An hour before the sun scales the horizon I prepare to step off Ferrity, the 30 foot sailboat that I call home. A gusty north-northwest wind pushes the thermometer’s 23 degrees into single-digit windchill.
Chesapeake Bay's normal tidal range is around two feet, but a strong, persistent, northerly wind can blow another two feet of water out of the bay. This morning, Ferrity’s foredeck lies three feet beneath the dock.
Before stepping up to the dock I scan the area for ice. Built of wood planking, open above and below to the weather, docks ice over long before sidewalks. No rain or snow fell last night and the wind has driven away frost so it appears clear.
Tugging the bow line, I pull Ferrity closer then step up carefully. On the dock, the wind curls around shower-shoe-clad feet before gusting up my bathrobe as I head for the shore-based bathroom and showers.
On a summer day the facilities are ninety-seven paces from “home.” After an ice storm or during rare blizzard conditions, the distance doubles as it becomes necessary to traverse the dock, then sidewalk – sometimes with baby steps, sometimes on hands and knees.
Falling in is to be avoided. As an experienced liveaboard I know where to find the nearest ladder should I slip off the dock. After a heart-stopping plunge into thirty-degree water there isn’t time to think and search. Survival requires immediate action.
This is my twentieth year living aboard sailboats. I spent the final four winters aboard my previous boat, Sun Po, in Hawaii. What winters?
Prior to Hawaii, ten winters passed on San Francisco Bay, the last five at Pier 39. As Mark Twain never said “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”
My first five winters aboard Sun Po were right here on the Chesapeake, some in Annapolis, one in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Time has softened my memories of those winters so long ago. I remember the floating docks of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor which eased the step ashore, but the trek from my slip to the bathroom was well over a hundred yards.
Another winter, docked at Annapolis City Marina, I fell in while boarding Sun Po.
No, I hadn’t been drinking, a precursor to many winter liveaboard fatalities. A north wind had blown water from the bay during an unusually low tide. Using all limbs, I spidered between ice covered dock, dock line, and icy deck but fell anyway. Yep, the water was cold. As a wintery precaution Sun Po’s stern ladder was down. A few frantic strokes later I pulled myself aboard.
The other notable event that winter was the long, cold spell that froze the top six inches of Spa Creek. The ice-eaters (electro-mechanical devices to move the water) were unable to keep up with the enduring cold.
Now, after a three-year hiatus ashore in Charleston, SC I’m back aboard and back for another Chesapeake winter. Ouch!
Besides the morning trek to the showers I struggle to warm my “home.” Ferrity's living area is about seven feet wide by fifteen long with a ceiling height of six and a half feet at the peak. The hull (walls) is solid fiberglass - no insulation - and the floor or foundation is immersed in thirty-degree water. The temperature gradient between toes and nose can be thirty degrees.
And I love it.
No, not really. I dislike most of winter, a time of unpleasantness I call it. But sometimes, cabin-fever erupts on a warm-enough day that I can slip Ferrity from the dock, sail across a boat-free Chesapeake Bay, hot chocolate steaming in hand, and dream of warmer weather.