Snow on the Waters

By Tom Neale, 1/22/2009


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

It was October of 1980 and we set sail from the Lower Chesapeake Bay for a fall cruise north.  We’d been living aboard our Gulfstar 47 Sailmaster for less than two years and we were loving it.  We were also finding it easy to make mistakes.

Mel reads to Melanie before Chez Nous' wood stove.

This boat sailed well and motored well. Her draft was almost 6 feet. She had a huge hunk of internal lead in the keel which was well below the fuel tanks, 300 gallons worth of water tanks, a 7.5 KW Onan and a Perkins 6-354 diesel. She was a tough powerful boat, and we’d seen her strut her stuff plenty of times. Her cockpit was completely enclosed and in the main salon she had a wood burning stove that was like a little fireplace. She also had heat from the reverse cycle air conditioning which was powered by the generator. So we weren’t concerned about the fact that we were headed north instead of south in October. We just wanted to hang out together with our first daughter who was just over a year old and enjoy cool weather on the Bay.

The weather was great for heading up to Solomons Island.  It was a nice southwesterly, a bit balmy, and, in other words, near perfect. Solomons wasn’t very crowded in those days, and there were several great woodsy areas to anchor.  A cold front was slated to come through that night. But the winds were supposed to be west behind it, and we wanted to head over to the Choptank and up the Tred Avon the next day.  What more could you want?

As the boat heeled from the first sudden icy blast around 0200 that morning, we had only brief misgivings. The anchor was holding well, we were swinging from the west, and we snuggled under the covers to await morning light.  When it came, we headed out the creek and the Patuxent, sipping coffee and enjoying a cold but great sail.  Until we began to round Cove Point.

It was there that we found that the wind wasn’t blowing from the west at all. It was funneling down the Bay like an Arctic Express, rolling up huge waves and whipping sheets of cold spray off the tops.  Now, any intelligent person would have turned around and headed back to Solomons. Which was just what Mel, my wife, very strongly suggested.  But I thought I knew better (a mistake I’ve oft repeated).  “We can just sail as close to the wind as possible and use the motor to assist.  After all, it’s a motorsailer. I’m sure we can clear James Island and get on up into the Choptank.  Then, tomorrow, we can have a sleigh ride back down the bay on the northerly.”  That proved to be an unfortunate choice of words.

As we headed across, the wind began to veer more northerly, like it was Hell bent on becoming a nor’easter.  This wasn’t good. By that time we were out in the middle and weren’t really happy with the prospect of putting her beam to the sea, even for a brief moment, to turn around. We plugged on, wondering when the spray hitting the dodger was going to start freezing. We watched the island that we had to clear, far in the distance, and felt the strength of the tide, running out, pulling us south. It was like every element of nature was conspiring to keep us from clearing the shoal off that island. But we kept on plugging, sailing as close as possible to the now small gale, and hoping the engine would keep on running.  If it didn’t, we’d be on a lee shore, we’d have to tack with icing decks and frozen lines to try to sail off, and if anything went wrong, we’d be in deep trouble with the frigid temperatures. And we had our baby aboard.

Snowy Decks on Chez Nous

The engine never missed a lick. We didn’t quite clear the shoal, but we had no problems coming about with the help of our iron beast in the bilge, and heading off a bit, so that we could come about again and gain the mouth of the river.  From then on it was a great sail, up to a quiet wooded cove near Oxford.  We doused the sails with some difficulty. The foresail wasn’t a problem, because it had roller furling. The mainsail was a great problem, because I not only had to go out on deck and drop it, but I had to climb up on the cabin top to furl and tie it. I’ll never know how the seamen aloft on the clipper ships did it, but I was glad when the job was done.

After we were sure that the anchor was holding well in the gusts, we settled below in the main salon, lit the wood burning stove/fireplace, and settled in. Mel didn’t say, “I told you so,” but she didn’t have to.  As the afternoon wore on we noticed the early twilight settling around us—and something else.

The snow began as just flurries at first, swirling around in the wind eddies caused by the mast and hissing against the stainless chimney for the fireplace. We thought that’s all we’d have. After all, it was only mid-October.  But the weather fooled us again. As darkness came on so came the snow, thick, heavy, quieting, beautiful. The three of us watched it fall and Mel and I will never forget that feeling.

Snow on the water is very special.  On the one hand, it can be very dangerous. Hypothermia sets in insidiously. And it’s easy to slip overboard. And snow can freeze to the deck and rigging, changing the center of gravity of a boat.  Also, it reduces visibility as bad as or far worse than fog. It can make typical pleasure boat radars ineffective. But when you’re on a warm boat at dock or, better still, anchored in a safe harbor, it’s incredibly beautiful.

Tom's Tips for Stoves Aboard

1. I've spoken of a wood burning stove. It sounds wonderful, and it was. But any time you use such a heat source on your boat -or any other heat source, it's of life and death importance to get one that was specifically designed to be used aboard your type of boat and to install and use it carefully and properly.

Click Here for More Tips

We’ve seen snow on the water many times since then. I wouldn’t have expected it, since we take the boat to warm southern latitudes in the winter, but it’s worked out that way, usually with early snows on the way down. And for a few years after we moved aboard, we spent the winters in the Chesapeake. We learned special techniques. Like having a gangplank so you wouldn’t have to step off or jump onto a snowy or icy dock. And screwing battens across the gangplank so you would be less likely to slip on it. And like turning on the spreader lights at night, when the snow is coming down, to extend our warm little world out beyond the windows, into the darkness, and up into the isolation of the swirling white flakes.

Being on a boat gives you a sense of isolation anyway—no matter what the weather. It’s not a bad sense of isolation, but a sense of being apart from the masses and machinations of humanity and a part of the earth’s natural environment.  But when you look out the cabin ports and see snow coming down past your spreaders, or falling on the water, disappearing as it hits, you feel a very special remoteness. When you see the shore disappear as the snow thickens, you become more drawn into that world of yourself and of nature. And as the snow blankets the decks and muffles all sounds, it’s like there is no other world than your boat and the people on it.

We had a wonderful evening, and the next morning we could see the shore again, fresh and white. The wind was down but still from the north, and the sail back down the bay, between white banks on the eastern and western shores, was like one we’ve never had before or since.


Go to for other information

Boating and water sports involve risk.  Any comments herein should be followed at your own risk.  You assume all responsibility for risk or injury to yourself or others.  Any person or entity that uses this information in any way, as a condition of that use, agrees to waive and does waive and also hold authors harmless from any and all claims which may arise from or be related to that use.