Two winters aboard and still learning

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A Maine woman has received a hard-knocks education while living aboard on Casco Bay

Standing at the edge of my finger dock at South Port Marine on Casco Bay, I look across Portland Harbor to the Time and Temperature Building on Congress Street in Portland, Maine. It's 9 degrees.

This is Creamer's second winter living aboard her aunt and uncle's 2001 32-foot Catalina, Two Sea Dogs, in South Portland, Maine.

My fingers and toes are partly white. Down below, I've got two 1,500-watt Everstar electric space heaters - one in the main cabin and another in the quarterberth where I sleep - but I can still see my breath. In the V-berth, another heater is still in its box. It would make sense to plug it in, but instead I choose the four blankets sheltering me from air that makes every bone in my body scream for warmth.

But when the sun comes up the next morning, I climb into the cockpit, open my door and look around me - it's worth it. I move with the water beneath me. I can feel the docks creek with every step and hear the lines hit the masts in the nearby boatyard. This is home.

I moved aboard in October 2008. The bone-chilling cold set in shortly after. My friends think I'm crazy. My colleagues think I've lost my mind. Sometimes, I think they're right.

Accidental Liveaboard

I may be a year-round liveaboard, but I'm not going to pretend I know what I am doing. Truth is, most times I don't. But for the last year and a half, I've lived aboard a 2001 32-foot Catalina, Two Sea Dogs, in South Portland, Maine.

I began sailing with my aunt and uncle when I was in high school and had my first opportunity to live aboard in college. In summer 1995, I moved onto their 1980 30-foot Catalina, Golden Time, at Cape Ann Marina in Gloucester, Mass. I lasted a week before I packed up and headed back to college.

I might not have been cut out for it at the time, but I've been sailing with them ever since. My uncle and aunt - Jerry Muller and Karen Seward - coach me through maneuvering around lobster pots scattered throughout Casco Bay. My uncle helps me with tacking and uses nautical terms I should remember, but don't always. I question when I reach for a line. "This one?"

In 2007 my aunt and uncle moved their boat to South Port Marine. I lived in an apartment nearby and went sailing with them most weekends. A couple of years ago, I came to a crossroads in my life. My aunt and uncle asked if I wanted to live on their boat and I jumped at the chance to try it again.

Lessons still to learn

There's something about being here that makes my troubles melt away. Living on the water brings me a sense of comfort and peace that I have yet to find anywhere. I'd walk to the end of the dock most nights and stare north across the harbor to Portland. I found strength in riding out the storms, rushing out to check my lines at 3 a.m., fearing they would snap and detach from the docks. I found courage in keeping warm through those days when the temperature dipped below zero and I thought for sure I'd freeze or my water hoses would crack. I learned a lot about myself that year. In many ways, the experience saved my life.

This is my second winter living aboard and I feel more confident this time around.

Last year, workers from the marina built the frame and shrink-wrapped my boat. I bought white shrink-wrap - big mistake; every day was cloudy. This year I learned from my neighbors and did the work myself, with their help.

I bought clear shrink-wrap, which generates enough heat to stand tolerably in the cockpit.

Most nights I wear a hat to bed, along with socks and a sweatshirt of some sort. When the temperature dips well below freezing, I usually throw the covers over my head to seal in the warmth. And, if by some chance I need to use the ladies room - I've never liked the word head - I think nothing of whipping out a Ziploc bag. Proceed with caution: Not every bag is suitable for the job.

At this point in the game, I should know more than I do about the boat's operating system, but I know enough to get by. I know what to check on the control panel if I lose power, but I don't know the name of the switch. If I lose power during a storm, I know I can flip the breaker switch to run the heat and power off the battery. But I forget how long the battery would last. I don't think it's it very long.

I know that when the temperature dips below 10 degrees, I need to open the hatch in the quarterberth so the heat warms the area with the water hoses. I don't know what the hoses look like. My uncle coached me through most of the boat's systems and I feel like I know her. I know how cold Two Sea Dogs can get and when to jack up the heat so the system operates as it should. She's a strong boat and I trust her. She has taken good care of me and I do the same to the best of my ability.

This winter, I doubled my bow and stern lines and added two large fenders in addition to the two smaller ones I have. I lost one fender during a storm earlier this season when the wind gusts caused havoc on the marina. Since then, I've rushed out of work during storms to check my lines and make sure she is safe.

My biggest scare came the morning of Jan. 2. The National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, issued a storm warning that was expected to generate wind gusts up to 40 mph, coupled with a tide that could cause flooding of oceanfront properties and roads.

I covered the news story as a reporter for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. The tide was like nothing I had ever seen. The storm flooded most of Portland Pier and left many residents stranded in their homes or unable to return home. A nearby street gave residents a close-up look of an inlet, where commercial fishermen tie their boats along docks to local businesses. The tide lifted the boats to street level. There was a point where it became difficult to distinguish the edge between the water and land.

After leaving the scene, I rushed home fearing what I would find. The ramp to enter the marina was level with the docks. The water level rose well above the wall, but caused no damage to the condos overlooking the marina or the boats stored in the yard across from the slips. As I approached Two Sea Dogs, a wave of calm washed over me. She'd withstood another storm.

Back to land

As my second winter aboard winds to a close, I have decided it will be my last. My reasons for abandoning ship have nothing to do with the cold, lack of space, or riding out nor'easters. Truth is, I want to spend more time with my 5-year-old daughter, Kathryn Piper, who lives with her other parent for most of the winter. She stays on board with me during the warmer months and likes walking the docks to look for starfish and other marine life.

When Kathryn is here, I teach her things about living aboard and she seems to like it. As my own boating knowledge has grown, I've also tried to instill in Kathryn an appreciation for the ocean and living a more simple life. She might not understand now, but maybe one day she will.

It might be my last winter aboard, but I'm planning to continue living on the boat through the spring and summer. I'll teach Kathryn as much as I can. Who knows? Maybe someday, we'll have a boat of our own.

Melanie Creamer, 33, is a staff writer for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the April 2010 issue.