Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Recently, I went swimming against my will (the boat made me do it). I was trying to get a head start at cleaning the bottom growth off the hull before I hauled her two weeks ago. I can’t explain it, but since arriving in Key West, I’ve been afraid of the water. It’s an irrational fear, I know. I’ve grown up by the sea, swimming in icy waters in both Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. I’ve swam alongside barracuda in the Caribbean, and jumped into unfamiliar and frigid black waters that seemed bottomless from the edge of the rocks in the Isle of Mull in Scotland. But when I get in the water here (latest marine reports put the water in Key West Harbor at 88 degrees Fahrenheit) I panic, and breathing becomes difficult, and any string of seaweed slipping across the back of my neck or any distant splash causes me to race to the front of the boat where I can grab onto the head rig and pull myself out of the water, if only to hang above the surface for 30 seconds to regain my composure.

It’s a whole other challenge to then put my head under the water. I find something unsettling about seeing my boat from underwater, how she seems to be suspended so effortlessly in air. And the silence is, well, disquieting. Paradoxically, it somehow feels peaceful and protected. I think about how a boat is finally safe once it’s resting on the bottom, and while it marks the end of the ship’s story, it also dissolves the almost constant worries of the weary sailor who has fought so long to keep her afloat. I guess the trouble with all these thoughts are that they just seem too soon to relate to my boat.

Eventually on this particular day, I did put my head under, so I could scrub further under the hull. I tried not to let my eyes wander from the job at hand; I didn’t want to see the flow of the sea grass on the bottom, just a few feet deeper than the keel. For me, staying in the water is like being dropped into a pit full of innocuous grass snakes apart from for one token rattlesnake, while blindfolded and not knowing where, when, or if that rattlesnake is going to strike. This may sound extreme, but to me it is an accurate analogy. I managed to focus for about 10 minutes. I worked my way from stern to bow, scrubbing away and occasionally slicing my hands on barnacles as I braced myself away from the side, until a passing boat tossed me a glove (seems they’ve done this before). The cuts they leave are like deep paper cuts, and they stung in the salt water. I was less worried about the pain though than what the blood may have been attracting! As I completed the upper portion of the port side, I approached the bow and allowed my eyes to drift forward to my mooring chain, following it down to the bottom. It was the first time I saw what was actually responsible for holding my boat in place. Yes, it is indeed a sunken boat, but not just ANY boat… it is a wooden boat. No seaweed or splashing fish or hammerhead shark could have made my clamber out of the water any faster. This reaction may take some explaining, except to my fellow wooden boaters. Seeing the remains of the little boat, which by the looks of her was quite a sweet thing in her day, it was like finding a corpse. This was the first feeling that developed upon first glance, but it’s probably rooted in a deeper fear; a fear of knowing that it is the eventual fate of most wooden boats, mine being no exception. My next job is to face my fears, and go back down there and accurately assess how strong the remains are, and how my chain is attached. I’m hoping it’s wrapped around a lead or iron keel, rather than some part of the disintegrating hull.

I found it coincidental that my boat should end up being tied to another wooden boat whose days were up, wooden boats being scarce as they are around here. I struggled with how to feel about what laid before me… is it bad luck? Is it a testament to the extremes of weather and the challenge to keep any boat safe in Hurricane zone? Or is it little more than a testament to neglect, a boat whose owner had turned his (probably) back on her, and was left to survive the storms without the help she obviously needed?

Or is it good luck? Is it a less fortunate boat, now settled with its own lot and willing to oversee the survival of a sister still afloat? The thing about such superstitions is that we have a tendency to make them mean whatever suits our own desires best.