Boating is, in many ways, a suitable metaphor for life. In both, there are times when the sun’s shinning and you’re cruising in calm conditions that you think’ll never end. Then there are times when—out of nowhere—the wind picks up and you’re braced, white-knuckled at the helm, fighting mightily in vain to get your bearings. In the end you hope the good days out number the bad, or at least break even. And along the way you’ll come across characters of all types and sorts. If you’re blessed, like I’ve been, the people that mean the most, your family, will stay aboard with you for as long as they can. Friends and colleagues, well, they’ll come and go.
You’ll spend some time in stunning destinations, making connections that’ll shape you in ways you never expected, and you’ll also find yourself in spots so miserable you’ll find yourself praying for the tide to change so you can leave it in your wake.
There will be times where the boat purrs like a kitten and the brightwork glistens into the eye of all those who pass it. Beautiful! Some will proclaim at the sight of her. There is always a lot of praise when you’re up on top. Then there are times where things are breaking left and right; leaks spring up from everywhere, the floorboards get rotted. You pull up the carpet and put away the fluffy pillows. Tools and drops of sweat are scatted everywhere. Frustration is high, and there’s not a soul around to help.
But you stay focused, work hard, and with a little luck smooth sailing finds you once again.
In life, as in boating, it’s important to find a partner, a first-mate of sorts that will stand by you not just in the good times, but in the bad. After all, what’s the point of embarking on an epic adventure if you have no one there to share it with?
Over the last four years, Karen has proven to be such a partner. From convincing me to buy the boat, to spending hundreds of hours sanding, packing, painting, priming and pumping out endless moral support, without her, none of this sailing adventure would be possible. I’m excited to announce that last weekend, on a picturesque afternoon in Hamburg Cove, Karen agreed to marry me and stay on this adventure for the long haul.
I feel like the luckiest guy alive and I’m extremely grateful to be on this adventure with her.
I thank god for my life
And for the stars and stripes
May freedom forever fly, let it ring.
Salute the ones who died
The ones that give their lives
So we don’t have to sacrifice
All the things we love
–Zac Brown Band
I watched through envy-filled eyes as boaters who had done hardly an hour’s work were lowered from the travelift to the resting river below.
“How!? I mean, gahhhh, another one,” I’d stammer, pointing wildly at the carefree looking family sailing off into summer.
Karen rolled her eyes and went back to varnishing. We had accomplished a fair amount in early spring; the brightwork had been tended to, the mast received six coats of varnish and was really starting to shine again. The hull was waxed and painted and still … there was much left to do. It was time to call in the troops; we asked my parents to come up for the weekend to help blitz through the remaining projects.
On our to-do list was two tasks that had eluded us since we bought the boat four seasons ago: Fixing the wiring and adding running water. Yes, water and electric, a reminder of how involved this restoration project has truly been.
0700 on an unseasonably warm Saturday morning would come, they would arrive and it was game on. Now something of an annual tradition, we quickly settled into the tasks at hand. Karen and my mom fell into a rhythm of chatting and working, first painting the hull of the dinghy with an inflatable bottom paint before adding a layer of varnish to the toe rail.
My old man and I opened the slide-open draw that housed the boat’s electrical and exhaled deeply while taking in the sight. To explain the current electrical situation, well, let’s just say I’ve seen tumbleweeds with more order and organization. Thankfully, my dad has an above-average handle on marine electrical and we had a new DC panel in place within a couple hours. We’d go on to swap out some tarnished old cabin lights with some glistening new LED lamps.
With a couple flips of the breaker we had light. It was a little victory but certainly one worth celebrating.
Next up was the water tank. Because of a design flaw and many years of neglect, the water tank beneath the sole of the salon is susceptible to contamination from bilge water. After working through a half dozen possible options, I decided the best solution would be to place a 26-gallon Plastimo water tank under the forward V-berth. The most demanding aspect of this project was acquiring all the fittings, hoses and pumps we’d need; the actual installation was completed within an hour. Besides adding running water to the head and salon sinks, we also ran a hose to the stern of the cockpit where it will serve as an outdoor shower.
We worked hard that day and were proud of what we accomplished. We had a few laughs and spent time unplugged talking about our hopes for the coming summer. Looking back on that weekend, I realize you don’t really need to be on the water to enjoy the positive affects of boating. The season has begun.
The gravel road rumbles beneath my tires as my headlights illuminate the deserted boatyard. I shift into park, pull one last long swig from my coffee cup and walk into the empty metal shed. Rain begins to dance atop the large roof; the light pinging is a soothing soundtrack.
The task du jour is varnishing my 35-foot wooden mast, which is stretched out before me. We un-stepped the mast this year to apply six layers of varnish armor to it, ensuring that—after three seasons since it was built—it remains impervious to the elements. It would also give me, and some poor unsuspecting accomplice (read: Karen), the year off from trying to varnish it from a swinging bosuns chair.
I lightly scuff the spruce with 220-grit paper and wipe off the dust with a tack cloth. I then break out a closed-cell roller and a brush to apply Epifanes varnish to two sides of the mast at a time. After work I’d return, flip the mast and varnish the remaining two sides.
As far as boat projects go, this isn’t what you would call a difficult task, in fact it’s rather mindless. That said I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve been enjoying the uninterrupted solitude that this chore provides. My personal and professional schedule as of late has resembled that of a Nascar pit crew, Go-Go-Go.
Allowing my mind to wander and reflect while preparing for the boating season is a welcome win-win.
With the holidays in our wake and a New Year creeping ever closer, it seems a fitting time to reflect on the past boating season while updating ASailingStory’s followers on where we left off.
On a bone-chilling morning in late October, Karen and I motored from a nearly deserted Essex to our winter home of Portland, a distance of about 27 miles up the river. Not knowing that November and December would be a pair of the warmest months on record, we wrapped ourselves in layer-after-layer of clothes until we resembled the Michelin Man. At one point Karen pulled a fleece blanket from her bag of tricks, asking if I wanted to share it. Too proud (some say stubborn) to command my boat with a red fleece on my legs, I responded, “ohh no!”
An hour later I’d swallow my pride and say, through chattering teeth, “ok give me that thing.”
Karen raised an eyebrow before quickly responding, “ohh noo.”
We’d eventually find our mooring off Yankee Boat Yard in Portland. It wasn’t until we thawed out and looked through the below pictures that we realized how pretty the river was.
I’d sneak out to the boat a couple more times before it was hauled, each time enjoying the location more and more. One evening after removing the sails I kicked back in the cockpit and admired the Middletown skyline for nearly an hour. The water around me was mirror-flat, the only disturbance came via collegiate crew team gliding up the river. I’m very much looking forward to spending a few weeks there in the water next season before returning to Essex.
The boat has since been winterized and covered up for a long winter’s nap. We unstepped the mast this year—the first time since building it—in order to buildup its varnish armor and replacing an AWOL wind vane. It also allowed me to inspect the rigging, which looks no worse for wear.
As always seems to be the case, the upcoming winter and spring will afford us the chance to tackle a list of improvements we’d like to make to the boat.
The next boating season is 5 months away. On cold, snowy days like today that feels like a lifetime, but I need only close my eyes and I’m again sitting in the cockpit with the warm sun on my back or hopping into a dew-covered dinghy for a 5:00 ride to shore. I know those warm memories will help winter fly by.
A colleague recently turned me on to the Twitter account for Alastair Humphreys, a British adventurer whose four-year around-the-world bike trip is just a single bullet point on his expedition-filled résumé. Despite living a life most would deem clinically insane, he champions a concept that he calls the microadventure, which is just what it sounds like: a mini, midweek adventure that doesn’t cost much, and can be accomplished on a typical weeknight. Some examples of a microadventure that Humphreys touts in his new book Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes are sleeping on a hill, cooking a meal over a fire, swimming in a river (there’s one I can do!).
As a marine journalist I read—on a daily basis—about boaters doing some extraordinary things. In fact, at this moment I have e-mail threads going with a couple who are cruising their Nordhavn 40 through the Pacific Northwest, a blogger aboard a Kadey-Krogen bound for Russia and a family of four from Texas that moved aboard their express cruiser to see the world. Despite this seemingly endless dose of inspiration, this past summer I found myself getting sucked into a, well, rather cushy routine. After work I’d hit the gym, make dinner, maybe do laundry or some other chore, and settle into an episode of God-knows-what on Netflix (a service I very much have a love/hate relationship with). I wasn’t being lazy per se, but boring would be a fair descriptor.
Boating had become a weekend endeavor for reasons I’m not quite sure of. So, right around the time of our July Mid-Summer Boating Fest, my girlfriend Karen and I (thanks in part to Humphreys’s inspiration) made the conscious decision to make better use of our limited summer schedule and get out on the boat more often. So on one or two weeknights each week we’d head out to our classic old boat resting on a mooring off Essex, Connecticut.
We swapped evenings in a crowded gym with sunset swims, reheated dinners for cookouts under the stars, and swapped Netflix episodes for a good book or magazine. We found ourselves falling asleep earlier (something about swimming just knocks us out) and waking up to early morning rays pouring through the forward portlight instead of the blare of an iPhone alarm.
Not much of a morning person, I eventually grew to look forward to our 5:00 a.m. dinghy ride to shore. The river can be absolutely still at that time, and the only sound would be the soft mumble from our outboard running just above idle. You know when you’re in for a good day when your morning commute begins with a dinghy ride.
Stepping into the office those mornings, I felt as if I were carrying a secret. Relaxed and rejuvenated, it was almost as if I had just returned from a short vacation. In fact, I guess that’s just what it was.
The magazine’s July 12th Boating Fest fell at a busy time for Karen and me so we didn’t get to spend the day in an exciting new location like we would have hoped, but knowing that it doesn’t take long before the rejuvenating effects of boating to kick in, we escaped for an evening just up the Connecticut River in the forest-lined Hamburg Cove, a former shipping hub in the early 1800s that today is a popular spot on the river shared by trawler owners, fishermen, and kayakers alike.
We grabbed a visitor mooring from Cove Landing marina for $20 and hopped in the dinghy for a leisurely ride up a lazy river. With tall conifer-covered hills on each side it took only a little imagination to feel like we were exploring a stream in Maine. You can tie up to the dinghy dock at the nearby marina and stretch your legs if you like. There is a general store about a mile away and not much else.
As dusk began to settle on the cove, the sound of swimming and shrieking kids began to fade; the smell of charred hotdogs wafted atop the calm water as couples sat in their cockpits sipping chilled glasses of white wine. If there is a more peaceful way to spend an evening I’ve not discovered it yet.
We’d return to Essex and “real-world” responsibilities early the next day but the positive effects of our short boat trip had sunk in. Our arms seemed to swing more freely at our sides; free from knots and tension as we went about the tasks at hand with the well-rested mind that you only get after spending a night on the hook.
I think that’s the point that Humphreys (and our Mid-Summer Boating Fest) is trying to make; you don’t need to leave land for weeks at a time or battle huge seas in order to have an adventure; sometimes the most rewarding, memorable adventures are the ones on a random Sunday night in July.
A few days after our last weekend cruise to Deep River I asked Karen what she wanted to do next weekend. Here’s how that weekly conversation usually plays out:
“Mmm, I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
“Uhhh, I don’t know. Go somewhere on the boat?”
“Ok, but where?”... And it goes on like that for some time.
So I was pleasantly surprised to hear, “Let’s take the boat to Deep River again.”
“I don’t…wait, what? Yeah, OK,” I found myself saying.
And with that we again pointed our bow north and enjoyed a weekend of leisure in the sleepy town. The marina there must not get too many transients because after we arrived a guy at the fuel dock greeted me with, “Hey Dan, you burning up another one of your free Brewer stays?” Mind you, we only spoke for about a minute the weekend prior.
I could bore you all by recounting how relaxing it was to unplug and walk around the quaint streets or how the changing leaves provided a picturesque backdrop but instead I’m going to let some of the images from the weekend tell that story. I hope you enjoy them.
On a typical day most of us drive through a dozen towns, maybe more. But how many of us can say that we’ve stopped, walked around or explored any of those towns to see what they have to offer? Probably not many. Even one rainy weekends where complaints of boredom are echoed, the odds are unlikely that we’ll take that time and simply drive around or explore a new place.
I know myself, I drive each day from Middletown to Essex without giving as much as passing thought to the towns I’m driving passed. Their enormous green road signs blur together in my subconscious as my mind wanders to the day ahead.
When I’m on the boat however, that’s a different story. I can search around on Active Captain for hours looking for a secluded or hidden harbor to explore (I even click around in harbors overseas, you know, incase I suddenly need to find an anchorage in Italy). In fact, it was during such a planning session that I spotted a small little Brewer marina a few miles north in a town called Deep River. Our current Brewer membership awards us two free nights at Brewer locations so I figured, what the hell, why not go check it out?
So with that we packed the requisite cooler, sheets, and pillows and cruised north. Boat traffic had dramatically dropped off since the leaves began to change color, so our hour-long trip north was pretty darn peaceful (a nice change of pace from our recent sporty trips across the Sound).
With plenty of open moorings in Deep River, we picked a nice spot off by itself and got settled in. The marina would prove to be up to Brewer’s high standard. There was a clean in-ground pool, clean facilities, plenty of propane grills for guests to use etc.
I recalled seeing that the historic Gillette Castle wasn’t too far from the marina and when I asked a dockhand how far it was he nonchalantly responded, “oh not far at all, go just around the corner and you’ll see it.”
And with that grossly undersold measurement of distance we hopped in the dinghy with its 3.3 hp outboard and went to go check it out. Now, the dockhand wasn’t exactly lying, you could see the castle from there, the problem was the giant castle looked like a spec off in the distance and motoring against an incoming tide had us motoring at a turtle’s pace. We plowed through our snacks and drinks before making it halfway there.
Against the odds, and the tide, we eventually made it to a small stretch of beach beneath the castle; things were looking up. It was an absolutely beautiful day and I wasn’t particularly in the mood for an indoor tour but again we figured, why not? We sprung for tickets and headed up to the towering stone castle for a tour.
We step inside the castle and hand our tickets to an overly enthusiastic guide. Ms. Peppy then says, “let’s just have you wait here a minute while the group ahead of you gets ahead.”
“Alright, is it a big group?” I ask.
“Oh, it’s a group of about a hundred seniors that are here on a bus trip.”
A long pause ensues before I mumble to Karen, “a simple yes, would have sufficed.” She of course rolled her eyes.
Now let me reiterate, it was a stinkin beautiful day outside; it felt like a July day. And I strongly dislike crowds. And I respect my elders just like I was taught to, but listening to the shuffling crowd complain, “Oh, that bus was too cold!” “You’re right Muriel, I’m going to say something to the bus driver.” “I thought it was cold too, Dorothy, much too cold,” well, that just wasn’t how I wanted to spend my Saturday. If we could just scoot ahead of them I thought.
And with that I dragged Karen passed what I’m sure were many interesting rooms until we were ahead of the group, finally. We walked through the next door, which ended up being the end of the castle, and you’re “not allowed” to go back the way you came. We had missed practically the whole castle. But I smelled the fresh air and wasn’t about to go back and hear more about the great temperature debate; I promised Karen we’d come back another day.
Back on the boat sipping a cold beer, I had no regrets. In the evening we walked about a mile into town where we enjoyed a great dinner outside at a barbeque restaurant called the Red House. We ate too much meat and cornbread, if that’s even possible, before making out way back to the boat. The following morning we’d enjoy a nice walk through the quaint little town that boasts only a handful of stores, and not much else. We ate breakfast at a popular little hole-in-the-wall breakfast spot called Hally Jo’s. It’s a happening little spot on a Sunday that seems to attract the entire town.
Too soon after we’d head back to Essex and our mini adventure in Deep River was over. Not only did the quiet little town provide a welcome escape after a busy week, it reminded me that if you slow down and look around once in a while you might just find a fun adventure hiding in plain sight.
Leaves along Connecticut’s Route 9 had begun to trade their deep green for hints of orange and yellow; nature was showing its hand. Fall is here. With a long holiday weekend on tap the Karen Marie would be chasing the horizon at full throttle trying mightily to catch back up to summer.
That’s how it came to be that we motored from Essex early Saturday morning, hitching a ride down the river with an outgoing tide. The early, yet strong rays of sun burned off the morning dew providing a smoky hue to our cruise. Short chop in the Sound and the confused waters of Plum Gut made for a less-than-leisurely ride over to our destination of Shelter Island’s Dering Harbor. Covered in a weird combo of salt spray and sweat, we eventually tied up to our mooring in the southeast corner of the harbor and took in the view of sailboats and blue-hulled powerboats bobbing up and down in the clear water surrounded by beautiful homes and lush green tress.
After a bit of settling in, we hopped in the dinghy to explore town. It would be a short trip. The main street in town, and the hub of activity, is a short block comprised of a True Value, a gas station, toy store, a rustic looking bar/restaurant called Dory and a café/deli/grocery store called Marie Eiffel Market where we stood on a line nearly out the door for a pair of excellent sandwiches. It was clear that we would be back.
After a bit of R&R I had a little “work” for the magazine to tend to. For the next issue’s gear column I was testing and photographing a uniquely shaped inflatable standup paddle board called the Sea Eagle NeedleNose 126. (I know, I know…tough job!) The paddle board ended up working great; it went from rolled up in a backpack to fully inflated in two minutes and as you can see from these outtakes, it ended up being a lot of fun.
An evening of grilling and watching the sun set capped off the rest of a pleasant night.
Day two was kicked off the Shelter Island way with breakfast from, where else but Marie Eiffels. Determined to better see what the island had to offer we rented bikes from the gas station (apparently specialty stores aren’t real popular here). The plan for our half day rental was to take a “nice easy” ride out to the northeast jetty and then double back to a marina/boat builder called CH Marine where we could shower and inspect any new builds in progress. Well, that plan lasted until the first stop sign when Karen tried to pass me. A two hour race would ensue that I’m sure did little to help tourist relations. (When the island wasn’t whizzing past, it was really a beautiful way to see Shelter.)
Stopping at CH Marine yielded both refreshing showers and the chance to see a newly built 34-foot runabout. With a really unique blue Awlgrip paint job and sweet down east lines, I was not alone in ogling the new build. Many visitors stopped to snap a few pictures.
Refreshed and feeling like humans again, we hopped a 5-minute ferry ride from Shelter to Greenport, a beautiful town that is often referred to as one of the most beautiful on Long Island. The thing about the most beautiful place on Long Island on the most popular weekend of the summer is, well, it gets pretty darn crowded. Crowds of inebriated college kids, ice cream-covered children and older couples filled the streets in what would be become a very strange scene. We would enjoy a cold beer at the Greenport Brewery before I convinced Karen that it would be in our best interest to explore a nearby down-on-its-luck boatyard. She hardly puts up a fight anymore and just rolled her eyes. After climbing around a few rotten wooden boats, I found a real gem. Something that 7-year-old-boatyard-exploring-Daniel could only have dreamed of…tucked being an abandoned rust covered building, surrounded by a small flotilla of derelict sailboats was…a 1967 Lockheed submarine. My jaw dropped as I took in the site. “You can trespass in boatyards your whole life and never find something like this,” I whispered to Karen who began to realize another plan, this time for a “5 minute yard visit” was going out the window.
After poking around the sub for too long, we decided to end the day with a drink at the waterfront bar called The Blue Canoe. Watching the sun set with a couple cold rum drinks, you couldn’t really write a better official end to the summer.
We’d return home the next morning and our mini vacation, much like our bike ride, and our summer, would end all too soon. But this short weekend reminded us of how much we enjoy cruising to, and exploring new destinations. There’s just a certain excitement that comes with not knowing what’s around the next corner, it might just be the submarine you’ve spent 20 years searching for.