It's Just My Day JobEdited By Ann Dermody
Published: December 2012
For most of us, spending time in a boat is something we do for fun on weekends. But for a select few, firing up the engines and casting off is something they do every day. Rain, hail, or shine.
When Sprague Theobald was 6, his mother pretended she would teach him to sail in their little 12-foot sailboat, three miles off Maine's Boothbay Harbor. Instead, she shoved him out across the cove alone, letting him figure it out himself while she stood grinning on the dock, dragging on her Viceroy cigarette. He was pretty mad, but he did learn to sail, and for the next 30 years did it in any way he could.
"In my 30s, I started working in TV and got to cover the America's Cup. I knew that I was right where I was supposed to be," he says. He went on to produce an Emmy-winning documentary about the historic race. But Theobald was harboring a boyhood dream. He'd always considered the Northwest Passage the ultimate uncharted voyage, and was determined to negotiate it in his own boat, Bagan, a Nordhaven 57, while making a film and writing about it. Reuniting with his three grown children after a rocky divorce 15 years earlier, he made the 8,500-mile trip in 2009. "For a while it seemed every direction we turned in had a deadly hazard," he says. "Freezing water temperatures, icebergs, extreme weather, polar bears, unpredictable ice floes, charts that were pretty bare of information. We faced breakdowns, potential engine troubles, satellite and navigation issues. At one point during the trip, when we were trapped in the ice with no way out, the thought crossed and stayed in my mind that I'd brought my three children together only to lead them to their deaths!"
But Sprague and his family successfully negotiated the passage, filming along the way, and he's just written a book, The Other Side of the Ice, about the journey. "The very best part was seeing my once separated family come back together and watch them perform as the flawless, functioning, loving, and supportive family that we once were, and now were again."
You can't hurry doing Rick Stelzriede's job. The California Delta water mailman arrives at the Stockton post office at 7:30 a.m. six days a week, sorts his mail, and leaves an hour later to make 25 land-based stops before picking up his boat, a 1998 14-foot Fishrite at Herman and Helen's Marina. Then he chugs upriver for another 10-13 stops by 3 p.m. "I like the pace," he says. "You can't force anything. You have to go with Mother Nature."
This Delta route has been operated since the late 1800s. The U.S. Post Office has 61 water routes, but Stelzriede's is the only one in California. As an independent contractor, Stelzriede spent $10,000 on a new engine and outdrive last year, and he's responsible for all his own expenses. Fortunately, he gets compensated if gas prices increase.
Born in the Bay Area of San Francisco, an invitation in 1973 to go waterskiing with a friend on the Delta got him hooked. "I kept coming back to this magical place," he says. Five years ago, he was asked to help deliver the mail one day a week, before it developed into a full-time job.
Although summer months in the Delta offer near-perfect boating on usually smooth waterways, Stelzriede has been caught off guard with fog and big cruisers' wakes. In 2001, he bought his own Delta island, and he's since planted fruit trees and firmly settled into a river-rat lifestyle. Even on his time off, he's out on the river, working part-time for BoatUS Vessel Assist, based at Bethel Island.
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The Inventor/Canvas Maker
When John Gregal was 18, he bought his first boat for $400. Fourteen years later he's on his seventh. He's also on his third and fourth professions. "In 2006 I quit my desk job originating mortgages, and decided I wasn't going to start another career until I knew what I wanted to do. Finally, I decided to become a boat mechanic."
Winterizing boats all season inspired his creation of an early version of Sea Flush, a boating tool he created to make winterizing, unclogging thru-hull fittings, flushing out saltwater, and cleaning heat exchangers/exhaust manifolds, A/C hoses, and oil coolers easier, by using canister-style sea strainers so boaters don't have to remove any hoses.
The product's doing well, but being an inventor doesn't pay the bills, at least to begin with, so after leaving the mechanics behind, Gregal transitioned into canvas work and purchased Mount Vernon Canvas Works in Virginia. "I now fabricate covers, windows, and biminis for boats along the Potomac, all the while continuing to build the growing interest in Sea Flush," he says. "It's demanding but enjoyable work. I've had other jobs where I'd look at the clock and hope it was close to 5 p.m. With canvas work, I look at the clock and think, 'How is it already 2 o'clock?'"