Dave and Bobbi Forsman first met when Bobbi’s batteries on her 14-foot Penn Yan failed while boating on Lake Erie. “The battery was sloshing around in water, I was 18 and didn’t know about these things,” she recalls. Dave, sailing close by, came to the rescue, towing Bobbi’s boat to his boathouse where he fixed the broken wire connection and sent her on her way. A week later, Dave summoned the courage to call Bobbi; 38 years and 14 sail boats later, the couple is on their second trawler together. Liberty, a 40-foot, retro-styled Pilgrim tug designed by Ted Gozzard in the ’80s, is one of fewer than 50 such builds.
After the Forsmans retired from teaching two years ago, they moved on board Liberty full time, renting out their home in Erie, Pennsylvania, to their daughter and her family. Seventeen days have passed since the couple left their summer berth at the Erie Yacht Club, setting out to make a “half loop” through the Erie Canal, down the Hudson and south on the ICW to St. Petersburg, Florida, where they will spend the winter.
I joined Liberty at the Viking Boat Yard in Verplanck, New York. At dawn the light is just turning golden and the smell of freshly brewed coffee fills the boat’s cozy cabin. Dave fires up Liberty’s new diesel engine, which he installed over the summer. The engine’s naturally-aspirated four cylinders produce 75 total horsepower. The couple’s cockatiel is still asleep in the saloon in her covered cage as we get underway. Still dressed in her flannel pajamas, Bobbi pulls up Liberty’s fenders. We’re headed for overnight moorage at Staten Island’s Great Kills Yacht Club, renowned for its hospitality, where 75 boats making the Great Loop stopped this year. Dave has read on Active Captain that members will cook massive amounts of sauerbraten tonight to celebrate the end of the season.
A veritable Mr. Fix-It, Dave taught engineering at Penn State and Behrend College for 26 years and says that he prefers to do all the work on his boat. Precise and equipped with a sanguine demeanor, he seems to have few complaints and enjoys letting his gregarious wife be the life of the party wherever Liberty lands.
For me, the cruising life is all about tugboats. I live in San Francisco’s East Bay on a 35-foot Sundowner and, in a past life, worked on a New York Harbor tug for three years after college, one of the first women to do so. Perhaps my infatuation began when I hitched a ride on a Moran tug that was moored off the Battery Seawall in Manhattan. For Marcel Proust, the writer of Remembrance of Things Past, memory revolves around a French cookie called a Madeleine. For me, it’s the cheese omelet and canned peas I was served that day on a chipped stoneware plate by the Dorothy Moran’s cook.
It’s afternoon as we approach the mirrored glass gallery of office towers in lower Manhattan. Dave calls down to the galley where Bobbi is making breakfast. Soon after, she enters the pilothouse balancing a coffee cup in one hand and the couple’s yellow cockatiel, Finny, resting on the finger of the other. Finny hops onto Dave’s shoulder and nibbles his ear.
The boat rolls gently on her rounded hull. Endowed with the classic lines of a tugboat, sans chine, she has a plumb bow, fake-smokestack, and trolley-car windows. Liberty stands out everywhere she goes. Cruising on a Pilgrim 40 is like owning a dog, according to Mary Holden, owner of a Pilgrim tug, Calliope, in San Francisco Bay. “You have to cultivate a sense of hospitality. We get met with curiosity everywhere we go. People stop you. If you’re a loner, this is not the boat for you,” Holden said.
The lines for this classic-looking throwback yacht were first sketched out on a placemat in a Peterborough, Ontario, restaurant by Ted Gozzard, who had been designing and producing cruising yachts in Canada since the ’70s. While at dinner one night, Gozzard sketched as he listened to a friend request a boat he could use on the Erie Canal and Intracoastal Waterway. After this first Pilgrim 40 was built in 1982 and proved successful both as a looper and coastal cruiser, it was followed by 41 more. Unfortunately, the boat’s construction became cost prohibitive, and the line ceased in 1989.
Inside, Dave has rebuilt the head, stripped and revarnished the galley, pilothouse, and the saloon, which contains the shelves for his wife’s library. The galley counter crosses the forward section of the saloon, three steps below the pilothouse. A set of stairs from the starboard side of the galley lead to the pilothouse and then to the master cabin where a full-size bed spans the boat’s beam. The saloon doors stay open to the covered verandah in good weather, increasing the boat’s social space. Topside, the boat deck provides ample space for a 10-foot Bauer sailing dinghy, a flybridge steering station, with comfortable bench seats for what Bobbi says is their prime happy-hour spot.
Bobbi reflects on the change of pace cruising has brought them, and that her current lifestyle is undoubtedly more soothing than her former career teaching second graders. She revels in the freedom of the couple’s “go-slow mode” and the excitement that, “you never know who you’ll meet.” The couple plans to head south for the winter on a regular basis and return to their Lake Erie home port for the summer in order to be near their daughter, son-in-law, and three grandkids.
We have just left the Palisades behind us and are approaching the intricate iron lacework of the George Washington Bridge. Dave steers Liberty toward the tower on the New York side of the bridge so Bobbi can snap a picture for her grandchildren of Jeffrey’s Hook Light, made popular in the children’s book “The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge,” written in 1942 by Hildegarde H. Swift and illustrated by Lynd Ward. The light remains affectionately known as The Little Red Lighthouse.
Once past the bridge, the Hudson River’s luminous light shimmers in Liberty’s pilothouse. With no traffic on the river, it’s easy enough to believe that we are part of a painting. Soon we will enter New York Harbor, to which Dave says, “I’m staying out of the way of all the big ships since we’re so slow. I’m not going to get rolled around in their wake.” Although there are countless opportunities to stop and explore along the Hudson and then in New York Harbor, Liberty keeps steaming through.
So much has changed in this once desolate harbor that I remember from the late 80s when working on a tug. Everything seems fresh, sparkling, and reclaimed; gleaming in the fall light. But gentrification has killed off all the glamor for me. It’s not the place Marlon Brando would have liked to visit. Dave steers Liberty between Ellis Island and the Battery’s newly renovated Fireboat Pier, which now serves diners in the shadow of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. At 17 Battery Place, affluent condo residents have replaced burly tugboat dispatchers who once shouted orders via megaphone from office windows to tugboats tied below.
Once past the Statue of Liberty we slip behind Governor’s Island, gliding through Buttermilk Channel, then on course for the Verrazano Bridge and Staten Island. Late afternoon, we arrive at the Great Kills Yacht Club where we are warmly greeted by dockmaster John Ferretti.
Some say the perfect couple is one that learns to enjoy each other’s differences while working together every day to create something new. While cruising, that can mean extra effort and a major dose of tolerance and respect for each other’s space. “It certainly takes a special way of being to spend so much time together on board a boat,” Bobbi said “We’ve liked each other for the past 45 years. I’m a fun boating person and he’s a capable boating person.”
By the time this story goes to press, Liberty will be heading back up the East Coast through the ICW. The couple plans to explore Chesapeake Bay and return to Erie in time for Memorial Day. There they will be greeted at the dock and welcomed to their summer home port by friends and family, as well as their newest grandchild, Katlyn, who has grown nine months older since they started their half loop back in September.
Follow the Forsmans and Liberty through their travels by visiting their regularly updated blog, Life Aboard Liberty. Their writing can be found at: www.pilgrimliberty.wordpress.com