The first full night aboard my boat, I had an anxiety attack.
Had I made a mistake?
I'd moved from Orlando, Florida - where I'd resided for ten years - back home to the Finger Lakes region of New York state.
Part of the reason for my move was practical: the studio I'd rented for six years was on the market. If it had sold, I'd surely see my rent raised to market rates, more than 75% what they'd been in 2010 when I'd moved in. Faced with what would likely be a choice between paying way more than I was comfortable with or moving, I decided to move proactively - onto a cabin cruiser.
I'd long looked into the idea of becoming a "real" live-aboard. I'd spent months browsing the internet, looking at houseboats across the southeast, cabin cruisers on the gulf coast, and sailboats up and down the Atlantic seaboard. The condition of the boats within my price range varied widely. Ocean-going vessels with salt damage? Boats listed for sale as "uninsurable" or "unfinanceable" because of their age and current location? The list of negatives seemed to outweigh the positives. The more I read, the more intimidating it became.
I also looked at the costs of living aboard. In addition to higher insurance costs - with some insurance companies declining insurance to live-aboards at all - I'd be looking at slip fees and utilities so high I might as well get a mortgage. Marinas in most of the coastal cities I was looking at even offered slip ownership, and for what some were selling for it might as well be a mortgage. I remembered seeing advertisements in the Charleston, SC airport on my way down to Florida in 2006 that touted slip ownership "before it's too late," and I was starting to understand what those ads were talking about.
On my annual vacation to upstate New York in July, I caught myself looking through the pages of Craigslist more than once. There were a lot of boats for sale - cabin cruisers, sailboats, houseboats, you name it - and the asking prices pretty much rivaled or beat any I'd seen in the south. What's more, they were almost all freshwater-only boats - it's not easy to find saltwater in any of the Finger Lakes, and many of these boats had spent their lives there. Best of all, the slip fees were amazingly low compared to other areas: I could get a seven-month seasonal slip for what I would pay for one month in some of the marinas I'd looked at down south.
I began to daydream about starting out my live-aboard experience up north, and relocating to the southern climes once I had some experience under my belt. That was starting to sound pretty good...
During my vacation I found myself driving out to some of the marinas I'd seen larger boats in. For years I'd made these drives, looking for 'For Sale' signs, getting as close to old houseboats and cabin cruisers as I could without risking being seen as a serious buyer. This year I had some severance pay in my pocket, and might actually be a serious buyer. Still, everything that I saw was either too small for a live-aboard experience, or too far out of my budget to be worthy of a serious look.
I'd seen one boat on Craigslist that had caught my eye: a 1977 Trojan Tri-Cabin. At 36 foot it was just the size I was looking for. Several ads for similar boats I'd seen all used the term "a lot of boat for the money" - and that described what I was looking for to a 't'. Still, it was just a bit more than I was comfortable paying for what might simply be a months-long experiment in regret. I tried to spot it on my trips to marinas in the area but it seemed nowhere to be found. I wondered if the current owner would take a lower offer - I hate haggling over price. I kept looking at boats online, sure that I would be returning to Orlando on August 1, as planned.
Just a day or two before I was due to return something happened: the price of the Trojan dropped $1500. That doesn't seem like a lot, but in the 'old cabin cruiser' market it is. It put the boat within range of what I was interested in spending, and made reaching out to the owner worthwhile. I emailed him and let him know that I was interested in taking a look.
"This is a big boat," he warned me. "It's not an express cruiser. This is a 36' foot boat with a 13' beam."
I could tell that he'd already had people come out who were surprised by the boat's size. I, too, hate time wasters; I assured him that a XXL boat was exactly what I was looking for.
"No bank will offer financing on a boat that's almost 40 years old," he informed me.
I assured him I was interested in making a cash offer.
I drove out to the marina to take a look. I found that, despite his warnings, I, too, was surprised by how large it was. This thing was huge. I'd seen boats this big, or bigger, on my marina visits, but the prospect of owning one makes it seem even larger. As I climbed the stairs to board and looked out over the roof of the salon it occurred to me that, if I bought this, I was about to relocate my entire life into the area I was standing over - and then I'd have to motor it down the canal.
I'd already decided that, as long as the boat appeared seaworthy, I would make an offer. I'd priced surveys and, despite the (good) advice to always get one, I knew that it was likely that no survey on a 40 year old boat would be without problems. My litmus test was simple: if both engines and the generated started and stayed on, and if I could walk throughout the cabins and deck without any significant creaking, it was worthy of serious consideration. I'd seen large cabin cruisers and houseboats being towed to their marina slips where they'd spend the summer serving as summer homes for their owners and, as much as I knew I'd love boating, the prospect of waking up every morning on the water in a boat that was actually livable was worth the risk. To me, at least.
When I graduated college my grandmother had given me money to buy a car as a graduation gift. This would be my first major purchase, and I had two choices: make a downpayment on something sensible, or blow it on something fun. I already had a fairly reliable Mustang convertible, so the obvious choice would be the former. Instead, I visited a store run by a guy who reconditions salvage title vehicles, and threw it all down on a junked Mustang.
"There's no warranty on a salvage title vehicle," the shop owner had told me. "If it breaks, you pay for the repairs."
The car was beautiful, had low miles for its age, and seemed to run like a dream. It was certainly out of the price range for what I'd pay for a brand new one, and I wanted it, so I made him an offer.
"NO WARRANTY?!" I remember my mother practically shouting. "Are you crazy?!?"
But once she'd seen it, in all of its teal and tinted glory, even she had to agree that it was a beautiful car. I didn't tell her that, a year into ownership, I found old paperwork stuffed behind the glove box that indicated the salesman had not only reconditioned it, but also set the odometer back 30K or so as well. I handed it down to a friend when I made my first reliable car purchase a few years later. Nearly a decade after I bought it he was still driving it, and it was still running remarkably.
I hoped that luck would stay with me if I purchased the Trojan. Still, I decided I'd better share my decision with my family before making a formal offer. The current owner was agreeable to my giving the family a tour so we made the arrangements, and I sat the family down to share my plan with them.
I thought that they'd try to talk me out of it, pointing out all of the flaws in my plan. Where will you live when it's not in the water? I pictured them saying. Do you even know how to drive a boat?
Instead, they seemed excited about the prospect of my returning to the area. So later that morning we piled into the car, my parents, brother, and I, and drove over to the marina to take a look. The look of surprise on their faces as we drove down the dirt road into the campground and they saw this boat towering over all of the smaller boats on its dock was priceless.
"That is a big, big boat," my mother said.
That she was.
The current owner greeted us and walked us down the dock, taking my mother's hand and helping her aboard. As she stepped up onto it she gazed out over the salon roof and shook her head, still marveling at the size. I think she'd pictured a cuddy cabin, or perhaps an express cruiser, with me and all of my things stuffed inside.
When I'd purchased my sailboat a decade before I invited my brother and his then-wife to come for a sail. They were experienced Sunfish sailors, sailing and racing small sailboats out west, and I remember the questions she'd asked me: Do you sleep on it? Does it have a cabin? Doesn't it seem kind of cramped down below? I'd been able to tell that she was picturing something comically small, and the look of surprise on her face as I greeted them at the dock, my 26' Chris-Craft Pawnee behind me, said it all. As we sailed she admitted as much: she'd thought that I was spending my nights on some sort of open-bow sailor, at first.
"This boat is big enough for all three of us to spend the night on," she'd said.
The look on my mother's face took me back to that moment, and as they toured the boat, the current owner pointing out all of the amenities, I sat back and enjoyed it.
"It has a shower?"
When the tour had concluded my mother turned to me and said, simply, "This is beautiful."
I hadn't made an offer yet, Mom - try not to sound so impressed.
"You'll drive it down to the marina for him, right?" she asked the current owner.
"I'll drive with him," he told her. "He needs to drive it himself, so he learns how."
"But you'll teach him, right?" she pressed.
The current owner assured her that he wouldn't leave until I was comfortable getting it in and out of my slip, and she interrupted him:
"I don't see why it needs to go out at all. It's more like a cottage on the water..."
She and he said the words "cottage on the water" together, and my mother seemed more comfortable. I noticed he didn't regale her with any of the stories of his many overnight trips like he had me...
After we left, the family fully on board, there was just one more thing to do: secure a slip for this beast.
That, it seemed, would be harder than I'd thought.
My old marina, in Watkins Glen, allowed boats up to 35' to overnight, but didn't have room for something so large on a seasonal basis. (The previous owner had told me a story about a close docking call at said marina that made me wonder if the 35' foot rule was set to keep this particular boat out, so I was careful not to mention that manufacturer when I called to inquire).
Both of the other marinas in Watkins Glen: full.
One marina had a slip it might fit into. I'd look later and determine that it would not. Several other marinas had slips for smaller boats, but nothing for a 36' or a boat with a 13' beam.
This was going to be a challenge.
In Geneva, Barrett Marine, where the boat had spent most of its life during the winter, was full.
Stivers Seneca Marine: also full.
State parks seemed to be the only options with slips available for a boat the size of the Trojan.
One claimed to have several, but they also had articles posted about how New York State had allowed the docks to decay and the marina to fall into disrepair. Eek.
The other initially said that they had none. They then revised that: they had a transient slip available, but they could let it go in place of a seasonal rental.
I'd always admired the cabin cruisers at the State Park as we puttered through in my family's smaller boats to get gas. Now, it looked like I'd own one.
I threw caution to the wind, made an offer, and found myself the current owner of a 1977 Trojan Tri-Cabin.
A cabin cruiser for my home.
And a state park for my backyard.
Was I about to have a series of anxiety attacks? Or would living on the water again be the liquid Prozac for my soul?
It was time to find out... what have I gotten myself into?