Boating Adventures | "Birth of an Obsession" by Vicki Totten

People sometimes ask how my husband Stan and I made the decision to buy a boat to live on part time. Of the two of us, Stan is the real sailor, so they usually assume he provided the impetus for that decision - and are surprised to learn that it was me instead. To understand how that happened, it's helpful to know some of our history with boats - in particular, mine. Even though we had owned smaller sailboats when our kids were young - we had never owned a boat you could live on, nor had we ever sailed on anything larger than a lake. But to understand my obsession with boats and with living on the water, you would need to know about my friend Dee.

I met Dee in 1975 when I was working at a community college in Dallas. I was an older than average married student trying to earn enough money to put myself through school by working as a clerk at the college. In those days, with tuition around $25 a credit hour, this was actually possible. Dee was my journalism professor and also managed the school newspaper where I served as Managing Editor. Since I worked on campus and we were both joggers, we began jogging together. Even though there was more than a 10 year age difference between us and she had several young children and I had none, a friendship slowly began to form. I had never met such an independent, self-assured woman before. I admired her strong work ethic and no nonsense attitude - even though some of the younger students feared her because of this.

Over the next 20 years we continued to stay in touch. It was, however, when she moved to San Diego that our friendship deepened and where my love of boats was born. For close to 20 years she has lived, mostly by herself, on her 28' sailboat docked at Mission Bay in San Diego. Even though her brown hair has turned silver, and the long braid down her back has been replaced by a short cropped cut, she still looks much younger than her age, which is well into her 70's. She continues to teach as an adjunct professor and when she isn't teaching, can be found out biking (she recently biked across the country), doing yoga, or taking flute or language lessons. Lucky for me, about 15 years ago she invited me to come stay on the boat with her, which was the beginning of my annual visits - and of my love affair with boat life.

I can still remember the first time I visited her. I was totally enthralled by all of the sounds of boat life, the knocking around of the boats in the water, the bird life, the little introductions along the way to people who lived on her dock, the rituals of opening and closing the gate to the dock – it was all a brand new world that I knew nothing about. And then I remember that feeling I would get every time I stepped aboard her boat. I immediately would slip into a space where everything else fell away. I slept better on her boat than in my own bed. Over the many years that I was blessed to be invited back, I never grew tired of the small inconveniences that living in such a small space bring – although my trips were always short and being on the boat was just part of the experience, since I was also with my dear friend of many years and felt so taken care of and loved. I loved basking in all of that, and I’m sure that part of my boat love was tied up in my appreciation also for my friend – since the two always went together.

Even now, having not seen my friend for several years, I continue to feel gratitude for the role she played in helping me to discover this part of myself. I was aware of that sense of gratitude last summer when I spent my first night on the boat alone.

I apparently chose a night when the wind gusts were over 20 mph, so it gave me an opportunity to really explore the depths of my fear about floating away. I wasn’t really afraid of floating away – the fantasy moments I had of someone outside cutting all the lines were just little blips on my radar filled with images and fantasies. Even though it took a while for me to settle in, noticing every groan and bang that are normal boat sounds as the halyards and waves all join in their nightly chorus, I actually slept very well until around 5:00 a.m.. I then got up, fired up the espresso maker (our one indulgence on our 30 year old boat), and went out on the cockpit to watch the moon above and witness the coming of a new day. My reward was the sight of a dolphin swimming right next to the boat and a glorious sky to greet me.

As I sat inside the cabin later that day, listening to Patty Griffin sing her songs from the soul, sipping my afternoon iced espresso, and searching for a thread to begin my writing from, I found myself circling back to this boat obsession of mine and the gratitude I still feel for my friend's role in helping me to discover the joys of living on a boat. In the three years we have owned our boat, usually living on it for a week out of every month, I have learned a great deal about not only the joys but also the pains of boat life.

I now realize how incredibly naive I was about the idiosyncrasies of boats. For example, I used to try and convince Dee to ask her other boat friends if they would rent their boat to me when they went away, so I could stay near her boat when I came to visit. I knew it was a stretch for her to have a visitor on her boat, since she was used to living alone on it. So I couldn't quite understand why she didn't seem to warm to my idea - since at the time I thought it was just brilliant.

Now, however, I get it. The thought of someone staying on our boat without us on it, sends me into an absolute panic. Would someone know about opening and closing the bilge when they came and left? Would they remember to put the paper in the bag next to the "head" instead of in the "head?" Would they figure out that they needed to add water to the water tank when the water started spitting at them when they turned it on? Would they know how to pump out the holding tank or how to make sure it wasn't full? And what if they didn't realize which of the electrical switches needed to be left on and drained down the batteries? Oh, and finally - one of the joys of being docked in the waters of the Texas Gulf Coast - would they know how to fish out the jelly fish that occasionally get sucked up into the strainer in the middle of the night when the marine air conditioner is on, causing sleepers to bolt upright in bed in response to the loud thump it makes when it abruptly stops working? There is something to be said for having reality trump one's fantasies sometimes. Yep, I am no longer naive about what can go wrong if you don't know what you are doing on a boat.

And yet, even knowing what I now know about the challenges boat life can offer, I continue to be grateful to my friend Dee for helping me discover my love of boats. I still find that same sense of excitement each time we turn into the harbor area in Rockport and begin seeing all of the masts on the water.

The sense of freedom and of gratitude for being able to live in such close proximity to nature, to water, the birds, and all of the rhythms you become aware of hasn’t really changed much. I still feel protected in this little space and feel awed by the beauty of the wood, the water, and the rhythms that surround me. Some obsessions, can, after all, be good for the soul.

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