Over the River?

By Tom Neale, 12/15/2005


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When we went to Grandmother’s house for Christmas, we went on the River, not over. For the first few years of our cruising we remained up in the Chesapeake Bay area until after Christmas, because we wanted to celebrate the event at my parents’ house. We didn’t head south until well after most other cruisers were down there, because we wanted our daughters to know the huge 10 foot tree, the roaring fire in the fireplace, the carols, the smells of Grandmother’s cooking, and all the other things special at Christmas with grandparents. And we wanted our parents to have that time with their “grandbabies.”

A week before Christmas we moved Chez Nous down the Bay, a day southward. Then we headed her west up the long York River. One time it was so cold that when we tried to trim the foresail we found that the sheet lines were frozen and we had to pour boiling water from the galley on them to free them up. The Bay was usually iron gray, in color and from the sky. It’s strange how cold colors the world when you’re out on the water. The banks of the river were no longer the green of summer, but brown, dotted by houses with smoke curling from chimneys. Nobody was skiing or fishing as we made our way up the river. The crabbers were nowhere to be seen. Seagulls seemed to spend most of their time sitting on the water in feathery huddled humps. It was a lonely and cold trip in the desolation of winter on the water. But we knew the warmth that waited, from the love of my Mother and Father, expressed so lavishly in their Christmas preparations.

Sometimes in the night we’d awaken to small ice flows, swept by the current. At first you’d hear the mushy scraping from soft ice, and then the more alarming bumping sounds as it became solid. There wasn’t much electricity at the neighbor’s dock, and Chez Nous would get very cold inside—so much so that one Christmas morning we woke up to find our water pipes frozen, even down in the bilge far under the water line. We’d had a wood burning fireplace aboard in the past, but we’d chucked it when our babies started crawling around the salon, curiously touching anything that glowed or attracted their attention in any other way. So we would usually slip and slide along the icy dock, up the icy hill, through the trees and across the crunchy grass in the big yard, to Grandmother’s house.

It was Grandfather’s house too, of course, and our daughters wondered why the song just talked about going through the woods to “Grandmother’s House.” They knew that Grandfather and Grandmother were inseparable in the house, in their love for our daughters, in their love for each other, and in life. I didn’t have an explanation for the omission in the song, except that maybe the song writer’s Grandfather had passed when he wrote the lyrics. I didn’t give that explanation, of course. All that would come in time, I knew. But at those times, before we headed south, it was important to simply share the love of family and the expression of that love through Christmas.

We often talked about this strange “over the river” concept. When you live on a boat so many things are different and this is one of them. People who live in houses cross the rivers on bridges to go to Grandmother’s house. We went under bridges and through bridges. We went with the flow of the river, not the flow of traffic.

And when Christmas was past, we said “we’ll see you soon,” and followed the flow of the river downstream. One year our hull crackled through sheet ice spreading across the river, raising the fear of a frigid entrapment. Hard ice or pack ice makes passage impossible for fiberglass boats. But even sheet ice is bad because it’s razor sharp and it can cut away gel coat and even laminate before you realize what’s happening. But as we met the flood about halfway downriver, saltier water surrounded us and the ice disappeared. Soon we were back on the Chesapeake, turning south again as we passed York Spit Light to our port.

Staying Warm Underway

1. We’ve found that our complete cockpit enclosure is invaluable for keeping us warm on cold days. When the sun is out, it acts as a green house, heating itself even on very cold days.

2. If it’s cloudy, we sometimes put a small electric space heater in the cockpit, running from our generator. (Be very careful with these.

Click Here for More Tips

Going through the river to be at Grandmother’s house for Christmas meant more difficulties as we headed south, even though south was where the warmth was. We were anxious for that warmth, and so we would always get underway at the very first light. I’d return to the cockpit with gloves frozen stiff from wrestling with the anchor chain. Many days we’d find the deck coated with a thick layer of frost—so thick that we could scoop it up and make snowballs. The few people on the shores looking out their windows in their warm houses must have wondered at the family having snowball fights on deck as their boat cut the waters southward. Sometimes we didn’t need frost. We awoke to snow. If we could see well we pushed on. If not, we remained at anchor, the world hushed, and our floating home a bit warmer from the white layer of extra insulation on the deck. Icicles clinging from the spreaders sometimes let go and came tinkling down on the cabin top.

The cold was painful, but the experience was beautiful. Taking our children to their Grandparents house on the river and sharing that time with them was worth far more than any of the discomfort.

Life is full of circles, some complete, some in the process. Now our daughters, Melanie and Carolyn, come to the Chez Nous for Christmas, traveling by car, braving Florida traffic. I think the cold of the trip up the York River was much easier to take than handling Florida traffic. They bring with them our Grand Dogs, Mango and Stella, who both go wild when they see our boat, because they know it’s going to be full of food and they know that Mel and I (especially me) sometimes break the “don’t feed the dog at the table” rule. With a live Christmas tree in the salon, friends, and the smell of holiday cooking, it makes for a full and happy boat. Whether it’s “over the river” or “on the river,” it’s still Christmas on Chez Nous, our home.


Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale