It’s a Shore Thing

“If you like, I would be happy to introduce you to our cleaning woman. She does a wonderful job.”
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Amy Schaefer sails aboard the 57ft yawl, Papillon, with her husband, Erik, and their two young daughters. The family is making the most of cyclone season in New Caledonia

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“If you like, I would be happy to introduce you to our cleaning woman. She does a wonderful job.”

I’m not sure what I expected when we arrived at the marina to ride out cyclone season in New Caledonia. I had a vague mental image of a halcyon world of daily showers and stepping lightly off our boat any time I wanted a fresh loaf of bread, dispensing with the unwelcome intermediate step of a wave-swept dinghy ride. I had certainly suppressed the memory of Guatemala, site of our last marina adventure, where an enormous rat moved aboard. We’d quickly disposed of the furry stowaway, but the experience still left me with mixed feelings about being tied to land. Our natural habitat is at anchor: the kids can swim, the rules are few and the price is right—our cruising attitude in a nutshell.

Alas, cyclone-force winds and life on the hook are not a good mix. Once again, it didn’t take long for me to realize that things are different in the marina world.

I took a sip of my wine and tried not to make shifty eyes at my hostess. “Thank you, that would be lovely,” I managed, my eyes wandering around their immaculate cockpit. Aside from the netting on the lifelines, there wasn’t a clue that two small children lived here. My boat also sometimes looks like that—for about three minutes. Then someone drops their cake down the grate flooring in the cockpit, or knocks over the orange juice or loses a Lego down the bilge. Not that we on Papillon live in squalor, but our lifestyle is more Erma Bombeck than Martha Stewart.

When we arrived in the marina in New Caledonia, I dusted off my cleanest shorts and T-shirt, and put on my brightest smile. As I walked the dock to share a polite bonjour with our new neighbors, I noticed that all of the women were wearing dresses—unstained dresses that post date the millennium—and the men wore button-down shirts with collars still intact. I began to entertain uncomfortable suspicions that these people own hangers and irons and other exotic clothes-tending items. On my boat, if I can’t wash it in a bucket and pin it to a stray line, it isn’t welcome.

Sartorial differences aside—this is a French territory, after all—I was optimistic. Surely my fellow dock dwellers and I had something in common; we all live aboard, and our pontoon is populated by young families. Aren’t we all comrades in the toy-bilge wars? 

It wasn’t long before a dock neighbor offered to collect our daughter, Audrey, alongside her son on the after-school pickup run. I gratefully accepted.

“And if ever you can’t get the kids,” I said, “I would be happy to walk them home.”

My neighbor chuckled and shook her head, and I mentally reviewed my offer for unintentionally humorous content. (My French remains a work in progress.) But her reaction was plain: Are you kidding me? Walk a pair of healthy five-year-olds the mile from school to the marina when you could drive? Oh, you crazy Canadians!

One morning as I hauled Erik up the mast, I noticed how quiet the marina is during the day. Our perfectly coiffed neighbors depart their boats each morning and return every evening, children in tow, to make their tired way into the galley to cook a meal. (Or warm up something their personal chef prepared; I don’t know anymore.) As I did so finally hit me: our fellow residents aren’t cruisers waiting out the weather; these are genuine grown-ups with paying jobs. Some of them were cruisers once, and most of them tootle around the lagoon on weekends, but we are the only ones itching to start passagemaking again. Everyone else is thinking about pension funds.

As the days went by, my fellow marina dwellers battered me with kindness, and I struggled to not to gape when these pleasant offers came my way. “I have a wonderful babysitter if you need one.” “We have a second car we never use—feel free to borrow it any time!”

A date with my husband? A functioning automobile? Two functioning automobiles? These were luxuries unheard of in our anchoring world.

Then, it happened, one Saturday as I was hanging up my laundry, wondering if I would ever come to understand these stylish people who so successfully straddle land and sea.“Yes! I got it!”someone cried.

Turning to look at the boat next door, I saw our neighbor, resplendent in a sweat-stained T-shirt and shorts, triumphantly brandishing the toilet hoses he had been wrestling with all morning. As he happily drained the contents into a bucket, Erik gave him a cheer, and I smiled to myself. Turns out even under an elegant veneer, we sailors are all the same after all.

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