? I prefer it,” I said. “Got diesel?” “Yup.” “How about pump out?” “Oh yeah.” “All right. See you at the fuel dock in 15 minutes.” We essentially went from one end of Cleveland to the other. A total distance of about five miles. Our shortest trip.
On another fine day in October 2017, we were staying at the free dock in Ottowa, Illinois, at the intersection of the Fox and Illinois Rivers. It was almost too good to be true. A free dock with electric, in a beautiful place close to a town filled with friendly people. We decided we might like to stay a while and sort of recharge a bit. Did I mention it was free? We settled in nicely, enjoying everything Ottowa had to offer. We washed our clothes, shopped, ate out often, and explored like googly-eyed tourists. Little did we know that soon we’d be running for our lives! Here’s what happened.
On the third night there was a terrible thunderstorm, as bad as I’ve ever seen. It rained cats and dogs. I woke to the not-so-soothing sounds of logs bouncing off our hull. The XO was already up and looking very concerned, apparently she didn’t sleep well. Even before coffee it took me about ten seconds figure out why. The Fox river was flooding! Its waters were rushing into the Illinois River at breakneck speed, bringing with it all kinds of stuff. I saw a whole tree float by. We briefly entertained the idea of riding it out, but when the water level threatened to rise above the dock we were tied to, we had to flee quickly with no plan. After forging our way through 20 miles of floating debris, garbage, and jumping Asian Carp, we came across a private marina filled with runabouts and smaller type boats. I called them, and they welcomed us with open arms to stay on their fuel dock, the only dock that could handle a boat our size. Thank you Spring Valley Boat Club! The place was totally awesome. We ate pizza at their bar and watched NFL football. All the members were very interested in our Looping life, and we enjoyed talking to them for hours. They were so nice I wanted to stay a month!
I learned to love the pleasures of anchoring. It was like taking a break from the world and the pressures of docking. Very similar to renting a mooring, except there were no phone calls to make, and no interaction with land-based activity, unless you choose to get in your dinghy and find some. We’d get the coordinates from Active Captain, go there, drop the hook, and enjoy life on the Island of Ginger Lee, population: two. Pre-Loop, we weren’t very experienced in the art of anchoring, but like anything else in this world, we did it so much we got good at it. Here’s how I did it with 99.99% reliability: Finding a good spot is key. I like seven to twelve foot depths, close to shore, but with enough room to swing in at least a hundred foot circle. If there areother boats anchored you must respect their swing circle. Okay, once I pick my spot, I head into the current or the wind, whichever is prevalent enough to push us backwards, then I drop anchor and immediately pay out at least 75 feet of line, more if in deeper water. To help with that, I marked my anchor line at 25 foot intervals. The current or wind will move us backwards until we stop. That’s it. I never back down on the anchor with my engines. For peace of mind and a good nights sleep, I’ll set the Anchor Watch program on the GPS to monitor our position. It’ll sound an alarm if we drag. Many boaters out there have a different method of anchoring. Whatever works for you is great. But for me, with my boat, and my particular equipment, I bet my life many times on the aforementioned procedure.
What’s the best anchor? We posted that very question on the AGLCA website and got bombarded with so many “correct” answers that we had to figure that out for ourselves. After much research by my wife, we got a Mantus. She chose wisely. It failed only once inside the breakwaters of Harbor Beach, Michigan, where it got so fouled with weeds it never reached the sandy bottom. There was a four foot ball of salad attached to the thing! After giving up and motoring into the nearby Harbor Beach Marina, tail tucked between our legs, the Harbormaster informed us that nobody has successfully anchored there in many years. “Too much weed infestation,” she said. “Yeah, I’m hip,” I answered. I’m just glad they had room for us. As it turned out, the weather turned ugly and we had to extend our stay.
Despite the all the maintenance, housekeeping, and navigation duties, there was an awful lot of free time to enjoy the sweetness of doing nothing. Both of us always had a book going, which is unusual for me, not so the XO. Her book cache caused the boat to lean so much we had to distribute them evenly. She also loved going to the beach, not to sunbathe, but to watch the waves. In close quarters like Ginger Leethe importance of alone time cannotbe overstated. While I smoked my cigars, she would often take off in the dinghy with a book, a bottle of water, and a big straw lifeguard hat. Yoga is everywhere! I don’t practice, but the XO loves it and found it in nearly every port. Folding bikes are among the best things we ever bought, not just for the Loop, but for boating anywhere. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on them. I bought ours online from Walmart for about $200 each. They’re still in great shape after ten years of use. We travelled with two kayaks. I think I used mine once or twice, but the XO was always paddlin’.
After dinner is a nice time for a dinghy ride. Damn! I love that. Grab a couple of cold beers, hop into Ol’ Salty, and just putt-putt around, checking out the boats, waving to the folks on the docks, and enjoying the scenery. Bring a dinghy! Sure, it’s a little extra work, but well worth it. We towed ours the whole way.
We had good TV reception with a signal booster connected to an antenna mounted high on the flybridge. At home my TV is always on. Not so on the Loop. TV can’t compete with the scenic waterfront views we had every day, but sometimes it was a nice diversion. We followed the entire Winter Olympic games and watched football every weekend. We brought our laptops and had internet everywhere with a Verizon MIFI jetpack. It’s a wireless router about the size of a bar of soap. Sleep always came early on the boat. Probably from the constant motion. In the world of cruising, 9:00 PM is known as boaters midnight.
Am I boring you? It’s not always cool adventures fraught with danger ya know, but it did get a bit more interesting when we wanted to leave port.
It always seemed like time went by faster in the morning, and the earlier we arrived at our destination, the more time we’d have to enjoy our stay. Looking through the logbook, many of our departures were between 7:00 and 8:00 AM, and most of our trips were in the thirty to forty mile range–about five or six hours– so immediately after coffee, we entered departure mode. A dance we knew well.
When you rent a slip, you’re paying for the use of someone elses resources, so the first step in our little dance was to disconnect the boat from the wonderful world of municipal utilities. A pedestal on the dock supplies 30 amps of electricity and an unlimited supply of town water. We’d unhook the cable and hose that brought these to our boat, coil them neatly on the deck, and stow them away. Next, we’d put on the headsets for instant two-way communication. No hand signals or shouting for us. With headsets we could talk to each other in our normal voices no matter where we were on the boat. Very civilized.
The XO prepped our dinghy Salty by getting the floating tow lines hooked up behind the boat. I’d wait to start the engines warming so she didn’t get gassed out by exhaust fumes. The events and conversations usually went sometime like this: “Salty good?” “Yeah.” I’d hear my wife’s voice loud and clear in my ears. In stereo! “I’m starting ’em up,” I’d say, and get the engines started one at a time. Always the starboard first. It’s the most cantankerous. Sometimes I would have to tickle the throttle to coax it awake. Once they’re both running I’d turn on the electronics. “I’m going on the dock,” the XO would say as she stepped off the boat. Then she’d walk up the dock to the bow line cleat, untie the front lines, and toss them onto the fore-deck. “Bow’s free,” she’d say as she headed toward the aft line cleat. “Okay. I got her.” My hands on the controls, ready to correct if the bow decided to swing out, which it often did. “We’re free,” she’d say after untying the rear dock line and stepping back onto the boat. “I’m on the boat.” “Alright, backing out.” I’d bump both engines into reverse for half a second, then back into neutral. Ginger Lee would lumber slowly backwards. At this point both our heads were on a swivel. Don’t want to hit the lawyer’s expensive new Hinkley sitting inches away from us. And it’s wicked bad form to tear off the power pedestal with the anchor. “Okay back here,” she’d say. “See that pole?” “See it,” I’d say and again bump it into reverse then neutral. Ginger Lee sneaks by the power pedestal, the lawyer’s boat, and the pole. Once we were in the fairway, I’d put one engine into reverse and the other into forward. This made us pivot on axis until the bow faced the direction we wanted, then with both drives in forward gear, we’d slowly exit the marina. That’s the way it’s supposed to happen, but of course, it may not. The wind and the current have a nasty habit of kicking up just when you don’t want them to. If that happens I had to be ready to make the boat bend to my will, and never go faster than I want to hit something.
Once out in the open, the XO would walk outside along the foot-wide gunwale to the bow, picking up the fenders along the way. Then she’d coil up the dock lines and take them aft to be hung on hooks. “Gee whiz Rick! It sounds like the XO is doing all the work.” “Yeah, I know, she’s very busy when we depart. After so many repetitions she got really good at it.” The XO’s line work is superior. When we got boarded by the Coast Guard for a routine inspection, a young female cadet was impressed. “Whoa! Who did that?” she asked, pointing to the row of neatly coiled dock lines. We carried eight: a hundred footer, a fifty footer, two twenty-fivers, two fifteens, and two shorties. At one time or another we had use for them all.
In over 300 ports this same scenario played out many times. We became a such a well oiled machine that I can’t remember ever screwing it up. Okay, there was that time in Havana IL when our headsets failed at the same time the wind tore us away from the dock we were attempting to tie up to. Things got ugly fast. I’m just glad that we managed to secure the boat without doing any damage. I’m even happier that no one saw our boat follies. We immediately bought new headsets online and had them shipped to us. Any marina along the way will accept packages for you.
Much of the Loop involves following a well defined waterway and just staying between the aids to navigation. You don’t really need a chart plotter. All you need is GPS. All modern charts have the coordinates, Active Captain as well. Yeah, we went old school with paper charts, but chart plotter technology came in handy a few times, especially in some wide open sections of the Intracoastal where the nav aids are far apart, or some port entrances where the channel is not clearly marked. But we found ourselves staring at the damn chart plotter and not paying attention to our actual surroundings, so we made it a point to not have it on constantly.
Many people, myself included, tend to relate only the brightest passages with pictures of blues skies, gorgeous backdrops, and smiling faces. But it’s not always a nice day. We had no problem cruising in the rain as long as the water was smooth enough. It’s not as pretty to look at, but if we always waited for a perfect day, we’d never get far. We relied heavily on our instruments as well as our own abilities, and learned to trust both.
I’ve always said that boring is good on a boat, because to me, it means that there is no drama. The water conditions are good, and everything is running smoothly mechanically. But what about us humans? Biologically speaking, Pretty good. There were no trips to the emergency room, and for the first time in my life I went a whole year without catching cold. But mentally, it’s a different story. It’s my inner struggle. We’re in a boat travelling at seven mph. It takes a long time to get anywhere. There is a lot of time to think and I wasn’t always at peace with my own thoughts. In the first month and a half I found it difficult to shed the feeling that something could go wrong. It’s a 40 year old boat, so many things can happen, and there is this woman that I love and need to protect her life. It sounds funny to say that, and my wife will laugh when she reads it, hell, I laughed too, but my point is: we all have fears. The fact that I do a good job of hiding mine doesn’t make them any less real. I couldn’t let them consume me. I refused to. It’s so counterproductive. I had to get out of my head. “Oh dearie me.What if the boat sinks?” “We have a spare! We tow a dinghy everywhere and it’s never more than a few feet away. We simply hop into it, start the motor, and zoom off.” “Oh my gosh. What if we crash?” “That’s what insurance is for.” “What if the engines stop running?” “We either tow the boat with our dinghy or drop anchor and wait for Sea Tow.” “What if I die?” “Well then you wont care. You’re dead!” As a whole, the Great Loop can be daunting. You’re following the seasons around the eastern half of the country, cruising thousands of miles. All the ports, locks, bridges, pump-outs, fuel-ups, and everything else that goes on is a lot to absorb. So don’t think of it as one thing. Why not think of it as a series of short day trips? Which is exactly what it is. Hey, I like day trips. Do it all the time at home. The strategy worked, especially after it became clear that our boat can do this, is doing this, and rather nicely. We can do this. We are doing this. Our Loop began on July 5th, but it wasn’t until sometime in late August that I began to feel at ease. By then we had successfully completed all the tasks and maneuvers we would ask of Ginger Lee and ourselves for the entire trip. From then on, it would be rinse and repeat, honing and improving the skills. That’s good news. Here’s the bad part: From then on it would sometimes be a struggle to keep from being bored out of my skull!
As our engines did their thing, thrumming tirelessly beneath our feet, I tried my hardest to keep from looking at the GPS counting down the hours, minutes, and seconds to our destination du jour. We’d often pass the time talking about the people we met, their strange and interesting dialects, other boats, the local foods, the weather, the upcoming lock or lift bridge, or anything else that caught our fancy. I think we talked to each other more than we ever have before. We also spent more time together in silence than ever before. The greatest test of any relationship. On travel days we ate breakfast on-the-wing. I’d usually cook while the XO attended the helm. Eggiebowls we called them. Scrambled eggs or omelets with mushrooms, olives, cheese, or any leftovers we happen to have, then served in bowls to make it easier to eat and drive the boat. At 11:00 it was snack time. The favorite was apples cut into wedges, again, easier to eat and drive. If no apples it would be cheese and crackers.
Although Ginger Lee was equipped with a fully functional flybridge helm, we never used it, opting instead for the salon helm station. “It’s closer to the snacks,” I would say to anyone who asked why. True, but it just was easier than climbing up and down that ladder. Besides, the salon was warmer than the flybridge because we had a heater that worked from hot engine coolant just like in a car. We often cruised in our pajamas. Picture driving your house from your living room.
The following is a real account and typical of cruising the Great Loop. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. It was a beautiful day. We were cruising along at our usual seven MPH, just minding our own business. The XO was behind the wheel, I was making the bed. Suddenly, a shrill tone from our AIS alerted us there’s a vessel approaching. We couldn’t see it yet as the waterway was curvy, but the instrument told us a lot. It’s a class A [commercial boat]. We know its size, its draft, it’s name, where it’s from, how fast it’s travelling, and how far away it is.
A boat named Samson a mile away was coming towards us at 7 knots. We assumed it’s a tow [a tug pushing barges] because that’s the only commercial traffic on this waterway. Our AIS broadcasts our information as well, so you can bet they’re “seeing” us too. We have two radios and keep one tuned to 16, the international hailing and distress channel, and the other tuned to a working channel. Around here the tows are all on 13. The radio tuned to 13 crackled to life. “Ginger Lee, Ginger Lee.” “This is Ginger Lee. Go ahead” I answered. “Ginger Lee, what is your tow?” the captain asked. The XO and I looked at each other. We’re confused at first, then it hit us. Much to our amusement, he thought we’re another tow! “A 12 foot aluminum dinghy,” I replied, and after a hearty laugh, clarified. “We are a 32 foot PC [pleasure craft].What side do you want us on. Over.” “See you on the one Ginger Lee. I’ll back off until you’re clear.” “Good copy Samson. Port to port. Ginger Lee out.” “Roger Roger.” The other Captain has instructed us to keep him on our left side. After taking a corner we finally saw him. It’s indeed a tug pushing 30 barges. The massive rig slowed to 3 knots to let us pass before he has to take the curve where he will need whole waterway to do so. The XO, being the cautious pilot that she is, has hugged the shoreline leaving a huge football fields distance between us and him. Once again the radio came alive. “WHOAAA! I’m not that scary. Am I?” the tug captain exclaimed, laughter in his voice. The XO keyed the mic and replied. “But you’re soooo big!” The moral of the story is: You need AIS! Preferably one that sends as well as recieves. Since all commercial vessels are required to have them, you’ll be able to see where they are and what they’re doing within a 20 mile radius.
Locks are a pain in the ass! They take up so much time and the potential for something to go wrong is high. Nobody likes ’em but they’re a fact of life on the Loop. There’s literally no way around them, unless the wickets are down, and that only happens when the water level is high enough on the waterway to bypass the lock. I considered it a good day if we only had one lock to go through. Once we reached the Atlantic coast it was cause for celebration. No more locks!
Before we started our Loop you could count the number of locks we traversed on one finger. Let’s just say I was a bit apprehensive at first, but we quickly became experts. On the Erie Canal we did over a dozen locks the very first day! When we stopped for the night in Canajoharie NY, my head was spinning from the experience. The XO poured us a couple of shots and handed me my guitar. Calmness prevailed.
Thanks to our Skipper Bob guidebook, we knew the name of the lock, the phone number, if the lock uses hanging lines, cables, or floating bollards, and their hours of operation Not all locks are open 24/7. Most keep regular working hours.
When we approached any lock the first thing I did was call them on the radio, but always waited until we’re within sight. I quickly learned that they usually won’t respond unless they can see you. I think it’s either because they use low power hand-held radios that require line-of-sight, or they wanted to be sure you’re actually coming. You can call them on the phone at any time during their working hours. They’re friendly. Sometimes I’d call them the day before to get a feel for how busy they’ll be.
The events and conversation may go something like this: “Lock 14, lock 14. Ginger Lee, over” “Fourteen.” “Good morning. We’re a 32 foot PC requesting a westbound passage. Over.” “Okay Ginger Lee. I’m turning the lock around now. There’s an eastbound in the chamber. It’ll be about 30 minutes.” “What side please?” [I’m asking so we know what side of the boat to hang our fenders.] “Keep to the left, pull all the way forward.” “Good copy. Left side. Ginger Lee standing by on 13/16.” While we wait, the XO ties our dinghy on the hip so it wont drag on the lock wall. She hangs fenders on the port side. If there’s no current I’ll just keep the boat in neutral until we drift a little too close to the shore. Sometimes I may motor around in slow circles. You could be waiting with other boats so you have to keep out of each others way. When the lock door opens, a traffic light on the side will stay red until the eastbound boat exits. Let ’em pass through. When the light turns green, slowly queue up with the other waiting boaters and enter single file. There’s no rush. I like to see how the current effects the other boats. The rules state that everyone in the lock must wear a life jacket. The XO puts hers on and heads to the bow. On the way she grabs her gloves, a short dock line, and a sharp knife. No it’s not murder, it’s just good prep.
I motor in at headway speed. Once inside the lock I start steering closer to the left wall. I put it in neutral and we slow down so much that the rudders are useless. I steer with my engines, creeping closer. Right engine forward, then neutral. The bow gets closer. Left engine forward, then neutral. The aft swings closer as well, still creeping forward. “Which one?” the XO asks. She is sitting on the deck next to the midship cleat, gloves on, ready. The loop end of a shortie dock line is around the cleat. the working end is in her hand. She wants to know which bollard to use. “Next one,” I reply. Left engine reverse, then neutral. The bow responds, gets closer still. “Right here is good,” I say as I bump both engines into reverse then quickly into neutral. We stop. Ginger Lee comes to rest against two fenders. At the same time the XO puts the line around the bollard and back to the boat. By putting the line halfway around the cleat she can loosely hold the boat against the wall without letting go of the working end. “We’re good,” she says. I shut off the engines and key the radio mic. “Ginger Lee secure,” I announce over the radio. The lockmaster may come by to chat, but I think he also may be assessing your lockworthyness. I bet he has seen a lot of stuff go wrong, like boats hanging off the wall because the floating bollard got stuck. Sometimes a boat will come away from the wall and flip around 180 degrees. It happens a lot. I’ve always wondered how, until one day it almost happened to us.
We were in a very deep lock, the hanging lines were so long that even though the XO had her line around the midship cleat, the stray currents started moving Ginger Lee away from the wall. In a flash we were like 10 feet away. From the aft deck I couldn’t reach the nearest line with my longest boat hook. I quickly got to the helm, restarted the engines, put one drive in forward and the other in reverse, and the boat’s big butt started slowly creeping closer to the wall until I was able to reach the other line. We both held on until the ride was over. Never hard tie your boat to anything in a lock. Keep a sharp knife handy in case your dock line snags.
But I digress back to the typical locking scenario. When everybody’s ready the Lockmaster does his thing. The huge lock door closes slowly behind us, seals with an loud metallic clunk, and we start going down about a foot every 5 seconds. The wall becomes larger, blacker, and slimier. Water escaping through the door echoes eerily throughout the chamber. We become tiny, like a bar of soap clinging to the side of a bathtub. Birds swoop in to snatch up the fish stranded in the webbing of the massive door. Swirling eddies appear and move us around a bit. The whole time, the XO and I like to chat through the headsets. “See that wading bird? It just swallowed a fish half his size!” “I think there’s a manatee in the here with us.” “What would happen if the both doors suddenly opened?”
Soon after we stop dropping the door slowly opens. Water swirls in and we bounce off the walls a few times. The fenders are filthy with scum. I always make a mental note to clean them but never do. Why bother? There’s always another lock. When a loud siren wails, it’s time to start the engines and leave. With a boathook, the XO pushes us away from the dark wall and I engage the drives. When past the doors, I key the mic. “Ginger Lee clear. It’s been a pleasure working with you. Have a pleasant day.” “Thank you and have a safe voyage,” the Lockmaster says and tosses us a wave through his window. Locks are quite the experience!
There’s a lot of superstition in our boating world. We knock on wood a lot, we never whistle, and we have a Lock Luck candle. It actually worked! It was initiated after having a hell of a wait on the Illinois Waterway. Us and another boat circled in front of a lock it seemed like forever. With negative contact from the lockmaster either on the phone or the radio, I asked the other captain if he knew what was going on. He said that some tows push so many barges that they have to lock through in pieces, and the lockmaster was most likely busy with that task. Working boats have priority. Lockmasters will always put them through first. Sometimes the tug captain will let you lock through with him, but he’s under no obligation to do so.
Let’s talk about marinas. Shall we? If we had a reservation I’d call them when we got about ten minutes away. They all have a certain radio channel they like to use, but I always had the phone number handy just in case they’re too busy to answer the radio. Either way you have to talk with somebody to get your slip assignment. I like to keep it brief and simple. “Hello. This is motor vessel Ginger Lee requesting a slip assignment. I have a reservation.” If for some reason you can’t make contact, you can always pull up to their fuel dock, or their face dock [a long dock usually parallel to, or facing, the waterway] and talk to someone in person. Unless you need fuel or a pump-out, this is not desirable because it means you will be docking twice. It’s just more work. Once you make contact most marinas are pretty good at directing you to your slip. “Take a left at the big sailboat with the blue hull. Pull in next to the Boston Whaler about halfway down the fairway on your right.” “What side tie-up for bow in?” I always ask so we know beforehand where to hang the fenders, and where to put the dock lines. “Port side tie up for bow in,” would be one of the two possible answers. We enter docking mode. Headsets on.
The XO goes right to work as we enter the marina, quickly pulling the dinghy in closer to the transom. “Salty is wrangled,” she announces while cleating the loop end of a fifteen foot dock line to the aft, and coiling the working end loosely on the side. Then, with a 25 footer over her shoulder, she walks along the gunwale to the bow and loops it around the bitt of the windlass and dumps the rest on the foredeck nearer to the port side. She hangs the fenders and returns to the bow. Meanwhile, back at the helm, I slowly turn left around the blue-hulled sailboat. “There’s the Whaler,” she says. “See it,” I say. We both hope there will be a dock assistant waiting for us. “There’s a guy,” I say, and come to a complete stop in front, then pivot the boat with the engines to face the open slip. This is where it could get tricky. Wind and current may come into play. I’m always surprised when they don’t.
I ease the bow in and the XO tosses a line to the guy. He gets the front tied to the dock, but if the aft moves away, I’ve got to correct with the engines without going forward. The XO walks to the aft, hands the assistant the rear dock line, and there we are. “We’re in,” she says. I shut everything down and it’s Miller Time! We both have to stay sharp and pay attention when we dock. Like an airplane, the most dangerous part is landing. It’s so much easier when there is someone on the dock to help. Most places will have people to do this for you, that’s why I like to call them when we’re close, but sometimes it’s just another boater who happens to be around. If I see a boat coming in, I’ll help them. It’s good karma. There’s a lot of karma in boating. But you always have to be prepared to dock by yourself because it happens a lot. We have a plan for that. The XO will get the lines ready by cleating them to the boat and placing the working ends where they can be reached from the dock. I’ll bring the boat close enough so she can step onto the dock and grab them. Docks can be slippery, wiggly, or splintery, so try not to jump and wear shoes.
Sometimes the dock attendant will go about the business of completely securing the boat. The XO frowns on that. She has a certain way she likes to do it. Hey, I’m cool with that. I’ll send the guy off with a five dollar tip and let her do her thing. Before you know it she’s got the bow secured with a vee formation through the chocks, and spring lines going fore and aft. If someone else ties up your boat, it’s a good idea to check the work. Once the boat is secured, I’ll connect one end of the water hose and the shore power cable to the boat, run them along the gunwale to the bow, and hand the other ends to the XO on the dock. She’ll hook ’em up to the pedestal and wait for my thumbs up. I’ll turn on the kitchen sink tap and let the water run for a while, then flip the transfer switch on our boats electrical panel from “INVERTER” to “SHORE POWER”. If the meters swing to 120 volts we’re done. But the power pedestals are out in the elements and subject to use and abuse, so if the meters don’t come on, she’ll try flipping the breaker, or maybe another outlet. Sometimes just wiggling the plug works. Once in a while the pedestal is dead and you have to try another. We carry three power cables that can be hooked together in case the working electric is far away. Same with water. We carry three hoses. Some marinas have only 50 amp outlets. Our 30 amp cable won’t connect without an adaptor. Don’t leave home without one like I did. I had to acquire one along the way. It’s also a good idea to have a twenty amp set up [a long extension cord and a 20 to 30 amp adaptor] because once in a while the only power available is from a conventional outlet like the ones you have in your house.
It’s nice to be connected to municipal water and electric, but Ginger Lee is quite self sufficient. She has her own water supply, about 80 gallons. A decent amount if you use it wisely. Never leave the water running while doing the dishes or showering. Wet, soap up, rinse. I always make sure I fill our water tanks before we leave any marina because you never know what can happen.
It was a lovely January morning when we left the Sea Hag Marina in Steinhatchee FL. We were on our way to Cedar Key FL when Pollux suddenly conked out. I had just changed the fuel filters so it must be another problem. Long story short, we were stranded at anchor for a week while waiting for a new fuel pump to arrive from American Diesel. We had plenty of water, but the engine that needed the fuel pump was also the engine that heated the water, so for the first and only time on the Loop, we used our generator.
We never drink the water in the boats tank because it just doesn’t taste as good as bottled water. A close second is town water filtered with a Brita system. By the way, always ask if the water supply at the dock is “town water.” Many marinas pump water from the lake and they don’t always tell you. I’d never heard of such a thing until we were slipped at a marina in Michigan. The XO noticed that every time we used our faucet a pump on the dock turned on. Upon further investigation we discovered the pumps inlet pipe went directly into the lake.
For electricity at anchor or while underway, we have solar! Five solar panels are wired to a charge controller, then to four batteries, which are connected to a power inverter [a device that converts 12 volts DC into 120 volts AC] and then to the transfer switch on the electrical panel. This means the boat always has electric no matter what. Our Sears 120 volt refrigerator ran continuously for the entire Loop. “Ice from the Sun,” the XO says. When we reached Chicago IL we added an Engel portable freezer to the system and it ran non-stop as well.
No matter where we were, we always had power, hot and cold running water, heat, internet, and TV. We weren’t roughing it by any means, but I’m surprised at how many people thought so. “Where do you sleep? In a hotel room?” “No, silly goose, we sleep in our own bed. There’s one on the boat.” There were an inordinate amount of people who thought we never got off the boat! Like a Carnival cruise ship or something. “What if you run out of food?” “What if you need to make a call?” “What if someone needs to get in touch with you?”
Here are some questions I should answer: “What did you do with your mail?” We had it forwarded to St. Brendans Isle, A company dedicated to handling mail for cruising boaters. They will throw out your junk mail and forward the good stuff to you anywhere in the world. Many of our bills were paid electronically, but if that’s not an option, they will scan the bills and email them to you. We’d print out the scanned bills and mail in the payment. Yes, we took a printer with us. “What about your house?” We shut off the water, used light timers, and set the heat thermostat to 45 degrees so our pipes wouldn’t freeze. Our neighbors across the street were nice enough to keep an eye on things. We encouraged them to use our driveway so the house didn’t look empty. “What about your car?” We have three. I went online and found the recommended procedure for a year long storage. Change the oil and filter, fill the gas tank, add Sta-Bil fuel stabilizer and run it through the engine, and finally, disconnect the battery. I put one car in the garage and covered the other two in the driveway. All three started right up when we returned. “What about health insurance?” When we started planning our trip, health insurance was the single most expensive item on our list, more so than fuel, which at the time was over four bucks a gallon, but it took so long for us to get everything in order that I got old enough to get on Social Security and Medicare. Not only was our healthcare bill cut in half, but we had an income as well. So my advice is: get old.
It’s time to talk about bugs. Mosquitos are everywhere, that’s a given, but the AGLCA website was abuzz about no-see-ums. It was no-see-ums this, no-see-ums that. Well, we were ready with yards of special screening. But guess what? The no-see-ums were a no-show. Yup. We never saw-um. Instead we had fruit flies and mayflies. There was absolutely no mention of either anywhere on the Looper Forum, but I sure as hell know all about them now. The fruit flies first showed up in Suttons Bay, Michigan. Apparently there are a lot cherry farms around there. We made the mistake of leaving our screens off for about an hour after we arrived and were quickly inundated with the little bastards. Fortunately there is a cure. Put some apple cider vinegar in a bowl and add a drop of dish detergent. The first bowl we put out was blackened with hundreds of dead bodies in ten minutes, but it was not enough. We put out several more bowls and it worked! Unfortunately, there is no such cure for the disgusting mayflies. I’m from Massachusetts, we don’t have them, I’ve never even heard of them, but one morning in Baldwinsville NY, the exterior of Ginger Lee was filthy with these strange little insects stuck to the dew that collected there. “What are these things?” I asked myself. They sort of looked like mosquitos and they were all dead. I rinsed them off and forgot about them. But on the way to Sandusky OH we were swarmed. Thank God they didn’t get inside the boat, but they piled up a couple of inches deep in the corners of the aft deck. They smelled awful like dead fish. It took hours to clean them up with a wet-dry vacuum and a broom.