When you step aboard a boat you leave a lot on the dock. At first, you may not notice anything behind you but wooden boards, the odd line, maybe a hose or the stains of where a fish once rested. But soon you’ll find that your entire frame of reference is gone. Passive, involuntary living is a thing of the past. Stay at sea long enough and the very legs that carried you there are said to have been transformed completely.
You’re a boat person now.
My relationship with boats began as a child with a rusty, flat-bottom crabbing boat that plied the back bays of the Jersey Shore every summer. As I grew, the boats grew. Grady Whites. Beneteaus. After college, I discovered small cruise ships and spent a year at sea with retired America’s most interesting travelers. Currently, as the director of expedition development for Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic, I have had the privilege to travel aboard ships staffed by the best crews on earth. When I think about my life’s peak experiences, I’m not surprised that they have all involved a boat in some capacity.
Because of boats, I have seen 10 countries and every coastal U.S. state; I have touched a gray whale in the wild, felt the chill of an Alaskan iceberg, and reached a remote village in the Panamanian rain forest where a young boy taught me how to spear fish in the river. Boats carried me over a vibrant reef in Belize and put me in the middle of a dolphin feeding frenzy with thousands of them leaping through the air. I owe all of these experiences to the boats.
For my wedding, my wife and I chose to take our guests on the public ferry from Portland, Maine to Peaks Island across Casco Bay. How can you not get on a boat when you’re on the coast of Maine? The ride lasted only ten minutes, but our guests loved it and the memory of seeing my wife walk up the boat’s steel stairwell in her wedding dress and heels will never leave me.
Without boats I would believe in a more finite world, one that moves only a step at a time. I might be fooled into thinking the road trip is the great North American journey (Sail from Alaska to the Panama Canal and we’ll talk.), or that truly alien life forms exist only in outer space. I have seen the creatures with my own eyes.
As for the boats themselves, perhaps there is no sight more compelling than seeing one sailing on the horizon or motoring at high speeds across azure seas. These scenes have been photographed and painted and written about for millennia in prose and poem. But it is dangerous to over romanticize the experience. Charles Darwin realized this quickly after boarding the HMS Beagle for his five year journey around the world.
“It is well once to behold a squall,” he said about being at sea during a storm. “…however my imagination had painted something grand, more terrific in the full grown storm. It is a finer sight on the canvass of Vandervelde, and infinitely finer when beheld on shore…At sea…the water rises and sinks as if performing its usual task, the ship alone and its inhabitants seem the object of wrath.”
In six years of living in New York City, my most unique experience was unsuccessfully trying to steer an unseaworthy 20-foot boat down the East River. The motor flooded. We raised sail and tacked back and forth around water taxis, tugs and tankers. As we neared the lower east side, the giant wake of a barge shook us up so badly that we were thrown off course, the rudder slipped, and we were heading straight towards the piling of the Williamsburg Bridge with no wind to power us. In a last-ditch effort to save ourselves, we threw a line to a man who was fishing at the railing of the sea wall who quickly tied us off. Another thirty seconds in the strong current and we would have smashed into the bridge. 9-1-1 was called. Prayers were said. A quiet voice told me never to board another boat.
And yet I am perpetually drawn to boats. Most people are. We revere them; these strange contraptions that can make us feel so out of sorts and give us only the illusion of mastery over the sea. In that mix of awkwardness and daring we find intrigue and captivation. We find excitement. When life on land is so rote that we often forget it is even beneath us, a boat ride can be a revelation—even on a small lake. Then we realize that it is OK to leave our former selves behind. It is healthy. Because the person we find on the water becomes all the more interesting.