Skip to main content

Dropping the hook on terra firma

After years of living aboard, our land 'resort' is at once a refuge and a strangely unfamiliar place

Chez Nous is right at home behind the Neale's house.

{loadposition position10}

In the early 1980s we had a garage sale. We sold everything in the garage. Then we sold the garage and the house that was hooked onto it. That was a great feeling. We'd been living on our 47-foot motorsailer Chez Nous for some time, and so the house had been a drag. We sailed away to the islands, free of a house and free of worries.

They say you can never go home again. But what's home? Home to us is on our boat, in many waters. But the circle of life brings us both forward and back.

Soon after we moved aboard we found that a new boat got less and less new every day. I started learning new things very quickly. The first thing was that I couldn't call a plumber. And even if I could call him he wouldn't be able to come. So the second thing was that I became a pretty good plumber. I didn't like being a pretty good plumber, but believe me, with three ladies aboard, it was better than the alternative.

And then there were the everlasting problems with my never-lasting Perkins. In my opinion, that particular diesel was the secret weapon used by the British to get even with us for winning the Revolutionary War. While some people called a tow boat, paid for a marina, hired a mechanic and went home until it was fixed, I couldn't afford things like that - not to mention the fact that I'd sold my house. So I learned to become a fairly good mechanic and practiced the black art frequently.

Whenever I had to minister to the beast in the bilge, I had to open up almost the entire living room floor. This didn't make life easy for my wife, Mel, and our daughters, Melanie and Carolyn. And it didn't make life easy for me when I'd be curled around the front end, trying to coax an impeller out of an invisible raw-water pump, and a doll baby would come tumbling down - especially the one with a missing eye. I don't like doll babies with missing eyes. They're spooky, no matter how mature you think you are. They're even spookier staring up with that empty eye socket from the bilge.

The modular house arrives on two trucks that must cross a neighbor's wheat field, with Lloyd Dilday of Chesapeake Homes leading the convoy.

I also learned I had to make a lot of things I wasn't accustomed to making - like electricity. In the house, we just threw a switch and the lights came on. On the boat, I had to check the oil, check the coolant, check the belt, check for leaks, then push a preheat button and a start button and pray the generator would do its thing. This meant I also had to be a generator mechanic - and further disrupt the family living spaces for those ministrations. And the thing didn't exactly purr like a kitten. It sounded more like a garbage truck eating up a dumpster full of rusty nuts and bolts - and then the dumpster, too.

When we were making electricity we couldn't listen to the wind in the rigging or soft music or one another talking. And that generator shook, rattled and rolled so much you could put it on a leash and walk it down the dock. So I used windmills for a while to supplement the generator. But they also made noises - like airplanes taking off into a plague of locusts.

Electricity was just one of the things we started making. The first time we went to the Bahamas, a knowledgeable friend told me, "You'll want to make water." This sounded fine to me because I like to drink beer, but then I found he meant something else.

When we wanted water in the house, we turned on the faucet. In the Bahamas, back in those days, the best water we found was from cisterns and you had to pay dearly for it. The testing methodology involved lifting the lid and looking inside for frogs and snakes. If you saw them swimming around, the water was OK. If they were dead, the water wasn't OK.

I installed a watermaker on board. To run it, I had to get the generator operating. Next I had to create 800 pounds per square inch of pressure on the seawater side to get my 15 gallons of fresh water an hour. When the high-pressure plumbing on that watermaker sprang a leak, stopping it with my newly acquired plumbing skills was like Mickey Mouse trying to stop the broomstick flood in "Fantasia."

The unreal 'real' world

While in the house we were familiar with the "do-it-yourself" concept of home improvement stores. But doing it yourself wasn't an optional Saturday morning adventure on the boat. At first, it was one daily disaster after another and we had no choice. There wasn't anybody else around to do it for us. And worse, you had to guess what you were going to have to do long before the need arose. This was because you had to have the right stuff to do it yourself.

There's a great difference between houses and boats - one that people don't give much thought to. Houses have right angles and straight walls. Boats have a million different curves and bends. If the stuff you have doesn't fit, you just have to make do. I learned to create solutions that bordered on tinkering with the supernatural.

During this huge learning curve, I discovered that when you fix things on a boat, one of the biggest problems is getting to whatever you need to fix. Some builders must have a motto: "Everything you need to fix must be impossible to reach." Even though our boat today is bigger, with better spaces, that problem is worse because my bones and joints don't seem to work quite as well as they did in the early '80s.

A crane gets positioned to set a section of the house on its foundation.

As my mistakes multiplied, I also learned a rather sobering truth about living aboard. When I screw up or if something bad happens, like a lightning strike or a fire, we can't just walk out the front door, stand in the yard and call 911. There is no 911, there is no front yard and there is no front door. We must hang on to our house or launch the life raft.

Does it sound like I'm complaining? Hell yeah. But the weird thing is, I love living on a boat. Maybe it's like being into self flagellation, but it works for me, not to mention a lot of other people.

There are the good things about living aboard, too, such as being able to move easily if you don't like your neighbors, having a differently perfect and beautiful view every day, and a wonderful feeling of detachment from that absurd and often artificial world on the dirt. When you're at sea, this is easy enough to understand. You notice it even more if you're on a river or the Intracoastal Waterway, when you see cars on shore racing down a highway like A1A, because you're reminded that this foreign world exists, although you aren't a part of it. And that's a great feeling. You're in a world with different priorities and schedules in tune with nature.

And an important part of the reason you're apart from the unreal "real" world is that you're able to do all the things I was just complaining about. You're self-reliant and that's a concept long forgotten by many people in the unreal "real" world. And all this adds up to an indescribable sense of freedom in a world of indescribable beauty. It's heady stuff - this living on a boat. And I wouldn't trade it for anything.

But sometimes you need a vacation.

The unthinkable

That's my idea of it, and Mel's, too, but I think she had more ideas than just that. "What're we going to do if somebody gets hurt really bad?" she asked. The minor fact that I've had several injuries that disabled me for a short time may have come into play. Being disabled on a boat is something that's hard to imagine from a shoreside perspective.

"And what if we get sick?" she asked. My 60th birthday may have had something to do with that question. "And wouldn't you like to have a break from running diesels, dealing with sails and rigging, fixing pumps, topping up batteries, replacing switches, fixing electric motors, worrying about dragging anchor, worrying about having no place to hide when lightning starts crackling all around you? Wouldn't you like an occasional break from all that?"

This was all leading to something - something I thought I'd never even consider again. It was leading to another one of those things we sold, hooked onto the garage after that garage sale so many years and so many nautical miles ago. And unlike many other marital dynamics in the boating world, Mel had been a driving force in moving aboard the boat.

"That's just not my way," I said, little knowing that I was wasting my breath.

"But look at all those great seamen - Nelson, Drake, Magellan, Columbus, all the clipper ship captains, all the whaling ship captains. They all came back from their voyages (the ones they survived), got off their boats and went to a house." This was all getting far too serious far too quickly, which is what usually happens when my wife gets a notion.

The house is moored down and weather-tight.

We hadn't had one of those things for almost 30 years. I'd forgotten about houses the day we sailed away from our old one. But we did know a few things. One thing I wasn't going to do was hang around in one place waiting for a bunch of people to build a house. And being particularly sensitive to what the weather can do, neither of us wanted a partly built house getting soaked inside every time it rained. Heck, that's too much like an old boat.

And we wanted a house on a schedule because our schedules depended on seasons and weather - things that are not under our control. Speaking of which, we wanted a strong house because we're intimately familiar with tropical storms, hurricanes and tornados. We wanted, it became clear, a modular house.

I didn't know much about houses, but Mel seemed to have mysteriously picked up a lot of knowledge about them. You can get a modular house that's built inside a large building by people who are regularly employed to do what they do every day - kind of like modern boatbuilding. And there was one very important factor to me: They deliver those things on flatbed trucks, so they have to withstand winds of 50 or 60 mph and serious jarring and shaking - before you take delivery. This type of house was sounding more and more like a boat all the time ... or so Mel told me.

A special delivery

We've owned some land on the water, with a pier, for much of our lives. We'd always felt we could enjoy our freedom at sea more if we had a place to occasionally visit and lick our wounds - a place that was our very own, rather than our own in the sense that the sea belongs to the world. The water at our dock is deep and protected by high land. It is a good place to be in a storm. So we started looking around for someone to build us a house there, for that time in the future when we might need it.

It didn't take long to find Chesapeake Homes in Lively, Va. They've been building modular homes for years, including some modular multistory mansions. This was hardly what we wanted - mansions don't impress me at all - but it was good to know the capabilities of this outfit. And with a loyal clientele and steady work, they were able to keep a steady labor force, so they could even guarantee delivery times. This is nearly unheard of in remote areas such as ours.

Lloyd Dilday is the guy behind Chesapeake Homes. He's on the job every day - very much hands-on. We didn't have to waste a lot of time listening to highfalutin architects. He showed us what he could do. We told him what we wanted and paid a deposit, and he said we'd have it at a certain time. Believe it when I see it, I thought. We were free to sail away, which, of course, we did.

In the early spring of 2005, while our boat was still "down South," we got word that our house was to be delivered soon - on schedule. This felt strangely familiar. It's the way you often take delivery of a new boat from a good builder. We rented a car and headed up the coast the fast way. At 9 a.m. on "The Day," we found ourselves waiting in a partially cleared field on our land - beside a strong, well-laid cinder block foundation - with a host of workers and Mr. Dilday in his pickup truck. Our house wasn't in sight, but we were told it was even then lumbering down the road on two huge trucks. A gigantic crane truck was already on location, capable, I thought, of lifting the Empire State Building.

There was a problem. Our property is far beyond the fabled "state-maintained road." It's down a good ol' country two-rut dirt road with some sharp curves and many trees. There was no way the trucks carrying the two house sections were going to navigate that passage. It would be like getting the Queen Mary through Hell's Gate.

The problem was easily solved with good neighbors, something there are plenty of out in the country. The trucks left the state road well before our dirt road. They proceeded in convoy down a neighbor's lane (much straighter than ours) and then turned left and cut across a large field of growing wheat. After crossing that wheat field, the convoy passed through a recently cleared cut in a dense hedgerow of tall trees and brush and crossed a second wheat field, owned by another neighbor, but farmed by the same farmer. The farmer was there and he had willingly given his blessing for this. He was supposed to tell me the value of the wheat that had been mashed down so I could reimburse him, but he never would.

Seeing the two house sections lumbering through the tall wheat, emerging from the trees and heading to our property on the water was surreal. I couldn't help but think of the many yard operations I'd seen, with huge boats being carried around on Travelift hoists or similar equipment and placed here and there.

Despite the ruts and hollows and stumps and trees and mud, Lloyd Dilday skillfully choreographed the launching. He was a maestro at work. The crane picked up each section, lifted it over to its designated place on the foundation and lowered it. It took just one man, standing at the foundation, to maneuver each house section with his hand so it set down "just right." These sections were complete with plumbing, wiring and even some appliances, like the refrigerator, stove and built-in microwave.

Through the years, my boats have been delivered complete like that, too. The roof halves had been folded down on through-bolted rafters and were easily unfolded and secured into place. By late afternoon the house was not only moored down, it also was weather-tight, more so than some new boats I've had.

We left the next day and headed back to Chez Nous to begin the slow trip up the East Coast. The house wouldn't be ready for a while because we had also ordered a stick-built addition, but we had our home on the water and were very comfortable there, as we'd been for almost 30 years.

Home, sweet home

When Chez Nous delivered us back to the Chesapeake, we went to see this thing sitting on our property. Despite all the boating similarities we'd experienced during the process of acquiring it, it looked an awful lot like a house to me. We went inside. It was cool, despite the very hot weather. Turn on the faucet and water came out without the hammering of a pump. There was no worry about how much was left in the tank; it came out of a deep well. Flick switches and the lights came on without batteries, generator, alternator or inverter.

A storm blew up in the afternoon and we just stood inside and watched it blow. There was nothing we had to do or worry about. We were able to observe the wildness of nature through tight double windows that kept out all the wind and rain. This was definitely weird, I thought. And kinda neat. And gigantic.

By most people's standards, our house would be small. But to us, having lived on a boat all this time, it was huge. It was like a resort mansion after all. You could turn around with your arms straight out and not come close to touching a bulkhead, a mast, a hand hold or anything but air.

The Neales spend more time on dry land these days, but the sea still beckons them.

We set out collecting some used furniture and a few new pieces. Finally, there came the day when we figured we should try sleeping there. We brought overnight stuff from the boat and walked into the house. It was much as it had been the last time we'd left it. And we hadn't done anything to secure it but lock the doors. I didn't have to go about flipping switches and circuit breakers, checking the bilge or looking for dock line chafe.


Through all of our wonderful years at sea, we'd saved a round, low glass table from our old house. In those early days, we sat on cushions on the floor around this table for evening meals in front of the fireplace. We put it in front of the fireplace in this new house. There we had our first evening meal - as in the days before we moved aboard; before we had our two babies; before we watched them grow into precious young women; before we learned to catch our own seafood for meat and to grind wheat for flour to bake our bread; before we learned to fix just about everything that broke; before we fought, as a family, innumerable storms, named and unnamed; before we sailed and motored thousands and thousands of miles in the ocean, bays, sounds and rivers; and before we had rested in thousands of anchorages, beautiful beyond description.

That night, we went to bed. Mel fell asleep fast. I didn't. Period.

Unfamiliar sounds

On a boat you sleep acutely aware. You're aware of noises such as wind shifts, water against the hull, drips in the bilge and machinery coming on. You're aware of the feel of the boat, its balance and its own living noises. A shift in the balance and a change in the night scenery outside the porthole could indicate that the anchor has started dragging and that the boat is sliding into danger. A slap of rigging could indicate rising or shifting wind. Differences in the gurgle of the waves outside the porthole could mean a change of tide and the need for an anchor check. A water pump coming on means a leak in the freshwater system - maybe just the pop-off valve in the water heater, maybe something more serious. A bilge pump coming on means a trip to the engine room, shining light into the bilge water, looking for eddies that could indicate a serious leak.

The smell of shore wafting on the breeze down the hatch, when before there was the smell of the sea, means something's changed and must be checked. The sound of another engine or the smell of exhaust from outside or the thrashing of a propeller transmitted through the water and the hull means another boat is near and you're not protected by the moat of the ocean around you and there's a high alert for danger.

In the house? None of this. I wasn't even sure which was the bow. The whole thing just sat there. It was totally unnerving.

There were noises, but not the kind that had woven the fabric of my dreams on the boat. And there was no moat. The house without the bow had been set down in the midst of trees and thick foliage. Night animals of all sorts lived around us. I could hear them, I could sense them. I knew they were there. They made noises I hadn't heard since I camped in the woods as a boy. Suddenly one would cry out in anguish as a predator snared it with claws and jaws.

And there were the noises I wouldn't hear. On the boat, an intruder would send soft clues. His boat would bump when it came alongside or he would make noise as he clambered up the anchor line. Or the weight of his step from the dock would cause the deck to creak and the boat to shift slightly. I would know. But in the house with no moat, an intruder just had to walk through the trees (albeit a long way) to step onto our deck and the house wouldn't shift or creak. I wouldn't know. So I listened intently all night long, ready for action.

The dawn after that first night found me still wide awake, sweating, starting at every noise and sensation - noises and sensations that wouldn't mean a thing to a house dweller, but were very noticeable to a seaman. It took months and months of visits to this house and modifications to make it more like a boat before I finally began to feel at ease.

I began exploring my new bilge (the crawl space), my mast top (the rooftop) and the attic, and I began figuring out wiring and plumbing systems and learning what was where and why. We installed a Generac generator for the many times we lose electricity and well water because our remote location seems to be below the bottom line for the power company. Now, if needed, we can make our own, as in the boat. And storms have raged around us with no dragging of anchor.

As we spent more nights in the house, I began to realize that it was not only hugely spacious (relatively), but also incredibly easy and comfortable. In a house, you seldom have to do anything but enjoy. Gradually, we began to call the house our "resort." It is that and, in a way, a very special harbor.

Still, I have problems sleeping at night when we're there. The dirt is not the sea and being at sea is something that becomes an inextricable part of some people's souls. I could write forever about the special joys and benefits of living aboard, but that's been done many times. This is a whole 'nother story.

We haven't moved off the boat. We haven't "swallowed the anchor." There isn't enough bourbon in all the world to wash that down. But as time moves on, we find that it's nice to have alternatives to the constant challenges of the sea. We love our resort and we love to visit it when we want a taste of the easy and luxurious life that most dirt dwellers enjoy every day.

But while we're there, even though I've grown more accustomed to the noises, one sound, buried in the psyche, never ceases to awaken me. The sea is always calling us home. n

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, "All in the Same Boat," at

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.