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Boat Girl

Raised as a liveaboard, she finds ‘normal’ life doesn’t measure up

I was born in 1979 and taken directly home from the hospital to my parents’ Gulfstar Sailmaster 47, Chez Nous. My sister was born two years later and brought home to the same boat. Until we grew up and went off on our own, my sister and I were “boat girls.”

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We didn’t have a house, and we cruised the coastal waters of the United States and the Bahamas while our father, Tom Neale (now technical editor for Soundings and Sea Savvy columnist for the magazine), wrote books and magazine articles about how to raise a family aboard and the ups and downs of boat life. My sister and I were home-schooled through high school, never setting foot in a real classroom until we found our way to college. We learned about life from the challenges we faced every day and from the people we met while living aboard. And both of us would gladly trade our “normal” lives today for life aboard.

I wrote stories and poetry while I was growing up and was a bit of a bookworm. In college, I discovered that creative writing could actually be studied, and I earned my bachelor’s degree in that major from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., and a master’s degree from Florida International University.

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“Boat Girl: A Memoir of Youth, Love & Fiberglass” began as my graduate school thesis and, many renditions later, has finally made it into the world, published this year by Beating Windward Press. I began my grad school journey as a fiction writer and a poet, but the more I tried to fictionalize, the more it became apparent that I had one story that had to be told: I had to write about my life growing up on a boat, to tell my version of a story that many people knew from my father’s words but that nobody knew from my own. And I vowed to be real and honest in the telling because I feel that without honesty and love there is no point in writing at all.

My book spans from before I was born to the present time, weaving in memories that are true but only as reliable as the narrator. The excerpt here, “Smugglers,” is taken from the section of my book about my family’s second winter cruising in the Bahamas, in 1986. In this chapter, my sister and I learn about waterspouts, the drug trade and dragging anchor.


Drug Lord Carlos

“It was in the early winter of our second year in the Bahamas, and waterspouts spiraled down from heavy cumulus clouds. A cold front was coming, and everything in the Exuma chain stood impossibly still, waiting for the lead-black line of clouds that hung over the banks in the northwest. Their bellies, which should have been silver, were lined with turquoise from the light that bounced off the shallow Bahama Banks.

We anchored near the wreck of a DC-3 plane that had been deliberately crashed a few years before we came. We were waiting for high tide so we could take the boat over the shoal and into the protected inner harbor called Norman’s Pond. We didn’t know which would come first: high tide or the wind from the squall line.

“I didn’t want to have to come here,” Dad said, pacing the cabin. He wouldn’t tell Carolyn and me why. Our parents seemed to know something about the place that we didn’t. Flies swarmed around the boat and buzzed through the open hatches and into the cabin. Carolyn and I sat at opposite ends of the saloon table, schoolbooks spread in a mess across the table. Lessons for the day seemed to be forgotten, like something more important than school was about to happen.

Mom paced, too, the fly swatter in hand. “Those flies know we’re in for bad weather,” she said. “See, that’s one way you can tell.” She spoke to Carolyn and me, but her eyes were on the heavy squall line. “Watch the animals. See if they’re trying to take shelter.”

I rushed into the forward head to check on our hamster, Scruffy. When I returned to the main saloon, Dad had gone upstairs to the cockpit. “You girls should come up here,” he said, his voice rattling down the companionway hatch. “You need to know what a waterspout looks like.”

The four of us huddled in the cockpit. Dad handed us each life jackets. “You don’t need to put them on,” he said. “Just keep them by you.”

The line of clouds was closer now and more defined. Mom didn’t say anything. Carolyn and I stared out at the clouds, swatting flies and no-see-’ems in the sticky heat. The twister clouds reached down to the water and then pulled back up into the lead-colored mass. I thought of “The Wizard of Oz” and wondered if a tornado could pick up our boat and set it down somewhere else. I wondered what a Bahamian Oz would look like.

Melanie (center) with her mom, Mel, and sister Carolyn

“The tide should be high at 4,” Mom said.

“And the light’s going be terrible getting into the Pond. Jesus Christ.” Dad was worried. The vein in his neck stood out and pumped blood to his face in rapid jerking motions. “We’re not going to be able to see the bottom.”

“Look at that one. It’s reached the water,” Mom said. She stooped between Carolyn and me so close that I could see the beads of sweat that ran down the strands of her short, sun-streaked hair. She pointed to a twister on the horizon. It was thinner than the others, and it snaked down to the water and ended in a cloud of steam. “That’s where it’s picking the water up,” Mom said. We watched it withdraw as fast as it had formed, only to be replaced by another one farther down the squall line.

“It all starts with areas of different air pressure. That’s why the barometer drops when we get a cold front,” Dad said. The air felt different now. It pressed against my eardrums and made me think of being underwater.

“Behind those clouds,” he said, “the wind is going to swing around and come out of the northwest, maybe as strong as 30 or 40 knots. That’s why we need to get into a safe anchorage.”

It promised to be a bad month weather-wise. There were several other fronts behind this one, all forecast to come through the central Bahamas. My parents had hoped to make it to Pipe Creek before the first one.

By 3, the squalls had moved on. Dad raised the anchor, and we headed into Norman’s Pond. There were people at Norman’s that we’d been told to look up, some friends of the Wittig grandparents, and Mom hailed them on the VHF after we dropped the anchor in the thick grass of what seemed like a stagnant body of water. Maybe it was because there was little circulation back in the pond — water moved slowly through mangrove roots that massed together on the flats all around the island. We’d come close to scraping the bottom on the way in; Dad had slowed Chez Nous to a crawl, and clouds of silt had billowed up in the water behind us as the prop stirred the bottom. Now we were stuck inside, brought in on the full-moon high tide. We’d have to wait until the next full moon to leave.

A man’s friendly voice on the VHF said, “Come ashore when you’re settled in, Mel, and we’ll show you around the island.” Mom said we’d be there in about an hour, and she turned the radio back to 16, the hailing channel.

“So who, exactly, are these people? Buddies of your parents’?” Dad spoke from inside the engine room, where he was checking fluids and looking for leaks and listening to the Perkins. He did that every time we shut the engine off — he called it “putting her to bed.”

“Yes,” Mom said. Her parents, who cruised aboard a trawler, had told her to call.

Dad hoisted himself out of the engine room hatch, which took up most of the space in the floor of the main cabin. When Dad was in the engine room, there was no moving around the boat. Everything we were doing had to be put on hold until he was finished. This was fine if all he was doing was checking the oil, but sometimes he had the floor torn up for days.

Carolyn and Melanie Neale

About an hour later we all piled into the dinghy and motored toward the shore where the man had told us to meet him. From the middle of the anchorage, Norman’s was a pristine and beautiful island. The hills crouched low, as if they were the bunched muscles of some prehistoric lizard, covered with small mounds of green dry palmetto scrub. We headed toward a dock that was barely visible against the shoreline. When we got closer, Dad slowed the dinghy and wavered his course like he was about to turn around.

The dock was in shambles. It looked like a large vessel had rammed into it and torn down several of the pilings. The pilings that remained were slashed across with red spray paint: “Go Away” and words I didn’t understand, crude references to Colombian cocaine that had been trafficked through here a few years before.

A man my grandparents’ age strode down the dock, waving us over. “Tie up and come on ashore,” he said. “Don’t mind all that stuff.” He motioned toward the jumbled dock, which Dad was being careful to circle around. He took our bow line and fastened it around one of the pilings that was broken in half.

Mom called him The Doctor. I can’t remember his real name or his wife’s name, but they drove us around Norman’s Cay in a Jeep and showed us Volcano House, where Carlos “Joe” Lehder had lived in luxury and watched his planes fly in and out at night, loaded with cocaine. This was as much as I could understand at 6. All I knew was that someone famous had lived here and that the walls had been shot up with machine guns only a few years before. The view from Volcano House was beautiful: the endless shallow banks stretching out west from the Exuma chain, aquamarine and turquoise. I didn’t like being inside the house — it felt stuffy and dark, like it didn’t belong next to that beautiful stretch of water.

The Doctor and his wife drove us to their house, which was much smaller than Lehder’s, and showed us the machine gun holes in their own walls. “They didn’t like us being around,” The Doctor said. “If you weren’t on Lehder’s side, you might as well have been dead. We finally left for about a year and let it all settle.”

Nothing looked very settled at Norman’s. I felt like someone was watching us from the shadows. But Lehder was serving a life sentence in federal prison in Illinois, and the only people on Norman’s were a few American expatriates and cruising boaters like us.

The bullet holes and The Doctor’s calm manners made me nervous, and I wanted to get off that island. We were stuck for a month, waiting for the next full-moon tide that would be high enough for us to make it out of Norman’s Pond. Hammerhead sharks haunted the mangroves around the pond, so I didn’t even want to go swimming.

It was a strange time — almost as strange as Rat Cay but less pleasant. The cruisers who passed through Norman’s Cay had potlucks at Volcano House, drinking rum in the tiled rooms and gazing out at the moon-swept Bahama Banks, where the water stretched shallow for miles. I remember noise and fighting. When the next cold front came through, a large motorsailer dragged down on us in the middle of the night, and Dad ran outside in his underwear, yelling at the man on the motorsailer. “I’ve got kids sleeping inside!” He aimed his high-powered spotlight at the man’s vessel, which was bearing down on us fast. The man covered his eyes. Of course, Carolyn and I weren’t sleeping anymore. We had climbed into the cockpit to see what was going on.

Dad walked up to the bow, where the motorsailer’s bowsprit was linked underneath ours. He took a boat hook and stepped on the other vessel, pushing its bowsprit down so that it slid out from under ours. Then he used the boat hook to push the other boat away from ours. It slid by in the night while the wind screamed in from the northwest and chilled my arms so much that my hairs prickled up. The man on the other boat stood on the bow like he couldn’t believe what had just happened. He kept dragging anchor toward shore.

Melanie and Carolyn with their father, Tom Neale, in the Exumas, Bahamas, in 1985.

Dad ushered us below and back to bed, and then he got in the dinghy to go help the motorsailer. Now that it was past us, it wasn’t a threat anymore, and he could help without being worried about his own boat and family. That’s the way he was.

Whenever we anchored, Dad made Mom back down hard at the helm until he was sure the anchor was set. He studied the mud on the anchor when it came back up and remembered the places that had the best holding. And we never dragged.

The space shuttle Challenger exploded off the coast of Florida while we were in Norman’s Pond, killing all seven people aboard. It was Jan. 28, 1986. As with all major news, this information was passed along from boater to boater over the VHF radio, being transmitted through abstract circles of radio reception.

On our last night in Norman’s Pond, phosphorescence lit up the water, caused by millions of tiny jellyfish floating out from the mangroves on the full-moon tide. The black water looked like a meteor shower was running through it. We stood on the deck of Chez Nous and watched, and I felt the boat swinging on the current and knew she was ready to move on.

We never went back to Norman’s Cay.”

December 2012 issue