A Boating Bedtime Story

Overnighting for the first time on a new boat brings trials and tribulations. 

After a washout Memorial Day weekend, our goal for the following weekend was to stay overnight on the boat for the first time. I was antsy and Karen was apprehensive.

In the past we moved like cheetahs. A six-pack, a pair of pillows and some peanut butter pretzels was all we needed for a successful evening afloat. Today, we move more like three-legged buffalo. There are bottles, clothes, diapers, toys, snacks (how come the baby gets to eat avocado?!). Then there are our provisions and wait, where’s the dog? 

It took an entire morning just to pack and sort our gear for a single overnight—and we weren’t even leaving the mooring! Karen mentioned numerous times that she didn’t know how we were going to fit everything—and all of us—in the dinghy. As self-appointed travel coordinator I promised to take care of, well, not everything, but more than usual. 

So while Connor nursed a bottle in the air-conditioned sanctuary of our Honda, I took our gear and the dog out to the boat via dinghy; they would follow behind in the marina launch when they were ready. Of all days to force an overnight, I of course had to pick one where the temperature touched 90 degrees. 

I was a sweaty mess by the time they came pulling up on the launch. If I wanted more overnights on the boat in my future, I knew I needed Karen to have a good day, so after she climbed aboard I handed her a sandwich along with a cold can of Sam Adams Summer Ale that she could enjoy in the sun while I held Connor. I could practically see her blood pressure drop. I threw on some country music, and we all enjoyed a fresh breeze while watching boats pass by.

“It’s a lot of work to get out here, but it’s so worth it,” said Karen. “Look at this view.” 

So far, so good, I thought to myself, knowing full well we had a long way to go before declaring the trip a success. 

“It could be nice to go for a dinghy ride,” Karen mentioned. This was big, because for one reason or another, the idea of dinghy rides with Connor had previously made her anxious. I quickly got everyone situated and we began a nice slow cruise around Essex. I felt sorry for Connor; he was covered in layers of sunscreen like a tiramisu cake, in addition to wearing wrap-around sunglasses and a hat that covered his head, ears and neck. It was certainly a look that emphasized safety over style. Still, with a fresh breeze and the hum of the engine, he actually grew quite content. 

The long ride filled up the soul but didn’t do much for the stomach. I was in charge of the provisions on the overnight adventure, so the meal was a simple one: hot dogs and store-made macaroni salad along with a couple cold IPAs to be served at one of the many grilling areas on Safe Harbor Essex Island. What it lacked in style (and some might say, taste) it made up for in function. My boss Bill Sisson even came out to join us. Together we sat under the shade of a tree, enjoyed slightly undercooked hotdogs and toasted to the summer ahead. I felt thankful to be able to work with someone I consider a close friend. By the meal’s end, I felt my own blood pressure start to drop, yet I knew the real test was yet to come. 

While he’s made great strides the last few months, Connor is not what I would call a great sleeper. He’s a creature of habit, and during the workweek Karen keeps him on a military-strict schedule of naps and bedtime. A single deviation from that program has been known to cause a tailspin. Would the warm V-berth force us to retreat back home? 

After much brainstorming about the best sleeping arrangements, Karen purchased a nice portable crib device that fit well in the forward berth. Karen and Connor settled into the berth, Salty laid near them and I posted up on the convertible salon berth. It would be like sleeping on the couch, I told myself. I honestly kind of looked forward to having a space to myself. 

Karen struggled mightily in the beginning to get Connor to rest his head and go to sleep. Lying atop my sleeping bag and watching light fade from the sky, I tapped on my phone while Karen sang her 12th song in a row. It happened slowly—so slowly—and then, all at once. The beast had begun to slumber. I very slowly allowed myself to relax, knowing that every boat wake or outside sound could end our night in an instant. 

Connor blissfully and miraculously stayed asleep through the night. I wish I could say the same for myself. Until midnight, we were rocked by the occasional wake from people blowing through the no-wake zone. Then there was a drunken party on a nearby sailboat that hit its crescendo at 1:30. My blood pressure spiked with every “whoooo hooo!” that echoed across the water and into the warm cabin. A couple years ago I would have shared choice expletives with my new neighbors. Maybe I’m maturing, or maybe I just didn’t want to wake Connor. 

At 4:45 the first rays of light poured into the cabin (I really need better curtains, I mumbled to myself) and extinguished any hope I had for more sleep. I laid inside my sweaty sleeping bag and checked social media while feeling especially grouchy. I finally decided to get up and grab a bottle of water. What I saw next changed my mood completely (though not indefinitely). Karen was sound asleep on the port side of the berth, Connor was peacefully passed out on the side of his crib and Salty The Protector was enjoying doggy dreams beneath them. I stood there for more than a minute trying to stay in this moment and commit it to memory. We did it. We not only survived our first night aboard, we managed to enjoy ourselves. 

Later the next day, Karen and I were talking about how unusual boating is in that for a leisure activity it takes so much work. Indeed, it took more hours to prep for—and recover from—our first night than we actually spent on the boat. But when I think of that memory, the first morning waking up to my family sleeping together on our new boat, I have to say it was the kind of first that could never be replicated. Therein lies the beauty of any first. 

Little Moments Like This

Karen sits back in a blue West Marine chair making faces at Connor. Scrunched in a bulky, red life jacket he’s uncomfortable but musters a smile back at her. Beneath the chair, tethered by her pink leash, is our pup Salty. Tongue dangling from her mouth, she too is enjoying the ride.

            It’s at this moment, looking down from the flybridge of my new Bertram 28 that I release my breath and wonder, does it get any better than this?

            I’ve long felt extremely lucky to be born into a boating family. It allowed me to travel and form my own opinions of this country. I learned at a young age how to talk to adults on the dock. I learned to fish. I was given an ocean for my imagination to run wild on. I learned the value of taking time to relax and be present with your friends and family aboard.

            Karen and I owned a sailboat for seven years before selling it in the spring of 2020. Watching her grow to love boating and learn the sense of pride that comes from boat projects has been special, no doubt about it. But this trip, the first with my eight-month-old aboard, this one feels extra special. Part of it could be that we were going substantially faster than our previous boat’s 5-knot top end, or because I was driving it atop Cloud 9. But really, it was because I’d dreamed of this moment for so long that when it happened it was akin to an out-of-body experience. 

            It was a short ride–I’m doing my best to ease my growing family into the powerboat world. We cruise up and down the river and in short order we’re tied back up to our mooring in Essex. With bottled up energy to burn, I convert the salon table into a berth for Connor to crawl and play atop. It can be amazing how little a child needs to entertain themselves sometimes (key word!).

            Before long Connor had wiped himself out and he–and his dad–were itching for a nap. Driving home he fell asleep immediately. Peeking back at the little boy in his bathing suit, orange sun shirt and red, white and blue sun hat just about covering his eyes, smelling of sunscreen and tuckered out from his first day on the boat, it was a heart-warming moment.

            He obviously won’t remember his first day on the water, but it’s one I’ll never forget.

A Special Sea Trial.

After years of admiring this boat from afar, the day had finally arrived. I snuck out of work early on Thursday for a sea trial with the Bertram 28’s owner, my surveyor and my dad. We all knew there was some rot in the corner of one of the engine mounts that offered pause and reason for concern, but only a sea trial would reveal the extent of the damage and how soon it would need to be addressed. Was it solid enough that we could cruise comfortably for the first season?  That question made me toss and turn at night. The test would also reveal if the boat was properly powered—the boat’s powerplants are 2014 remanufactured Ford 302s, not exactly what those in the business would call popular. Would these gas motors provide enough power for the relatively heavy sportfisherman? 

Pulling up to the marina I saw Chris, the boat’s owner, sitting sullen on the tailgate of his pickup truck looking at the boat in the slip in front of him. “I’m just sitting here thinking: This sucks,” he says as I approach for a handshake. We make small talk for a bit while we wait for the surveyor to arrive. Once the team is assembled, complete with two guys named Chris and two named Dan, we make quick work of the lines and head for the Connecticut River. 

I watch the owner’s hands as he maneuvers the boat out of the marina to try and gauge the boat’s maneuverability while my dad and the surveyor look over the engines. 

We find deeper water, and the surveyor and owner begin running the boat through the rpm range to record official test data. It feels so strange to be farming out this portion of the test; as the editor-in-chief of Power & Motoryacht, I can’t shake boat-tester’s guilt. 

It was clear that the boat’s owner was concerned about handing over the helm during the test. I understood his reservation to a degree; after years of stewardship, you don’t want someone running your boat aground while flexing their machismo. Still, we came this far, and I wanted my dad, who is not only my best boating advisor, but also a gear head with experience on these foreign-to-me engines to feel how it drives. My dad ran the boat for a bit. I was pleasantly surprised by the smooth ride and how good the engines sounded, but I was even more surprised by the 27-knot top end and nice 22-knot cruise. 

The surveyor watched the engine mount closely, took temperature readings on various points of the engines and gave me a thumbs up. 

When the surveyor had everything we needed, we thanked the owner and told him we were good to head back to the dock. The three of us conferred on what we were seeing, or more importantly, not seeing. The engine mount, while in definite need of repair down the road, looked solid enough to enjoy a summer of cruising before being addressed. And those Fords impressed my crew. 

The surveyor, who by nature kept his opinions close to the vest and tended to dwell on the negative broke character, gave me a nod and said, “yeah, I think this would be a good boat for you and your family.” 

I looked over to my dad, who returned the affirming nod. Two of the most knowledgeable boat guys I knew gave it a thumbs up. As for me, I’d fallen in love with it months before; I was an easy sell. 

The boat buying process is a funny thing. There are so many small steps that make it seem like it takes forever, but once you finish the sea trial the deal is done with a swift flick of a pen on a check. On Friday morning I would be bringing her to her new homeport of Essex. 

As the previous owner and I signed the bill of sale, the surveyor recited the oft-used boating cliché that the best days in a boater’s life are the day they buy a boat and the day they sell it. I smiled and said, “I don’t know; I feel a lot happier than him.” 

I’d gotten to know the previous owner a bit throughout the process. I learned that at one point he loved the boat like I do now. He did an impressive job repowering her and replacing the fuel tank, and he got new canvas for the flybridge just a couple years ago. But at the end of the day, he found himself using his center console more than the Bertram, and he knew that boats don’t do well when they’re not being used. The pandemic buying boom proved a good time to let her go.         

When I reflect on the boat buying process and what I learned, more than anything it’s how important being on good terms with the previous owner is, especially when there is no broker involved. 

Even for this simple boat, I bothered him with three visits, a survey, a sea trial and a dozen questions in between. We traded nearly 40 text messages. He was honest with me about the boat and gave me really useful background. 

He also had the opportunity to break our handshake deal earlier in the spring and take a cash offer from someone who didn’t even want a sea trial, but he didn’t waver from our deal. Buying and selling something so personal, like a boat, can sometimes get messy—that’s why brokers are so important in the boat business. I’m glad that wasn’t the case this time. 

I’ve long had this belief that you never really own a boat—you just become its temporary custodian. It’s your job to take care of it so it takes care of you, you work on it and in the end, you hope to find it a good home and leave it better than how you found it. When the deal was done, I thanked the seller for making this process so smooth and for all the work he put into the boat. I told him I would continue the job. 

“I know you’ll take on projects like I did and make it your own. I know I’ll see you again.” —Daniel Harding Jr.