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Why I Love My Boats

I hate to admit it, but I love being up to my ankles in barnacles and wood shavings, reeking of bottom paint, with fingernails that will take a week to clean.

I was standing in front of the bins of fasteners at my local marine hardware store, wondering why it should cost more for the four stainless steel screws to hold down a fitting on my trawler than I’d paid for my wedding band. Actually, I was reflecting that, considering the prices, it’s entirely appropriate that we call them screws.

An old friend came up and, in his first breath, told me that he’d just sold his boat. He seemed depressed and said he “was going to miss the old clunker.” I asked what he was going to miss most. After thinking a moment, he said, “sitting on the aft deck at anchor early in the morning and smelling the coffee.”

His answer lingered with me long after I’d taken out the mortgage to pay for the screws, and it occurred to me that we all have different reasons for loving our boats. Cruising skippers love boats because they carry adventurers to faraway places, but most of us find far simpler pleasures in our boats.

The experience spurred me to make a list of the top eight things I love about my boats.

I love buying a boat. Yeah, yeah—we’ve all heard “the two best days of a boat owner’s life” cliché, but there was always a genuine pleasure of process in the many boats I’ve bought over the years. With a new boat, you prowl the hardware stores, buying stuff that you might never use but that looks so cool. You make lists, pore over catalogs, and pile new cardboard boxes aboard.

With a used boat, you get to drag all that stuff out of your garage that you carefully packed away after selling your last boat, and that your wife has been complaining about since that exact moment. A lot of that stuff wasn’t used on the last boat and certainly won’t be needed on the new one, but you want it, nevertheless. I, for example, have a wonderful hand-bearing compass in a dovetailed wooden box that has moved from boat to boat for exactly 46 years. I’ve never once used it, and, in my boatless spells, it has a permanent storage place in the garage, but I love the look of it, so it has joined me on each boat.

Of course, when you buy a used boat, it’s a wonderful Christmas present that takes months to fully open. Every drawer has little bits of stuff to puzzle over (what does that key fit?), gear that doesn’t seem to be needed (a pump for the inflatable kept by the seller) and all the other mystery items that the seller didn’t treasure enough to stash in his garage.

I like a rainy day at anchor or in the marina. It’s when I can tuck into a bunk, pull a comforter over my lap, and listen to the rain pattering on the deck while reading a trashy paperback.

I love seeing a landfall come up over the horizon. Especially if the land is right where it’s supposed to be after I’ve ventured far offshore. Of course, the modern generation probably doesn’t get as much pleasure in this era of waypoints, satellites and GPS accuracy, but back when we actually figured out time, speed and distance with a sharpened pencil stub and then drew a line on a chart, it was a wonderful feeling of satisfaction when it all came together. Hell, it’s still a pleasure when the harbor light looms out of the fog and rain, even if I’ve used some electronic gizmo.

I enjoy quiet mornings on deck. Like my friend whose words precipitated this train of thought, I value these moments. It starts when I pop my head out of the hatch to look around, assessing the weather and noting the new arrivals in the anchorage, as well as those who have already departed. The deck is cool underfoot, and, if I’m far from shore, there’s the chatter of unrecognizable birds. Of course, there’s also the aroma of that first pot of coffee.

I find cocktail hour to be a civilized custom. It’s also a custom that is honored in every harbor around the world. In an anchorage, dinghies will set out to wander aimlessly through the fleet, looking for friends and invitations to visit. It’s the nautical equivalent of kids cruising Main Street on Friday night, or of the local citizenry strolling a European promenade at dusk. In a marina, cocktail hour is a chance to put your feet up, share a few stories, perhaps find someone who knows why your alternator isn’t alternating, and just have a quiet drink before heading to your berth.

Cruising powerboats turn the uncivilized into civilized. Nothing illustrates this concept better than a passage we made across the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Pacific Northwest on our 43-foot trawler. Sailboats that had competed in the Swiftsure International Yacht Race were returning, but it was blowing a hoolie, and the boats were drenched in spray. Foulies were laced tight, but probably still allowed a drizzle on the neck.

Me? I was in shirtsleeves in the pilothouse, heat on, Buddy Holly in the background, and my favorite mate prepping grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. The defense rests.

I enjoy working on my boat in the yard. I hate to admit it, but I love being up to my ankles in barnacles and wood shavings, reeking of bottom paint, with fingernails that will take a week to clean. But there’s a warm sun that teases me with thoughts of summer outings and, perhaps best of all, the promise of a cold beer when I finish this side of the hull.

I treasure the day I sell a boat. As my friend discovered, selling your boat is a bittersweet moment, but one that I treasure as much as ownership. For me, selling a boat is like that far more final moment when it’s said that your life passes before your eyes. As I sign the sales contract, my mind flashes back over the wonderful times on the boat, and I conveniently forget the anchor winch that always jams, the transmission that only pops out of gear while approaching a dock, and that eensy leak directly over my bunk.

On the other hand, of course, as soon as the boat is sold, I’m like a child in a candy shop as all that money burns a hole in my common sense. Yes, honey, I know we need a new roof, and the car is leaking oil, and I know you’ve been watching House Flippers put in a new kitchen. But I can spend hours reading every magazine ad and, on Sundays, I pore over the boat classifieds first. Selling is bittersweet with the sadness of parting, but there’s always the sure knowledge that I won’t be a landlubber for long.