Shoving Off

When the author bought a small sailboat, he discovered a NewJersey community he never knew existed

Boat mania came first to my brother, then to me. The illness shows this much mercy at least-that it often strikes in pairs and groups, like Measles. For a long period before the fact, clip art pictures of boats began showing up in his e-mails. In one he had even pasted an image of himself, wearing a yachting cap. He would often talk about his imaginary boat. We began to worry.

So when an actual 28 foot twin-screw Carver showed up on a truck one day, it was the wish made real, it was the dreaming of the thing into flesh-or rather, fiberglass. It was huge, with a flying bridge and waving radio antenna and comfy cabin with a huge forward berth and two gigantic Chrysler Marine engines of 350 horsepower each.

We loved it!

We were boaters!

We had no idea what we were doing!

I meanwhile had succumbed to the charms of a 22-foot Catalina sailboat, the Chevy of micro-yachts, with a board you can stick into the wall for a table, and a tiny cabin with space for a toilet that could be used by people two or three feet tall. Its principal construction material was mildew. Plus it had a "mast." And a "boom" and "sails." Pardon me but this is just the sort of nautical talk we old salts like to use. Very soon I would be "injured" aboard her.

We began aboard Jim's boat by starting the engines and turning the wheel, and practiced this several hours at a time. Jim stood at the bridge turning the key, and I looked over the stern to see the great churning of the water behind, and then we switched places. Many times an hour we turned the engines on, and then turned them off, with that indifferent flourish of competence demonstrated by all veteran boat people that says, "Yeah, we're boaters, by God." First he turned them on, and then I turned them on. First I looked over the stern, and then he looked over the stern. The people who really knew about boats, those who unlike us had actually been out in one, watched us with quiet indulgence.

Now, I've lived in South Jersey for 40 years on and off. In fact I've lived right at the watery edge of it most of that time. But I never knew the quality of that breed of creatures called boaters until I bought my own boat. I never knew, for example, that boaters have their own ways, their own community, their own etiquette. Here I was, living most of my life hemmed on three sides by water, and I never knew that an entirely different life abides at the waterside, a life of ease and quiet cruising through bubbling channels, and days full of swimming, sunning and waterfront restaurants.

I never knew what charm and prettiness lay just out in the channel at evening, when you turned back to regard the land, with its lights coming on against the cobalt blue evening sky, its dockside bands at the night clubs, its gaily lit houses strung with patio lanterns and parties gathered on decks. So this was what all those people with boats enjoyed.

I imagine that all waterside communities have this in common, that they partake perhaps more of the spirit of water than they do of earth, and so are a sort of universal republic divided among many countries.

I never knew, as well, that that boating community can be extremely charitable and good-natured with the inexperienced-an example the drivers of the state might wish to imitate. Irv, the commercial fisherman in the slip next to Jim's, showed a very agreeable talent for not making us feel like morons after every idiotic thing we did.

I'm thinking of the time Jim and I finally got the big boat out, and set off from Somers Point for Margate at 10 p.m. one night. Foolishly we tried to pull another boat off a mud flat, wrapped the tow rope around one of our shafts, ran aground, then powered off to the sound of rending metal and limped back home with one prop and me hypothermic.

"Ah, yeah, that happens," Irv said next day, his face a model of understanding and fellow-feeling. I have no doubt he went upstairs to his condo afterwards and doubled over with laughter. But to us he was charitable and forgiving. He maintained his all-us-boaters attitude to the last..

And I believe boaters have learned to couch their reprovals in soft language, to preserve that fellow feeling. When I finally worked up the nerve to motor my own little sloop from its place, and revved up the engine and ran straight into the boats at the dock opposite, sending them bobbing and swaying as if just struck by an almighty great wind, the boaters present did a commendable job of pretending not to see it. All heads ducked down to the matter at hand, when I surveyed the crime scene to check for witnesses. Two days later, a big burly sailor of many years experience began a conversation about other things. In it, he casually mentioned that, well, of course you have to turn the outboard motor and the tiller at the same time if you want to turn the boat in close quarters.
Of course you do, I said. Who didn't know that?

And I didn't make that mistake again. No, I made others. I made so many others, the mere recitation of them would soon dull the mind. Perhaps in haiku:

Motor hammers hard
Though keel enveloped in mud;
Push free at last, then hit buoy!

Crab pots everywhere,
And we, eyes on wind pointer,
Run over several.

Ai! Bridge is closing!
Its arms fall down upon us
Like in the children's game.

The passing piling
Plucks my shroud like a harp string,
Twangs it good. Some tune.

Darkness falling fast
While boats going 80 bear down.
Where's the damn light switch!

I ran aground 50 or 60 times in the first month. I ran over my own jib sheet and choked the engine dead. I allowed myself to be rammed by another boat during a race. Surprisingly this has not dimmed my enthusiasm one whit. But that's just the boater way. Bob, the guy next to me, once ran out of gas on Great Egg Harbor Bay, swam ashore with a gas can and hitch-hiked to a station. Then hitch-hiked and swam back, and sailed another three hours.

Every year where my brother keeps his boat, a condo development in Somers Point called Harbor Cove, the residents decide to honor the summer by decorating their boats according to themes. Then they decorate their condos to match, then light tiki torches when the sun goes down and blare music from their patios and dance all night. The celebration is called Harbor Fest, and it differs from its more famous water parade across the water in Ocean City, because the celebration does not require the movement of any boats, as Night in Venice does. So the participants can drink in a stationary position. Their boats and condos are decorated together. And some cases it's doubtful their boats even could move out of their slips, being so encrusted with decorations. I tell you, it's a different world.

As the season wore on, something entirely unexpectable happened to Jim and me: We began to acquire skill in boating. Jim can now speak with considerable authority about winterizing his cooling system. And I have seen him whip that big boat in and out of its lip with no more trouble than if he were closing a box of breakfast cereal. I myself can now raise and lower my sails without tearing them, turn and sail about with knocking anyone overboard or smashing into pilings.

So, for better or worse, we appear committed to the expenditure of vast sums every year so that we may retain our citizenship in the Boating Republic. And South Jersey has found another enchanting web to catch me in and keep me.

© Rob Laymon 2002. Published in New Jersey Monthly.

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