Boat Deliveries and Unlikely friendships

The morning of our last day aboard Gizmo began with a heightened sense of urgency. 106 miles, 4- to 6-foot seas, and almost 20 knots of wind stood between us and Camden, but we were determined, come hell or following seas, to get there. The hatches were battened down, and loose cameras and other assorted gear was stowed away and secured.

Leaving Isle of Shoals, off New Hampshire, in sloppy conditions, it was immediately apparent that we were in for a long day (cruising speed was an average of 9 knots). Our Duffy 37 slipped and slid down the backs of waves; the autopilot was frequently turned to standby as we slalomed through patches of lobster traps. After an hour of standing wide-legged and braced at the helm, fatigue would start to creep in. The casual watch schedule that Ellison and I had been keeping was replaced by a strict hour-on, hour-off schedule. The watch changes allowed the helmsman to be as fresh as possible, and we kept at it for most of the day.

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Like many things in life, the challenging conditions we faced made our long-awaited approach into Camden that much sweeter. Conifer-covered mountains protruded from the sea in front of our bow; Ellison’s smile grew as friends threw him a wave in the inner harbor. “Man I really love it here,” said Ellison as he exhaled a deep breath of crisp, clean air.

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In short order we tied Gizmo to her floating dock in the harbor, then made our way to the Ellison estate, which Ben himself built in the 1970s. After some much-needed showers, and even-more-needed glasses of wine, we found ourselves, and his lovely wife, Andrea sitting on his porch in the shade of Camden’s Mt. Battie.

We began the time-honored tradition of recounting tales from our five-day adventure. “You wouldn’t believe this burger joint we went to in Plymouth,” Ben would say. “Oh, tell Andrea about pulling into Isle of Shoals, this is a good one.”…“Yeah, then this group on the dock started chanting in unison.” Story-swapping would continue until two bottles of vino—and our remaining energy—had been polished off.

I had joined this delivery to increase my navigation and marine electronics knowledge, which I gained in spades. But the more important take away for me was how time on the water can form the most unlikely of friendships. Before pulling away from Essex, Ben and I were professional acquaintances whose only shared experiences were a couple dozen e-mails. And aside from a similar profession we’re almost as different as they come. Where Ben enjoys listening to countless hours (and I mean COUNTLESS HOURS) of talk radio and spending time with his grandchildren, I prefer country music and often have a friend from college crashing in my cramped apartment. We have very different opinions on the meaning of “optimum cruising speed” and our preferred bedtime differed by a good four hours.

Shared experiences and a common goal at sea have a funny way of erasing all those land-based differences and forming what I hope to be a long-lasting friendship.

Camden harbor

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Four Lessons in Using Modern Marine Electronics ● Auto Routing has a long way to go: A function I got to test on multiple manufacturers MFDs was the auto-routing function. Now, to be fair, each system warns users that auto-routing is not a replacement for proper course plotting and that’s a good thing. Most auto routing had us running on the wrong side of buoys, over shallow shoals, and running too close to shore. This function is best used to create a quick and dirty route that you then change and tweak to ensure safe cruising. ● No search function that I could find: Most new MFDs lack a search function that helps you locate a particular marina quickly. This would have been extremely helpful when I was trying to locate Scituate after exiting the Cape Cod Canal. When getting bounced in choppy seas is not the time to be scrolling along the coast in search of a port you’ve never been to. ● Keep it simple: Gizmo has dozens of screens across her expansive helms. Information overload is a very real thing, unless you’re electronics guru Ben Ellison. Having forward-looking and side-scanning sonar systems, fishfinders, instrumentation, charts, numerous split-screen radars etc. can easily distract you from the basics of boating, like staying in between the buoys. Just because you have insane functionality doesn’t mean you have to use it. ● Hard-key autopilot controls are king in rough conditions: Ben had his upper helm equipped with a hard-key autopilot control, which was easy to use even in rough seas. The MFD touchscreen control was much more difficult (for me) to use when things got lumpy. I’d intend to change our course by a few degrees quickly then accidentally hit the +10 degrees that would send us way of course. I eventually chose to hand steer around lobster pots.

Delivery from Essex to Maine

The sound of waves crashing on the jetty waft through the saloon, while Power & Motoryacht’s (the magazine I work for) Senior Electronics Editor Ben Ellison—illuminated by a single red LED overhead, pecks at his keyboard. He’s toggling between plotting the next day’s course on Coastal Explorer and answering questions posted on his electronics blog, panbo.com.

“This guy is asking a question about the very thing we’re doing right at this moment,” Ellison says, his eyes glued to his oversized monitor. “Wi-Fi out on the water can be complicated.”

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It’s 10:00 pm after a hectic day. Ellison spent five hours teaching an intensive “Soup to Nuts Navigation” class at the International Cruising Boat Expo held at Brewer Essex Island Marina in Essex, Connecticut, a course where he led new and experienced boaters through the finer points of course plotting. Later in the course he led small groups to his floating electronics laboratory—his 37-foot Duffy, aptly named Gizmo—to share some insight on equipping a helm.

“You’ll never see another boat like this,” laughs Ellison, while his students ogle an MFD-filled helm and four (yes, the man has four) radars. He walks through the various MFDs and explains what some of the strengths and weaknesses are of each.

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Shortly after class is dismissed, Ellison is scurrying about his boat, tidying up and preparing to shove off. The water tank is filled; lines and fenders are stowed away.

Once away from the dock, Ellison finds a seat at the centerline helm of his flying bridge and begins doing what he does best, fidgeting with electronics while his boat makes its way out the Connecticut River to the Long Island Sound. After months of cruising, teaching, and testing, he is finally returning to his homeport of Camden, Maine.

I joined Ellison under the guise of helping him during the delivery. The truth is I fully expect to get more out of this trip than he will. My current electronic-navigation arsenal includes a 5-inch Garmin GPS and Navionics loaded on my girlfriend’s pink iPad mini. A trip with the guru of marine electronics aboard a boat with, again, four freakin’ radars, I’m bound to get an education that isn’t offered in any class.

So with light winds and calm seas, we logged 46 miles from Essex to Point Judith’s Harbor of Refuge. Having MFDs from Garmin, Raymarine, Furuno, and Simrad in your face was overwhelming, but I have a feeling I’ll get a lot of time to practice with them during this delivery. Stay tuned.

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Stories That Stay With You

As an editor of Yachting magazine, I write about an unbelievably wide array of topics. I’ve penned stories ranging from boat shows and megayachts to bilge pumps and batteries. Just last week, I interviewed a megayacht helicopter pilot and wrote about a $14,000 Rolex, all while eating a ham sandwich on potato bread. Such stories are often fun to write but after that issue goes to press, they are soon forgotten.

Every once in a while however, I get to write a story that stays with me indefinitely. Case and point: Last fall, Karen and I joined a group of cancer survivors and patients on a ride around Newport aboard the schooner, Madeline. The plan was to do a ride along, snap some pictures, get a few quotes and give some publicity to the group who organized the trip called Sailing Heals. We’d be in and out in a couple hours and the story would be finished later that day.

So, on a dreary and drizzly Sunday afternoon we boarded the schooner and set sail for the bay. Sitting on the starboard rail, I couldn’t help but notice a middle-aged woman wearing a blue raincoat and sporting a huge grin. With her head on a swivel, she was snapping cellphone pictures at an impressive rate, seemingly impervious to the fact that the rain and lack of wind made for awful sailing conditions. She was having a blast.

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Wanda (right) and her daughter, Lorna enjoyed every minute of their sail aboard Madeline.

I introduced myself and asked a few icebreaker-type questions, and learned that happy woman’s name was Wanda Howard, a 59-year-old veteran of newspaper advertising who enjoyed volunteering and spending time with her family. The next thing I know, Karen (who I’m convinced would make a good reporter) and Wanda were deep in conversation, talking as though they’d been friends for years. They discussed sailing, living in Massachusetts and family.

Gazing out onto the water, Wanda leaned in towards Karen and softly said, “You know, four years ago I didn’t live life to the fullest. Now that I have stage-four cancer, I appreciate things like this so much more.” Wanda seemed so full of life; it was hard to even believe she was sick, let alone dying of cancer. It was hard news to digest. Karen’s eyes filled with tears and Wanda got up, walked over to her and gave her a big hug saying, “don’t be sad.”

A short while later Madeline returned to the dock, but to our surprise, we found ourselves not wanting the ride to end.

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Since the time the story ran, Karen and I have crossed paths with the schooner, Madeline dozens of times. And every time we do, without exception, our thoughts go back to Wanda and her incredible spirit and joy for life. Sometimes we talk about her aloud, and other times we reflect on that day to ourselves in silence. We both wondered how Wanda was doing but were too afraid to find out, that is until the other day.

Lorna Brunelle, Wanda’s daughter emailed me asking for copies of the article that ran a year before. She told me she wanted to use the images and quotes in a book she’s writing about lessons she learned from her mom, now that she has passed away. We both spoke about the rainy afternoon we shared together and Lorna said:

“Until the final week of my mother’s life she referred to her day on Madeline as one of the best days of her life. I remember being nervous because she was on a very high dose of steroids (to help her breathe) and I was afraid her excitement would lead to an unwanted dip in the ocean. Thanks goodness we have only happy memories of our day on the water!”

I know that from now on whenever we see Madeline out sailing in the bay, Karen and I will feel sad that someone as nice as Wanda passed away too soon. But we’ll also be reminded of her advice to be happy and live life to the fullest, and a reminder like that is nothing short of a blessing.

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To learn more about Sailing Heals, please visit sailingheals.org.

A Virtual Stroll Around the Miami Boat Show

While a polar vortex swirled and a wicked-winter storm blanketed New England in ice and snow, I escaped to the sunshine state to thaw out and visit the Miami Boat Show. The warm air welcomed me like an old friend and my fixed-winter-scowl quickly melted away. Strutting on the docks in a pair of Sperrys reminded me that boating season, as it always seems to do, will in fact return in a few months. Enjoy a virtual stroll around the show here:

4 Reasons to Love Woodworking

Tightly tucked into the corner of a snow-covered boat yard, the Karen Marie rests idly on a set of rusted blue stands, her canvas cover shielding her from the elements.  Unlike last winter, the past few cold-New England months were not filled with a frantic boat project. There were no masts to build but alas, I am learning that there is always work to be done on a boat.

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The better of the two doors, it could still use some TLC to return it to its former glory.

My focus is now shifting to the interior of my 1961 Rhodes Chesapeake, which is beginning to show her age.  She needs her old wooden roofline torn down and replaced, a fresh coat of paint, new upholstery and just some plain old TLC. The brightwork that years ago must have glistened is now gray and worn, setting the mood for our small living space. Looking to get a jump on its restoration, I brought my wooden companionway staircase and one of two wooden doors home for sanding and refinishing. On a few of the warmer days I set out with my orbital sander to remove layers  (and a lot of them!) of old varnish from their cedar skin.

Though sanding and wood working in general is considered a laborious chore (and in some ways it is) and often left for boat yards to handle, I rather enjoy it and here’s why:

  1. You get out of it what you put in: Few things in life are fairer than woodworking. If you take your time sanding and ensure that all the layers of old varnish are removed while continuously going over your work with a finer and finer grit paper, ensuring no sanding marks are left behind, when you’re finished, you will have something that really shines. Cut corners, leave scuffmarks or neglect the hard to reach places (read: underside of companionway steps) and it will show.
  2. It gives you an excuse to buy new toys: My toolbox sometimes looks the lost and found at the airport. I have three screwdrivers, of all different brands, two wire strippers of different colors, an assortment of zip ties, hose clamps and an bevy of paintbrushes that would make da Vinci jealous. But where my tool collection thrives is with my sanding equipment. I am the proud owner of a new belt sander, orbital sander and multiple sanding blocks for hand sanding. I have sandpaper of every grit and color. (In fact, I’ve been told I should head down to the beach with paper and glue to save money.) I have battled many hard to reach edges in my young restoration career. I’ve sanded the underside of handrails and a detailed steering wheel until I was certain I’d permanently rubbed off my fingerprints (thankfully, I still have all 10).  That all changed when I acquired a Dremel Multi-Max MM40, with a sanding attachment. This bad boy saved me approximately 4 hours of work on just the door and staircase project alone by reaching the tight corners.

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    A new power tool is a beautiful thing.
  3. Time to unplug: Sanding a flat door is not what you would call intellectually stimulating. In fact, some would say it’s mindless work, and I would have to agree, but in the instant gratification world we live in, where email alerts, Facebook and ESPN Gameday updates too often consume our personal time, I find it almost therapeutic to sit in my back yard or garage, unplug and work on something with my hands.
  4. Something to be proud of: My parents instilled in me, at a young age, the value of doing things yourself. Whether it was remodeling a bathroom, building a deck or simply fixing your own flat tire, the pride in doing something yourself was not lost on me, or so I thought. It wasn’t until I had built the wooden mast for my boat and sailed her that I truly appreciated the value in building something on your own that you could be proud of.  The same sense of pride was there when I painted the boat, varnished her topsides and I know one day when I’m hiding from a rainstorm in the cabin, I’ll be proud of this project too.

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    Karen uses a piece of 80-grit to sand the corners of the door, while occasionally giving me a death stare while I happily sand away with my new Dremel tool.

Happy Sanding!