Into the Storm - Chez Nous: 1979-2004

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It was September 2004, and I was driving up the Florida coast to see my sister in St. Augustine. Yet here I was detoured in Fort Pierce, rolling down Orange Avenue toward the water, following my instincts instead of my brain.

It was September 2004, and I was driving up the Florida coast to see my sister in St. Augustine. Yet here I was detoured in Fort Pierce, rolling down Orange Avenue toward the water, following my instincts instead of my brain.

The marinas around Fort Pierce reportedly had lost more than 40 boats in Hurricane Frances. People were without electricity and water for weeks. Roofs had blown off of houses and businesses. None of the gas stations had fuel. Road signs were warped and twisted. I could read some of them, most of them I couldn’t.

Hurricane Ivan was making its way toward the United States, having already swept over parts of the Caribbean. It was projected to hit Cuba, then take a slight turn west into the Gulf of Mexico, but the spaghetti model showed it making landfall anywhere between the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Miami. I was living on my boat, a 1969 Columbia 28 named Short Story, in North Miami Beach, and I’d had enough of hurricane season by September.

I had taken the sails off Short Story for Frances, tied extra dock lines to pilings two slips away, and hauled my dinghy and set it ashore. I’d removed my computer, a few unfinished writing projects, insurance papers, some photo albums and my dog. Everything else I left, not caring about any of my stuff enough to want to save it. I went to a friend’s apartment in Hollywood and waited for the storm to be over.

The people I passed on the streets of Fort Pierce were shell-shocked but seemed to be getting their lives back together, building new roofs and cleaning debris from their yards. I stopped across from the City Marina, not wanting to park too close. I unloaded Stella, my beagle, from her traveling crate in the back seat and walked to the marina.

Chez Nous, the Gulfstar Sailmaster 47 that I grew up living aboard, was supposed to be here somewhere. The new owners had e-mailed my dad after Frances, telling him that Chez Nous (now Sea Fox) had been damaged in the storm and that their insurance company was waiting until the marina cleared other damaged boats so they could move her into a yard for repair. I hadn’t seen the boat since New Years Day 1999, when I moved out for good. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see her now, but something had made me turn off at Orange Avenue and drive down to the water.

Stella and I made our way across the marina, the air oppressive and sweet with dead fish. I felt the dust lodging behind my contact lenses, and my legs itched. There was yellow tape strung across the entrance to the dock office, and beyond the office more yellow tape blocked off the dock. I wondered whether the police thought the tape would really be enough to keep boat owners away. I ducked under it and listened for an alarm or siren or somebody to yell at me and tell me that it was unsafe to be there.

Chez Nous was right on the other side of the dock, with her bow to the marina office. I couldn’t think of her as Sea Fox. There was nothing wrong with the new name, and the new owners had lived aboard and treated her well, but a new name couldn’t erase the 19 years of history between this boat and me.

Behind her, boats were piled on top of each other. A motoryacht, maybe 65 feet, sat with her whale-like belly and one of her props on the neighboring dock. A few of the floating docks had broken up, and wedges of concrete filled the spaces between hulls as snugly as if they belonged there. The scene was like a puzzle, with fiberglass and concrete and twisted metal wrapped intricately together. In the middle of this, Chez Nous held her proud bow over the dock.

Her mast was slightly bent, but she was the most intact piece of fiberglass there. I braced myself, wondering what it feels like to be electrocuted, then reached for Chez Nous’ stainless steel bow rail. I saw no live wires, but you can never be sure. I figured if it was my time to go, then I would have to accept my fate, and I hoped somebody would rescue Stella if I was electrocuted.

Nothing happened. The rail was cold and smooth but not charged. I tied Stella’s leash to it and stepped aboard, over the anchor windlass and around the roller furling gear. I made my way back to the cockpit and checked if the companionway hatch was locked. I knew that going inside would be considered breaking and entering, but I was ready to go to jail if necessary. It was locked. I rattled the padlock and looked around for a key but gave up when a sudden wave of guilt swept over me. This wasn’t my boat. I had no right to be here.

I left the cockpit and went back to the stern, where the worst of the damage was. The stern rail was twisted off, and the starboard davit had been ripped out of the hull. It had been attached with bolts to a heavy backing plate, but the plate had pulled straight through the fiberglass, leaving a jagged hole almost a foot across. My dad had installed the davits the second year we went south, to hold the Boston Whaler tender that we later replaced with an ugly-as-hell but practical and tough aluminum dinghy.

Still, the damage wasn’t too bad. Every other boat in the marina seemed to be worse. The boat right behind Chez Nous had a smaller boat on top of it, the bow pulpit of one rammed into the cabin windows of the other. The damage on Chez Nous was cosmetic, nothing that couldn’t be repaired. I wondered if it would be feasible for me to buy the boat, dirt cheap, and spend a few years fixing her up. But I only had about $100 in the bank, and I had at least two more years of school ahead of me. Stella howled from the bow, and I made my way to her.

Back in my car and on the way to St. Augustine, I called my parents to tell them about the boat, and about how the damage wasn’t too bad. Ivan hit the Gulf Shore of Alabama, bringing the whole ocean with him, and I drove home to Miami only to prepare for the next hurricane.

Jeanne hit the Bahamas and then, when everyone thought she was heading out to sea, where she would lose steam and die, she made a loop, crossed back over her original path, and hit Fort Pierce in the middle of the night. I slept through the storm in my friend’s apartment in Hollywood.

Chez Nous was one of the last boats to be pulled out of the marina between Frances and Jeanne. She, along with several others, was towed out and anchored in a wide, open stretch of water just inside the inlet at Fort Pierce the day before Jeanne hit. There wasn’t enough time to get her to a boatyard.

The morning after, all that was visible was her mast sticking out of the river, snapped in half: Chez Nous’ hull had nearly broken in two as hurricane-force winds pounded against her. She finally had been given more than she could handle.

I thought I would never understand how a boat could live for 25 years, take one family thousands upon thousands of miles, go through so much weather, and then sink so easily and completely. But I must have somehow known what was going to happen when I stopped in Fort Pierce to see her on my way to St. Augustine. I always thought that, since the boat was built the year I was born, 1979, we had a spiritual connection.

But people have limitations, and a towing company can only do so much in the face of an approaching hurricane. Still, why hadn’t they gotten to her sooner? And why had they anchored her in such an unprotected place?

A year later, my boyfriend, Dan, and I stayed aboard Short Story during Hurricane Wilma. We survived, and my boat survived, but Dan lost his Ericson 27, which BoatU.S. declared totaled after pulling it off the shore of Maule Lake and towing it to a yard. A couple months earlier, we’d spent a week in the Bahamas on the Ericson, a tough boat that I felt comfortable aboard in the middle of the Gulf Stream. We weathered Katrina in Bimini, where she was no more than a strong tropical storm. After Wilma, I began thinking of Chez Nous again.

“You have to remember that a boat is just a boat,” my dad said on the telephone. We were talking about Dan’s boat and about Chez Nous, which was sitting in a storage yard beside the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Pierce. She had been pulled from the water and put in the yard, but we had heard she was beyond repair.

“I know,” I said, “but it doesn’t feel that way.”

A few months later, I found myself back in Fort Pierce. This time, I’d traveled to Stuart for work, and Fort Pierce was only a few more miles away. I couldn’t find Chez Nous at first. I parked just north of Port Petroleum and walked across a sand lot to the edge of a deserted quarry before I saw her, sitting in a yard on the other side of the quarry. I backtracked to my car and drove around and into the yard.

Her back was broken. Before, the damage had just been cosmetic — a little fiberglass work would have fixed her. Now there was a jagged tear down the starboard side, and I could look through it into the galley. The streams of rust looked like blood coming from a mortal wound, and the eyelashes that my mom and sister and I had painted over the running lights made her look human.

Two guys from the yard came over in a rusty pickup truck and just looked at me. They didn’t say anything — just parked and looked. After all, there were “No Trespassing” signs posted all over the place.

“Um, I used to live on this boat,” I said. “I lived on it for 19 years. I just wanted to come over and see it.”

“Oh,” said the guy behind the wheel. He scratched his head under his baseball cap and looked at the boat, then back at me. “I guess that’s pretty hard for you.”

“Sort of,” I said.

“Well, you don’t want to go on board.” He made it sound like seeing what was inside the boat would be too difficult, but I knew what he meant. He meant that it wasn’t safe, and that if he saw me try to climb on board he’d come over and chase me off. Fair enough, I thought. It was his boatyard, and I was trespassing. They drove away, leaving a cloud of dust that settled in my eyes. I walked around to the stern of Chez Nous/Sea Fox and looked for a way to climb aboard.

The boarding ladder was hanging crooked, attached with one bolt where there should have been four, and I saw no other way to board. Searching the yard for a ladder would have been too obvious. I wanted to go inside, to see what she looked like at 26 years old, sunk and broken. I wanted to take something with me — a token of a life and a boat that I’d left behind. I grabbed the ladder and hoisted my leg up, but three years of practicing yoga hadn’t made me flexible enough to climb aboard. I circled around to the bow and saw the guys in the pickup truck watching me.

The gash in the bow showed where she had been driven into one of the barges she’d been moored with. The fiberglass was thick here, probably the thickest part of the hull, and the most susceptible to storm damage. Dan’s Ericson had been holed in the same place during Wilma, right at the stem, a place where patches were almost impossible.

I pried a piece of fiberglass loose from the dry laminate and stuffed it into my pocket. It wasn’t much, but it was a tiny bit of Chez Nous, enough to satisfy me. I knew that I’d probably forget I had it in a few days, that it would probably come out of my pocket in the laundry or sit in my car for months, but that didn’t matter.

Maybe the reason I don’t attach myself to material things is that I can keep them alive by writing about them. I hardly ever take pictures, because I trust my mind to remember the details. But this is naïve, isn’t it? My memory isn’t always going to be good. I took a few photos of the running light eyes, rust streaming down the hull like tears, and I got into my car and left.

A few weeks later I was visiting my parents in Fort Lauderdale. I showed them the photos. I’d hidden them up to that point like they were from a crime scene that I wasn’t supposed to see. The same night, Dad pulled out some old photos of the massive blister repair job we’d completed when the boat and I were only 5. No boat at 5 years old should have had the kind of blisters that she had. But we fixed them, draining and drying and filling in each one, and that boat took us more than 3,000 miles each year for the next 14 years.

Seeing the blisters made me feel the same way I’d felt when I saw the hurricane damage. As much as we tell ourselves that it’s just a boat, it never really is.

Melanie Neale, 26, is editorial and events director at Bluewater Books & Charts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Her father, Tom Neale, is technical editor for Soundings.