(I wrote this little missive for the Jan. 2009 Spinsheet. I will post a link when they have it up.)
When I woke up that winter morning it was quiet, too quiet. It’s never that still living on a boat. So I clambered down from my bunk to let the dog out, noticing the white fluffy stuff covering every hatch. I didn’t think anything of it until I tried to push open the bi-fold companionway door.
It didn’t budge.
I pushed harder, the dog gave it a good nose nudge too, and that’s when I recognized the sound of crunching snow. I slid open the top of the companionway hatch and peeked up and out to find we were completely snowed in. The wind blew from the north all night as flakes piled up under our bimini and in to our cockpit where it stacked up about 5 feet high against the door of our PDQ36 catamaran.
Walking the dog later that night in the cold, dark, snowy quiet of February I wandered over to the townhouses that neighbor our marina. As I waited, and waited for the dog to find the perfect spot to leave his calling card, I peered up from the small opening in the hood of my foulies and spotted a warm glow. The second floor of one unit had floor to ceiling windows ablaze in the light of a roaring fireplace and big screen TV. I didn’t know who these people were, but I decided I hated them.
Winter can wreak havoc on normal, sun loving, land lubbers but it seems to have an especially dour impact on boat dwellers who are unfortunate enough to be iced into northern climes when their cruising brethren are drinking their way south. I grew up in Chicago. I know what winter is. I really did walk to school uphill in 7 feet of snow. But let me be crystal clear about this. I HATE WINTER.
The obvious is of course the fact that we boaters of the Chesapeake don’t get to partake in the joy of boating for a good 4 months of the year (except for you frostbite folks, but I’m not touching that one). Losing your pastime is reason enough to get a little stir crazy. But the difficult aspects of living aboard are amplified through the frigid lens of winter.
Little things like droplets of water collecting in the back of your hanging locker. It’s not just condensation. It’s a damp sweater on a cold morning with a funky smell that sticks with you all day. And those days when the heater is just barely keeping up, when polar fleece and fuzzy slippers are required, when you’re baking muffins just for the extra heat source. And the only thing more unnerving that being snowed into your boat is simultaneously hearing the dull thuds of German Shepherd sized ice flows playing tag with your hull. I have stood outside dressed like the Michelin Tire Man with a boat hook in my gloved hand maniacally hacking at floating ice chunks like the shower scene in Psycho.
My husband and I remember snows so heavy that we had to take shifts during the night to shovel off the bimini for fear that it might collapse under the weight.
And there’s nothing worse than wearing those wire coiled shoe covers that prevent you from skidding on the ice only to scratch up your gel coat, because the bloody marina never seems to shovel the docks let alone have the salt bucket out on the worst of days. All I can say is hooray for global warming.
When the ice retreats, so does the water. Northerly winds blow the water out of the Bay resulting in low, low tides. Some mornings I wake up and open the door only to realize I am looking UP at our finger pier. In the old days that simply meant I called in sick, went back to bed, and finished some winter reading. But for the past four years calling in sick hasn’t been an option as my son and dog are demanding bosses. It’s one thing hauling a geriatric, 50 pound, furry mutt over your head and on to an icy finger pier. But it’s a whole new level when you strap your baby to your back and try the same feat. That’s when you make that difficult call: pole vault out of the cockpit to get some fresh air and go seize the day or stay home and watch your boy bounce off the walls?
Truly, when it comes to winter, I am the biggest baby on this boat. My son loves every second of it and having lived aboard since birth doesn’t know any different. These days he’s in his life jacket and half way down the dock before I even have my boots on. He loves the low water because it means little natural and not so natural treasures wash up for him to explore. If his clothes are soggy, he automatically plops them on the heater knowing a few minutes will fix it right up. He understands that we have a “bath season”. When the marina shuts off the dock water we’re forced to wrestle with a tangle of hoses strung from the marina office down to the live aboard boats for water. That means a long, cold, wet walk to fill up. And it sometimes means we can’t fill up at all if the last person didn’t walk the line to drain the hoses and a little ice chunk ruins the whole set up. When access to fresh water is that cumbersome, the bath tub is closed for the season, but my little boy plays in the marina showers with as much gusto as a bubbly bath.
We read a lot. We take the time to organize all those little things we tend to ignore all summer and fall because it’s just too nice to stay inside. We write letters. We bake. We paint and sew. And we take full advantage of our museum memberships and the local library, not to mention our friends who have houses with roaring fireplaces. We found out who those people in the town house were, and we don’t hate them anymore, especially in winter time.
Then that rare December day comes along, the one that says, “Hey you live south of the Mason-Dixon line, remember?” Those days of polarized sunshine and balmy temps in the low 50’s, a flirting wind that doesn’t rattle your bones. You look at each other bravely, unplug the heaters, cast off the lines, and glide away, Christmas lights still dangling from the bimini.
The Chesapeake is a ghost town. Crab pots, race buoys, and weekender wakes all absent as the water stretches on forever beckoning you to sail anywhere or nowhere at all.
This is why we suffer through the hardships of winter on board, this and the promise of going south again in a few seasons, and never coming back to winter again. Ever.