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On Sailboats - Romance

Of starry eyes and empty pockets - When romance and reality butt heads, reality wins — but for the lapsed liveaboard, there’s always tomorrow

Of starry eyes and empty pockets - When romance and reality butt heads, reality wins — but for the lapsed liveaboard, there’s always tomorrow

The boat heeled to the breeze, in perfect trim and nicely balanced. I worked the helm and the sheets, occasionally ducking under the boom to check for vessel traffic. But that day I didn’t have to worry. It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon on the Oakland Alameda Estuary, and nobody was out. Just me, playing hooky.

Since I am self-employed, it wasn’t difficult to convince my boss that I deserved a few hours of reprieve after a couple of hectic weeks. There was a window, and my boat was calling. Too many times I have ignored that call, but not today. After all, isn’t this why I bought this beautiful specimen of a Nordic Folkboat? Tough enough to sail the rough, but also small and simple enough to cast off for a solo jaunt when the mood strikes.

Ten minutes by bicycle was all it took to get to the dock. Another 10 minutes to get her ready, and soon I was disconnected from the daily grind. Tacking up the narrow waterway, I let wind and waves work their magic on mind and body. I was a kid again — no responsibilities, appointments or deadlines. This was the lifestyle I wanted; this was the boat I coveted. Reason to be content.

A cautionary tale

Years later, battling the gale-force gusts of a nasty nor’easter, I was rowing a flat-bottom inflatable, trying to return to the cutter that was dancing at her mooring amid hissing whitecaps in the frigid Newport, R.I., harbor. Sonata was 50 yards out and 100 yards to leeward of the fuel dock. “Buddy, if you miss her our next stop will be Bermuda!” bellowed Commander Shaw, who was in the bow, ready to jump back aboard his ship as soon as we were close enough.

David Shaw, friend, fellow writer and intrepid coastal cruiser, had invited me for the second leg of this passage, a 350-mile trip from Perth Amboy, N.J., up Long Island Sound and then on to Southport, Maine. It was a plan we’d hatched a year before, and now it was time to make good on promises.

The inflatable careened downwind, out of control. For lack of a pronounced keel, it didn’t track, and not even the most accomplished oarsman could have changed this reality, because the following gusts easily exceeded 30 knots. The outboard was dead because the boat had been blown around like a kite and capsized the night before, submerging the little 3.5-hp Mercury in the process.

Luckily, we had enough searoom to work with, so we managed to tie up at the mother ship and repair down below to wait out the storm. “Welcome to the reality of liveaboard cruising,” Dave remarked sarcastically once we had settled in and the heater had reached warming strength.

His trip had started in New Bern, S.C., two weeks earlier, and it had been anything but smooth sailing, even before I stepped aboard. He was miffed because he had to deal with thin water, submerged stumps, hurricane-strength crosswinds and malicious bridge operators on the Intracoastal Waterway. The real trouble, though, was that he was forced to be on a clock. Not his clock, not nature’s, but the schedule of his respective crewmembers — land-rats all, with cell phones, computers and deadlines.

Another thing getting to him was Sonata, the spiffy Pearson 367 that once was his dreamboat for cruising with his wife, Liz. After four years of ownership, more than a few thousand dollars worth of improvements, and a year into his new existence as a full-time cruiser, the boat had begun to feel like an albatross around his neck, simply because his life’s goals had changed and he no longer had the Zen to deal with the little things that went wrong. I knew, because he did what no boat broker wants a client to do: He added up boat dollars spent and divided them by hours of use.

In this particular case, a malfunctioning engine had forced us to put into Newport, where Dave immediately felt someone else’s hand in his pocket. There was the diver who took $100 to determine that the propeller shaftwasn’t fouled by a lobster pot. The marina hit him for $30 per day (off-season rate) for the mooring. But it was after the gaffe with the dinghy that he’d had his fill. No wonder he concluded the place had “bad mojo.”

By the time Dave turned the outboard over to a mechanic a week later, the innards were hopelessly corroded. The estimated replacement cost of the little 2-stroke didn’t sound like a fortune ($500-plus), but to a guy whose heart was no longer in it, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. No self-respecting cruiser goes about business without a reliable outboard on the dink. To add insult to injury, the culprit for our forced stopover turned out to be a new but faulty fuel filter, which he replaced in no time by using an old but unused spare. So when the weather finally calmed down and allowed us to continue our delivery, I had the creeping suspicion that I was sailing with a soon-to-be ex-cruiser.

Romance vs. rationale

Dave was coming full circle, from sometime cruiser to wage earner to full-time cruiser — back to what? Homeowner. His was a cautionary tale for my own sailing plans, which have to fit with a constantly changing lifestyle, taking into account what could be and what never will be.

We were working at the same sailing magazine when he decided to ditch 9-to-5 to live the dream, rather than edit manuscripts submitted by other people who were doing it. Though hampered by extreme nearsightedness since birth, he had cruised before on a smaller boat and had caught the bug. “I had stars in my eyes,” he’d say, admitting that the romance always has been stronger than rationale.

“It’s a zero-sum game,” he told me time and again. “What I make is only enough to pay the bills as long as I have to live on land, where everything is expensive. But what’s worse is that there isn’t enough time to take summers off to go cruising.”

Sonata was the platform he and Liz had chosen to give the snowbird life a whirl: six months under down South, the other six Down East. He’d continue to write for magazines and revive his career as a book author; she’d enjoy the itinerant version of retirement for a while.

Sharing the same alley in cubeville, we often found ourselves around the same table, discussing the transition from a “pink job” (the editor’s lot of pushing paper, collecting and filing information) to a “blue job” (skippering a yacht through weather, fair and foul). I was happy to give him a hand by hauling stuff to the boat, which was on the hard at Brewer Sakonnet Marina in Portsmouth, R.I., and by sanding and painting the bottom and brushing on some Cetol where the brightwork needed it. It was, I surmise, not an entirely selfless act but an attempt to live vicariously through his experience, since the page that says “gone cruising” has yet to materialize on my life’s calendar.

By June, Sonata was ready, and the Shaws were, too. With their gear stowed, the larder stocked and liquids bunkered, they cast off, turned south and headed down the Sakonnet River, up Buzzards Bay and on through the Cape Cod Canal, eventually arriving at Southport, where Dave had rented a mooring at Boothbay Region Boatyard. The plan was to hang out in Maine for the summer and dodge the worst of winter on the NeuseRiver in New Bern, N.C. The first year was mapped out, and nothing short of sickness or death would be able to spoil life aboard the cutter.

Swallowing the hook

But things turned out differently. Writing without permanent Internet access and wearing earmuffs to block out boatyard noise proved a bear. And wintering in the Carolinas in a fiberglass boat was a test of resilience. Access to the earthly possessions packed in boxes and in storage someplace else was taxing. Doing the snowbird trek twice a year was a drag, too — hustling crew, sometimes competent, sometimes less so; keeping to a schedule and covering the expenses; dealing with the cruising crowd that had a different lifestyle, more money and perhaps an attitude he found difficult to appreciate. It’s hard to be friends with the rich when you are not.

It boiled down to this: He sold Sonata at a price that was just a penny above painful, swallowed the proverbial anchor and bought a house with a yard in South Carolina. “Who’d have thunk I’d be worrying about watering my lawn and trimming hedges when I used to deal with defective impellers, clogged heads or a leaking stuffing box?” he’d ask, trying to find humor in his situation.

Is he cured? Are you kidding? Give him a year or two to “forget” and put aside a few bucks, and he’ll be trolling the Web and the classifieds again, his starry eyes seeking out the next dreamboat.

So how did my Tuesday afternoon on the estuary end? On the way in, scooting downwind wing-and-wing with the jib poled out, I was hailed by two women who stood on the dock of a waterfront restaurant in business attire: high heels, dark jackets, long skirts, dangling baubles. They had just finished lunch and had seen me sail by, so they decided to ask for a ride. I was flattered, but I declined. This was my day on my boat, cube-villagers be damned.

But soon enough, the tables would turn on my lovely vessel and me. A new job out of town, a mega-commute to mega-cubeville, time away from family, a new school for the kid, ambitious gardening projects for the first mate, and getting annoyed with the constant hustle for competent crew. My Volksboot was holding up her dock lines more than I was willing to tolerate, and the upkeep dollars eclipsed the fun hours. She was going on the block. Sound familiar? Well, Dave, here’s to us and all the other romantic fools, ready to learn from old mistakes but eager to commit new ones. If we’d all been satisfied with our first boat, we’d still be sitting in a Dyer Dink, an Optimist, a Sabot. But that’s not how this game works. People like us are always in it. Even if we are boatless or loathe our current vessel, we’re always thinking about the next one.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings. You can order a signed copy of his book, “The Folkboat Story” ($35, plus shipping) by sending an e-mail to (put “Folkboat Story” in the subject line).