By Tom Neale, 4/22/2004
TOM NEALE ON BOATS HAS MOVED!
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Most of us get boats because we want to do some kind of cruising, even if it's only once in a while and for short distances. Going off to another place and not coming back the same day conjures up a bit of the love of the sea and the love of adventure that thrives in each of us who owns a boat, even if it's not a gold plated thoroughbred, and even if we're not Cape Horn Heroes.
My first "cruising boat" was 16 feet long and she was high tech. Her bottom was of a new fangled stuff called plywood-at least it was new to boats on our river. The pioneer who built her simply screwed two large flat pieces across the bottom of the pine side planks. If he'd put something-anything-else there, other than the keel board, it might have worked a little better. As it was, when I revved up my 5 HP Johnson and headed to sea, that bottom flapped like a trampoline.
An advantage to plywood, we were told, was that there were fewer seams to leak. This was a really good thing, because the few seams that I had not only leaked, they squirted-every time we hit a wave. I didn't know the word to use for it then, but today, with the benefit of a college education, I'd call it a "perimeter squirt." If we hit a big enough wave, the squirts from each side would meet in the middle right over the bucking keel. Having my feet washed all the time was OK because this was back in the mid 50's and, in those days, they didn't mind so much about getting dirt in the water.
In the spring of my second season with this boat, I tried to fix her by adding additional strips of wood fore and aft along the bottom. The idea was that they'd stiffen up the trampoline, thereby diminishing the squirts. I wanted to do a good job so I went to the saw mill and got strips of very tough mahogany. I laboriously hand drilled them and screwed them to the plywood. The net effect of those many hours of work was that the squirts from the side were joined by vertical squirts up and down the entire length of the floor. Going to sea in anything short of a flat calm felt like going to the city and standing in the middle of the pool in the park when they turned on the fountain.
I enviously watched the fishermen with their big motors "getting up on a plane." I figured that if I could just do that, some of the seams would be out of the water and I might be a little drier. But planing with a 5 HP motor on my 16' boat was like trying to make an elephant run by shooting his back side with a slingshot and a weak rubber band. She'd raise the bow a little, but I soon found that the higher the speed the higher the squirts and decided that I wasn't gaining much by the tactic.
Not having any other alternatives (it's hard to buy a boat when you're a 13 year old making money crabbing) I continued to use the boat. After all, that's what they made buckets for. The nicest times were when I didn't come back, at least for a day or so. I'd lay some planks lengthwise along the seats, take along an old WWII army tent and some supplies, and take off down river. Carrying supplies in my boat was another thing buckets were made for. It was the only way to keep the supplies dry-not by bailing with the buckets-I did that with other buckets. I just stuffed my stuff into buckets and jammed them under a seat. This had a triple effect. It helped hold up the seats, kept the buckets from falling over in the bilge, and helped to dampen the trampoline just a little.
The first time I did this was an experience I'll never forget, even though I've tried. I found a cove off a nice little beach, dropped anchor, and pitched my tent over the bow. (When you have a wooden boat, you can nail things, even tent poles, just about anywhere.) I didn't pitch it on the shore at that time because that would have been camping and I already knew about camping. That's when you come back full of ticks and chigger bites. I wanted to return full of the adventure of the sea. I didn't want to get too much of the adventure of the sea however, so I remained awake much of the night to bail. The evening was full of wonder. Mostly I wondered about whether the leaks were worse with all the extra weight aboard and whether my bed of planks would float if needed. But eventually I fell asleep lulled by the gentle lap of waves on the hull and the rising wind gently rustling my tent.
That was when I learned about night sailing. Since then, I've learned a lot of very important things about sailing, from reading the fancy magazines. But none of them mentioned waking up in a bellowed out tent and wondering whether opening the flap would be a good thing or a bad thing. I'd learned a little about daytime sailing in my previous boat, a twelve footer, and that was just enough to convince me that whatever I did probably wouldn't make much difference anyway. So I slithered out into the sloshing bilge, bailed awhile, and sat secure in the thought that the side of the river was only a short distance away. The side that I found happened to be a mud bank covered by a few inches of water.
Being aground has numerous advantages. One was that I was able to stop bailing. Another was that I didn't have to worry about the anchor that hadn't come back aboard when I'd pulled in the cheap rope I'd used for an anchor rode. Finally the wind died, the sun came up, I pushed and pulled my skiff into deeper water, and headed home. I had many more weekend cruises on that boat, until a wind gust blew my tent overboard one night. The next morning, I discovered that the nail holes for the tent poles were surrounded by dry rot-a condition which didn't improve with time. This turned out be a blessing in disguise, I guess, because neither did the leaks.
I learned a few things from that boat: Never drive nails in a boat already full of holes unless it's for something really important, and a tent isn't one of those things. When you sleep on a sinking boat, use an air mattress. When you take off on a cruise, always tell someone where you're going, and also where the place is that's downwind of where you're going. Never open a flap in a tent in a windstorm, unless you've already opened the other flap first. When you pitch a tent on a boat, consider pitching it overboard. Never anchor on a lee shore-just save the anchor for another time and let the wind blow you up on the beach right away, before you go to sleep, so you won't have to deal with it in the middle of the night. And if you're serious about getting up on a plane with a 5 HP outboard, take it with you to an airport.
I didn't know it at the time, but that was cruising. And my boat was a "cruising boat," even though we didn't call our boats names like that back then. To me, it was just a leaky old skiff. We hadn't yet learned that a cruising boat had to have sails, or that it had to look like a yachtified north sea fishing boat with big diesels, or that it had to take you safely to Tahiti, even though you never planned to go there. And we hadn't learned that to be a "true cruiser" you must always brag about your plans for going to far away places even though you secretly know you're having a great time cruising where you are. The perimeters of the concept of cruising are not just wet and limited, like those on my boat. They are very broad.
As I write to you now, I'm sitting at my desk in a 53 foot motor sailer. It, too, is a cruising boat. In between my 16 footer (and my 12 footer before that) and this boat, I've had so many I can hardly remember them all. They've been motor and sail, big and small, fast and slow. I've cruised in most all of them. For the past 25 years I've averaged three to five thousand miles a year living aboard and cruising--and for almost 25 years before that, there were many many shorter cruises. One thing I've learned is that just about anyone who has a boat can do some cruising, of one sort or another. It's not what they call your boat that counts. It's what you do with it, and how much fun you have with it.
Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale