You all know my penchant for going on vacations that stretch my fairly meager spirit of adventure. Well, this was one of those. My sister somehow convinced us to rent a houseboat and cruise the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida with her and her family (who rented their own houseboat—I don’t like my sister THAT much).
Mind you, none of us had ever captained a vessel larger than a canoe before. None of us had experience reading nautical charts or coaxing diesel generators into running. None of us had a clue what we were getting into.
However, we traipsed down to Fort Myers, Florida, to meet Roy and our transportation, two 41-foot Gibson houseboats. Roy gave us a tutorial on how all the systems in the boat work (mostly involving the septic and electrical systems, two hugely important components of one’s life at sea). Then Kirk from Connecticut gave us a two-hour hands-on lesson in how to steer a Gibson houseboat and how to read a chart. I use the word “steer” loosely; the boats are about as nimble as garbage barges.
We spent the night docked and arose the next morning, ready to cast off for the high seas. One glitch: getting a houseboat out of a narrow marina without smashing any of the multi-million dollar yachts parked around us proved to be a major challenge. With the help of Roy and a couple of dockhands, we avoided the boats and only hit a few wooden pilings—gently, since Kirk and Roy advised our intrepid captains to proceed very, very slowly when maneuvering in tight quarters.
My husband took the helm. I was elected navigator because I like maps. However, a nautical chart is the reverse of a map. The land is just a greenish blob while the water has all sorts of numbers, swirly lines, and squares and triangles. You have to re-orient your thinking.
This is my navigator’s station. Note the tools of the trade: waterproof chart, binoculars (to spot teeny-tiny channel markers miles away), and cell phone (to call harbormasters for directions to their marinas, something Captain Ahab didn’t have the benefit of). The television was used by teenaged crew members to play PS2.
My father, a Navy man, always told me that when looking at buoys, remember “red, right, returning” which translates to: keep the red markers on your right when you’re coming back to port. The question is: which port are you returning to?
Not all went smoothly. We nearly lost our anchor due to an overconfident crew member (that would be me) uncleating the rope before the anchor was fully stowed. My husband raced onto the deck and dove into the murky water, seizing the rope before it sank out of sight. My hero!
We discovered that nautical folks are not very precise in giving directions to their marinas so we had to wing it several times as far as where we should park the boat when we arrived after the dockhands had gone home. One harbormaster came in the next morning, surveyed our neatly tied boats, and said, “Wow, I never knew a boat that big could fit into those slips.”
Here we are: crammed into our itty-bitty slips.
We didn’t tell him that it had taken us 30 minutes to maneuver into the slip, and that we had cheated by putting part of our crew (that would be me and two kids) onto the dock and using ropes to pull us in, while we cursed like, well, sailors (under our breath, so the children couldn’t hear).
And, of course, the septic system clogged up…but we won’t discuss that issue in polite company.
Whatever disasters we faced, the ONE humiliation I did NOT wish to suffer was calling for “Sea-Tow”. Our maritime radio was constantly buzzing with distress signals from boaters who’d run aground and needed to be towed off a sandbar. As the navigator, it was a point of pride with me that we never suffer that ignominious fate.
I took this photo of the dreaded tow-boat only as we came back into our final dock at Fort Myers, knowing that I could hold my binoculars high in triumph. No matter how many pilings we’d dented, no matter how much entertainment we’d provided laughing dockhands with our inept boat-handling, no matter how many times we’d called Roy to explain to us how get the generator started again, we’d never, ever spoken the terrible words “Sea-Tow”.
Check back soon for more “Adventures in Houseboating”. There might even be a prize for a lucky reader.