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Roll, roll, roll your boat

Living aboard is a swinging lifestyle, so to speak, with challenges most landlubbers will never face

I’m sitting here watching that potted plant swing, wishing I had a gun to shoot that thing.

A hammock can help you get that swinging feeling when you're off the boat.

When I was very young, I saw an old pirate movie with long-haired, dirty-looking guys hanging on to the ship’s rails while the camera tilted back and forth to create a rolling effect. My love for the sea was growing daily, and the idea of living on a boat rolling on the ocean swell grew with my dreams. But I didn’t notice the fact that as the camera tilted back and forth, nothing hanging was swinging — only the pirates, and they weren’t always swinging together.

In later, more high-tech movies, I’d thrill to the sight of the pirate ship’s captain sitting in his great cabin while the oil lantern hanging from the beam overhead swung back and forth to the roll, casting shadows into the corners. And I thought it would be really great to sleep ’tween decks as did the crewmembers, their hammocks swinging as the ship creaked and rolled.

I envied that lifestyle. The only swinging they worried about was from the gallows. Now I actually live on a boat. I have for a long time. I love living on a boat. But I’ve got to say it’s not quite like the movies.

We not only have lanterns hanging and swinging from the overhead, we also have potted plants. I never once saw a potted plant on any of those pirate ships in the movies. I assume that when they captured all of those fat galleons full of gold, ladies and potted plants, the pirates did what pirates are wont to do in such circumstances. They threw all the plants overboard.

But my wife isn’t a pirate, and she keeps her potted plants. And worse still, she hangs some of them from the overhead. The only time our potted plant doesn’t swing is when we’re aground. You might think that it would be great to have an indicator like that, but we usually figure it out anyway. I don’t know why our potted plant has to hang from the overhead. Mel, my wife, says we have to hang it because there is no place to put it on the deck or counters. My suggestion to commit it to the deep didn’t fly anywhere near as well as does that plant and the dirt around its roots, every time the wind blows.

But wait, there’s more. For a long time, while our two daughters lived aboard with us, we had far worse than potted plants. We even had a bird in a cage that hung from the overhead. Now, it’s not that I don’t like birds, but I have never had an overwhelming appreciation for the bottoms of birdcages. If you are a bird lover, you may have grown to overlook the bottoms of birdcages except when you change the newspaper or whatever it is you do to get the stuff out. But I want to assure you that seeing everything that’s loose on the bottom of the birdcage sling through the air whenever we hit a heavy sea didn’t do a lot to improve my attitude. The only one aboard who didn’t seem to mind was the bird. He could always drop some more good stuff to get ready for the next big wave.

Whenever I started to melt into a rage over bird splatters on the barometer (and the chronometer and the VHF and the SSB and the binoculars …) Mel and our young ladies would remind me that all pirate ships had birds. This is true, of course, if you believe the movies, but unlike the birds we had on our boat, their birds weren’t sitting in cages swinging all about. Pirates were smart like that. Since they didn’t coop their birds up in cages, there was no concern about slinging poop all over the cabin in storms. The birds were usually demurely sitting on somebody’s shoulder. That’s why pirates had long hair — to cover up the bird droppings on their shoulders. But I digress.

Dark shadows

And then there’s the “trawler lantern.” Chez Nous isn’t a trawler, but we have to have a trawler lantern anyway. We know we are supposed to have one because we see them in all the proper yachts in all the magazines. The problem is they behave a lot differently hanging in a boat than they do hanging in a store. One of the first things we noticed was that when it’s really rough, our lantern can slop kerosene all over the place. I don’t particularly mind that. It helps to mask the smell of the bilge splashing around under the cabin sole.

What I do mind is the lantern’s interference with the “romantic atmosphere” aboard the ship. The swinging lantern doesn’t work the same magic it did in the movies, as the shadows danced around. What bothers me most is watching those “romantic” shadows dance around the cabin while I’m trying to have one of those quiet dinners by lantern light that we always read about in the magazines. “Now you see it, now you don’t” is what I expect when I’m spearing the grouper under water, not when I’m trying to spear it on the plate with my fork. In order to see the food, I have to stare intently as the shadows dance around the table while the lantern swings around over the table.

Have you gone aloft when a boat is rolling? Let's just say it can be an adventure.

We had a friend aboard for dinner one evening who got so irritated that about halfway through the meal he hauled off and swatted the thing. It burned his hand, dumped some kerosene on the salad, and the flame went out. But it kept on swinging. This all has a tendency to make even the toughest seaman a bit seasick during mealtime. And kerosene in the salad doesn’t help either.

There is one benefit to the dark shadows, however: They make it harder to see the small grains of fertilized dirt flinging from the swinging plant, not to mention the aforementioned airborne debris from the swinging birdcage. It makes me really appreciate that drink I had before dinner. And that second drink. And that third one.

We discovered a way to diminish the swing effect of the cage and the lantern. You just tie lines from everything hanging to parts of the boat that don’t move — at least you hope they’re not going to move. Of course, one line won’t do the trick. You have to have at least three going in different directions in order to gain relative stability of the swinging object. So depending upon where you hang your swinger, you may have lines going to the mast, to the hand-holds, to the curtain rods, to the port holes, and just about everything else that is relatively solid.

Walking through a spider web on a rolling boat without getting caught doesn’t come easily. I have a natural tendency to reach out and grab when I’m falling. If the hand-hold is the nearest thing that meets my eye, then that’s what I grab. But if it’s the string holding the birdcage in place, I always end up wishing I had just kept my hands in my pockets as I went down. That way I would have at least gone down by myself.

We do remove some of the lines when the wind and waves abate, but it seems that as soon as we do that, the wind and waves quickly come up again. Conversely, the one way to assure that a storm will abate is to add as many lines as possible to hanging/swinging objects. My suggestion during one storm that we tie lines around the bird as well as the cage wasn’t accepted with the enthusiasm with which I offered it.

We also had goldfish. No, the bowl wasn’t hanging and swinging. We kept it firmly secured to the top of a cabinet in our daughters’ stateroom. But the more the boat rolled, the more the water in the bowl sloshed. That’s the first time I ever saw seasick fish. Once, after we had headed out of Fort Pierce (Fla.) Inlet into a particularly rough ocean, one of the ladies noticed that “Goldie,” one of the goldfish, was missing. We couldn’t figure out what had happened.

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Our first thought was that a bird had swooped in and made a meal of it, but this didn’t wash with the fact that all screens were closed. We looked high and low, but never found that fish — until around a week later after some very hot days in the Bahamas. It was up in the toe of a tennis shoe. It had splashed out, landed in the shoe, wriggled to its place of demise, and commenced to do what fish normally do when they die: stink.

Like a rolling home

I want to stress that Chez Nous is not a boat that rolls badly. She’s actually very stable. The truth of the matter is that all boats roll at least a little. You may not know it, but if your boat is in the water it’ll be rolling some. I’ve even seen boats rolling in boathouses in quiet landlocked marinas.

It’s a bit odd when there’s only one boat rolling amidst the many steady ones, but soon that one boat can have them all rolling a bit. When you live aboard you eventually discover the effects of the constant rolling and swinging, although it may take awhile. Many things swinging around are hardly noticeable at first, because we seldom see them.

Clothes in the hanging locker fall into this category. All the time that you are leading your merry life at sea, those threads are rubbing back and forth in a slow orgy of self-destruction. Lots of builders advertise that their boats have spacious hanging lockers. They need to check out my old three-piece suit and see what a “spacious hanging locker” can really do.

When we moved aboard in 1979 I naturally decided to donate all my suits to a suitable charity — like maybe to some lawyers who hadn’t won enough suits to buy their own. But Mel exclaimed, “You’ve got to keep at least one; you might need it for something. I mean, suppose you die. What’ll we bury you in?”

So ever since then my three-piece thing has been hanging and swinging in our nice big locker. My suit looks just like it did when I hung it up in ’79, except for the holes in the shoulders. Mel still won’t let me throw it away. She says it’ll still serve its purpose if she buys a tight coffin.

Living aboard a rolling boat presents problems that have nothing to do with things swinging because they’re hanging. The issues go far deeper than that. For example, consider checking the oil in the engine when you’re living on the roll. I usually stick the dipstick into the hole at least three times. I use multiple dipstick readings because I am sure that there are tidal surges rolling around in the oil pan and I try to average out the readings to see what’s really in there.

But I’m not good at math (or many other things), so sometimes, when it’s not too rough, I try to gauge the roll and ram the dipstick when I figure the boat’s level. This way, I figure, I’m getting the right oil level reading the first time. But even when I use this method I still worry. I ask myself: Suppose, no matter how upright we were, I actually measured a crest or a trough? I’ve seen waves bounce back off reef, rocks, beaches and even continents. I’m sure those waves in the oil pan are bouncing off the sides of the pan and are traveling tsunami-like across the pan when I dip the stick even on an even keel.

Lest you think I’m overimaginative, I have irrefutable proof that the oil is making waves in the pan. All I have to do is look at the bilge. No, I don’t keep an oily bilge. I regularly add those “environmentally friendly biodegradable” bilge cleaners that do the job as the bilge sloshes. But I have had oil down there — fresh, unused, virgin oil. This is because I store gallon jugs of the stuff so I can make oil changes.

Like the gradual fraying of clothes in the hanging locker, I’ve found that if I don’t use those jugs quickly enough, even though I pad them with towels, their steady, almost imperceptible movement with the roll puts holes in them and the oil oozes out to lubricate my bilge instead of the engine. Clean oil in the bilge is a total anomaly to me, and I didn’t recognize it at first. I finally figured out what it was when I reached for a new gallon and found an empty container and some lubricated parts that hadn’t had the pleasure since the boat had been built.

Lofty ambitions

To move up to the opposite extreme, consider what goes on when you’re hanging from the top of the mast. The top of our main mast is around 60 feet above the water. I have to go up there far more than I like, to do such things as changing light bulbs, lubricating antenna connections and other jobs that the magazines call “routine” maintenance. To me, going up the mast is about as routine as discount bungee jumping. I hate it. I’m afraid of heights. I don’t like hanging from a little line. I don’t like ticked-off ospreys thinking I’m conveniently placed fresh meat. But there’s more.

Even the slightest roll of the boat is accentuated a million-fold — OK, maybe it’s only a thousand-fold — at the top of the mast. And not only is the arc of the swing much greater, there’s also a distinct snap of motion as the pendulum of the mast reaches the extreme of its swing and begins its journey back in the opposite direction. I know that seamen of old went up the mast all the time, but I’m not a seaman of old. I’m just an old seaman. I’m also a coward.

I’m also very practical about hanging around up there. For example, normally when I’m doing a job, I only have to worry about the fact that I know I’ll drop my screwdriver or multitool or whatever at some — or more likely several — points during the operation. When I’m swinging on the end of that stick, I also have to worry about when and where I’ll drop it. I have to decide whether to drop it while I’m out over the water, where it’ll fall harmlessly and be lost forever, or drop it while I’m over the deck, in which situation I’ll probably find it again, down below, beneath that new hole in the deck. All of this requires extreme concentration, and I’m usually too busy concentrating on other things, like whether I’m going to die.

Obviously, I try to avoid going up except in only the quietest harbors. But inevitably, as soon as I get up there, the skipper of some motorboat full of people sees the apparently aberrant behavior and says to all aboard, “Oh, look everybody, there’s a guy clinging for dear life to the top of that mast way up there.” I always know they’re coming because they slow down to just the right speed to throw the most wake, and every head starts looking up.

If it’s all adults aboard, I know what to do, assuming I can unlock one particular finger from my death grip on the masthead. But too often it’s kids and, out of uncharacteristic decency, I just hang on and grit my teeth as the boat commences to circle and circle and circle. The nice skipper always wants to be sure everybody aboard gets to fully take in the strange sight. As the normal rhythmic roll converts to an unceasing series of spasmodic high-altitude sweeps, I stop thinking about where I’m going to drop my tools and start concentrating on whether I can blow lunch on that circling boat.

Tide tables

In case you’re getting the wrong impression, I’m not really complaining. Living on the roll has been great over the years. There are many side effects and even benefits that may not be readily apparent. Take, for example, personal hygiene, and I’m not just talking about roll-on deodorant. When you’re standing in the shower and the spray keeps missing you, it’s safe to figure you’re in some big seas. When you stoop down to wash your feet and notice they’re already clean, you know you’re in some really big seas. And if you leave a dirty shirt hanging under the drip in the shower it’ll wash itself.

If you’re too sleepy to brush your teeth, just hold the toothbrush in your mouth and stand there, leaning over the sink on your elbows. Nature will take its course as you sway back and forth. If you leave your towels hanging on a rack behind your head, you never have to clean the walls back there. If your head leaks, you don’t end up with one of those nasty puddles on the deck around it, unnoticed, until you step in it in the middle of the night. The puddle spreads everywhere and you can’t help but know about it early on.

If you leave dirty dishes in a sink full of water for long enough it’s like you’ve got a dishwasher. You can let your gimbaled stove stir the soup automatically — except, of course, for the slop it’ll swing across the cabin at the bird.

As you may have surmised, continuously rolling sometimes can lead one to drink. (Not me — I was led there a long time ago.) However, the act of imbibing can become much more of a problem because of the fact that you’re always afraid to put your drink down because it might spill. Thus, there is the naturally occurring tendency to chug it all immediately, since it’ll be a bit less likely to ruin the carpet once it’s down the chute.

On Chez Nous we’ve learned a method of dealing with this unfortunate issue. When we do put the drink down (eventually), we always put it in the middle of the table. This is because a most interesting phenomenon occurs when the drink spills in the middle of the table. Normally, you must jump up as soon as it splashes out and grab a towel, a shirt or anything to wipe up the liquid before it runs off and onto the carpet. But when you’re rolling around with your glass in the middle of the table, this usually isn’t a problem. The liquid won’t run off. It’ll just keep washing around and around on the table. The boat swings to port, it runs to port; the boat swings to starboard, it turns around and runs back to starboard. We call this the tide table.

There are many other tricks of the trade for living aboard that enable you to take advantage of rolling and put it to some good use. Instead of buying one of those expensive oscillating fans, you can buy a cheap one and loosen its mounting bracket. It’ll oscillate all by itself. You can hang up a hand of bananas by a line attached to the stem, and the flies will be afraid to land on them. If it’s rough enough, that hand of bananas will terrify the whole flock, and they’ll head to another boat.

You can set up a motion-sensitive burglar alarm and leave the boat in the comforting knowledge that any burglar will know there’s already a burglary in process on board and, thus, move on to virgin territory. If you’ve got guests you’d like to persuade to go home, you can put a few marbles in a box and hide it in a cabinet in their stateroom. If that doesn’t work, you can turn a heavy can of food over on its side, deep under their bunk. When they ask about it, just tell them it’s the cockroaches.

Rolling windows

Contrary to what you may have already surmised, with the right tactics, rolling can actually relieve stress. My daughter, Carolyn, is training to be an excellent first-class yoga instructor. From her, I know that graceful motion can be a very helpful thing to improve one’s life. The problem is I couldn’t be graceful even if I kissed a frog and turned into a princess, which is probably what would happen if I kissed a frog. But I do know that when I’m feeling stressed I can sit on the aft deck looking forward and hypnotize myself watching the boom swing back and forth. And when I’m feeling too positive about things, I can sit on the bow looking aft and watch the sail cover rubbing a hole in the top of my Bimini.

But there are some problems I just can’t overcome. For example, I spend lots of hours sitting at my computer writing. It’s what I’m doing right now. And it’s impossible to find an office chair that’s comfortable enough to use for hours of typing that doesn’t have rollers on the legs. You can take those rollers off, but the legs aren’t meant for that, and the sharp edges can punch holes in the floor. On a boat, that’s not a good idea.

So I’ve had to learn the fine art of typing while gently — sometimes not so gently — rolling about in a chair. I could try to type with just one hand and hold on to something stable, but when we’re in large bodies of water (like the Atlantic) I have to use that other hand to hold onto the monitor. And then there’s this thing of laying down your ballpoint pen. Every time you do, the pen takes off on its own, ending up in some out-of-sight crack or crevice. But rolling can provide some relief even in this stressful work environment.

When the problems of an office on the roll get to me, there’s a game that always relieves a bad day. You can have all sorts of fun just leaving the computer mouse on the desk while you’re rolling and watching the little arrow bounce off the sides of the monitor. If you really want to have some fun, take your bird out of its swinging cage, put the bird on the desk with the mouse, and let him chase it around and pounce on it and watch Windows do stuff Bill Gates never dreamed of.

Starry-eyed dreaming is, I suppose, what first got me into this lifestyle, not to mention my unquenchable love of the sea and its eternal certainty of change. It’s been a good ride, and it still is. As I sit here watching that potted plant swing …

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 April 2009 issue.