The gravel road rumbles beneath my tires as my headlights illuminate the deserted boatyard. I shift into park, pull one last long swig from my coffee cup and walk into the empty metal shed. Rain begins to dance atop the large roof; the light pinging is a soothing soundtrack.
The task du jour is varnishing my 35-foot wooden mast, which is stretched out before me. We un-stepped the mast this year to apply six layers of varnish armor to it, ensuring that—after three seasons since it was built—it remains impervious to the elements. It would also give me, and some poor unsuspecting accomplice (read: Karen), the year off from trying to varnish it from a swinging bosuns chair.
I lightly scuff the spruce with 220-grit paper and wipe off the dust with a tack cloth. I then break out a closed-cell roller and a brush to apply Epifanes varnish to two sides of the mast at a time. After work I’d return, flip the mast and varnish the remaining two sides.
As far as boat projects go, this isn’t what you would call a difficult task, in fact it’s rather mindless. That said I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve been enjoying the uninterrupted solitude that this chore provides. My personal and professional schedule as of late has resembled that of a Nascar pit crew, Go-Go-Go.
Allowing my mind to wander and reflect while preparing for the boating season is a welcome win-win.
A colleague recently turned me on to the Twitter account for Alastair Humphreys, a British adventurer whose four-year around-the-world bike trip is just a single bullet point on his expedition-filled résumé. Despite living a life most would deem clinically insane, he champions a concept that he calls the microadventure, which is just what it sounds like: a mini, midweek adventure that doesn’t cost much, and can be accomplished on a typical weeknight. Some examples of a microadventure that Humphreys touts in his new book Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes are sleeping on a hill, cooking a meal over a fire, swimming in a river (there’s one I can do!).
As a marine journalist I read—on a daily basis—about boaters doing some extraordinary things. In fact, at this moment I have e-mail threads going with a couple who are cruising their Nordhavn 40 through the Pacific Northwest, a blogger aboard a Kadey-Krogen bound for Russia and a family of four from Texas that moved aboard their express cruiser to see the world. Despite this seemingly endless dose of inspiration, this past summer I found myself getting sucked into a, well, rather cushy routine. After work I’d hit the gym, make dinner, maybe do laundry or some other chore, and settle into an episode of God-knows-what on Netflix (a service I very much have a love/hate relationship with). I wasn’t being lazy per se, but boring would be a fair descriptor.
Boating had become a weekend endeavor for reasons I’m not quite sure of. So, right around the time of our July Mid-Summer Boating Fest, my girlfriend Karen and I (thanks in part to Humphreys’s inspiration) made the conscious decision to make better use of our limited summer schedule and get out on the boat more often. So on one or two weeknights each week we’d head out to our classic old boat resting on a mooring off Essex, Connecticut.
We swapped evenings in a crowded gym with sunset swims, reheated dinners for cookouts under the stars, and swapped Netflix episodes for a good book or magazine. We found ourselves falling asleep earlier (something about swimming just knocks us out) and waking up to early morning rays pouring through the forward portlight instead of the blare of an iPhone alarm.
Not much of a morning person, I eventually grew to look forward to our 5:00 a.m. dinghy ride to shore. The river can be absolutely still at that time, and the only sound would be the soft mumble from our outboard running just above idle. You know when you’re in for a good day when your morning commute begins with a dinghy ride.
Stepping into the office those mornings, I felt as if I were carrying a secret. Relaxed and rejuvenated, it was almost as if I had just returned from a short vacation. In fact, I guess that’s just what it was.
The magazine’s July 12th Boating Fest fell at a busy time for Karen and me so we didn’t get to spend the day in an exciting new location like we would have hoped, but knowing that it doesn’t take long before the rejuvenating effects of boating to kick in, we escaped for an evening just up the Connecticut River in the forest-lined Hamburg Cove, a former shipping hub in the early 1800s that today is a popular spot on the river shared by trawler owners, fishermen, and kayakers alike.
We grabbed a visitor mooring from Cove Landing marina for $20 and hopped in the dinghy for a leisurely ride up a lazy river. With tall conifer-covered hills on each side it took only a little imagination to feel like we were exploring a stream in Maine. You can tie up to the dinghy dock at the nearby marina and stretch your legs if you like. There is a general store about a mile away and not much else.
As dusk began to settle on the cove, the sound of swimming and shrieking kids began to fade; the smell of charred hotdogs wafted atop the calm water as couples sat in their cockpits sipping chilled glasses of white wine. If there is a more peaceful way to spend an evening I’ve not discovered it yet.
We’d return to Essex and “real-world” responsibilities early the next day but the positive effects of our short boat trip had sunk in. Our arms seemed to swing more freely at our sides; free from knots and tension as we went about the tasks at hand with the well-rested mind that you only get after spending a night on the hook.
I think that’s the point that Humphreys (and our Mid-Summer Boating Fest) is trying to make; you don’t need to leave land for weeks at a time or battle huge seas in order to have an adventure; sometimes the most rewarding, memorable adventures are the ones on a random Sunday night in July.
Leaves along Connecticut’s Route 9 had begun to trade their deep green for hints of orange and yellow; nature was showing its hand. Fall is here. With a long holiday weekend on tap the Karen Marie would be chasing the horizon at full throttle trying mightily to catch back up to summer.
That’s how it came to be that we motored from Essex early Saturday morning, hitching a ride down the river with an outgoing tide. The early, yet strong rays of sun burned off the morning dew providing a smoky hue to our cruise. Short chop in the Sound and the confused waters of Plum Gut made for a less-than-leisurely ride over to our destination of Shelter Island’s Dering Harbor. Covered in a weird combo of salt spray and sweat, we eventually tied up to our mooring in the southeast corner of the harbor and took in the view of sailboats and blue-hulled powerboats bobbing up and down in the clear water surrounded by beautiful homes and lush green tress.
After a bit of settling in, we hopped in the dinghy to explore town. It would be a short trip. The main street in town, and the hub of activity, is a short block comprised of a True Value, a gas station, toy store, a rustic looking bar/restaurant called Dory and a café/deli/grocery store called Marie Eiffel Market where we stood on a line nearly out the door for a pair of excellent sandwiches. It was clear that we would be back.
After a bit of R&R I had a little “work” for the magazine to tend to. For the next issue’s gear column I was testing and photographing a uniquely shaped inflatable standup paddle board called the Sea Eagle NeedleNose 126. (I know, I know…tough job!) The paddle board ended up working great; it went from rolled up in a backpack to fully inflated in two minutes and as you can see from these outtakes, it ended up being a lot of fun.
An evening of grilling and watching the sun set capped off the rest of a pleasant night.
Day two was kicked off the Shelter Island way with breakfast from, where else but Marie Eiffels. Determined to better see what the island had to offer we rented bikes from the gas station (apparently specialty stores aren’t real popular here). The plan for our half day rental was to take a “nice easy” ride out to the northeast jetty and then double back to a marina/boat builder called CH Marine where we could shower and inspect any new builds in progress. Well, that plan lasted until the first stop sign when Karen tried to pass me. A two hour race would ensue that I’m sure did little to help tourist relations. (When the island wasn’t whizzing past, it was really a beautiful way to see Shelter.)
Stopping at CH Marine yielded both refreshing showers and the chance to see a newly built 34-foot runabout. With a really unique blue Awlgrip paint job and sweet down east lines, I was not alone in ogling the new build. Many visitors stopped to snap a few pictures.
Refreshed and feeling like humans again, we hopped a 5-minute ferry ride from Shelter to Greenport, a beautiful town that is often referred to as one of the most beautiful on Long Island. The thing about the most beautiful place on Long Island on the most popular weekend of the summer is, well, it gets pretty darn crowded. Crowds of inebriated college kids, ice cream-covered children and older couples filled the streets in what would be become a very strange scene. We would enjoy a cold beer at the Greenport Brewery before I convinced Karen that it would be in our best interest to explore a nearby down-on-its-luck boatyard. She hardly puts up a fight anymore and just rolled her eyes. After climbing around a few rotten wooden boats, I found a real gem. Something that 7-year-old-boatyard-exploring-Daniel could only have dreamed of…tucked being an abandoned rust covered building, surrounded by a small flotilla of derelict sailboats was…a 1967 Lockheed submarine. My jaw dropped as I took in the site. “You can trespass in boatyards your whole life and never find something like this,” I whispered to Karen who began to realize another plan, this time for a “5 minute yard visit” was going out the window.
After poking around the sub for too long, we decided to end the day with a drink at the waterfront bar called The Blue Canoe. Watching the sun set with a couple cold rum drinks, you couldn’t really write a better official end to the summer.
We’d return home the next morning and our mini vacation, much like our bike ride, and our summer, would end all too soon. But this short weekend reminded us of how much we enjoy cruising to, and exploring new destinations. There’s just a certain excitement that comes with not knowing what’s around the next corner, it might just be the submarine you’ve spent 20 years searching for.
Swinging on a mooring on a beautiful sunny Saturday in Hamburg Cove, just a few minutes from Essex, Karen and I were enjoying some quiet time reading in the cockpit. Our afternoon entertainment would be provided by our neighbor in an express cruiser with a cockpit filled with kids.
At first glance they didn’t appear to be your normal kids. There was not an iPad nor iPhone anywhere in sight; the boys are girls were chatting with each other in an animated fashion. The owner/father tied a line to StandUp Paddleboard and tossed in the placid water behind his boat. Like well-trained golden retrievers the children jumped in after it. An epic game of “King of the Board” would soon ensue.
We left for a long dinghy ride just as things were really heating up. After a couple hours of exploring Seldon Creek to the north we returned to our mooring and were shocked to see the kids still splashing around in the water. Twisting the top off a cold beer to celebrate all the exercise my dinghy outboard got, I was getting tired just watching these kids.
These kids would continue swimming, jumping, paddling and well, just being kids even as the evening rays gave way to moonlight.
Growing up on a boat I enjoyed similar simplicities such as swimming long after your fingers had pruned, perfecting your cannonball technique, and enjoying a crispy hotdog from the grill. When family friends or fellow cruisers were aboard my brother and I would sit with them and be part of the conversation, even if we had very little to contribute to the topic at hand. It was a childhood I hope every kid gets the chance to experience, if even for a short while.
As Karen and I heard the gaggle of kids scream, as kids do, before splashing into the water for the umpteenth time, Karen mentioned how it was nice to see kids actually enjoying the outdoors instead of being glued to a screen. I nodded in agreement as a screech came across the quiet cove, “I’m king of the boaarrrdddd!”
So I would only be slightly annoyed when I heard the distinctive sound of a perfectly executed cannonball at 7 the next morning.
I’m sure some of my neighbors found the screaming kids to be annoying at times, but I really didn’t mind it. I saw a lot of myself in those constantly splashing children. In fact, I’m thankful they were there to remind me of a few things; such as
- It’s impossible not to smile while doing a cannonball
- You can do cannonball without screaming “cannonballllll!!” before hand, but it’s more fun if you do
- Charred hot dogs after swimming tastes better than the best cut of steak on a normal day
- It’s OK to fall asleep at 8:30 after a full day on the water
- If you want to swim as soon as you wake up, do it. Anybody rolling their eyes at you is just jealous.
Thanks for the reminder, kids.
I like to think that there’s an alternate universe where best laid plans actually come to fruition; a place where anchors set on the first try, seas lie flat on travel days and spare parts stay sealed and tucked away in the bottom drawer. In short, if such a universe existed, it would be the opposite of this past weekend in Essex.
The plan was for my folks and family friends to cruise up the river and spend the weekend, while my brother and his girlfriend would drive up to meet us. It all seemed simple enough. Then our friends had a medical scare that forced them to return to the dock one day into their vacation. My parent’s port prop was introduced to one of the many semi-submerged logs floating in the Sound, causing them to limp in one engine. And as for my brother, Murphy’s Law visited him in the form of a dead battery when he stopped in the middle of Connecticut. Not really the start to the weekend I was expecting.
But before you think this is a sad story, think again. In today’s world of watching out for only numero uno, we encountered a lot of people willing to offer a helping hand. A perfect stranger helped jump my brother’s truck before leading him to the auto parts store for a replacement battery. The staff at Brewer Dauntless Marina would call in staff in on a Sunday to haul my parent’s Egg Harbor and pull the props. It would have been easy for them to leave the boat on land while waiting for the folks at the nearby Hale Propeller to scan and fix the props but they insisted on towing the boat back to their original slip as to not disturb our weekend plans.
Our friend’s vacation may have ended abruptly but the medial diagnosis yielded a wholly treatable condition, for which we were all thankful.
We may have all met up a little later than expected and after a trying morning it would have been understandable if everyone were a bit grouchy. But faster than you can say “let’s go to the pool,” we were relaxing and having a good time. The evening would prove to be equal parts simple and pleasant. With a couple racks of ribs and corn on the grill, we enjoyed some beverages and caught up. Our nightly entertainment was courtesy a wildly-over-the-top party on a Sea Ray at the end of the dock. Loud club music and frequent shrieks of “whoop-whoop” was hysterical when heard from afar.
Breaking out a game of Catch Phrase (which always seems like a good idea at the time) would elicit a similar, albeit more sober, intensity. By the time we put the game away only one death threat had been made, which is pretty good.
Sunday provided us with a brilliantly beautiful morning and while most of the crew probably would have liked to stroll and shop in town, I had other plans. As loyal readers know, I have been in the grips of a fierce battle with crap-filled cormorants and my guests were unknowingly about to become my recruits. Armed with spike strips and reflecting tape, I planned on converting my classically inspired wooden mast into an intimidating death stick.
Together my parents, brother and Karen carefully and slowly pulled me to the top of the mast. I guess I took a little too long setting my spikes because next thing I knew everyone tied down the lines they were holding so they could better critique my work. “Swing your whole body out to the side,” suggested my old man. With a tie wrap stuck between my teeth, one arm around the mast and the other tying down the strip, I mustered through gritted teeth, “oh yeah, no problem.”
When the chores had ended we retreated back to the pool before all going our separate ways. A lot of obstacles originally stood in-between us and a successful weekend, but that’s the great thing about boating; it doesn’t take much to create a great weekend on the water. You don’t need reservations, or a big crowd; or as I would relearn: plans. Some of the best memories come from the simple spontaneous things like a stupid game, horsing around in a pool, or completing a simple project.
Murphy’s Law be damned.
Tired, frustrated, and drenched in sweat, I spun the Karen Marie in a tight circle to retrieve my lost boat hook that was lodged in the chain of a mooring ball and now protruded straight up from the water like a big middle finger. No, my evening was not going according to plan.
My original vision for the night began with a nice easy wash-down of the boat, which in recent weeks had become a bombing strip for cormorant crap. Then Karen and I would enjoy a cold drink or two on our glistening boat, enjoying all that is right in the boating world.
Well, as the old saying goes, when it rains it pours. With a temperature near 90 and not even a zephyr to cool us off, we were sopping with sweat. We’d wash the boat from bow to stern and then notice some stubborn spots we missed. We scrubbed and scrubbed. My suggestion to Karen that she “try using some elbow grease” was met with a look that suggested I was in for a world or more than bird crap.
From there I spilled some content from our porta-potty on my hands while en route to empty it. Simmering at this point now, we returned to grab our mooring, which we’d done a hundred times. This time our pickup stick (a float used for easily retrieving a mooring line) broke off and our mooring line became impossible to grab. “It’s fine, we’ll grab one of the empty moorings then I’ll fix it,” I said. Good plan but then our boat hook got stuck in the before-mentioned chain of the mooring ball, ripping it out of Karen’s hands.
By the time we retrieved our boat hook, fixed our original mooring ball and tied the boat up for the night, my pride hurt more than the sweat in my eyes.
Annoyed yet determined to salvage some of the night, I stripped down to my boxers and dove into the water. And I have to say, I surfaced feeling like a new man. I swam over and grabbed a hold of the dinghy with one hand and let the four-knot current rush passed me. Looking back towards shore, I watched as the pink and purple remnants from sunset slowly disappeared. Karen even agreed to join me in the raft and sit with her feet in the water.
The harbor was whisper quiet, such that the only sound was the rushing tide that carried away the stress from the day’s many mishaps.
Driving the dingy to shore at 5:15 this morning, my eyes still blurry and adjusting to the first rays of sunlight, Karen said, “I definitely think we should do this more often.” Thinking back to all the work it took just a few moments of peacefulness I responded, “absolutely.”