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My 50 cents’ worth on those 50 years

When Soundings began 50 years ago, I was paying less than 50 cents a gallon to fill the 6-gallon tanks sliding around on the floor of my Glasspar Seafair Sedan. Now it’s going up about 50 cents a gallon every month.

The cockpit of Tom's Tartan 27 served as a bathtub as did his Sportyak dinghy.

Back then, even 50 cents was more than I could afford, but the marinas generally sweetened the deal because a lot of them would let me tie up overnight when I filled up. Sometimes they would let me do that even if I didn’t buy gas. “Why not?” one marina owner told me. “The dock’s here, anyway, and nobody else is on it.”

And there were a lot of other things I didn’t have to pay for. I didn’t pay for a VHF radio because there weren’t any. If I needed to make a call while I was cruising Chesapeake Bay in my little boat, I found a marina, tied up and found a pay phone. They were all over the place because, of course, there weren’t any cellphones. You can still find a marina these days, but you can hardly find a pay phone.

If I broke down out in the Bay, I would jump up and down, wave my T-shirt and holler as loud as I could when I saw another boat or someone fishing on a dock. If nobody noticed me, I’d just wait until another boat came along. Yes, there were flares, but I was always afraid to use them because the gas fumes hovering around my boat were so thick I was scared to snap my fingers, never mind light a flare. The fumes were thick because my huge hunk of a 25-hp 2-stroke seemed to exude the stuff from all of its pores. It was worse than a hot date who had just eaten a garlic casserole.

What weather?

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I didn’t worry as much about the weather because without VHF radios, we didn’t have weather channels with all those alerts. There’s no better alert than a lightning bolt, and I got more than my share of those. I got my weather forecast — it was as much a misnomer then as it is now — by listening to WGH in Norfolk, Va. This was a popular AM radio station that played music, news on the hour (when there was news) and sometimes weather.

Generally the main issue with the weather was whether it was raining, which we usually knew, anyway. Whether it was going to rain tomorrow didn’t seem to matter much. This took a lot of stress out of the day because you got to listen to the music on your little battery-powered AM radio while you were floating around waiting to see when they were going to do the weather.

Another thing I didn’t have to worry about was somebody calling the EPA every time I went barefoot, which was most of the time, so it would have been a real problem. My bilge was usually full of oil and gasoline residue because I would have to pour the gas from 5-gallon jugs into my 6-gallon tanks and mix in the oil. I often had to do this out in the Bay, where it was rocking and rolling, so I’d spill a bit — now and then. Because of this, my feet were usually covered in oil, and when I went ashore at those marinas, I’d leave a set of tracks on the dock. When I waded I’d leave an oil slick on the water.

Now, this wasn’t cool, and I’m not a fan of putting oil in the water (even if it just comes from dirty feet), but in those days we didn’t think about it as much, and the EPA hadn’t been thought of at all. Nowadays I hold a rag under my fuel vent whenever I take on gas or diesel, then wander around for sometimes as much as a half-hour looking for a politically correct place to “properly discard” the rag. But the feet — for some reason, that’s still a problem.

However, stress wasn’t totally foreign to my boating. This was near the time — I’m not going to be too specific as to my age, thank you — that I was beginning college. That’s no big deal, you say, but it was a huge deal to me. It meant that for months at a time I couldn’t be on the water. I couldn’t work on my boat. I couldn’t even see it.

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This was an experience I’d never imagined. The little town where I grew up was on a peninsula bordered by three rivers. The town where I went to college didn’t even have a creek. Being on the water hadn’t been a weekend idle sport for me; it had been, as it still is, a way of life. It has remained so during all these years, but that first time I had to leave the water was like suddenly finding myself on a strange planet with no air to breathe, no sun to shine and no birds to sing.

But I always came back, and I always read boating magazines while away to ease the pain. I have to admit I didn’t read Soundings much in those days because it was primarily targeted for the Northeast. But when a copy turned up, I always studied it because I always dream about the next boat.

Fiberglass and beyond

When this magazine was beginning, I was beginning an amazing and extremely significant phase of my life. It had to do with fiberglass. During the preceding 10 years or so, word of the miracles of fiberglass had been drifting out into rural Virginia where I lived, but I had a hard time believing it was true. How could you possibly have a boat that didn’t rot? I’d certainly never had one.

So that Glasspar Seafair Sedan had marked an amazing departure from soft spots and Git-Rot. There were more carefree days of being on the water and fewer days of resurrecting wood. Unfortunately, this also was the introduction to much greater complications in life. Boats began to last forever. This meant that more people could have them because as they got older and kept floating, they also became less expensive to buy used.

As marketers and boatbuilders began advocating for more and more people on the water, my world began to change. When this magazine was young, there was seldom a problem finding an anchorage with no other boats, or maybe a few at most. If there were others, it was normal to go visiting by dinghy. We made a lot of friends this way. Now when we come up to a boat in our dinghy, we sometimes get the feeling we’re making the good folks nervous. Of course, this could be caused by the fact that our one-off aluminum dinghy is about as ugly (to them) as a mud toad in a goldfish bowl, but we do notice this more and more.

And years ago there was seldom a problem when you anchored in front of someone’s home. I’ll never forget anchoring in Rhode Island’s Kickemuit River for a hurricane some time ago. After we had spent hours rigging our anchors, a gentleman who lived ashore rowed out in his dinghy and offered us shelter in his home if we were to need it and a ride into town for supplies. Today, when you anchor close to someone’s home, it isn’t surprising to find spotlights on the boat at night, boom boxes directed from the house to the water and a visiting local marine officer checking to “see what your plans are.”

And there are more and more attempts at anti-anchoring laws, particularly where it’s warm year-round. I believe part of this is that there are more and more people getting out on the water, but there isn’t more and more water. Correspondingly, there are more and more people building houses on the water, but there aren’t more shores.

As an example of the developing issues, we’ve noticed a growing number of boats hanging on the hook virtually untended. When they sink, the owners forget about them, but the homeowner is stuck with the mess. And the homeowner, like the guy who moves to the mountains and then complains about high altitude, isn’t particularly into boating.

And there seems to be a larger number of boaters who anchor almost in someone’s backyard, living there for weeks or months at a time, hanging underwear on the lifelines, landing in the neighborhood to walk dogs and trying to tap into Wi-Fi. It’s a formula that doesn’t work, and a few people can make it bad for many. But I don’t believe it’s because boaters, as a rule, are more discourteous. I believe the discourtesy of the percentage of those who are discourteous manifests itself more simply because there are so many more boaters. I believe it’s also because we’ve expanded our definition of boats. For example, you’ll never convince me that a Jet Ski is a boat.

More people also meant that boats had to do more things for the people using them so those people would have more pleasure. Over the 50 years of this magazine, I “progressed” from cooking on a paraffin burner that barely melted the fat in the bacon to a portable two-burner gasoline stove that would cook a cow — or blow it to hell if you weren’t careful — to a two-burner alcohol stove that caused a conflagration every time we lit it to a four-burner propane stove with an oven and automatic solenoid shutoff that came in handy one Thanksgiving when the flames engulfed not only the turkey but the stove to a house-type 220-volt electric range with four burners. One thing that hasn’t changed is the food. It’s always been good. Thank you, Mel.

Dawn of the dink

The dinghy sometimes served as a bathtub.

At first I didn’t have a dinghy. My boat was only 18 feet. Today, many dinghies are that long. When my wife, Mel, and I got a 27-foot Tartan sailboat in 1969, we towed a little Sportyak behind. It also served as a bathtub. Then we had an 8-foot rowing dinghy with a 1.5-hp outboard that was particularly difficult to start, especially when I kept dropping it overboard. But in those simple days of little motors, we found a magnet strong enough to pull up that outboard. Trolling for our little engine was almost as fun as catching bluefish.

Our dinghies got progressively bigger until we entered the age of the inflatable. I called them the “poppables.” No matter what luck others had, ours seemed to always develop leaks. And that pump you stepped on was as important as the oars and motor. The big deal there was not letting the dinghy get so deflated that it was too floppy to support the pump while you frantically stomped on it.

Eventually we gave up on all of the manufactured dinghies and did our own. It’s aluminum and has features that we want, including great handling in inlets, heavy load capacity and enough beam and stability that two or more people can climb over one side in a hurry when the shark comes. This latter feature has come in handy on more than a few occasions.

We never pulled our Sportyak aboard. It would have covered half the boat. We pulled our floppies onto the deck, which may have had something to do with the leaks, but on long, hot passages our daughters had a great time sliding down the bottoms while I threw water over them with a bucket. They also used them as swimming pools. Now we lift our aluminum dinghy on a hydraulically operated platform that can be used for storing and launching the dinghy as well as a swim/dive/conch-cleaning platform.

Fifty years ago, about the only water we had in a boat was in the bilge. We never bathed aboard. We jumped overboard. It was fun. On our Tartan 27, we started using sun showers, stooping down in the cockpit with towels hung on the lifelines. It really wasn’t a worry because we were usually the only ones in the anchorage, but Mel was shy — and that hasn’t changed.

When we got our 41-foot ketch, we actually had a hot water tank heated from the engine and an enclosed head that doubled as a shower. These were the days of always-clean heads and eternally wet toilet paper. Our Gulfstar 47, which we began living aboard and cruising full time, had two heads with two separate shower stalls and a bigger hot water tank. Even though we carried 300 gallons of water and caught rain, we still worried about running out because we spent months at a time in remote anchorages in the Bahamas.

At first, we tried the time-honored method of “jumping for Joy.” We’d jump into the sea with a bottle of Joy, which would produce cleansing suds even in the salt water. But the bottle inevitably would float away on the current, and we’d have to go swimming after it, stopping at each of the other boats in the anchorage, asking, “Excuse me, have you seen my Joy?”

Eventually we got a watermaker. It makes a miraculous difference. Now we can make 15 gallons of very pure water an hour for drinking and showering, even washing the anchor chain. We’ve made good, clean water anchored not only in the pristine Bahamas but also in New York Harbor, Newport Harbor and Annapolis Harbor. I can’t say I’m any cleaner now, but I can say that I can take a good shower on a cold, windy day with enough water left over that I don’t have to drink my bourbon straight.

Speaking of bourbon, I never was into drinking it hot. So in the old days, I’d fill an ice cooler with blind optimism that proved to be an exercise in futility about halfway through the weekend. Block ice was the best way to go, but I could seldom find any. I guess boaters, at least where I was, were more interested in ice for their drinks than for keeping food cold.

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Then I learned about shaved ice. It would partially melt and congeal into something like block ice and last much longer than cubes. I “discovered” this standing on the dock of a fish house, watching them load up the holds of a commercial boat. They told me it would infiltrate all the nooks and crannies, harden up and last for at least several summer days. From then on, that’s what I used whenever I could find a fish house. There were plenty of those around in those days.

When we got our Gulfstar 41, I bought stainless steel holding plates and compressors. I rebuilt and reinsulated the boat’s cold box and had a refrigerator and a freezer that was cold enough to keep ice cream hard as a brick in August. All was well until I got my Gulfstar 47 with one of those AC/DC things that looked like a house refrigerator. What mine did best was kill the batteries, melt my ice cream and break down every couple of years.

On my boat now I have holding plates and compressors because they came with the boat, which was hardly new when I bought it. I’m impressed by the new refrigeration units available, such as those from Frigoboat, which are almost plug-and-play and use just a little DC to make a lot of cold. I’d love to have one, but the past 50 years have shown me that, although there are great new products and many great new developments in boating, some things old are still good. And some of the new things aren’t as good as we think they are. For example, there are many folks today rebuilding Glasspar Seafair Sedans because the wood structure under the glass rotted. And then there’s the issue with navigation.

Plotter fodder

The changes in navigation have been dramatic and impressive, but when the new has been used to the exclusion of the old, the results haven’t always been completely desirable. By the time this magazine was born, I had stopped using my Esso road map of the Chesapeake area, although I kept it aboard because it had some good pictures of lighthouses.

I then had paper charts that were so large I could use them for a sail if I needed to. They also cost a fortune. They were difficult to use because my boat wasn’t big enough to spread one out. And I usually had to use a magnifying glass, though not because I couldn’t see well — that came later. It was because they were so expensive I only had ancient hand-me-downs, and they were so speckled with stains, folds and crinkles that I had to be careful to figure whether I was steering for a new buoy or an old fly. I never ran aground steering for a fly, but my boat had a much shallower draft in those days.

Then came chart books. I didn’t think it could get any better. You could open them page by page and follow them down the Bay. Of course, if you forgot to turn the page — or if the wind did it for you — it was still possible to get lost, but even that was soon a thing of the past.

We bought our Gulfstar 47 in 1979 to do some serious cruising with our young daughters, so we went all out and got one of those newfangled Loran units. It even showed the name of the maker’s boat when you turned it on. I was told I could make it show the name of my boat, but I was challenged enough just to turn it on and use it. I’d never have imagined such a thing a few years before. It listened to radio towers and told you where you were. Of course, you still had to plot it on paper, but I’d been doing that for years.

Then came one afternoon I’ll never forget. We were anchored in Biscayne Bay, south of Miami, waiting to cross to the Bahamas the next day. A string of dinghies left sailboats anchored around us, clustering around a “leader” dinghy. We saw they all had handheld VHF radios — yes, these were old hat then — and, being curious, we began eavesdropping on our VHF. The leader had a little portable GPS. They were sounding their way out the shallows of the Cape Florida Channel and writing down the coordinates for deep water so they could find their way out in the dark the next morning.

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We had a GPS at that point, but we’d been going out that and many other inlets for years simply by looking for aids, wave patterns and colors in the water. We left the next morning after it got light enough to read the water and waved at most of them as we passed — most of them were sitting on the shoals, frowning at their notes.

This navigation thing soon became “foolproof,” which was a good thing because there were so many more fools going to sea. Chart plotters were — and still are — the thing to have. We immediately began to see many more boats piling up on reefs around inlets in the Bahamas. It was because they were following their little icon on the plotter without also looking where they were going.

It didn’t take long to figure out that the islands and reefs weren’t always necessarily where a plotter said they were because they were based on charts that were sometimes centuries old. We saw rocks and islands on chart plotters that weren’t even there, which made for interesting landmark issues if you happened to be navigating the old-fashioned way and looking where you were going.

Like much of boating (and anything else) it took a while to get this technology better honed, and it had to do with the marriage of time-honored methods of seamanship and the new gear. An example came with Sarah and Monty Lewis. Exploring the Bahamas in their Mainship 34, they decided to do their own charts. But rather than creating plots sitting in a cubicle, they actually went to the inlets and reefs and anchorages, found the good water and problem areas, recorded where they were using the precision of GPS, and plotted this more accurate info on what they now sell as “Explorer Charts.” The old and the new — it works.

During all of this, cruising boats were getting faster. I always wanted a fast cruising boat, but this presented additional issues. We once saw the horrendous running-gear damage and warped hull of a fast cruising boat that rammed a hard-sand shoal that was about a foot under water. The irate skipper was stomping about the happy yacht repair yard complaining that the screen on his up-to-date chart plotter wasn’t refreshing fast enough to keep up with his speed. I guess slowing down wasn’t an option.

And it’s not an option now for a lot of skippers, or so it seems. As we approach “modern times,” which always seem to recede into the past very quickly, we’ve seen more and more fast boats banging into buoys, bridges, reefs and anything else that isn’t going as fast as they are and isn’t going in the same direction.

And then I wonder whether this is really such a new phenomenon. When I look at the very first issue of Soundings, April 1963, one of the things I notice is a cartoon of a rapidly traveling boat heading for a pile of rocks. The caption is: “So what’s a little mist.” It gives me a good feeling. Maybe, despite all of the changes, boating isn’t really that much different. I also see a help-wanted ad seeking writers. The pay is described as “blue sky and almost no money.” Clearly, some things haven’t changed at all.

May 2013 issue