The following article was featured in Living Aboard Magazine, January 2011, Volume 38, Number 1:

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Getting to Know our Boat

by Marshall Stiles

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Orion, is the third sailboat that my wife Maria and I have owned. We purchased the beamy, heavily modified, 1975, Irwin 10/4 sloop, in the summer of 2002. Even though it was now a year later, we still had a long way to go towards “getting to know our boat”.

Unlike our previous boats, Orion had been purchased in Fort Myers, Florida, after we had moved to Central Florida. This meant that we had to put some miles on the car in order to maintain and enjoy our boat. Many trips were made between Orlando and her slip, which was located in a canal just off the Caloosahatchee River. Orion became our weekend condo on the water. Although we made some trips entirely for maintenance purposes, we pretty much just started using the boat.

The five hour trips down the river to the Gulf of Mexico and the Inter-coastal Waterway meant less time in the clear waters of our desired cruising grounds along the coast. Upon our return from one of our weekend sails, a young couple across from our slip, who owned a Westsail 32 cutter, came over to introduce themselves. In the course of our conversation, they mentioned that they were moving to Pine Island. That got things started!

After a tour of Pine Island and various marine facilities, we found a slip on one of the canals in St. James City, which is located on the southern tip of the island. Arrangements having been made, a trip was planned to move Orion to a marina there. The charts were studied, and various anchorages identified along the way from our slip up the river to Pine Island.

After about ten years of boating, I had stubbornly come to realize that things rarely happen for us according to a schedule or a plan. By the time we finished all the preparations, shoved off, and headed down the river, the morning was spent.

At about supper time, we were approaching a channel near the mouth of the river. This meant the possibility of being in close quarters with much larger vessels. Beyond that there is another channel with a strong tidal flow across it. This area is referred to by local skippers as the “Miserable Mile”, and for good reason. With the early evening sun before us, we decided to anchor in a small cove called Glover Bight.

After we vigilantly maneuvered Orion around Cattle Dock Point, we dropped anchor as far east in the little cove as we felt comfortable. The wind was coming from the northwest. There was one sailboat to our west and a cabin cruiser with no lights further away to the north. The sailboat had a row of Jerry cans tethered to a board that was secured between two of its stanchions. As we ate our evening meal, a sailor appeared in the cockpit giving us a wave. We continued eating and relaxed as we watched the giant orange sun sink below the horizon.

When we are alone on the boat at night, sleep usually comes quickly after sundown, especially, in the calm of a quiet anchorage like this one. Our solitude, however, was short lived. A voice came out of the darkness, “Honey, I think I hear something!” Sure enough, I heard it, too. A little noise like scratching or crumpling paper.

At first we thought it was coming from the stern, then from the bow. I poked around in some of the, still unexplored, nooks and crannies of the boat. Although I didn't see anything, mice, giant cockroaches, and a few other creatures were subjects of conversation. We sat up in the dark waiting. When we heard the noise, we tried to catch the vermin in the beam of the flashlight.

This intense listening and imagining went on until I concluded that it must be something outside the boat in the water. I could not hear it when I stuck my head outside. I halfheartedly attempted to convince Maria of this, so we could go to sleep.

It was a long time before sleep came for me. The silence only served to intensify the noises, and my imagination went wild as I listened in the dark. Eventually, it seemed to me like little cracks were forming in the hull. “If only I could believe my own common sense!”, I thought. Eventually, exhaustion over took me, and I drifted off into a disturbed slumber.

The next morning we were aroused by the sun escaping into the cabin through one of the portholes. Orion hung on a limp anchor rode. The mirror like surface of the water around us was reflecting the rays of a new day in the early morning calm.

As we stirred and I made our espresso and milk on the galley stove, we casually speculated about the mysterious noises. In fact, we could still hear them if we were very still. “Perhaps the dock master at the new marina will know what those sounds are.”, I said.

At this point we did not have too far to go. Weighing anchor, we set off in calm waters. Fishermen coming from and going to their favorite fishing spots across the flats whirred by us. There were a few small skiffs with skippers dressed in work uniforms, likely on their way to work. Several came from Sanibel Island. One was on a jet ski. In the distance, a work barge was being towed by a work boat from the semi-protected anchorage off York Island. A few large pleasure boats started to appear, generating large wakes.

We lined up our bearing on the markers along the channel into St. James City, then picked out the Monroe Canal. After a slow ride northeast, the canal took a turn to the north. We soon arrived at the Hardware Store. This was the name of the marina, and yes, it was also a hardware store and chandlery, too. I say “was”, because sometime after we left our slip there, the property was sold and “improved”.

After we were secured in our slip, we went in to talk to the owners. They were a middle aged couple that had previously done quite a bit of sailing, lived on the island, and managed the business. The noises from the previous night still haunted me, so I attempted to describe it to them. Before I even had a chance to finish, I got the reply, “Those are shrimp!”

It was amazing to us that we had never experienced this before. There was a sense of relief to know it was not part of “getting to know our boat”, but “getting to know our waters” instead.

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