My Life Spent In Boats

By Tom Neale

In Part 2 of our two-part series, Tom regales us about the boats they've loved and lived aboard for more than 45 years of adventures.

Illustration by Mel NealeIllustration: Mel Neale

All my childhood I'd wanted to command a real "ship." My father who accepted, if not quite understood, my love for the water, had my first, a 12-foot rowboat, built when I was only 9 years old. With that boat also came my mother's long-suffering worries about her boy out on the water. That was followed by a boat with a plywood bottom; it would trampoline every time it hit a wave, sending water squirting in around the seams. Around the same time, I had an old log canoe that I'd salvaged after a hurricane, and with some fellow Sea Scouts, I had an old WWII admiral's barge that really fueled my thirst for a "ship." We never got an engine for her and creeping rot finally caused her demise, but I salvaged her brass portholes for the ship I hoped I'd one day have.

In my mid teens, the best boat I could afford was an old 18-foot skiff. I built a plywood cabin on her bow, with a folding plywood slab for a bed, and installed the two salvaged brass portholes in the sides of the cabin. I couldn't see out because the glass was crazed, and they were too bent to open. I had an old steering wheel, salvaged from a hurricane wrecked work boat, on the cabin's aft bulkhead. It didn't have all of its spokes, but it had some. On that lopsided, bow-down, leaky, not-quite-a-ship creation of mine, I explored every inch of the Chesapeake Bay. It was the boat I was in when I came into a fancy yachting harbor and unknowingly attracted the attention of my future wife, although at the time she was only 14. When Mel and I married, I had a Glasspar Seafair Sedan. It was fiberglass and my first boat that didn't leak and 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. The bimini and windshield actually kept me fairly dry at the helm in the rain and provided an area where I could prepare gourmet Spam using a two-burner Coleman gas stove. Mel had been accustomed to her daddy's yachts, far grander, but she loved this little 18-footer, and my kind of boating. In 1969, when my fellow law-school graduates were buying fancy cars and country-club memberships, we traded in the Seafair Sedan for a used Tartan 27 and named her Chez Nous, knowing that someday we wanted to live on a boat.

Captain Aspiration

To me, this was my first real little ship. I realized it when two friends and I sailed her home with a 25-knot breeze coming in over her starboard quarter. I could look out a real porthole and see the waves washing over her rail as we heeled. This boat was tough. You'd feel comfortable burying her rail (although Mel never did). She had our first inboard engine, and we didn't sink when the centerboard fell out in a nor'easter, banging against the hull, dangling from its pendant all the way home. We didn't capsize when the tiller broke during another nor'easter, before I learned to listen to Mel about not going out in raging weather. The spinnaker didn't tangle in the prop that blustery day it went under the hull, in those days of showers in the cockpit from plastic jugs hanging from the boom, and of hot buttered rum on cold winter evenings.

Call It Mellow Yellow

After that first Chez Nous came Chez Nous two, the Gulfstar 41 Mel referred to as the yellow whale. We bought her in Annapolis after the sailboat show, one of a few boats no one had wanted. It had a noticeable list to port, only partly fixed with numerous lead ingots we put in a locker to starboard. It also had our first diesel engine. While bringing the yellow whale home, down the Chesapeake Bay in February, an injector clogged. That caused a delay that found us motoring into a gale off the Potomac River while I was below and semiconscious with the flu and a fever of 105. We didn't have a dodger or bimini yet, and the freezing spray lashed Mel at the wheel for a day, as we crashed and slugged, trying to make the Great Wicomico River. Mel wasn't exactly a happy camper, and I was far too sick to help. But that boat also had our first aft cabin, which we loved, even though the single bunks were on opposite sides of the stateroom. We cut portholes in the stern, fantastic for looking out. It was like we were in a cabin under the poop deck of a square rigger — or so I imagined.

But we wanted something bigger, a boat we could live on full time, so we sold the yellow whale and closed on a Gulfstar 47 — the first boat that we owned with a queen-sized bed — and took delivery of her in St. Petersburg, Florida. Having read too many sailing magazines, I figured we'd ride a cold front down the Gulf of Mexico to the lower Keys. It wasn't as good an idea as the magazines would have you believe. There were so many waterspouts we couldn't count them (especially as most came at night). In one storm, an unlit boat came dangerously close, at high speed. It wouldn't answer us on the VHF and only with lightning flashes did we finally see, much to our relief, that it was a Coast Guard boat. Mel was six months pregnant at the time, and I was left wishing we were on a real ship, a battleship, with very large cannons.

Adding To The Crew

When our daughter Melanie was born, we brought her from the hospital straight to the boat. A few weeks later, anchored in a nice quiet cove, as Mel was breastfeeding, the Coast Guard boarded us. We were beginning to feel like second-class citizens, just because we lived aboard, but it just made us more committed to our lifestyle. By then I was working 60-plus hours a week as a trial lawyer, and Mel was teaching art in public high school, as well as doing painting and photography.

On this vessel we raised Melanie and Carolyn — who also came straight from the hospital to the boat — homeschooling them from preschool through high school. We'd begin the school day standing before the American flag, saying the Pledge of Allegiance. No one told us we couldn't pray — not that we would have listened. For years, we spent winters in the Bahamas, summers in New England and the Chesapeake, and the rest of the time anywhere we chose. Regularly we sailed to grandparents' homes, because we wanted our children to know them and vice versa. They still had difficulty understanding our lifestyle. There was occasional subterfuge. One morning as we were to depart for the Bahamas, my mother fed Melanie and Carolyn a breakfast of sweetened Cheerios covered with ice cream and caramel sauce. "Are you sure you want to go on that old boat?" she asked.

Eventually came the time all parents, seafaring or landlubbers, must deal with. Our girls headed off to college. Some parents say, "We can't wait for the day," but after spending all of our time in such close quarters, Mel and I were just the opposite. Even as they made us proud, we missed them immensely. With two fewer people onboard, Mel and I needed an easier boat to operate, so we bought our latest, an old Gulfstar 53 motor sailer, also called Chez Nous. She still carries us safely today.

Last spring we survived a tornado in our new Chez Nous, huddling at the base of the companionway as we had survived one many years before in our prior Chez Nous. This boat dwarfs my first little ship, but Mel and I love being aboard. There's room for Melanie and Carolyn to return with their husbands in tow, and now, each with a child. And yes, our new Chez Nous has eyes.

We also have the Tranquillizer, a 20-foot 1985 Mako. This name once graced a schooner and an early-80s Mako 22, owned by our close friends Herm and Helen Wenzel, on which we spent many days in the Bahamas, fishing, diving, and carrying supplies. Our Mako is of the same vintage. She reminds us of the past while speeding us into the future. Mel and I love to spend quiet evenings slowly running up and down a river, sometimes just drifting or, when we feel like it, opening her up to go fast. She can make 43 knots. Fast or slow, or in between, it's a boat, and we're on the water together. Now we want a faster, smaller cruising boat. Our daughters and their families live south, and we'd like to get there quicker. 

Tom has owned more than 25 boats since the early 1950s. He and Mel continue to live aboard, have spent 19 winters in the Bahamas, and have traveled the ICW several times a year for the past 27.

— Published: February/March 2013

Through The Eyes Of A Child

We heard that our old Gulfstar 47 died when two back-to-back hurricanes devastated the Fort Pierce City Marina where she lay. She survived the first, despite the fact that most of the marina and boats around her were destroyed. But the second one sank her when a huge steel barge rolled over her. For several years, we'd see her, sitting up with the other "hurricane boats" in the salvage yard on the edge of the ICW, as we passed by in our current Chez Nous. Mel would always cry. Melanie made a long detour to the yard one day while driving on I-95. Sneaking in past the "Keep Out" signs, she took a picture of the boat's in-hull bow light, around which the girls had long ago painted eyelashes. Rust running down from the light made the eyes look like she was crying.

Chez Nous In-Hull LightPhoto: Mel Neale


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