People always ask: What’s it like? What do you do on a boat all day? We’ve been cruising thousands of miles a year for many years. We moved aboard full time in 1979. It’s a very different existence. Here is a typical day, if you can call any of them “typical.”
The current shifts. A local shrimper throws a wake. The night breeze dies as the morning approaches. We look out the porthole and see the marsh begin to materialize from the water. The subtle clues of daylight waken us in our anchorage. It doesn’t take an alarm clock. We’re to a different rhythm.
As light first begins to filter through the darkness, sometimes before, we get up and prepare to get under way in the new day, hoping to reach a distant, equally beautiful anchorage by the new dark. Mel puts on the coffee while we check the weather forecast. I stick my head out the companionway and look around to check on-scene weather and to see if the world is still the same. If it isn’t, we’ve dragged anchor and maybe are on or near a shoal. But this seldom happens. If there is enough light, we turn off the anchor light.
I pull on my Dickies and groan into the engine room. These morning rituals get harder on the bones each year. First I check the oil in the Yanmar main engine and the generator, not just for low level but, more important, for high. Twice, with previous boats, I found that the oil had risen, floating on water that had come in during the night. One had been caused by a tropical storm, another by the failure of a brand-new, very expensive anti-siphon valve. This type of disaster would mean a day or more of feverish difficult activity. But it’s happened only twice.
I also check for liquid seepage from the raw water and freshwater cooling systems and look for lube oil and tranny fluid where it shouldn’t be. Where I can’t see, I feel by hand. I look for loose nuts or bolts, compromised linkages, signs of exhaust leakage or overheating, pressure in the steering hydraulic system and, it seems, a million other things. This usually doesn’t take long because I’ve done it so many times before and I know my boat. But sometimes it’ll mean days lost and painful labor trying to fix something I find. However, it’s better to know now rather than be surprised in an inlet or far out at sea.
We fire up the electronics — checking each — turn on the bow batteries and charger that service the windlass and thruster, wipe the morning dew from our enclosure, and bring up charts, binocs and the other tools of navigation. Then my wife, Mel, fires up that mighty beast in the bilge that gives us such freedom. I’m always there with it when she does because this is a time when you’re more likely to hear or feel something amiss with all those moving parts. Next, I fire up the generator. I prefer to do this after I start the Yanmar because that’s the most important engine and I want no other noise to interfere with my listening.
We usually run the generator one or two hours in the morning and evening. The few hours we run that generator brings us many benefits that most ashore take for granted. It runs a big electric motor magnetically coupled to a powerful seawater pump. This services the freezer, refrigeration, air conditioning and reverse osmosis watermaker systems. When we’re away from good sources of shore water, I run the watermaker while the generator is on. It makes 15 gallons of very pure water an hour.
Getting it going requires more ritual tasks of turning valves and watching gauges. The refrigeration compressor brings down the cold plates in the deep freeze and refrigeration boxes to get us through until evening. Flipping a switch for the Raritan water heater gets us enough hot water for the day. And the Xantrex Pro-Sine 2000 inverter/charger can put up to 105 amps DC into the battery bank of choice when the generator is running. We have two other chargers and they also feed from the generator. I stand at the panel a moment and make sure all is as it should be and that the right banks are getting what they need.
Next, we turn on and check our running lights. I head to the bow. After the noise below, it is usually quiet, though sometimes bitterly cold or a venture into mosquito hell. But it’s time to raise the anchor. We use all chain with a nylon snubbing line and almost never more than one hook. We learned long ago that two anchors are usually far more of a liability than an asset. I signal to Mel with hands or, if conditions are tougher — for example, high wind and current and close quarters — we use the Cruising Solutions headsets.
Windlasses aren’t intended for pulling boats over anchors, so we use the engine to slacken the chain as I reel it in, holding the windlass remote in one hand and a freshwater hose in the other, carefully washing the mud from the links. Cruising along the coast, we have no problem replenishing our 300-gallon freshwater supply, and in the islands we make more than we need with our watermaker. When we anchor in soft sand the chain comes up quickly and clean, but usually we’ve dug into thick mud and the process can take 15 minutes or more.
Once the anchor is free, I signal Mel and she heads out slowly until I get it secured on deck, the last of the mud usually coming clear as we drag it a moment through the water. Sometimes we anchor in settled weather in a wide-open river, off to the side. We just steam out easily to the channel. Many times we work our way into a special hole where the guide gurus haven’t directed the hordes to congregate. Then we usually must carefully pick our way out through the shoals and obstructions. Many just follow the line left on their chart plotter from the entrance the night before. We look at this, but also look at paper charts and all of the other signs we’ve followed since long before GPS, such as eddies, upwellings, bank contour, crab pot floats and much more. They all tell a story.
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Once we’re in the channel, we settle back, drinking coffee, talking quietly and enjoying the new day. We also plan for the day, knowing that the plan can become a farce. We have little control out here. The roadway moves. But we still try to plan ahead. We know that we must pass through a certain creek or over a certain shoal area close to high tide. We know that a bridge, many hours away, is going to only open on the hour and that if we don’t time our approach well we lose an hour and have to anchor in the dark. We know that if we reach it early we could be in trouble because often the tide is racing toward the bridge, pushing us toward a collision with the bridge as it drags us down a channel that is too narrow for us to turn in.
If we’re in the ocean, we know that we might need to make an inlet while the tide is running in to avoid standing waves that can be dangerous. It’s ironic that we still have to try to plan, even though we have so little control. But sometimes it works out and when it doesn’t, we know we have to have a Plan B. All of this can add a little stress to the morning.
Soon, Mel goes down to fix breakfast. We wait till we’re under way for this because we don’t want to sit wasting traveling time when it’s just as easy to cook and eat while moving. Some folks like to sit in the cockpit with their morning cup of coffee while still anchored, enjoying the special stillness that comes from this experience. We do too, but only on lay days, not on moving days. Good traveling days depend on too many things over which we have no control, such as the weather, tides, newly shifting shoals, fog, broken bridges, whether the engine is working and much more. When we want to make passage and the day is good, we’ve found that on our boat we can happily do most things you’d do sitting in your home ashore; it’s just that we’re riding in a boat and that makes it so much nicer.
Usually after breakfast, I turn off all of the AC loads, checking out the operation of each, and shut down the generator. Even then, we still have AC electricity throughout the boat, just as you would at home. But it’s coming from the inverter, which is fed by the huge banks of deep-cycle batteries that we’ve just topped off while running the generator. With the inverted AC power, we can watch television, listen to music, run the microwave, run computers and more. Only the heavy loads are down, but we don’t need them. The water’s made, the refrigeration is good for the day and we’re done with that.
When the generator rumbles to sleep, it leaves only the roar of the 200-hp Yanmar. We’re a motorsailer, not a pure sailboat. Many people don’t understand the difference, but it’s huge. While we can sail without the engine and sometimes do, the boat was designed to power well and use the sails as an auxiliary. When we want to get somewhere, we use that engine, often augmented by the sails. The engine is much more reliable than the wind.
Travel time is often laid back, especially when we’re out at sea in good weather. Turn on the autopilot, sit back and relax. But it’s never boring. We continuously look around for anything that might be around us and we always watch the nav instruments and engine gauges. This never ceases, regardless of the circumstances, but it’s easier in large bodies of water. When we’re in the creeks, rivers, sounds and cuts of the Intracoastal Waterway, the trip is an unceasing medley of chores involved with driving this big boat.
Shoals can build up in the channel within weeks of dredging. Bridge tenders occasionally decide spontaneously — and in contravention of the law — to not open, leaving us trapped with a rushing tide pushing us to the bridge, wind pushing us onto shoals and a storm or darkness rapidly spreading over the horizon. Aids to navigation are often missing or working improperly. Lately we’ve seen more and more floating buoys, supposedly marking the deep water, lying on their sides on the bared shoals.
A seemingly easy passage through a still creek can suddenly be booby-trapped by a huge, fast motoryacht roaring around the bend, clueless as to passing etiquette. The waves it throws are not like those of the ocean. They’re confined by the steep, shallow walls of the creek; they’re steep and close and can cause much damage. And we can’t turn into them to take them on the bow if the channel is narrow. One more reason we like to be in the ocean.
Running the boat requires tools and our “wheelhouse” — a fully enclosed cockpit — is full of them. We lay out paper charts beside the helm and mark our position on them. If we’re in the ICW, we keep our bridge list out so that we know whether they have schedules and when. We do East Coast Alerts for the BoatUS website and we have these available on a computer. It gives us info such as dredging operations, Army Corps of Engineers surveys, shoaling and much more. Two GPS/plotters are up and running, although we know they can’t be exclusively relied upon for navigation. One of these is interfaced with the autopilot, which we use when we can. Often we cannot, as when we’re in constricted waters or it’s too rough.
A magnifying glass helps us read small symbols on the chart and our Steiner binocs are invaluable. They’re helpful even at night when they gather enough light to allow us to see, if only dimly, that there’s something there. The radar is always ready, if not always in use. We might turn it off on clear days of unlimited visibility in open waters, but many times it’s an indispensable aid. Fog, mist, light rain and darkness require it. And sometimes we use it to figure out what a ship on the horizon is doing and whether it’s coming our way.
Radar also helps us see weather coming while it’s still far out. Weather rules. We are totally and constantly at its mercy; we know that and never cease monitoring it, both near and far away. We listen to the weather channels on the VHF and get weather on our computers — when we’re within Verizon wireless range — and single sideband radio when we’re far from the coast. We check the barometer and pay attention to what’s going on around us. We get daily professional weather reports from Chris Parker (www.mwxc.com) via email, when we can get email.
It’s always amazing how weather even far away can affect us directly. Once, back in the days when we were still catching rainwater out in the Bahamas (before we got a watermaker), we had to stop because a gigantic red dust storm over Africa spilled out into the Atlantic and it came down in the rain on our decks.
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There is nothing so overwhelmingly diminishing to one’s ego than a storm at sea — or anywhere on the water. Once, anchored north of Beaufort, S.C., we watched in horror as gigantic lightning bolt after lightning bolt hurtled to the Earth in a straight line, as if Zeus were angry at someone running across the planet. But this runner was running straight toward us and the bolts got closer and closer. As has been true many other times, we were ready to die. We wished so much that we were in one of the sturdy homes on the shore off in the distance. But then the next bolt skipped over us, continuing the line on the other side. We looked ashore and all was dark. Some houses had been damaged. We were fine and had electricity, water, television and all the comforts those people had enjoyed a few moments earlier. But we didn’t feel smug. We knew there would be other times.
If we’d been hit, we probably would have lost our VHF radios. These are our primary tools for communicating with the maritime community. Our two main VHF sets are on channels 16 and 13. The latter is crucial when cruising the coast or around other traffic. It’s the bridge-to-bridge channel, and even if you have nothing to say to the person on the other bridge, it’s nice to know his issues so you can be prepared. We keep these sets on even when anchored because they provide critical information about the world around us. Only when we sleep do we turn them off.
It feels good to run our little ship, using our tools to go where we want to go. Our lives are full of tools of all sorts, not just navigation and weather tools. We have two huge tool bags, each so full that I can barely lift it. We also have less frequently used tools stored in various bins on the boat. They range from the standard items, such as screwdrivers and wrenches, to the exotic and specialized “tingums” for jobs I know I’ll have to do — again. Some tools I’ve fashioned myself. The list would fill a book with many items I’d never have imagined without years of doing this. We are still collecting more as still another obscure task presents itself.
These tools are a testament to the fact that we must be able to take care of things ourselves. It isn’t like cruising out of a marina and returning Sunday night to have someone fix what broke. We have to do it when and where it happens because we can’t afford to always pay people and because there’s usually no one around to pay anyway. The things we’ve fixed through the years — often in crisis mode — would fill another book. But after the job is finally done and I put away the tools and stop the blood flowing from my various wounds, I have to admit it feels good to be able to take care of things as we move our home to different destinations. But there is a daily routine.
Unless we’re in difficult circumstances (a storm) or difficult places (running an inlet or in shoaling areas or dealing with congestion at bridges) we take turns standing watch at the helm. The person off watch does daily chores. And there are the special times in special places or special weather when we just chill out, both of us in the cockpit, and enjoy the ride. However, Mel and I both work — she at photography and art, I at writing. We can do this on the boat unless it’s too rough. Like any job, we must keep up.
While along the coast, we can usually get online with Verizon Wireless and usually have cell phone coverage. We use a Digital Antenna amplifier to give us more range. Of course, calls usually come in when we’re dealing with a storm, a winding passage through shoals, an inlet or something else fun. Most callers don’t quite get it when I try to explain why I have to call back — when I can. As I write this, we’re under way in the Alligator River in North Carolina. We have a 15- to 20-knot southwesterly astern and we’re rolling so much that my pen keeps falling off the desk and my office chair won’t stay put, but we’re accustomed to this.
There is also a routine associated with running the boat. At least every hour I look through the inspection port in the engine room door. I keep the engine room well lit so it’s easy to check for smoke, vapor, spray or anything else amiss. At least every other hour I put on hearing protection and go inside. This is seldom pleasant because of the noise and difficulty of moving around the machinery while rolling, but I consider it mandatory. I check for fluid leaks, loose parts, linkage problems, component overheating (using an infrared heat gun) and many other things. I also sniff around. It’s amazing what sniffing can tell you about what’s going on in the engine room. If I see issues, I deal with them at the time if I can and if it’s safe to do so. Often it’s not. If we have an emergency repair, we shut down, anchoring if we can or just sailing. But usually what I find can be dealt with in the evening and I put it on the never-ending list.
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When evening comes, it’s hardly the end of the day. First we have to anchor. Sometimes we’re at sea on passages requiring overnight running and watches, but this is the exception. As we get older we find that we prefer to relax, have a glass of wine before dinner and get a good night’s sleep. So we plan a tentative spot when we start out and hope to make it, but often we don’t. This means anchoring in another place, perhaps less desirable, but it’s what we do. Anchoring requires the right equipment and the right tactics. We’ve developed ours through many years and we seldom drag. The last I remember dragging was when we were literally hit by a tornado. So once we’ve entered our anchorage, we usually spend 15 to 30 minutes making sure we’re well anchored and that we won’t have to worry about waking up aground in the middle of the night.
With anchor down, I head straight to the engine room and redo most of my previous checking. I also feel for bolts that could have vibrated loose and tighten everything I think might be suspect, including set screws that hold the engine’s alignment rock steady and the set screw for the shaft coupling. Sometimes I have to tighten the stuffing box. We turn on the generator to repeat the jobs it did in the morning. Then we turn to the other evening chores.
One of these is to turn on the anchor light before it gets dark. Tonight, I’ll repair the potable water pump. Its valves are leaking, allowing it to lose its prime. I have the parts and the tools to do the job. Last night I changed the Racor fuel filter for the propulsion engine because I saw that the vacuum gauge was beginning to read a bit high during one of my engine room checks. After running a few days, we’ll plumb the fuel tank. I don’t trust fuel gauges on boats. There’s nothing like a dipstick. It’s critical to not let the tank get too low, especially when we expect to be rolling around. Mel helps me with many of the jobs, and she cooks dinner and the other meals — thank God!
We try to watch the local TV weather and sometimes we look at the evening news for just a few minutes, if we can bring it in, to prepare ourselves for dealing with the world back ashore and to remind ourselves how nice it is to be where we are. We take a last look at the weather outside, look up to the mast top to be sure the anchor light is on and look around to make sure all is as it should be. It’s always amazed us that some boats will come into an anchorage at night and set their hook extremely close to other boats. It’s rude, shows a lack of basic seamanship skills and can lead to damage and even personal injury if the boats swing into each other.
Having hopefully satisfied ourselves that all is well in our special world, both finite and infinite, we go to bed. A porthole is usually open by the bed so we can hear the waves washing past the hull and anything amiss outside. We seldom sleep very soundly because even in bed at night we’re not off watch. Once we were in a well-known and very safe anchorage. Fog had rolled in, and its thick blanket muffled and hid the world. Around 2 a.m., I felt something different. It’s hard to explain. It was a movement of the water — a vibration, a pulsing.
I jumped out of bed and ran up on deck, looking around. Less than half a mile away a huge tug was bearing down directly on us. I could tell by its light feebly glowing through the fog. I got on VHF 13 and started calling out to the tug. The captain came on instantly, his voice quaking. He had gotten off course and didn’t know it. In a few more minutes he would have plowed over us. He veered away, washing us with his wake and the exhaust of his diesels. I always get up around 2 a.m. to check around. It’s a chore, I suppose, but the night sky out here, undimmed by the lights of land, is usually so incredibly beautiful.
Yes, we do have many times of simple enjoyment. We may anchor in a special spot and visit a beach or an island, such as Georgia’s Cumberland Island. In the Bahamas, we spend hours free-diving for conch or shooting fish or lobster for dinner using a Hawaiian sling. And we always look forward to seeing the friends we’ve gotten to know in so many harbors. It’s a hard life, but a very good life. An exceptionally good life. And we do it our way.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” and his two-disc DVD, “Cruising the East Coast With Tom Neale,” at www.tomneale.com.
This article originally appeared in the july 2012 issue.