Skip to main content

Bay Tripper

A taste of the ‘sleepaboard’ lifestyle

A taste of the ‘sleepaboard’ lifestyle

Last month I wrote about trying to find space for sitting headroom aboard my 1962 Sailmaster 22, and how I achieved it by designing and building what I call a “seat box.” Earlier, I had improved sleeping arrangements by inserting two removable boards that “fill” the cabin’s empty middle floorboard leg space to support an air mattress.

Creating space is a continuing challenge on a small weekender, though not for 55-year-old Joe Fernon of Annapolis, who also has a 1962 Sailmaster 22. He has used up all available space on his engineless sloop for storage of various possessions in pursuit of what he calls his “sleepaboard” — not liveaboard — lifestyle.

In an effort to be frugal, independent and have his own quiet space on the water, Fernon has found a way to do it on his small budget. He overnights during the week at his mooring on the Anne Arundel County side of a protected West Annapolis creek (which he prefers not to name).

Most of his worldly possessions are stored in the boat and in a rented garage in town, which incidentally also is his boat shop where he has been building a wooden daysailer.

In winter he moves to a City Dock slip ($110 a month from Nov. 1 through April 15, including electricity), where he plugs in a ceramic heater to maintain an overnight temperature of 60 degrees.

“When I climb on board, the cabin temperature is about 25 degrees, but it’s a small place — boy is it ever a small place — and when I fire up the heater and my one-burner Glomaster butane stove and get a pot of soup going, it doesn’t take long to warm up,” he says. “People ask me all the time, ‘Do you live on that thing?’ ”

Whenever I start complaining about my Sailmaster’s lack of comforts, I think of Fernon aboard his sardine can. “It’s just that I prefer this Bohemian style of life, even though it may seem peculiar to some,” he explains.

On weekends, however, Fernon takes a bus to Towson, Md., to visit his lady friend of 10 years. “She’s a non-boating, house-loving, dirt dweller, but we share a love of contra dancing and waltzing. In fact, I met her at a Baltimore Folk Music Society dance.”

By Monday his other world of music and dancing is replaced by a full-time boating life off the water working in sales at Fawcett Boat Supplies on the City Dock. “I come in at 7 a.m. and have a bowl of cereal in the employees’ lounge before getting things ready for the workday,” he says. Around 5 p.m. he’s off to the garage, finishing a 14-foot sailing and rowing hard-chine tender designed by John Gardner.

“I used to build boats at the Gardner Boatbuilding School when it was in Annapolis, and later taught the stitch-and-glue method,” he says.

Fernon pulls out the Okoume plywood boat on a trailer and works on it outside. He prefers the Tom Hill glued lapstrake method of boatbuilding and MAS epoxy.

“I don’t use the Sailmaster much anymore because I’ve got so much stuff in it, so I’ll sail and row the tender,” he says. This is the prototype for what he hopes will be a small custom line of pretty wooden boats. He plans to drop a second mooring nearby and sail off that.

While working on the boat at the garage, Fernon began talking about how he got to the point of using a boat as a place to sleep and get away.

“During a particularly hectic time of my life — with my then-wife and I working business phones frantically out of our basement, and with four children in school and a marriage in trouble — I got to dreaming about how to get away from everything,” he says.

By the early 1990s they were living in St. Michaels on San Domingo Creek. “It was horses for my wife in the front yard and boats for me in the back yard,” he says. As the marriage began to collapse, Fernon began noting in his diary: “Must find a gunkholer, an inexpensive sailboat I can live on.”

He found the Sailmaster in the water at a marina on the Choptank River near Cambridge. “The yard owner had taken possession of it for unpaid bills,” Fernon recalls. “I was actually looking for a place to stay that very night. I gave him $300 and asked if I could sleep on it for several nights to see if I liked it. I did, paid the $1,200 balance, and that was home for the next eight months.”

Many years later he learned his boat was once owned by writer/photographer Robert de Gast, who circumnavigated the DelMarVa Peninsula solo in Slick Ca’am in 1973, and wrote a book about the cruise. “Western Wind, Eastern Shore,” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975) has since become a classic.

By 1994 Fernon and the boat, now named Joe’s Therapy, had found their way to Annapolis, and he got a job at Fawcett’s.

Back at his boat shop, Fernon takes a break and walks to a nearby deli for dinner — a sandwich. Then it’s time to put the 14-footer away and load his 10-foot pirogue, a flat-bottomed, double-ended Cajun canoe. Off they go in a Fawcett van to a sort of secret public landing at that West Annapolis creek.

He parks the van, carries his 25-pound pirogue to the beach, and paddles to Joe’s Therapy a couple hundred yards away. He ties the pirogue to the stern and climbs aboard the locked sailboat, which is covered by a boom tent. He switches on three little fans hooked up to a solar-powered battery and sort of sorts things out. He is surrounded by “stuff.”

He has a place to sit and read, but mostly he comes here just to sleep in the port quarter-berth, with only his head, chest and shoulders showing. A radio is directly overhead, and an oil lamp is on a galley counter at the head of the bunk. There is a one-burner stove, but he doesn’t cook on the boat in the summer because it creates too much heat.

Shortly after daybreak he paddles back to shore and is off to the City Dock and the public showers, just across Ego Alley from Fawcett’s. By 7 a.m. he is at the chandlery, a short stroll away.

Locked outside is his beat-up Beach Cruiser bicycle, which he uses for daytime errands. He calls the bike Old Number 17, a sentimental favorite from years back when the Fernon family owned a bike rental business in Annapolis in the late 1980s. (There’s a long story for another day here.)

I sailed to Fernon’s mooring the last week of May to observe him paddling to his boat and to check out the cluttered cabin. The interior of my Sailmaster seemed all open space in comparison, especially after I had long ago removed my amidships galley and converted that to open space as a port settee.

Leaving around 7:30, I was tying up at my slip off Spa Creek, a few miles away, when on came a lingering thunderstorm at 8:30. It was perfect seat box time. I closed the hatch, lit an oil lamp, positioned the adjustable Sport-a-Seat cushion, flipped out the box’s folding armrests, poured a splash of Gosling’s black rum, and lit a Punch double-maduro cigar.

I sat there for a solid hour as the rain pelted, lightning flashed, and thunder boomed — doing nothing but looking about and thinking of things to change or move around. I could find no projects after spending 20 years of changing and improving things on this boat. My thoughts turned to Joe Fernon crammed in his boat rolling in the storm, and I began savoring all the delicious “open space” in my own cozy cabin … and then I went home to sleep.

Jack Sherwood is a senior writer for Soundings and is based in Annapolis, Md.