Small Boats and Long Journeys

By Tom Neale, 10/7/2004


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Before the day ended, we’d counted 11 water spouts, some very large. That morning we’d made a long run down the island chain, in the Mako. We had needed to pick up some freight that had come in on the mail boat, and then get fuel and groceries. The day really began to go to hell around half way back. The sea ahead was invisible. The islands were invisible. All were behind a solid wall of rain, wind and spray blowing from wave tops. But we needed fuel and had to make the island harbor ahead. Besides, despite our confidence in a good boat, we knew we’d feel a bit better on solid land. Heading straight for the wall of flying water, we also knew we were going to get a lot wetter. I turned to my friend Herman who was calmly smoking his pipe behind the center console wind shield.

“Herm, why don’t you have foul weather gear on this fine yacht of yours?”

Herm looked ahead, looked up at me, took a draw on his pipe and said tranquilly, “Well Tom, we’re not wet yet?” We were soon.

Obviously, we survived. I’m writing to you today, and that was years ago.

I took many other trips in that Mako, with family, friends, and Herman and Helen. Helen and Herm, (we called them Tutu and Grandpa) had traveled all over the world and owned large yachts. Finally they’d found their perfect place and settled on an island in the Bahamas. They were in their late 70’s. Tutu loved to cook and hike and make cookies for our young daughters, Melanie and Carolyn. Herm loved to fish and to be on the water. When luck was down he’d toss a sacrificial pinch of pipe tobacco over the side. He called the token “Goomasak.” We visited the island each winter on the 47 foot Gulfstar, Chez Nous, which was our home. The Mako was the island boat, named after their earlier yacht Tranquillizer, with the name painted in that fashion on each quarter. She did wonderful things for us. She took us to church, to the village, to shopping, to bring fuel for the island’s generators, to go diving, and to go fishing. We were an out island family, and the Mako connected us to the world around us.

Waterspout Tips

Water spouts can occur over most waters where people regularly cruise. They can be extremely dangerous. Here are a few of the things that you can do to improve your chances of not getting hurt.

1. Understand that water spouts may occur even in “nice” weather.

2. If a cool high pressure system (usually behind a cold front) has recently moved over warm water, spouts may develop from a few innocent looking clouds even though the day is crisp and clear.

Click Here for More Tips

On water spouty days, Herm would always want to go fishing. “Tom, they suck those fish up out of the water and throw’em in the boat.” We would follow weed line along the drop off for hours in the Exuma Sound, back in those days when you’d seldom see another boat out there. We talked, watched the sea, watched the ragged water spouty cloud lines, and sometimes caught a fine dolphin, or wahoo. Running in through the reef between the islands, we’d keep a line over and maybe hook a grouper or a barrie. When the seas built, towering and breaking over the shallow reef, we pulled in the lines and simply marveled at the ride as the Mako handled the wild water, our friend Tucker in masterful control at the wheel. We all loved those times, but no matter how much you’re loving the moment, time keeps on flowing. Time has passed on, as has Herm. He’s probably catching fish along a weed line every day, in another good boat, in a heaven that’s full of islands.

This year a friend decided to sell his old 20 foot Mako, vintage 1985. She’s about the same length and year as the island Mako. I’d already spent several weeks with her, 5 or 6 years earlier, exploring most of the lower Chesapeake Bay for a guide book I was researching. Mel and I couldn’t really afford to buy her, much less to feed her Yamaha, but sometimes you feel that a boat is a part of you, no matter what the cynics say about differences between person and property. She was ragged, and that’s putting it kindly. But like most lovers of boats who aren’t rich, I’ve spent many an hour over many a year working on them. We turned her back into the fine lady she was in 1985—well, maybe she needs a little cosmetic surgery, but we don’t care about that. It’s her guts that are great again.

We called Tutu and told her. We asked her permission to name our boat after the old Tranquillizer. She said, “Yes,” and we shared a few moments of sweet sad memory. Mel painted the name on each transom, as well as the little South Pacific Island tranquillizer god, rubbing his tummy with one hand and beating his head with another. That guy had flown on a burgee over all of Tutu’s and Grandpa’s boats.

Our daughters, Melanie and Carolyn, are now away in school. A few weeks ago, Melanie visited us for a wonderful week. Unfortunately breaks between summer jobs and semester beginnings don’t always coincide, and Carolyn couldn’t come back to Chez Nous and the new Tranquillizer. But that time will come too. During that week we tied Tranquillizer alongside Chez Nous so that each day we could hop aboard and run, fish, and play. And yes, like all old boats, we had to spend about a day working on the motor. Seems some expensive mechanic in days past had put a Mercury thermostat in that Yamaha.

The last day of Melanie’s visit, Mel, Melanie and I got aboard, with Melanie’s beagle, Stella, and took off down island. This time it was in the Chesapeake Bay, in an area that, in my view, is every bit as pretty as the Bahamas. We headed for an island that I’d first seen almost 50 years ago, on a trip in one of my 18 foot skiffs. Very few people came there then. Very few even knew about it.

Around 23 years ago, we had first taken Melanie there, as a 2 year old. By then we were living on Chez Nous. We had anchored off and gone the last half mile in another small boat, our dinghy. Melanie had run joyously along the beach, on her first uninhabited isolated “tropical” island. But now she, as did we, walked a little more sedately, as Stella scampered outrageously, sending hundreds of sea gulls screaming and wheeling skyward. At day’s end we headed home, up island, back to Chez Nous. We felt the old familiar confidence from the powerful thrust of a big outboard. We appreciated the ride as the boat handled the ocean swell which was dying in its final journey as it crossed the Bay from around Cape Charles. The swell had no reef to break on, only gentle sandy shoals to spread out upon. There were no “water spouty” clouds; the day was crisp and beautiful. But we all sensed deja-vu. It was overwhelming, unspoken and pleasant.

Some seem to think that you must have grand yachts to go on grand voyages. This isn’t true. You don’t need a big boat to take long journeys through the waters—or through time.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale