Cruising Christmas

By Tom Neale, 12/16/2004


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Busting your balls is just one of the problems with taking Christmas trees to sea. But we do it anyway. We’ve never had a Christmas without a real Christmas tree. This was so before we moved aboard, and it’s been so ever since we moved aboard in 1979. And when I say, “tree,” that’s what I mean. I don’t mean a potted plant. Our trees have all been around 6 feet tall. True, we have to go for the skinny ones, but nothing’s wrong with skinny trees.

When we put up the tree below decks, we can’t just stick it into a bucket of moist dirt. In the first place, most of the dirt on my boat is in the bilge. Oh yeah, it’s moist all right, but if the tree absorbed that stuff it’d probably turn blue instead of green. So we usually put it in a bucket of sand which we’ve washed with some of our precious fresh water. Then we tie its top to our overhead. Not only does this hold the tree up when we’re in the Gulf Stream, it gives me something else to grab onto when I’m about to loose my balance as we fall off a wave. Then we spread white towels all around it. It looks like snow, but that’s not really the idea. The pretty balls and tinsels they sell at the mall don’t quite cut it at sea. It’s good to have a nice mat to collect all the glass. We’ve come to use more and more decorations from the ocean and the islands. Sand dollars rest beautifully in the branches. Sea urchin shells mute the glow of lights. A small star fish at the top seems both out of place and yet perfectly at home.

How we get our trees depends on where we are in the weeks before Christmas. Sometimes we’ve gotten them from the woods while we’re in the Chesapeake area, at other times we’ve been in places where we must risk life and limbs by foraging the untamed wilds of a super mall parking lot. Often we’re underway to somewhere and have to get the tree where ever we can. This may mean that we have to get it before we’re ready to take it below. Sometimes we’ll travel over a thousand miles with our tree; at first on deck, and then down in the salon. The tree’s journey might begin in the Chesapeake or the Carolinas and end in the Bahamas. The weather will have turned from winter to warm—the air from crisp and brittle to moist and tropical.

Christmas Bonfires are Best Ashore

Christmas lights and decorations on boats on the water are beautiful and a great part of the fun of owning a boat. But they require extreme caution.

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While it’s on deck, we tie it to the after stanchions to keep it from as much of the spray as we can. Not only does salt turn branches into brown dry tender, it does all sorts of weird things to colorful decorations, like adding the color of rust. Every day, unless it’s raining, we spray it with more of that precious fresh water. When we go out in the ocean, we sometimes wrap the tree in big black garbage bags. Whether the tree’s under wraps or hanging out in its green splendor, the drug enforcement planes seem to really get a kick out of them. They hang around and take pictures for hours. This seems weird to me, but how do I know that smoking Christmas trees isn’t the new rage in Miami?

A Christmas tree on a boat seems to get in the way a lot more than you’d ever dream of in a house. That’s why we have skinny trees. Even if there’s vertical clearance, you still have to get around them. The only place we can plant one to the deck in the salon in our current boat is in front of the ice maker. Ice makers are important; I don’t care what the purists say. Ice makers are particularly important around Christmas. Just in case somebody wants a drink. Like me.

Christmas trees interfere with ship board life in other ways too. Once Melanie, our daughter, was rebuilding a gas engine for a school project. The retaining circlip for the valve spring flipped loose, went airborne, and disappeared. We were out in the islands and had no way of getting another one. This meant there was no way of completing the engine or finishing the class or of seeing if the darned thing was going to run. We looked for hours and finally, in disbelief at the bum luck, we had to give up. We found it Christmas morning. It had caught on one of the branches on the top of the tree and was hanging there like an ornament—or, more to the point, like a very special Christmas present. By the next day, that engine was purring.

When you’re out in the islands for Christmas, although cruisers really have a great time enjoying the island ways of celebrating the season, you can tell that many have a tang of regret, a bit of sadness, as they miss familiar traditions of home. One of the best things about our trees aboard has been that, when cruisers see the lights of a real tree shining through the port holes, they slow down their dinghies, drift a little, and smile. The Christmas tree has had a special meaning to people of many faiths for many years. And, particularly when cruising in different waters, it’s when we least expect to be reminded of the good things of our lives that we appreciate those things the most.

It was after we noticed this about our tree that our family started doing something else a bit unusual for Christmas and cruising. We began caroling around the anchorage in the dinghy. Even in the Bahamas, it can get cool in the evenings this time of the year. People huddled in the cockpit, sipping drinks and talking, would stop, pause in amazement, and then smile. We learned early that we had to bring our dinghy to the boats upwind, so that the sounds wouldn’t be blown away unheard, into the night.

The departure of the Christmas season has always had its sadness, because the world seems to change a bit for the better during this season—for people of all faiths. This is no less so in the islands. But our trees have helped even here. Instead of throwing them in dumpsters or land fills like so many do on the continent, we take them to the beach on the last evening of the year, and plant them again, in the sand. As the winds die with the day and darkness creeps over the islands, undiminished by city lights; and as the stars emerge brilliantly over head, we light the tree and stand back in awe of a beautiful bonfire. It’s a bonfire in celebration of the old year gone and of the new year coming, and of the hope of another Christmas Tree at sea.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale