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Sea Savvy - lessons learned from a life on boats

The sea is a teacher, and this student has spent some time in the classroom

The sea is a teacher, and this student has spent some time in the classroom




 The author learned most of his lessons the hard way, including this one about wood boats and crabs.

I got my first boat at age 9. In the 53 years since then I’ve had between two and three dozen of the things. I even have several today. You’d think I’d have learned better … you’d think. I don’t know whether it’s stubbornness or stupidity, but I still love being on the water. And the sea has reciprocated in its own way. After all, it hasn’t swallowed me up yet. And it’s even managed to force feed me some lessons, a few of which I’d like to share.

Hurricane Hazel was headed our way, piling water and waves up the York River of Virginia. It was a time to save souls and to save boats. I loved my boat. She was a 12-foot skiff built by Uncle Ernest, who lived on a farm up the road. She was a year old, and I kept her anchored off a small, very exposed beach. I couldn’t begin to afford a dock.

People raced about, pulling their boats to safety with trailers, pickup trucks, tractors, horses and mules. I was only around 10 years old and didn’t have any of those things. I searched until I found three water-soaked logs in the marsh and dragged them to the beach. I pulled the bow of my skiff up onto the sand, got it up on a log, and pulled it until I could get first one and then another log under the keel plank. I continued to pull it up the beach and onto the grass. As one log popped out astern, I’d stop, go back and pick it up, put it in place at the bow, and start pulling again. After a couple hours of the boat was all the way up into Main Street, far above the reaches of tides from all known storms.

Our town, like most, had a guy we kids all perceived to be the “rich man.” Mr. Browning was a nice guy with a large boat and a very long dock known, of course, as “Mr. Browning’s Dock.” I envied both with passion. For the storm, Mr. Browning’s boat was taken upriver to a deep creek in the marsh. Mr. Browning’s Dock was far down the bank from the beach and of no concern to me. It was one of those things that had always been there and I figured always would. But I hadn’t seen a hurricane like Hazel before.

The storm demolished Mr. Browning’s Dock, plank by plank, beam by beam, pole by pole. And rather than pile the thousands of pounds of debris on the shore at the foot of the dock, the swirling water washed it down the shore, straight for the little beach where the waves were crashing into Main Street.

When I rushed to check my boat during the lull while the eye passed, I couldn’t see a single piece of it. All I could see, piled in a jumbled heap, were the timbers, beams and pilings from what had once been Mr. Browning’s Dock. They were in the very spot where my skiff had been lying on her logs.

After the storm I sorrowfully returned to the mountain of timbers. I peered inside and, to my amazement, began to make out, far down in the twisted shadows, the outlines of my boat. I started frantically pulling the boards off the pile, one by one. Other people came and helped when I told them what was below. After a lot of work, she emerged. The oar locks were crushed through her side decks, and some paint was gone, but other than that she was fine. As I pulled her on the revolving logs back toward the water, someone told me that Mr. Browning’s boat had broken her mooring up the river and was sitting high up in the marsh, badly damaged.

Hazel and the river bought me two lessons:

1. The sea is a great equalizer. It does its own thing, regardless of the control we presume to have.

2. Even little boats can bring big happiness.


When I was around 11 years old I decided to go into the crab business. I knew crabs liked rotten meat, so I went to the grocery store and asked Mr. Miller if he had any to let go for cheap. He gave me a deal: I would have to carry it away myself — not an easy task when your only means of rapid transport was a bicycle. I didn’t have to go far, which was a good thing because the flies were catching up no matter how hard I peddled. I loaded my crab pots, set them out along the bank line, and didn’t catch a thing.

Remembering from school that Messrs. Rockefeller and Vanderbilt didn’t stop at their first disappointments, I got another load of meat and decided to be more proactive. I dumped it into the bottom of my boat to let it ripen a bit. Already into red ink from the crabbing business, I had to go back to cutting grass for a while. We’d had a lot of rain, and the neighborhood ladies were anxious to pay a quarter or two for the job. A few days later, I remembered the meat in my boat.

As I approached the beach where she was anchored, the onshore breeze carried unmistakable proof of my success. As I waded out, the smell got so bad that I had to duck my head under water every minute or so. The boat, what you could see of it through the flies, was enveloped in a thick haze of stink. I finally dove under, swam to the stern, reached up out of the water, pulled the drain plug, and swam away.

A week of being sunk in the muddy river cleared the boat of all the meat and most of the smell. The boat was sunk to the gunwales with waves freely washing over, but she was wood and afloat enough so that the tops of her sides peeked through the surface. Standing on tiptoes on the bottom beside her, with bucket in hands, I bailed furiously enough to get more water out than was coming in over the sides. As the water level receded in the boat, I saw that a crab had gotten in, not to mention a few fish. The crab was happily gnawing on one of the latter. Thereafter, my crabbing business and confidence in small-boat ownership picked up considerably, for I learned two things:

1. Basic seamanship skills aren’t necessarily complex — you can even raise a sunken boat with a bucket if the boat is wood and you love her enough.

2. Crabs like fish better than steak — things that make sense ashore don’t necessarily make sense at sea.


By the time I was around 14 years old, I had an 18-foot wooden boat that took me to the far reaches of the sea: the red buoy. This was a floating red nun at the tip of the shoal far off that beach, where the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers met. It was so far away you could barely see it, and it was the ultimate goal of any kid who wanted to go to sea. Just getting there would be an amazing feat of seamanship.

One afternoon a friend and I took off from the beach rowing, determined to round that “cape.” We sat side by side, each with an oar, because we knew it was going to be very tough going. But the red buoy grew in size far more rapidly and with much more ease than we’d expected. Before we knew it, we were racing past it, as were about 20 million trillion gallons of water heading out to Chesapeake Bay.

Eventually we were able to turn the skiff around and started pulling laboriously back to the beach — the beach where I had left my little brother Bill, whom I was supposed to be watching for my parents. Fortunately, my brother Al — two years younger than me and obviously more reliable — was there to fill in, having been assured somewhat optimistically that we wouldn’t be gone for long.

My parents weren’t sympathetic to my blisters, sunburned back and parched throat when we finally landed several desperate hours later. I learned a couple of things from that experience:

1. If things seem to be going really well at sea, figure that you’re missing something, like forgetting about the current.

2. When you go cruising it’s often a good idea to take your family with you.


A few years after the buoy incident, I had an 18-foot skiff with a home-built cabin on the bow, and I’d graduated to cruising true far reaches. I cruised all the way from the head of the York River, up the Chesapeake, to Tangier Island. There was no VHF weather; there was no VHF. And the island had no televisions that I knew of, so I left for the return trip with only my then-experienced weather eye telling me it was OK to head south down the Bay.

The norther that blew through that morning spit into my “experienced” weather eye with a vengeance. It also piled up huge seas tumbling over themselves against a powerful incoming tide. My boat slid down breaking mountains as I carefully worked the wheel and throttle to keep from broaching. The next moment the boat would struggle to climb up the back side of a wave, the old outboard laboring and coughing, clearly desperate to avoid being submerged for what would have been a fourth time.

The coughing grew more pronounced somewhere south of the Rappahannock River. (There was no GPS or Loran then, my waterlogged charts had torn and blown away, and I could only occasionally see land when on the mountaintops.) I had made the trip to Tangier with a full load of gas and reached the island with about half left. I had refilled all my tanks on Tangier, so I knew I couldn’t be out of gas. I was wrong.

As I wondered whether I’d sink bow- or stern-first, I suddenly saw from one of the mountaintops a large Coast Guard buoy tender slogging north and rolling gunwale to gunwale. Running on fumes, I headed to her, noticing as we closed that a couple crewmembers were hanging over the side throwing up. Heading for the other side, I looked up to the startled faces on the bridge, the officers mouthing something probably like, “You gotta be kidding me. Where the hell did he come from?” And, “What on earth are we going to have to do to save this nut?”

For a moment they seemed to just stand there, numbed, when I yelled up over the wind, “Hey, can y’all sell me a little gas?” As we lurched side by side they slung over a couple of jugs. When I reached into my jeans and brought out some soaked bills, they yelled, “No, no, and just keep the jugs, too.” They rolled away in spumes of spray.

I headed for shore and found a nice creek in a marsh, where I slept for the night as the wind gentled to an early morning breeze, leaving only some lessons learned as reminders of the storm:

1. Travel by sea isn’t horizontal. The distance between the same two points can change when you start going up and down as well as forward, and when the tide runs against you.

2. One of the few government agencies I’ve always felt has given me good value for my tax dollars is the Coast Guard.


One of the sweetest boats I’ve ever owned was a Tartan 27 that my wife, Mel, and I bought very used in 1969. She was our first Chez Nous and probably was the only boat named Chez Nous in those days. She also was my first sailboat with a cabin, inboard engine, enclosed head and galley. In other words, she was a big, tough sailboat made for “bustin’ down the Bay.” I knew the expression from the Chesapeake Bay folk songs that the cool local entertainers sang in the cozy bars in Annapolis, St. Michaels and a few other areas where singers could go without getting too wet.

The concept was that you’d get a good norther, put up your sails, and head south like the buccaneers. (The singers for some reason always were Yankees and never thought about getting a good southerly and heading north.) I liked beer-drinking ballads about the Bay. Mel did too, though with a bit less enthusiasm and a bit more skepticism, which was one of the reasons she wasn’t totally on my side one early morning in late September when we put out of an anchorage near the Potomac to head home with the wind starting to rise from the nor’west.

Just like in the songs, the wind kept “arising” and the waves kept “abuilding.” The day, I suppose, could have been said to be a “glorious day for bustin’ down the Bay,” if you were a singer, safely in a pub in Annapolis or St. Michaels. These things depend upon one’s perspective, and the perspective of the warm, cheery pubs wasn’t shared by Mel, as she told me … numerous times.

“Let’s hoist up the sails,” I said. (“Hoist” also was a word oft-used in the ballads.) And we did. The first thing to “bust” down the Bay was the tiller. It had been a nice tiller, beautifully varnished — “strong as an ox in springtime,” I suppose the singers would have said. After nearly capsizing, freeing sheets, and enduring general mayhem for more than an acceptable period of time, I finally found a spare tiller and bolted it on. It had been broken before — evidence, I assumed, of the previous owner’s love of music. We continued our “bustin’ ” with Mel hunkered down deep in the cockpit, knees drawn up under her chin and with a less-than-happy look on her face.

It was less than an hour later when she had to get up to help me put in some reefing. If you’ve listened to any of the “bustin’ down the Bay” genre of songs, you know that “reef” is another word that’s always prominent in the lyrics. So my pride wasn’t hurting too much as we began to shorten sail, even though Mel had been telling me for hours that it needed to be done.

With Mel trying to hang on to the sheeted-in boom and steer while I tried to gather the belly and pull the reef lines tight, a huge comber broke off the port quarter and sent us into the beginning lunge of a pitchpole — a word that I hadn’t heard in any of the songs. Mel had to shift her stance, and she planted one foot squarely down on the bubble top of the compass. It had been a nice compass, very expensive, with a shatter-free plastic dome.

The shatter-free plastic shattered freely all over the place, followed by the light but very slippery dampening oil the dome had contained. It wasn’t enough oil to calm the waters, but it was plenty to turn the deck into a skating rink. It would have been nice to have the compass, just for encouragement, even though we had been having a tough time steering where it told us to go.

Despite all of this we got down into the mouth of the Poquoson River, where we were to dock. By then the wind had shifted a bit more north-northeasterly and was funneling down the river like a flash flood in the Grand Canyon. It was all we could do to hold onto the hilt of the tiller and keep course. We were afraid to hold onto the end of the tiller because it was showing signs of cracking, which is why we both looked at the tiller when we heard the crack.

But the tiller was fine. For a brief second of relaxation we assumed we’d just imagined the crack, until we heard the knock. It wasn’t just a little knock. It was like a giant wanted us to open the door so he could come in, and that giant happened to be under water and was getting very unhappy about it. Every time the boat rolled, something hugely “bonged” on the bottom of the boat. (I don’t remember hearing that word in any of the songs either.)

In addition to the sound effects, we immediately noticed that the boat was behaving very erratically and had become extremely difficult to steer. For some reason I looked at the pendant for the centerboard. I don’t know why I happened to look at that; I suppose it was because I didn’t have the nerve to look Mel in the face. The pendant was straining and jumping like it was hooked to — well, actually, like it was hooked to a thoroughly ticked-off wet giant. I raced down below to take a look at the centerboard trunk and, as they say in the hero novels, my worst fears were confirmed.

The centerboard had broken loose from its pivot pin and was hanging below the boat, tethered by its stainless steel wire pendant and crashing into the hull every chance it got. I didn’t have any tools to cut the pendant — I do now — and I certainly couldn’t dive and bring up the lead-filled board in all that sea anyway. We could do nothing but continue on, wondering how much draft we had gained and at what point the thing would be “bustin’ ” through the hull. Despite the awkward appendage, we somehow got to the dock, dragging it through the mud. The glorious day had ended.

Among the various and sundry lessons of the day, two stand out:

1. If you think the sea is like the cute ballads you hear in the cozy pubs, stay in the pubs and off the boats.

2. If you do go to sea and want to stay out of trouble, listen to your wife.


By the mid-1980s I was on a much larger boat. She was a 47-foot Gulfstar Sailmaster motorsailer, and she was our family home. Mel and I, along with our daughters Melanie and Carolyn, were making our way up the East Coast after wintering in the Bahamas. Our hope was to put into Beaufort, N.C., beyond Cape Fear but southwest of Cape Hatteras. We’d been out several days and the weather forecast, as night closed in off South Carolina, was perfect for the rest of the trip. But as the world got really dark, as it can only do in the wilderness, we noticed sudden faint flickering areas of brightness ahead.

Moonless nightfall at sea always brings a hint of watchful uneasiness to me. Feeling low humidity on my skin, seeing stars along the entire horizon, and rolling with a familiar, stable sea pattern always makes me feel better. Lightning ahead doesn’t. When you’re some 75 miles offshore in a slow boat, there’s nothing much you can do about an approaching storm, except get ready, sit there and hope it isn’t going to be bad. But the air had begun to change; it didn’t feel right.

I turned on the VHF, hoping to bring in some weather. Surprisingly, we got some from the Wilmington area, and it said all was good: high pressure and light winds for a couple more days. We probably were seeing one of those small, temporary storms where cool air passes over the Gulf Stream — or so I told myself. But the flashes of lightning grew more frequent, brighter and higher up. We cranked up the SSB for high-seas weather in the area and got the same story of perfect conditions. I settled in at the wheel in the enclosed cockpit, wondering what the real story was.

As the blackness turned into long hours, I decided on the ultimate test, the one I hated to do because it was, in my mind, like stepping outside the castle to see if the monster is there. I stepped outside on deck and waited till there were no flashes, only blackness. I looked all around for stars. They were there, as they should have been, except to the north. Up ahead was only blackness. This meant storm clouds. And the feel of the sea was changing.

The VHF again told the same merry story. We waited, looking at each other during the increasing seconds of flickering illumination. Out on deck and away from the sound of the engine, thunder could be heard. Around 3 a.m. it hit, gusting 40 knots from the north. Lightning bolts fused the crests around us. I turned again to the weather frequency. It assured us that we were in calm seas and high pressure, with light wind and dry air.

I called for the Coast Guard station at Oak Island, just south of Cape Fear. I didn’t think I’d raise anyone but I did, faintly. I asked for the weather on-scene, and the watch obligingly read it to me. It was the same statement we were getting on the VHF. “Sir,” I said, “would you mind stepping to the door, opening it, looking outside, and telling me what you see?”

After a pause he said, “Uh, just a minute sir.” After a longer pause he came back and said excitedly, “Sir, it’s blowing like stink out there, with lots of rain and lightning.”

A surprise tropical depression had formed out of nowhere, and we were there. It battered us for hour after hour. We eventually got into the Cape Fear River the next day, creeping past the treacherous shoals. The low swirled on to the northeast.

Yes, there were more than a few lessons learned, but these stand out today:

1. When you really want to know what the weather is doing, look out the hatch.

2. When the bad stuff is about to hit the fan, don’t try to convince yourself it’s sugar — even if the government is agreeing with you. Get ready. At sea you’re very much on your own.


They say ignorance is bliss. The sea has managed to teach me a few things over the years, but I guess I’m pretty ignorant nevertheless because I’m still so very happy to be on the water.

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 .