How I Met Your Mother

By Tom Neale
Photos by Tom and Mel Neale

As a teenager, Tom said, he was a loner with a passion for cruising. With more than a nod to Huckleberry Finn, he found the love of his life. And no, we don't mean a boat. Here's part one of a two-part series, by one of America's most popular boating writers.

The five sisters lounging on their parents' classic Matthews, along with their friends, were having the same debate they had every day: Should they go to the pool or the beach? Sevenwyts III, a luxurious 40-footer, sat in a marina basin that was separated from the Chesapeake Bay by a beautiful beach. Nearby, the top of an old lighthouse rested on the sand, no longer warning of shoals, but making a nice shelter on a hot summer day.

As each girl put her case forward as to how to pass the afternoon, another girl hastened down the dock toward the boat, her stride quickening with the promise of gossip. "Look," she said in a low voice, pointing to a junked-up boat at the gas dock. "There's that weird kid they were talking about." Among the parents and adults at the dockside cocktail party the night before, that "weird kid" had been a hot topic, a subject of mild amusement tinged with disdain that their fine marina was being subjected to such riffraff.

Tom and Mel Neale's wedding photoMel and Tom's wedding.

"He sometimes comes in here to get gas with that leaky old boat," the new arrival informed the sisters. "He fills up all these jugs and goes in to the store to buy food. He doesn't stay here overnight, thank heavens. That would be awful."

"They say he stays out in the bay for weeks," said another of the sisters. "He isn't from here, y'know. They say he comes from way upriver. Eee-uuuw, that boat looks like it could sink any minute. Just think of the mess it would make!"

Photo of Mel and Tom heading down the Chesapeake Bay on a winter day on their Gulfstar 41Mel and Tom heading down the Chesapeake Bay on a winter day on their Gulfstar 41.

The sisters found this talk mildly interesting, and of course he could hear them. They were teenage girls, after all, and this character at their dock was quite different from the preppy sons of their parents' friends on the other yachts. More importantly, he was a guy whom their parents didn't hold in very high regard, so he created a great formula to attract their attention. Giggling, they gathered themselves up and walked over to check him out. They weren't disappointed. He was every bit as scruffy as they'd hoped. His boat was even worse. Looking like it had sunk on numerous occasions, the stern was high, and the bow low, because of a cabin he'd built from scrap plywood, about seven feet long, nailed and screwed to the bow. "All the leaks in the boat must run downhill into that cabin," joked one of the girls' newly arrived boyfriends. "I bet that's where he sleeps."

Photo of Mel Neale in the first Chez Nous, a Tartan 27Mel in the first Chez Nous, a Tartan 27.

The boy quickly took care of the business of refueling. He was accustomed to being different, but every once in a while, particularly at times like this, he felt, well, a little awkward. He paid for the gas and started his old 25-horse Evinrude, his feet slipping in the oily bilge as he pulled the cord, much to the amusement of the kids on the dock. One of the girls watching — she couldn't have been more than 14, and a bit more rebellious than some of the others — looked intrigued as the boy in the boat plowed out the inlet, and she noticed that he got a good drenching as a yacht sped in, throwing spray and wake.

Relieved to be away from the gas dock, the boy made his way out of the marina, then opened up the throttle and sped out into the bay, feeling much more comfortable. He loved boats more than anything in the world, and out here, this was where he fit in. His destination on this trip was Tangier Island, a voyage that would take several days, each way. His boat was slow, the motor old, and he had to make occasional detours up rivers and into marinas to get gas. At $0.25 a gallon, he could ill afford it, and he'd have to stop several times a day to pour gas from a jug into the motor's six-gallon tank, mixing oil, and trying not to spill it into the bilge as the boat sloshed about in the waves. The gas in the bilge would evaporate, leaving only its smell, but the oil remained forever. His bare feet were soaked in oil and gas and, unless he put on tennis shoes — which he did to go into a marina store — he left a track of greasy footprints.

Photo of daughters Carolyn (left) and Melanie on the third Chez Nous in the BahamasDaughters Carolyn (left) and Melanie on the third Chez Nous in the Bahamas.

At night, he'd work the boat up into one of the creeks on the shore of the bay, finding his way in through the shoals, often rowing or poling with his motor cocked up, and anchor in the marsh. The smell of the marsh was rich, and he loved it. Gigantic, vicious mosquitoes swarmed the small boat, but the smell of gas and oil in the bilge, and the smoke from the kerosene lamp in the cabin, kept most of them back in the darkness.

Chapter Two

Some years later, after working through the summers and on weekends in the winters, and saving his money — always to buy a bigger boat or more equipment — the boy would progress to an 18-foot Glasspar Seafair Sedan. It was the boat of his dreams because it was fiberglass, the first boat he'd had that didn't leak, or wasn't rotting. It had comfortable bunks in the little cabin, windows on three sides, and even a head under the V between the bunks. There was a real wheel, a seat, a windshield, and controls with cables running aft to the engine. The bimini and windshield actually kept him fairly dry at the helm in the rain, and provided an area where he could prepare gourmet Spam on a two-burner Coleman gas stove.

Photo of Melanie steps from Chez Nous to walk up the aisle with her parentsMelanie steps from Chez Nous to walk up the aisle with her parents.

But the controls ran aft to that same old Evinrude. He hadn't been able to stump for a new engine, too. It pushed this boat much faster, but it still gulped gas and he still had to carry the gas in jugs. As before, he'd refill the six-gallon tank from jugs, mixing oil as the boat slopped around in the waves. The fancy plastic "carpet" which lined the floor, soon became slick with the oily mix. Some things never changed, he thought — even with a new fiberglass boat. But things did change, of course. Over time, the boy grew up and went away to college and later law school, which meant winters away from home and away from the water — which was tough on him. He got a job life-guarding at a swimming club in an old rock quarry near his school, returning to his boat whenever he could. While on duty one day, he met a girl who'd come to the swimming club with some friends. She smiled at him as they talked, and when he worked up the courage to ask her for a date, she said OK.

It was late June, a time for summer cruises. The girl's parents would take their boat and their daughters far away from boyfriends on the weekends. The boy would follow, in his old car. He didn't have time after work to travel in his boat to meet the yacht in a distant marina, visit the girl, and get back to his job next morning. So he'd sleep overnight, ignobly on the floor of the yacht's cockpit, with the other girls' boyfriends, wedged in head to foot. The mosquitoes ravaged in the sultry summer nights, and the smell wasn't as sweet as the marsh, but he got to be near the girl. In the mornings, he'd get up before dawn and race back to his job. On one of those weekends, toward the end of summer, they walked on the beach between the marina and the bay. It was a favorite place. He proposed, in the old lighthouse. She said yes. They were married the following January, seven months after they'd met, with a two-day honeymoon between semesters at law school.

Photo of Mel and Tom on their 25th anniversary on a stormy day in the BahamasMel and Tom on their 25th anniversary on a stormy day in the Bahamas.

Chapter Three

Luckily for the boy, the girl also loved his old Seafair Sedan and it became their first of many boats together. They went out on her whenever they could. By now both had jobs and were still in school away from the coast, and time spent on the water was precious. One late fall night when they anchored far up a marsh-lined river, resplendent with the colors on the trees ashore, the girl said she thought she was going to die. She'd never slept in sub-freezing weather before, "outside" on the water, and without a furnace. The little bit of warming bourbon the boy offered was small consolation. But the bacon and eggs the next morning, cooked on the little Coleman stove, were very good. In 1969, when the boy's fellow law school grads were buying fancy cars and country-club memberships, he and the girl traded in the Seafair Sedan for a used Tartan 27. They named her Chez Nous, knowing that someday they wanted to live on a boat, and besides, the girl liked that name.

That wedding was 44 years ago. The girl, my wife Mel, made an admission just a few years ago. She told me about her early teen days on her dad's yacht, about the fancy marina, about the oily weird kid that the yachties had talked about so many years and so many boats ago. She said she'd been that 14-year-old girl standing on the fuel dock watching the scruffy boy in the boat. She knew that had been me, her future husband. 

— Published: August/September 2012

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