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That Sinking Feeling

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I had worked the night shift on the psychiatric unit at George Washington University Hospital. This wasn’t my usual shift, but that’s the way nursing is sometimes. It had been a busy night, and I’ll let you guess what a busy night is like on an acute inpatient unit. I was very tired. It was about 8:30 in the morning when I got out of my car into the freezing air at Liberty Marina, on the South River near Annapolis, Maryland. Air temperature was a cold 10 degrees.

The marina manager passed me on the dock. That seemed kind of odd because, as a rule, Peter always seems to avoid the docks. He said something to me about the local DNR (Dept of Natural Resources) officer, Wayne, breaking ice to make a path over to the haulout dock.

I thought, What the hell for? It’s too cold for that kind of stuff, and I can’t wait to get to bed. But all I said to him was, “That’s nice.”

“We found a pump that works on John’s boat, and I think they’re getting the water out now.”

I nodded. “Someone’s having a bad day?”

Peter stopped and looked at me. “Are you just getting out of work?” he asked.

I nodded again. “It was a bad night.”

And then Peter told me just what I didn’t need to hear. “Well, Mrs. Larcher, your husband is having a bad day. We think there’s a cracked thru-hull. He woke up this morning and put his feet into cold water.”

We walked along little faster and it started to sink in. (Ha Ha…no pun intended.) I kept thinking, how could it be a cracked thru-hull?

We’d been through colder weather that lasted longer with lots more ice...we just keep the heater on and the boat never gets that cold. We have a great bubbler system, and there wasn’t any ice grabbing at the hull. My experience with cracked thru-hulls had to do with boats left unattended during the winter.

Passing C Dock, I could see over to our 35-foot Marine Trader on the end of the last dock. It had a very horrible list, kind of bow and starboard side down. The anchor pulpit was resting on the dock box.

Now, I am not one to panic during situations like this—mostly I just get depressed. This day I couldn’t get too depressed, as it seemed the situation was under control. There were several neighbors standing around…not a lot of movement. I took this as a good sign. And I could see Wayne was bringing that metal outboard DNR boat around to our slip. I looked into our boat and said, “Hi, Honey, I’m home!”

Eddie was in there with Howard, and my husband, Scott, was standing in water up to his ankles in the bilge. He had a wrench in one hand, and a flashlight in the other. He looked up at me and smiled. “I tried to call you at the hospital to warn you.”

The pump borrowed from John’s boat was spitting out lots of ice cold water. Scott looked like he was in control, although he was shivering. I got him to put on warm socks and boots—his sneakers had long ago become soaked from running through the snow on the docks after he discovered the problem, looking for Eddie and Howard and Mark and Eric and Peter. He did awaken Pat, who just thought, “There’s Scott running down the dock without a jacket on. He must be cold so that’s why he’s running.”

Eddie’s wife, Sherie, heard something and turned to her sleeping husband. “Is someone calling you? I think someone’s calling you.” But Eddie was sleepy. “It sounds like Scott.”

But Scott kept running when he got no response and ran up the hill to Howard’s boat, hauled out for the winter. In waking Howard he also woke neighbor Mark. Mark called the marina guys, someone then called the DNR. Everyone came to help.

When I got there, much of the water had been pumped out, but they were still trying to figure out where the water was coming in. I was happy to see Eddie there—he knows a lot about this type of trawler. And Howard also owns a Marine Trader. It did not appear to be a cracked thru-hull.

Besides getting Scott to dress more warmly, I could see there wasn’t much for me to do.

Mike, our neighbor across the dock invited me to go over to his boat to get warm. I did. I smoked a few of his cigarettes (I don’t generally smoke) and drank some of his cognac. I felt much warmer. Eddie’s son Dominick stayed home from church to babysit our old dog on their warm boat.

Scott suggested I get a motel room to get some sleep. Then Howard told me to go up to his boat, while Bill told me Lucy was waiting for me on their boat. Suddenly I had a half dozen boats on which to sleep! But I wanted to be on my boat. I wanted to help. I ordered a pizza.

By the middle of that freezing cold day, it was determined that the problem was caused when our bilge pump decided to siphon water into our boat instead of the other way around. The other automatic pump was not working at the moment—it was on the list of things to fix this winter.

Apparently, with our stern water tanks empty and snow on the bow, and perhaps with the right motion from the bubbler system, a siphon started in the wee hours. In retrospect, Scott thinks he might have run the pump before going to bed, which probably set up the siphon flow. Scott awoke to find our Ford Lehman covered in water up to the injectors. Our electrical system was out. The water heater, a new water pump still in the box, our Westerbeke genset, both banks of batteries, all our winter projects (including a Raritan Lectra/San and a new water heater) were soaked.

The stuff stored in the forward berth lockers were soaked as well, as were the life jackets, our important files, the first-aid kit, and my beloved straw hat from the Bahamas—all floating around down there under the berth.

It wasn’t so much what we lost or what it cost, or even the amount of cleaning up that affected both of us so much. Rather it was the friends we knew…and didn’t know we had.

Our friends were there to offer coffee and warmth on that freezing cold day. They offered phones and beds. They offered their friendship and support. It made the emotional experience much easier for both of us.

Now when people ask me why I live on a boat, I tell them about boat people. About the bond that goes beyond the physical assets of waterfront property without the taxes. It goes beyond the love of being gently rocked to sleep, and being close to the life that the water spawns and supports.

This experience embodies why living aboard is still the preferred way of life for me. l