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Our Trawler Goes to the Spa

Haulouts reveal a boat’s inner life — and the owners’ secrets, too

When you live aboard a well-worn boat, to get somewhere sometimes you have to stay put. On a brisk day early in the new year, a muscular southwesterly heaved seawater to our trawler’s bridge deck as we pounded and heaved down-Bay from Smith Island with only freighters for company. We turned gratefully into the calm sanctuary of the Corrotoman River for a long-planned haulout.

Fresh paint was the goal. Getting ready for it uncovered flaws that metal fittings, teak trim, old paint and tired caulk had long hidden. Prep work was slow. An hour’s achievement: removing four cleat bolts that straining dock lines had bent into S-shapes.

The vessel had an archaeology to it. Here: a stainless steel screw with a shiny flat spot, polished for 28 years by an edge of Fiberglas as the boat worked up and down over the waves. There: a two-foot void in wood core where years of raindrops, taking on the color of tea, had found their way to the bilge, wetting the V-berth and the forward head along the way.

“Rain has ruined more boats that the sea has,” Yankee Point Marina yard foreman Wayne Bishop told us.

We moved ashore into a knotty pine cottage whose space seemed unlimited. Our clothes hung luxuriously in wide closets. We stood on the still kitchen floor and did dishes, quietly watching whitecaps on Myer Creek. Weather forecasts lost their urgency.

The boat went into a heated work shed and looked like a beached whale. Modern materials in skilled hands erased the trawler’s flaws one by one. Indestructible Coosa board replaced the vanished sections of wood core. Epoxies, a sort of boat Botox, smoothed the cracks of time.

You don’t buy a boat to make money, but in 2004 we thought we had a deal when Bright Pleiades fell into our hands. Now we’ve spent more fixing it than we did buying it. Half the time it’s been in a yard, not on the water.

But the craft has become our vehicle to reality, like an airliner from which one pensively observes the distant and orderly world below. We calibrate the land from the water perspective.

Poop Deck, Literally

On earlier haulouts, we had replaced rusted fuel tanks and worn mechanical systems. An epic project at the start was the holding tank, which stores sewage to be pumped out ashore (dumping it in coastal waters is illegal). Our first weekend cruise with landlubber guests revealed leaks in spectacularly odorous fashion. We didn’t hear from them again.

During excruciating hours repairing the tank, we found out a bit about ethics. The surveyors hired on our behalf during purchase negotiations had ignored this tank. Asked how often it needs to be emptied, the boat broker changed the subject. The sources of the leaks proved to be original plumbing fittings made of inferior stainless steel when the vessel was new. Now we know that Taiwanese boatyards are famous for inspired carpentry and infamous for substandard stainless.

The Y-valves that let you dump sewage overboard when you’re offshore proved to be salt-encrusted in the overboard direction and clean toward the holding tank. Had the prior owners, who we heard had lived aboard, sent their sewage straight overboard, knowing about the leaks and taking the easy but forbidden way out? Delivered to us, the Y-valves were secured in the holding tank position, either surreptitiously by the owners or perhaps innocently by the broker.

Chores vs. Dreams

Back to the present, though — the boat gleaming with new paint and spring all around — the gritty hours faded. The nearness of getting back on the water sent us to the nautical charts once again with dreams of creeks, rivers and islands to explore.

Scientists on the Bay — the usual subject of this column — also move between the reality of painstaking daily tasks and their own dream lives. Biologist George Abbe of the Estuarine Research Center on the Patuxent spends countless days in a small boat laboriously counting crabs. Completing 40 years of this seminal work along with research on oysters, he soon will retire to give more time to his coveted wood carvings of birds.

Science educator Jacqueline Takacs reflects on her years of explaining the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons to families and students who happen by. “The youngsters and the retirees are attentive to the Bay’s crisis,” she says. “Everybody else is too busy putting food on the table to consider seriously the ominous message of Bay science.”

And so it goes with boats and with lives: too busy getting the daily work done to do our real jobs of dreaming big and making a better world.

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