BAY WATCH

The younger, dumber me sur­vived many win­ters liv­ing aboard a small boat

Soundings - - Contents - BY GARY RE­ICH

Sur­viv­ing bru­tal win­ters aboard a 27-foot boat re­quires naivety, a sense of hu­mor, grit and some­times, pure luck.

It was a bit­terly cold Jan­uary day on Ch­e­sa­peake Bay. Trees were danc­ing like mar­i­onettes in a north­west gale that had been howl­ing be­tween 30 and 40 knots for the past 17 hours. I bun­dled up, hopped on my mo­tor­cy­cle and raced away from work to­ward the ma­rina where my 27foot sail­boat was tied up.

You may al­ready see two things wrong with this pic­ture. One, I was us­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle as my pri­mary mode of trans­porta­tion in win­ter. Sec­ond, I was liv­ing on a 27-foot sail­boat dur­ing win­ter. Like most twen­tysome­things, I had a brain that was hardly drown­ing in com­mon sense or life ex­pe­ri­ence.

As I pulled into my ma­rina, I no­ticed that my boat’s deck wasn’t vis­i­ble. My mind fo­cused on leaky keel bolts, old ball valves and other things that could have sunken my in­ex­pen­sive fixer-up­per. As it turned out, she was high and dry, stuck in the mud and lean­ing 30 de­grees, sup­ported only by her port bow and stern lines, which were as tight as banjo strings.

She had leaned so far out that I had to throw my­self onto the fore­deck. The im­pact twisted my an­kle. I spent the rest of the night try­ing to sleep in a poorly heated cabin that was heeled over while my an­kle protested. By the time the morn­ing ar­rived, the wa­ter had re­floated the boat. I licked my wounds and hob­bled down the dock to work.

This was the first time I’d ever ques­tioned the san­ity of sell­ing most of my pos­ses­sions and shoe­horn­ing what lit­tle I had left into a 27-foot sail­boat. With the $1,000 I’d paid for the boat, and the monthly over­head of only $150, I’d had more fi­nan­cial free­dom than most 22-year-olds. Still, ev­ery­thing is a trade-off, and liv­ing aboard in win­ter was never easy.

Most mem­o­rable was a Fe­bru­ary 1993 all­day bout of freez­ing rain. A nasty cold front then flash-froze ev­ery­thing in ice. I slid my way down the icy dock in the dark­ness to­ward my boat, which was en­crusted in thick ice. I had to launch my­self into the cock­pit.

I landed in the cock­pit in a heap of pain. I bashed the com­bi­na­tion lock against the com­pan­ion­way a few times to get it open be­fore re­al­iz­ing that ev­ery open­ing into the boat was frozen shut—the hatches, lock­ers, com­pan­ion­way, all of it. The ice was too thick to break with cov­ered arms or hands, or with shoed feet, and all the tools I needed were in­side. So, I turned to the only im­ple­ment I had at my dis­posal: a 1- inch- long mo­tor­cy­cle key.

It took an hour to free the com­pan­ion­way and get in­side. By 3 a.m., it was 6 de­grees be­low zero out­side and in the mid-20s in­side the boat. I was shiv­er­ing, even af­ter I’d wrapped up deep in­side my sleep­ing bag.

I fired up my por­ta­ble propane heater—a Cole­man stove— to warm up the cabin. I dozed off while it was still on. Four hours later, I awoke to find the 1-pound propane cylin­der ex­hausted, as­tounded that car­bon monox­ide poi­son­ing hadn’t fin­ished me off. Mirac­u­lously, I’d sur­vived both my stu­pid­ity and the record-set­ting cold.

The next win­ter, I added a sec­ond ce­ramic heater. One night, I un­wit­tingly laid my sleep­ing bag on top of the power cord, which was coiled in the V-berth. I hadn’t re­al­ized the ca­ble would heat up and melt it­self, and the sleep­ing bag. I woke up at 2 a.m. with a cabin full of smoke, again won­der­ing how I was still alive. I had to come up with a bet­ter way to sur­vive these win­ters or give up on my live­aboard life­style.

I in­stalled a vented propane cabin heater, and I learned how to pre­pare the boat for wind and ice. I found a nicer win­ter ma­rina with bet­ter power op­tions and bought a de­icer.

Still, liv­ing aboard dur­ing win­ter was never with­out sur­prises. There was the New Year’s Eve when I got back to the boat late, only to find five strangers par­ty­ing in my cock­pit. There was the evening when my ine­bri­ated slip neigh­bor fell from the icy fin­ger pier and crashed onto my cabin house. And of course, there were many bliz­zards that turned my boat into an igloo.

De­spite the hard­ships, I wouldn’t trade those 12 years for any­thing. As strong as those mis­er­able win­ter mem­o­ries are, I can laugh at them now and think more about the quiet nights at an­chor grilling din­ner in the cock­pit, or the un­planned af­ter-work sails I en­joyed with fel­low live­aboard friends.

Most of all, I fondly re­mem­ber be­ing intimately con­nected to that lit­tle boat and the wa­ter around her, feel­ing in­de­pen­dent and be­ing less anx­ious about life in gen­eral. There’s an up­side to ev­ery­thing.

Ice and snow choke Kent Nar­rows on Mary­land’s Eastern Shore.

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