Charting Their Own Course


My Life Spent In Boats

By Tom Neale
Published: February/March 2013

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 Neale Illustration: 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.

Through The Eyes Of A Child

Chez Nous In-Hull Light
Photo: Mel Neale

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.

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