It's Just My Day Job

Edited By Ann Dermody

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.

The Filmmaker/Explorer

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.

Photo of Sprague Theobald

"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."

The Mailman

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.

The Pilot Launch Captain

Christine Cleary left college in 1993 with a political-science degree and a yen for adventure. In the summer after graduation, she heard an ad on the radio that the schooner Spirit of Massachusetts was looking for paying passengers. She bought a ticket for a week, and stayed the rest of the summer as a volunteer. For the next 10 years, she worked her way up in the sailing industry, taking yachts to the Caribbean, working on a Herreshoff sloop in Mystic, Connecticut, earning her captain's license, and putting it to use aboard tall ships, and a fast ferry in her native Boston.

"I would get kind of resentful when people would say, 'Oh, you'll always remember this when you're older,'" she recalls. "I mean, what if I'm still doing it when I'm older? I resented the implication that it was cute, or a temporary thing."

Photo of Christine Cleary

In 2002, Cleary moved to Baltimore and took a job driving a pilot launch for the Chesapeake Bay Pilots, a very specialized taxi service ferrying Bay pilots and docking pilots to merchant ships in a 44-foot, twin-inboard launch. She works her shift year-round, and sometimes overnight, whatever the conditions, depositing or picking up her passengers via a rope ladder thrown over the side of a moving ship.

"You could definitely describe it as a controlled collision," she says, of the interaction between her fiberglass launch and the steel-hulled merchant vessels. "That's a big mental hurdle to get over, to actually approach a big ship — you're trained from the start to stay away from them. At this point it's super-normal, but sometimes I look back at what I've done and think, 'Wow!'"

The NOAA Hydrographic Officer

William Winner is the field operations officer on the 208-foot Thomas Jefferson, one of NOAA 's four hydrographic survey ships. He manages its day-to-day operations, which survey the coast from Texas to Maine, supplying the data that NOAA 's Office of Coast Survey uses to update the nation's nautical charts. "A lot of my work is making sure that the data collected is of high quality," he says. "But acquisition of depth measurements and other data is only the first step to updating the charts. After we acquire the data, we process it and then begin the process of determining any changes that will be made to the charts."

Photo of William Winner

Winner's path to NOAA wasn't exactly obvious. After getting his M.A. in environmental science with an emphasis on Geographic Information Systems (mapping software), he worked as an adjunct professor at a small private university in Indiana, but wanted a little more excitement and to serve in the public sector.

"I found this career with the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps and it really provides everything I wanted in a job. I liked the idea of being out to sea for a couple of years at a time, and then changing jobs and moving to shore for a few years. I always had a passion for the ocean, and it also meant a lot to me that the NOAA Corps' heritage is closely tied to America's oldest scientific and technical agency, the U.S. Coast Survey, which was organized after Thomas Jefferson asked for a survey of the coast in 1807."

Typically, the Thomas Jefferson is out to sea between 120 and 220 days each year. "When we're sailing, we're generally out for 12 days at a time. Personally, I am in the midst of my second sea assignment and this is my fourth year being out to sea."

To see William Winner's full interview and info on what NOAA's hydrographic ships do, see the entire article here.

The Ice Cream Sellers

When Lyschel and Garren Burket started a web page on the fundraising site Kickstarter for their business, they said they needed money for: "freezers, inventory, insurance, fuel, and a few versions of 'The Entertainer.'"

Donations came from friends, family, and strangers, and the Tennessee couple got more than the $3,000 they'd requested. Last summer, strains of "The Entertainer" rang out most weekends on the Tennessee River, from a specially outfitted ice cream boat under the name Ice Cream Floats.

Photo of Lyschel and Garren Burket and their family

"I think I felt that it was such a fun dream that it was almost impossible," Lyschel says. "I kept thinking that it was so impractical that the next phone call would be the thing that shut us down.… When I started realizing that it was really going to happen, it made the journey so much more fun."

Ice Cream Floats operates like a traditional ice cream truck, and started turning a profit earlier this year. One part of the business plan was to get volunteers to help staff the boat, in exchange for donating money to charity. So far, charities have included a Christian mission in Zimbabwe and a local animal shelter.

Lyschel takes care of their three kids during the week, and Garren is a project manager at a government-contracted construction company. Are they going to make ice cream a full-time business? "I don't know," she says. "It would be really fun if it was, wouldn't it?"

The Volunteer

Retired Navy man Frank Lydell makes the 100-mile round-trip from his home to the USS Silversides in Muskegon, Michigan, three times a week to volunteer. "I was out there one day and recognized they didn't have anyone with my background or submarine mechanical experience, so I thought perhaps I could give them a hand."

Photo of retired Navy man Frank Lydell

The USS Silversides is the oldest floating WWII submarine left in the U.S. and now serves as a museum that runs an overnight program for families, schools, and Scouting groups, among others. Although the submarine doesn't go anywhere anymore, thanks to Frank, his brother Tom (a fellow volunteer), and employee Jack, the engines and systems still run. "Because the boat's 70 years old, we do all the repairs and upgrades and have been spending a lot of time working on systems that were in bad repair, keeping them safe and up to date," Frank says.

"The best part of the job is taking people through the boat who are interested in it," he says. "Once in a while we'll get a WWII submarine veteran, and quite often I'll have them start the engine. They're all in their 90s now, and haven't been on a submarine in a very long time, so it really makes their day."

The Author

If you own a boat, the odds are good that you also own a copy of Chapman Piloting and Seamanship.

Elbert "Mack" Maloney has one as well, although it seems unlikely that he would need to look anything up. After all, he started writing the venerable tome in the 1960s, and at 93, he's still serving as the consulting editor on the forthcoming 67th edition. "I keep a copy of Chapman's right on the coffee table of the boat," he says with a chuckle. "So everybody who boards sees who I am."

His association with boats goes back to childhood ("I always had a rowboat or a floating log or something," he says), and his association with Charles Chapman started in 1959, when the two spoke after a Power Squadron meeting in New York. Maloney later wrote that "as is all too often the situation with me, I disagreed with the speaker on some topics and stood up to say so." He later became the director of education for the Power Squadron, as well as the first member of the National Advisory Council for a nascent BoatUS in 1966, a position he still holds.

BoatUS founder Richard Schwartz remembers early discussions with Maloney, whom he describes as a stickler for formality. "We could not have a 'burgee' because we were not a yacht club," Schwartz says. "Our signal would be a 'flag.' And we could not use the word 'boater' because it was a hat, and the correct term was 'boatman.'" Maloney's attention to detail served him well in his technical writing. After retiring from the Marine Corps in 1964, he spent about a year-and-a-half cruising on his 48-foot Wheeler before (somewhat reluctantly) accepting a land-based job with Chapman, and eventually taking over the writing of the book, which is updated every three years, mostly to cover new regulations and technology. He also found time to produce the 13th and 14th editions of Dutton's Navigation and Piloting (now in its 15th edition), Chapman Boater's Handbook and nautical guides, and a host of magazine columns and articles. His longest association, though, is with Chapman. "I've worked on Chapman for so many years that it's really a part of me," he says, "and I'm delighted that they're allowing me to stay connected with it." (An email to Chapman publisher Jacqueline Deval about Maloney brought this response: "We love Mack!")

"The basic theme of the book stays the same," he says, but "you'd be amazed how many pages change, maybe just small details, but they change." (At least one change to the book brings out his contentious streak — the greater inclusion of engines. "That's neither seamanship nor piloting," he says.)

Maloney lives in Pompano Beach, Florida, and in September, he was busy getting ready for a trip on his 38-foot powerboat.

"I'll leave with my boat for five or six days down in the Florida Keys," he said. "I try to get away maybe every six weeks or so, to just spend a little time by myself on the boat." 

— Published: December 2012

The Inventor/Canvas Maker

Photo of John Gregal

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?'"



The Merchant Mariner

Photo of Jeffrey Musselman

As a midshipman at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, Jeffrey Musselman got the opportunity to work as a cadet aboard merchant vessels all over the world. "Last February, I found myself on a 615-foot oil tanker transporting fuel to McMurdo Station, Antarctica," he says. "I'm from Michigan, so I know cold, but I'd never felt anything like that. I had a pair of sunglass lenses crack from temperature shock, just by walking from the warm bridge of the ship to outside. They say it's always colder by the water, but really it didn't matter because the place was solid ice." It was so cold that minutes after the breaker boat cleared a path for Musselman's ship, their track would refreeze behind them. "We still had to work in those conditions, hooking up hoses and getting all the fuel pumped ashore so the station could survive their own winter, where I'm told conditions are even worse than what we saw!" he says. "To say the least, I was grateful for my warm bibs and parka jacket!"



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