Sorting boats…

December has arrived, and once again the docks are all but empty on my little corner of the Hudson River. Activity at the yard, which had been buzzing along in high gear for the last two months, starts to scale back. For a few weeks there were people and cars and sounds of all sorts around us on the hard, but now the silence is returning. In another week or two, the only signs of life we’ll see around the yard are a few marina employees and the hardy little feral ‘yard cats’, occasionally soaking up a bit of low winter sun on a warm car hood. The season has ended and rows of boats have been sorted.

In most cases, when yards block up boats for winter storage, there’s a very specific order to where each one winds up, and why. Size plays a role, as does the all-important ‘When do you want to go back in’ factor. Last out is usually first in. Some owners wrap things up after Labor Day and don’t pull the cover until the end of May while others are geared up for fishing at the first signs of spring – don’t block them in! But there’s more to it. It’s no accident that the shiniest and newest of boats with custom covers or shrink wrap are closer to the main entrance and offices. For one, it just looks better and reflects well on the yard. It also keeps these boats where they’re less inclined to be visited by someone other than their owner. Further back goes to the boats with flapping plastic tarps or no covers at all. And finally, tucked in the furthest corners of the yard, backed to the brush and overgrowth, are the boats that have been on the hard for many seasons – the hopeless and the forgotten. They sit as testaments to abandoned dreams. At some point in their existence, each had been someone’s pride and joy. Now they stand as silent reminders of failed aspirations. Perhaps their owner had fallen upon bad times or eventually the reality of boat ownership outweighed the dream, draining and straining finances and relationships, sometimes past the point of no return. Like a novel in a desk drawer, these grand dreams fell victim to the harsh realities of day-to-day life.

Yet, glimmers of hope spring up in these forgotten corners, like a rose blooming among the oil drums and weeds. Every so often someone with the right mix of skill, perseverance, delusional optimism and determination sets their eyes on one of those forgotten boats, and you’ll see it re-emerge from death-row to float and sail once more. I recall one boat where the cabin and bridge had been partially destroyed by fire, though the hull and engine remained intact. It was placed in the corner to languish for years. But then one day someone new arrived. The fellow who repaired her did so the only way he knew how — with sheet-metal. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but year after year he’s out on the water happily fishing away. On the other end of the spectrum a friend of mine acquired an old ketch that had been caught in the wrong end of a shed collapse, and he restored that boat to exceptional magnificence. In both cases, these boats were brought back from the dead and each is a victory. It’s that ability to see beyond the work to the potential, to press on in the face of all adversity, hoping someday it will be beautiful — or at least float. I sometimes wonder how many of those resurrected boats belong to writers.

Letting go of Perfection

Another winter is right around the corner, and once again, Annabel Lee remains right where she’s been for far too long.  No, the work I’ve been doing should have never taken this long, but sometimes health, hurricanes, and life in general get in the way. All the same I do know for certain (with the exception of any unforeseen impending disasters, of which I’ve had enough, thank you very much,) I am on the home stretch. If all goes according to plans (okay, go ahead and laugh. I know the boat gods are even as I type this.) her completely re-cored decks will once again be sheathed in fiberglass, and she WILL WILL WILL be afloat come spring, her decks nice and solid, her engine gleaming and purring, and her new-old mast standing high and proud. I may have mentioned in the past, it’s my delusional optimism that keeps me going. Hey, sometimes you just have to work with what you’ve got.

Now, I’ve heard the whispers. I know what some people are saying. I’m a perfectionist, and until I come to terms with that, the boat will never be done.  And that is true to some extent. For one, no boat is ever truly done –that just goes with the nature of boats. And I am a perfectionist when it comes to the boat, but only to a point. For example, I have a strong dislike for leaking decks, and I believe if you’re going to tear them all up and re-core them, you might as well do it once and do it right. So no, I won’t cut corners there. And I strongly believe that the engine room should be the cleanest, shiniest area on the entire boat, because then if there are any leaks, they are clear and easily located and addressed. But beyond that, I’m actually rather partial to the New England workboat philosophy – minimal brightwork, minimal shiny bits, and simply freshen up the paint once a season.  Let the boat look respectable, let her show she’s maintained, but don’t sweat the finish. Personally, I’m seriously considering simply rolling the hull with a nice, flat, off-white paint.  It’s a look I’m rather fond of, and not just aesthetically.  It’s a look that says, “This boat isn’t just a show piece.”

Don’t get me wrong – I’m the first to admire a truly beautiful, meticulous finish. You’ve got to respect the work and discipline that goes into achieving and maintaining it, and brightwork that gleams with flawless richness is truly a thing of beauty. I’d been that obsessive on my old catboat, Myra Lee, and took great pride in the admiration she attracted. But these days I’m letting go of that ideal. So long as she’s mechanically and structurally sound, I’d prefer  Annabel Lee be less of a show piece and more of a functional, functioning boat. A boat I won’t mind dogs romping around, and one I won’t mind hauling a striped bass aboard. A boat that guests don’t have to remove their shoes to board. A boat that dinghies can thump against all night without concern. A boat I don’t have to pamper. A boat with the lowest maintenance-to-use ratio I can achieve.  A boat I can simply enjoy.

It’s easy to get caught up in the quest for perfection. As a writer, there’s always another sentence we can tweak, and on boats, there’s always something that could shine just that much more.  But there’s a point where it might be best to let go of perfection in exchange for ‘good enough’. Because in the end, once Annabel Lee is finally anchored out, as the sun dips below the horizon as the clouds streak the sky with a magnificent pink and orange display, the last thing that will matter is how shiny her hull is.

And on that note, I found this video had been emailed to me from Jamestown Distributors, and it sums this philosophy up perfectly. It’s well worth watching.

But how did you get here??

Last week I mentioned cruising aboard the little cuddy-cabin my husband and owned back in our twenties. And as I said, we had many good times aboard that boat. But there’s one in particular we still laugh about – our arrival at Block Island. It was right after that two-day stop-over in Mystic, and wanting to squeeze in as much time as possible on the island, we departed the Seaport before dawn had  begun to tint the horizon. We had our course plotted, the engine was running perfectly, and off we ventured into the darkness.

The passage went smoothly, with nothing but miles of wide, flat rollers while the engine hummed and the blackness gradually gave way to a murky fog-bound grey. We stayed on course, and right on schedule, we reached the red bell buoy marking the entrance to the Great Salt Pond. We motored slowly through the crowded anchorage and made our way to Payne’s Dock, where we had a slip waiting at the floating dock with the thirty foot and under crowd. It was still early; the sun was starting to burn away the gloom, people were just beginning to stir, and the fellow on the 28’ flybridge Carver we were docking beside paused from his mug of steaming coffee to give us a hand tying up. And then he asked the strangest question.

“How did you get here?”

Huh? I looked to my husband, he looked to me, and we both looked to the boat we’d docked only moments before. The answer seemed fairly self-evident. But maybe not. Carver asked a second time, as though we hadn’t understood the question. In reply, I pointed to the boat we were standing in.

But that, it seems, wasn’t the answer he was looking for, so this time he rephrased his question. “But the ferries aren’t running yet. How did you get here?”

Am I missing something here? My husband and I look at each other, perplexed, and this time I state the obvious: “We came by boat.”

Still Carver looked as baffled as us, and finally he elaborated enough to explain his confusion and clear up ours. He said, “But the ferry isn’t running this early. How did you find the island?”

Ahhh! That’s what he meant. I pointed to the compass and my husband held up the chart.

“Oh,” Carver replied. “You know how to use those? We just follow the ferry.”

And sure enough, later that day as we hiked around the island and saw the ferry arriving, it was trailed by a small flotilla of boats, much like a duck with ducklings. Apparently, our friend from the docks wasn’t the only one who used that method of navigation. And while it may have been a reliable way to get from point A to point B in those pre-GPS days, personally, I’d rather plot my own course to explore new and unfamiliar waters, rather than follow in someone else’s wake.

The K.I.S.S. approach to cruising…

C.E. Grundler

The other day I overheard a couple discussing their ideal boat, and I’ll have to admit, it was impressive. The fun of theoretical boats lies in the fact that no expense need be spared — we’re talking theoretical, after all.  But as I listened, I recalled that very boat, the *ideal* boat, because I’d been docked beside it once, years ago.  And more important, it brought to mind a lesson I learned along the way – one that has stayed with me ever since.

My husband and I took a little cruise aboard Sandcrab, the little cuddy-cabin we owned at the time. It wasn’t much of a cruise, really, just a short getaway. Our daughter was small and my parents offered to watch her for a week, so we threw a dufflebag of clothes and an ice-chest of coldcuts, soda and bagels onto our 23’ vessel and set out for adventure… or at least a few days to ourselves. And let me tell you, we were cruising in style.  Amenities consisted of vee-bunks beneath a deck that leaked (some things never change) a porta-potti, and the aforementioned ice-chest. Instruments consisted of a compass, VHF and a depth finder that read ‘ERR’ whenever the water got skinny, and we had a stack of paper charts.  That was it. This was before the time of GPS on shiny tablets, cells phones and all the other bells and whistles that many couldn’t imagine leaving the dock without these days.

And yet, aboard that little boat we traveled to some wonderful locations. There was no set cruise plan; we picked a spot, set out, and since the boat itself hadn’t drained our budget we were able to tie up in some very nice marinas each night. With a boat that small, there was never need to call ahead; they’d always find some spot to tuck us in, and transient fees were minimal. At Mystic Seaport we found ourselves placed into a slip meant for a boat three times our size, surrounded by vessels we could only dream of, towering over us quite comically.

The couple to our port side were lovely people, liveaboards with a well-used boat and countless miles beneath their keel. The couple in the shiny new ketch to starboard, with the TV flickering and the AC humming, however… well, let’s just say HE wanted that *&#@%! boat, and SHE wanted to spend that money remodeling the kitchen… and needless to say, neither of them were happy. With the way sound carries through fiberglass hulls and water in the quiet hours of the night, we all knew in great detail just how unhappy they were. He kept raising the volume on the TV, and she kept raising her volume to match. My husband had walked down the road in search of ice to replenish our cooler, and I was about to go over and say something when the fellow to port had a word with starboard about keeping it down.

When my husband returned, all was once again quiet on the waterfront. As he climbed aboard with the ice, he looked to starboard and remarked about ‘someday, a boat like that.” I explained how not everything about that boat was as shiny as it appeared. And while that couple stayed below with all their fine amenities, simmering anger and resentment, we happily ate our cold sandwiches in the cockpit, then wandered the now silent, darkened Seaport filled with magnificently restored square riggers, schooners and sloops, sitting ghostly in the moonlight.

That little boat took us many places, on that cruise and others, and through it all I came to appreciate the freedom that came from keeping things simple. We could tie up just about anywhere, and occasionally we even skipped the baloney sandwiches for dinner in some very nice restaurants. And when we chose the trawler we have now, we intentionally sought something on the small and simple end of the scale. Yes, it’s nice to have an enclosed head, a real stove and standing headroom, but 32’ still leaves us the ability to cruise in the style to which we’ve become accustomed… at least, once we’re back off the hard, that is!

And for a bit more on really K.I.S.S. boating, a ‘build your own’ video, (it’s funny how much these engines sound like my diesel,) as well as a wonderful demo video of the boat pictured above, (sorry, no subtitles, but I do love that this guy is wearing an ‘Eight Heads in a Dufflebag’ tee-shirt!): Ponyo Pop-Pop Boat

 

Murphy was a Meteorologist

I’d like to apologize to everyone for the unusual shifts in weather patterns that have been occurring over recent years, both here in the north east and beyond. Unfortunately, I predict that through the coming weeks we’re all in for yet more abnormal fluctuations in temperatures and precipitation. I cannot say precisely what weather is headed our way during that period, only that whatever awaits will be either excessively hot or unusually cold, likely with periods of extreme rain/snow/hail and humidity as well. I know there are numerous theories, debates and scientific explanations as to why the weather’s been so wonky, but I can sum it up quite simply and indisputably: it all ties directly to my proximity to my boat.

I know what you’re thinking. There’s no way one little person and one little boat can upset entire weather systems. For years I tried to tell myself that as well, to convince myself it was just my imagination, but the moment I attempt to work with any substance that requires specific setting conditions, my boat immediately transforms into the center-point of a bizarre weather vortex. You want snow in April? Ninety degrees in the same month? Torrential floods? Forty degrees at the end of May? I’ve made it all happen – I was going to work on the boat. Last October’s paralyzing blizzard/ice storm? Same deal. I had the car packed with tools and clean Mix-n-measure containers waiting in the salon. The instant I so much as screwed the metering pumps into the West epoxy I was screwed as well, and the weather immediately reset itself to a temperature that fell outside the recommended working ranges. Varnish and high-gloss paints, I’ve discovered, would cause an even more unique meteorological effect. The weather would remain optimal through the first coats, just a little too optimal, in fact, ideal to stimulate the hatching cycles for swarms of gnats, right on schedule to launch themselves kamikaze-style into the flawless finish just as I’ve laid down that perfect final top coat. And don’t even get me started on trying to USE the boat. Remember a few summers back, when New Jersey was deluged with rain nearly every day from spring to fall?

I’ve begun to believe the only way the weather will ever settle back to some level of normalcy is to throw in the towel on boats altogether. In fact, in over twenty-five years, I can recall only one vacation where the weather was ideal. We’d spent several days in Denali National Park, in Alaska. Mount McKinley, or Denali, as it is known locally, is the highest mountain peak in North America – so high, in fact, that it creates its own localized weather. And that weather, we were told, usually included a thick shroud of clouds that obscure the mountain for much of the summer. But from the moment of our arrival to the day of departure, the clouds parted and the mountain remained in full view the entire time. From there we continue to Juneau, Alaska, reportedly North America’s best guarantee of near-perpetual rain. Not one drop fell during our stay. Our vacation wrapped up with three days in Seattle… bright, sunny, Seattle, where not even a single cloud dared enter the sky for the duration of our visit. But it makes perfect sense – in no part of this trip was our boat a factor. I’m quite certain if that had been the case, the Pacific northwest may have experienced their first plague of locusts in recorded history.

5200 and True Love…

It’s funny how certain memories can slip to the back of your brain for years, filed away so deeply that they’re all but forgotten, yet the strangest triggers can retrieve them instantly in perfect detail. In that moment of catching a few notes of a song I haven’t heard since high school, drifting from the open window of a passing car, suddenly I recall the precise lyrics as well as friends I was with one rainy afternoon so many years ago, friends I hadn’t thought about in decades. It’s something I’d all but forgotten, yet it all comes back to me in with such vivid clarity, as though it had only been yesterday.

Scents are even more powerful. One whiff of mothballs and I’m eight years old, rummaging through the trunks in the attic for hidden treasures. The right combination of a bus passing outside Starbuck’s, and my brain remembers a backdraft of diesel over the transom mingling with the aroma of fresh-ground coffee as we passed the massive neon Maxwell House cup, perpetually dripping that last drop of coffee, glowing like a beacon along the Hoboken shoreline as we motored down river. The scents of sawdust and varnish don’t have any specific moments attached to them, or perhaps it’s that there are so many years of moments that they’ve all blended together, but whatever the case, it’s not so much a single memory so much as an emotion. I smell that smell and my brain switches to ‘happy’.

truelove

So what is it about removing old 3M 5200 from Annabel Lee’s rudder components, a task I’ve been attacking with a pick, thread by thread in endless sessions and feel as though I’ll never complete, that brings to mind my late friend Butch, and leaves me with a smile? It’s not a sound or a scent. It’s a riddle Butch once said that my brain retained as surely as if he’d set it there with that very adhesive. “What’s the difference between 5200 and true love?” he’d joke.  “5200 is forever.”

Brochures for the abnormal boat buyer…

The other day I was looking at some new boat brochures.

No, don’t panic! Don’t think that I’m even considering letting go of my beloved Annabel Lee for something sleek, glossy, and modern. That’s just not happening, especially now that the great deck re-coring is nearing the end. (For real, dear readers! But that’s another post for another day.) No, it was more a case of morbid curiosity. In my eyes these newer boats, with their sloping bows, asymmetrical salon windows and roll-bar radar arches, all seem to look alike, and I’d always wondered what sort of interior lurked inside one of these shiny new vessels.

Well, for the most part it was pretty much as I expected. Page after page of brochure showed nicely dressed beautiful couples and smiling families enjoying perfect weather as their boats skimmed across smooth water. Sunsets, tranquil anchorages, all in the comfort of beautifully spacious cabins. Everything inside is equally as sleek and modern, with sweeping curves designed to maximize every inch of cabin space per foot. More photos showed décor options and extras. Upholstery choices. Comfort groups. Even fitted sheets. Yes, fitted sheets were an available option. But as I reached the last page, there wasn’t a single picture of the one thing I really wanted to see – the engine room.

Apparently, I was told, engines weren’t something the normal boat buyer wants to see. No. Engines, it seems, are low on the list of concerns with a prospective customer making that all important boat buying decision. Fitted sheets, yes. Engines, not so much. It turns out, there are actual study groups, with actual normal boat buyers, (oddly enough, I wasn’t invited,)  to determine what it is new boat owners are looking for in a new boat, and these brochures are the direct result of these studies.

So there you have it. It’s no surprise to learn I’m not exactly a normal boat buyer. Which, I suppose, is a good thing. Otherwise, brochures would have pages of dirty, itchy people, sweating away in paint and epoxy stained clothing, surrounded by power tools and scraps of lumber, rolls of fiberglass and resin. Photos would show core construction, accessibility of fuel lines, detailed diagrams of hydraulic steering systems, and engine rooms galore! No fitted sheets, though. I’m not saying they wouldn’t be nice – just that they’re waaaaay down on my list of priorities, boat-wise.

Come to think about it, I’m starting to see the reasoning behind these new boat brochures.