An old woman passes by the waterfront on her bicycle. Colorful clothing, a heart flag hanging from her seat, a basket. Her aging terrier trots in tow, faithfully, ten feet behind her.
“Is that going to be me when I’m old?” I ask Scott.
He left his boat near Miami to return north by car, to square away business, before crossing the Gulf Stream. He has come to see me en route.
“I don’t see it,” he says.
“Well, then what do you see?”
He looks at me for a moment, and then out at the harbor. My boat is moored there quietly, next to the dilapidated pier. Patiently waiting for me to make a decision on what we will do next.
“I see you in an old boat. Inviting kids onboard and telling sea stories in a raspy voice. Feeding them sardines,” he says.
“Yeah!” I say. Getting into the vision now. “And I’m permanently hunched over from years spent on boats, sitting next to an oil lamp.”
“Right, and the boat is one of those boat’s that is completely set up but isn’t going anywhere. And everyone knows it’s not going anywhere.”
“It’s not going anywhere because it’s already been everywhere.”
“Exactly,” he says. “You both are retired. You and your boat.”
“Wow,” I say smiling to myself and wondering aloud. “I hope I’m on my way towards that.”
Soon the clouds ascend and I rush out of the car to row back to the boat and miss the rain. I leave a small pile of beach treasures in his car. The pointed claw of a horseshoe crab, a piece of coral, a tiny coconut husk. My oars cut through the water. I use my entire body to fight the current. My shoulders, elbows, chest. My feet brace the aft seat. The sound of oars in water, although so familiar at this point, always manage to instill in me a great sense of adventure.
Collapsing into a chair in the marina lounge I let out a dramatic sigh. I had two useless job interviews today. My part time boat work remains part time. The hustle continues into the evening, tonight. Uploading a resume and profile to online freelance networks. Haul out is scheduled and I have just enough money for the fees and one month in the yard. That doesn’t leave much left for epoxy, or a seacock, or cockpit drains, fittings for my rigging, or any number of things my boat requires to be made seaworthy.
Somehow I’ll get there, but I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve the height of adventure status as these two. I’ve been following Ellen & Seth’s blog, Gone Float About, since my time sailing in the Pacific Northwest. They circumnavigated in their early twenties onboard an ancient wooden boat under 30 feet. They had no offshore experience, and little knowledge of how to restore said artifact. But they did it!
Now, they are Arctic voyagers, nature photographers, published writers, academics…
I don’t aspire to earn a Ph.D., circumnavigate, or ever go to the Arctic Circle, (although I do have a 40 oz thermos given to me by a couple of Northwest Passage makers) but their level of seamanship, teamwork, and how well they steward their vessel is of great inspiration.
I don’t regularly follow many sailing blogs or youtube channels, although I’ve been trying to collaborate more with other sailing media folks out there recently, I’ve probably been most loyal to Ellen and Seth. Partially that’s because their posts are infrequent (Ellen mostly writes paid articles for sailing publications) and because their work is different than most sailing blogs and vlogs out there.
Their most recent post, however, happened to reach me at just the right time. As I was sighing in self pity hoping for something to distract me from myself their video sailed into my inbox, complete with classical music and all.
I want to be so close to a manatee that its snot gets on my face. That’s what happened to Tabatha, age 9, who lives aboard a 46-foot Hunter with her 11-year-old sister Elizabeth and their parents, Ferrel and Phil, from Austin, Texas.
“The manatee nibbled my hair!” she said giggling.
“You’re not supposed to touch them but it’s okay if they touch you,” her sister chimed in. “They got so close that one’s snot got on Tabatha’s face when it sneezed!”
I looked at this boat child in disbelief. She nodded in earnest.
“You’re so lucky,” I said and the saloon erupted in the little girls’ laughter.
Michael, onboard an Irwin-something, was in the same part of town as me. I’d walked to the goodwill in an effort to find a pair of rubber boots. I passed an Aldi’s on the way and convinced him to meet me there and share his Uber with me back to the marina. I went crazy on canned fish, peanut butter, coconut oil, crackers, and introduced him to the magic of this discount store for provisioning.
I bought a canned ham because it seemed sailor like and promised we’d cook it together for Michael’s thirty-second birthday this week.
“Except it’s already cooked,” he said.
On Saturday we launched Bi Polar. By we I mean myself, Kourtney, Pete, Pete’s 15-year-old daughter Ava, and her teenage boyfriend, Liam. How excited these people get a fixing problems astounds me. I stared at them in awe as they methodized how to remove some tight fitting rubber from the oars. I’d just have cut it, but they excitedly interjected different suggestions and strategies until it was done. I sort of felt like I was watching an act, but it was real. These people don’t give up.
Bi Polar is, of course, a dinghy. The dinghy of my dreams, actually. A double-ender, eight-foot, salty little row boat. The dinghy once belonged to Kourtney’s friend Scotty. Scotty taught her how to row. Scotty recently died. Scotty liked to drink so we drank champagne in honor of him and the relaunch of his old boat. Kourtney has had Bi Polar for ten years. It will soon be the tender to the 25-foot Pacific Seacraft she has gutted and is rebuilding from the ground up. But for now it is my loaner dinghy until we come up with a permanent dinghy solution.
It was kind of like a dream. These people showing up in their magical VW bus, helping you solve your problem, and then leaving you there alone to row your dinghy in peace while dolphins swim alongside.
In the hullaballoo of getting to the pre-launch dinghy preparations in town, one of my rubber boots managed to detach itself from my backpack. In an effort to locate the missing boot I made signs and retraced my steps, but to no avail. My efforts were merely cathartic it turned out. I may have lost my sea boot but I’ve gained so much.
The girl I’m working for now, Jillian, is 31 and owns her own yacht services company. We wax sport fishing yachts and sailboats and oil teak. She does so much more than that, but right now that is what keeps us busy. She brought me to the ocean and we ate warm soup in her van on a day we got rained off from work. She is connecting me with another sailor and possibly more work painting his boat.
I only found her because Kourtney brought me to the used marine store and the owner gave me her number. I called her, told her my story, told her who I know and the next morning she came to meet me even though she had just learned her friend died. We looked out at my boat from the seawall and she gave me a job.
I am continuously humbled by the kindness and friendship from strangers. – January 14, St. Augustine, FL
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Cities on the water way are so strange. Step away from the harbor front streets, the marinas, the anchorages and it’s as if you’re not even near the water at all anymore. Suddenly it’s suburban sprawl and traffic and you find yourself riding a borrowed mountain bike down a highway sidewalk, diverting into a neighborhood that resembles the hood, just trying to escape the lights, and noise, and rain— in order to get back to your boat.
One mile inland and, it seems, people have no fucking idea they are anywhere near the sea.
Humans are kind to me. For whatever reason I find myself constantly surrounded by people and forming unlikely friendships. Sometimes I forget how to be alone. Sometimes I’m afraid it will end—the people I already know, the people I haven’t met yet. Not only will they not be here physically, they won’t be anywhere. They won’t be in any pocket of my heart, the land or the waterway.
Technology baffles me. So many people keep up with me, meet up with me, and ultimately alter my life in positive ways that put me one step closer to my goal—which is, in a sense, to be away from them completely. To be alone on the sea.
There is not one moment of one day where I don’t think about this boat, my means and my character—and how all that equates to the possibility of actually achieving what it is I envision.
“You are in charge of what happens next,” Chris said to me as I left her dock and historic estate. We were discussing the possibility of my return to that small Chesapeake town for what would be an overhaul to the boat. Another step, in a series of steps and seasons, to be out there on the sea safely, sustainably, solo.
“What’s new in your love life?” my oldest friend asked me in a text message.
“Not much,” I replied. “Just in a solid, committed relationship with my boat.”
My conversations with those furthest away who know me best are reduced to screens. My face-to-face conversations happen with people I hardly know and may never see again. These conversations all feel equally important.
“The intercoastal is that way,” a sailor I traveled with told me twice.
Once when we were at the dock discussing the next day’s route and another time when we were underway. The natural direction I thought to go in both those instances led to the open ocean… not the protected waterway.
When we parted ways and I pulled into port to wait for important mail, he continued on into the next canal and body of water where he hoped to wait for a good weather window and sail offshore.
His mast now far from sight I called out on the radio anyway.
“Good luck out there on the lonely blue highway,” I said, essentially, to no one.