Learning to Live Aboard and Live Together

On May 20, 2009, we were in St. Marys, Georgia, and it had been raining as hard as it could for 10 straight days. The wind was blowing a steady 30 knots with gusts over 40. Everything was soaked.
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On May 20, 2009, we were in St. Marys, Georgia, and it had been raining as hard as it could for 10 straight days. The wind was blowing a steady 30 knots with gusts over 40. Everything was soaked—clothes, beds, food, everything—and starting to stink. The rigging on the boat docked next to us had been going Clang! Clang! Clang! for several days and hadn’t stopped once. I was thinking about chopping a hole in its hull. 

That same day I spent four hours trying to fix our starboard head before finding out it was obsolete and parts were not available. The port engine freshwater pump and the starboard engine raw-water pump trashed themselves. One of the gears inside the port dinghy davit had come loose, and we were lucky no one had died. Things were breaking faster than I could fix them. I was beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea. 

That’s when the boat caught fire.

“I smell smoke!” is not something you ever want to hear on a sailboat. It ranks right up there with “We’re sinking!” and “Prepare to be boarded!” But that’s what my partner, Marlene, screamed and what jolted me awake from my nap. The smoke pouring out from behind the nav station was not a bad dream; it was a very real nightmare. We were on fire. On a boat. After dark. In the rain.

Fire extinguishers, purchased that very day, prevented a total disaster. I ripped out the VHF radio to gain access to the flames flickering behind the smoking nav station and emptied the yet-to-be mounted fire extinguisher in their direction. The flames went out and so did the lights. Everything got real quiet—and real dark. We unplugged the shore power, let the smoke clear and crawled into our wet bunk. We were hungry, tired and scared. In that moment, I was pretty well convinced that this whole cruising thing was not such a good idea after all.

We will never know what caused the fire, but it took four days to repair the damage. Four days of working on my knees in completely inaccessible areas to run new wires, cables and hoses. After the fourth day, I was having a hard time remaining cheerful. The rain kept pounding down, the wind kept howling, and the Clang! Clang! Clang! from next door never once let up. Even Marlene, who is always positive, was getting worn down. Returning from her third trip in the blinding rain in as many days to the West Marine store in nearby Jacksonville, Florida, she came through the companionway, totally drenched, and asked without a trace of humor, “Are we having fun yet?”

As it always does, the weather cleared, and six days later we finally cast off. We didn’t know where we were going—perhaps the Chesapeake Bay—but we were on our way, and I was almost sure I had Different Drummer ready to take us there. The wind died down, the sun came out, and it was time to do as Mark Twain advised: “Throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” 


Thirty minutes later, we ran aground in the St. Marys River.

Six months earlier, in Key Largo, Florida, Marlene and I had fallen in love at first sight with Different Drummer. The 39-foot Prout catamaran called to us like a lost child. For two years, we had looked at cats from Annapolis to Hope Town and had seen some real dogs. Different Drummer had soul. She looked like a jungle cat getting ready to pounce. Her interior was teak and cherry with hand-stitched Sunbrella upholstery that looked like it had never been used. She had two engines and two heads and could sleep six people easier than they could get along. After the survey, sea-trial and haul-out, we signed the papers on my birthday, December 17. 

It was the first boat either of us had owned, but we were not total neophytes. Marlene and I had gone sailing 15 times before with my best friend Steve and his wife, Kim, on their 44-foot Beneteau, Nature’s Way. When Steve and Kim sailed off to the Abacos and never sailed back, our mooching came to an end, but our addiction did not. We had to buy a sailboat of our own, because once you’ve been there, once you’re hooked, you can’t stop.

“The Plan,” as we called it, was to spend six months on board Different Drummer, romantically sailing under full moons, and six months in Kansas City, where Marlene owns a tax business. I’m a retired truck mechanic, and I was looking forward to never turning wrenches again. We were going to sail where the weather suits our clothes, to where the water is gin-clear, to where the lobster and cold beer have no end. That was The Plan. 

But first we had to get the boat out of Florida.

Florida law says that if you are a non-resident who buys a boat from a non-resident, and the boat is in Florida waters, you don’t have to pay Florida sales tax—so long as you get out within 90 days. If you don’t move the boat, the sales tax doubles. If you lie about it, and say you moved the boat and didn’t, and you get caught, the sales tax quadruples, your boat gets confiscated and you are sent to a deep, dark hole. Or something like that. 

Bottom line: since Marlene had to be back in Kansas City for tax season starting February 2, we had to get out of Florida, unless we wanted to cough up a chunk of change.

Toward the end of January we untied from the mooring ball in Key Largo and motored north toward St. Marys, Georgia, 420 miles away. We had never before sailed a boat by ourselves. Heck, we had never lived together. Four hours into our sail, it began to rain and the port engine stopped running.

 Marlene and Dennis

Marlene and Dennis

In each of the last three years, as soon as tax season ends, Marlene and I have left Kansas City, driven to the East Coast, boarded Different Drummer and provisioned and scrubbed and repaired and checked and rechecked everything, everywhere, before setting sail for the next six months to destinations unknown. We have sailed from Key Largo to the head of the Chesapeake Bay, back down to Cape Lookout, North Carolina, then up to the Bay again. Savannah. Charleston. St. Michael’s. The Choptank River. 

We have logged over 4,000 miles at an average speed of around 5 knots. Sometimes we have gone nowhere at all. Annapolis. Beaufort. Coinjock. Manteo. 

We have been welcomed into 300-year-old towns we’d never heard of by strangers who became friends. Oriental. Little Washington. McClellanville. Swansboro.

They have joined us in our cockpit for sundowners, and we have been invited into their homes. We always feel sad when we sail on, until we sail on. Albemarle Sound. Pamlico Sound. The appropriately named Great Dismal Swamp. Elizabeth City, “The City of Hospitality,” which welcomes cruisers with roses, wine and free docking. The Chesapeake Bay.

The first time we cleared Hampton Roads and I realized we were finally on the fabled Chesapeake Bay, on our very own boat, I wanted to cry. Maybe I did. Visualizing all the adventurers, pirates and politicians that had come before us, we dropped the anchor and our clothes, and went swimming. 

Solomon’s Island. Vera’s White Sands Bar. San Domingo Creek, where Michener spent two years writing Chesapeake, and we spent two nights on anchor, reading it again. 

 Ocracoke Island

Ocracoke Island


Tiny Ocracoke Village on Ocracoke Island, the southernmost island in the chain of the Outer Banks, North Carolina, has become our favorite destination. Fewer than 1,000 people, largely descended from pirates and shipwreck survivors, live there. Located 35 miles east across Pamilico Sound from River Dunes, Ocracoke Island is only accessible by boat or private plane, and is an easy daysail—on an easy day. The inexpensive National Park Service docks, with water and electricity, but no showers, are few. But they’re usually available. 

When you anchor in the protected waters of Silver Lake, the Ocracoke lighthouse shines over your boat every night, just as it has every night since 1823. Brown pelicans sleep on pilings and act like you’re the nuisance. “High tide” becomes “hoi toid” when pronounced in the local dialect. The village surrounds the harbor, and once you’ve found the dinghy dock, shops and restaurants are only a short walk away. Across the street at an ice cream stand, a man named Tim rents classic one-speed bicycles that you can ride to the undeveloped 16-mile-long Atlantic Beach, voted number one in the United States in 2007 by Florida International University professor Stephan Leatherman, infamously known as “Dr. Beach.” Bicycles are the preferred form of transportation, and shoes are discouraged. There is live music everywhere, but it fades away once the sun goes down. 

Calabash. Myrtle Beach. Hilton Head. Rock Hall.

I am now sitting in Peculiar, Missouri,and it is snowing hard. Last night’s low was 6F, but it is forecast to warm up and change to freezing rain in time for the evening rush hour. Different Drummer is patiently waiting in a slip in Oriental, North Carolina, and Marlene just left for the office, reminding me to “stay warm!” 


The Plan is working. From May to November, we live in an area that is shorter than a school bus, and less than twice as wide. In this confined space, we enjoy all the comforts we need and glide in and out of civilization as we choose. With our solar panels and wind generator, Different Drummer is self-sustaining for two weeks at a time, if we conserve energy. In this confined space, we have learned to live with each other, and we have learned to make it work. 

During the other six months, Marlene is submerged in tax season and I work on my list of projects and nurse my cabin fever. Soon I will head back to North Carolina to ready the boat for next spring, destination unknown. 

When I wasn’t looking, The Plan took over.

I still turn wrenches, and we still have more gin than gin-clear water. The endless lobster is sometimes tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches, but they taste just as good. Sometimes the beer’s not cold. We try not to sail at night, but the full moons at anchor always leave us breathless. I have never felt better. I feel like the longer we sail the younger we get. I didn’t plan on that. 

Photos by Dennis Mullen and Peter Nielsen. Illustration by Eric Hanson



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