Iowa Writes

SUSAN COLE
Boat Insanity


My husband John and I have lived in more boats than houses. In 1972, we bought XL, an original 1903 Fire Island ferryboat, forty-eight feet long. We were in our twenties. John had sailed since he was four. I grew up in Ohio and didn't know about boats.
       We bought XL from Woody, who lived on her with his wife and baby in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and held up his jeans with a rope. When the boatyard hauled XL out, stinky masses of seaweed and muck, along with thousands of snail-like barnacles, clung to nearly every inch of the bottom. "You got a real garden under there," said one of the workers. The others grunted in agreement.
       The surveyor, a crusty New Englander, tapped a small hammer in different spots. He said, "This hull will outlive you." We were pleased that he felt the boat would hold together. Only later did we learn that his nickname was "Blind George."

My husband John and I have lived in more boats than houses. In 1972, we bought XL, an original 1903 Fire Island ferryboat, forty-eight feet long. We were in our twenties. John had sailed since he was four. I grew up in Ohio and didn't know about boats.
       We bought XL from Woody, who lived on her with his wife and baby in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and held up his jeans with a rope. When the boatyard hauled XL out, stinky masses of seaweed and muck, along with thousands of snail-like barnacles, clung to nearly every inch of the bottom. "You got a real garden under there," said one of the workers. The others grunted in agreement.
       The surveyor, a crusty New Englander, tapped a small hammer in different spots. He said, "This hull will outlive you." We were pleased that he felt the boat would hold together. Only later did we learn that his nickname was "Blind George."
       As we worked on XL nights and weekends that first summer, other boaters would offer encouraging remarks like, "You know the two best days in a boat owner's life? The day you buy her and the day you sell her!" Each evening, we fell asleep, exhausted.
       At night as I showered off the grime, though, far from feeling daunted, I admired the way the shipwright who built her had curved the planks upwards on the bow. I had even started to like the smells of paint and sawdust and low tide that engulfed me as I worked, and the background noises of grinders and pressure washers and gears shifting on the travel-lift. I had entered the world of boats.
       XL's leaks multiplied. We would wake up to find the water up to the floorboards and call in to work sick as we pumped it out manually. John started sleeping with one foot on the floor, ready to spring into action if disaster should strike.
       After we lived aboard for about four years, we hauled her out of the water again for repairs. In the heat of summer, we dug out worn caulking and stiffened the rotten wood with epoxy, repeating the work we had done when we first bought the boat. After a last backbreaking push in early fall, we asked the boatyard to launch the boat.
       The next morning as John and I entered the boatyard gate, a fireman yelled, "Get back!" We raced over to the fire truck near the water.
       The tip of a black smokestack stuck out of the water, pointing sideways like a broken finger. Through the murky water of the Norwalk River in Connecticut, I could just make out a milky white shape. She looked like a stricken animal, her soft white skin undulating helplessly under the yellowish brown water. Red smudges, the remains of the scarlet geraniums I had kept aboard, floated down the oily river.
       A pump had shorted out during the night and XL had filled with water. We stood there, keeping vigil, while the firemen raised her.
       As we stepped inside that afternoon, our deck shoes slid on the brown slime that coated the walls and ceiling, the orange Scandinavian dining table which had been our first big purchase together, and the stacks of Beatles and Bob Dylan records. The stench was overpowering, a blend of sea muck and dead fish. I held onto the door frame to keep from slipping, frozen in place, unable to move or think.
       Over the next week, we scrubbed XL down with bleach, soap and vinegar. We moved back aboard, but we never felt the same about her after the sinking. Before, even when we awoke with water rising through the floorboards, we had faith that we could keep XL afloat. Now, that faith was broken.
       Our next boat was a fifty-foot double-ended 1920 Colin Archer sailing ketch built in Norway. We named her Phaedrus after a character in a book we were reading, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Phaedrus was the character's alter ego on a quest to find a higher quality of life, a quest which eventually drove him insane.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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SUSAN COLE

Susan Cole has attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival annually since 2007.  She is currently working on a memoir about a three-year voyage she took with her husband and young daughter on their sailboat Laughing Goat from their home in Connecticut to the Western Caribbean.

This page was first displayed
on March 07, 2014

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