Yachting for the rest of us


There is an enormous, sumptuous, globe-girdling motor yacht moored at the Vineyard Haven Marina. Not all of her vast superstructure is visible from my office window, but the red Spandex shroud on her onboard helicopter is. Her satellite uplink and other global communications antennae are also. Hats off to her owner and his crew, because she is meticulously kept and luxuriously outfitted and maybe 100 feet long. For her ship’s company, satellite communication and television reception are possible from the most inhospitable reaches of the farthest oceans, and more reliable than Comcast and ATT at my house in Vineyard Haven.

She caught my eye because this is the week our boat is hauled out for annual scraping and painting. It’s a big chore that we — my two boys and me, and this year some friends generous with their precious summer time — do ourselves, to keep the costs under control. The aircraft carrier slash superyacht visiting this summer does not engage the attentions of her owner the same way. And that’s just one of the differences between yachting that way and yachting our way.

She has a crew to manage, operate, and maintain her, and another to coddle her guests. They dine alfresco, on the first or second deck levels. They survey the passing scene from the top deck, 60 feet about the surface of the sea. I am certain that yachting aboard this seagoing Four Seasons resort is unlike the yachting with which I am familiar. It may be more like hotelling than yachting, I don’t know.

When I was a kid, yachting meant sailing small catboats around the harbor, landing at a sandy beach on an island not far from shore and camping there for the night, generally in the rain.

Later, there were trips across Buzzards Bay in a slow sailing cutter about 28 feet long from the tip of the bowsprit to the end of the mainboom. My dog, a big, hairy, panting German shepherd, sailed with me. Late one night at anchor in Quisset Harbor, friends came alongside in a tiny ketch. One of them stepped across from their boat to mine to secure the two cruisers together, and as he did, he stepped into the dog’s food in a bowl on the deck at the bow. There was no uniformed crew available to clean up the mess.

On those trips, we dined on bully beef, a tinned descendant and Spam-like poor relation of corned beef, easy to store and prepare. Cooking time was nil, because we served it right out of the tin, between two slices of bread with a generous slice of raw onion as a garnish. And warm beer.

Some cooking was possible aboard these tiny wooden cruisers. Each had an alcohol-fired stove or a Sterno stove that would, given time, boil water for coffee or heat up a can of soup. But, who had time? or patience?

On our first summer sailing trip to Maine, we rode the tide engine-less through the Annisquam River Canal back of Cape Ann and slipped into the rolling, rock-rimmed anchorage at the Isles of Shoals, off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, late at night. The antique gasoline auxiliary engines in all of the small boats I ever owned or sailed in never worked reliably. Mostly we ultimately took them out, tossed them overboard to serve as moorings, and went on without them. So, when we arrived at night on target at a destination such as the Isles of Shoals, really no more than a few rocky specks well off the coast, it was a nothing less than a miracle. Star Island, one of the islands in the group, featured a hotel that accommodated flocks of gentle, moderate mainlanders come for religious retreat and inspiration. Religious renewal was not a prime objective on this trip, but feeling our way safely to the Shoals’ restless anchorage had for us all the earmarks of a holy experience.

Astonishingly, Hollywood made a movie set at the Isles of Shoals, The Weight of Water (2002). It told a horrifying tale. “A newspaper photographer, Jean, researches the lurid and sensational axe murder of two women in 1873 as an editorial tie-in with a brutal modern double murder. She discovers a cache of papers that appear to give an account of the murders by an eyewitness. The plot weaves between the narrative of the eyewitness and Jean’s private struggle with jealousies and suspicions as her marriage teeters.” (IMDB) No better setting for an axe murder is what I say. The horror starred Sarah Polley, Catherine McCormack, and Sean Penn.

A few years ago, sailing in Maine, we were eight souls aboard a wooden sloop that comfortably accommodated four. One long night at anchor in Somesville, Mt. Desert, at the northern end of Somes Sound, the only fjord-like inlet on the East Coast, the three in the crew who could not find bunks below — or who could not abide the tight, sweltering quarters — slept on deck. They would have been devoured by the host of biting insects had it not been for the relentless downpour that soaked them in their sleeping bags.

Beneath the hovering presence of her helicopter, aboard the superyacht now moored in Vineyard Haven all guests sleep well. There is air conditioning. No one worries about the navigation. The diesel engines run reliably. Electricity is abundant; one merely flips a switch. Breakfast is served. Drinks are at five. Nantucket next perhaps, or Newport, and who cares whether the current runs fair? The dogs live in the onboard kennel. Guests can watch Jeopardy if they like, or the evening news, or CNBC.

Still, I have noticed that such posh yachting can be strenuous. There is a gym, and the trim, glam supercargo didn’t get to be the splendid physical specimens they are without working at it, working up a sweat each afternoon before it’s time to dress for the club or the dinner out.

Of course, there’s the spa and the shower to refresh oneself at the end of a long day of shopping and working out. Alas, not a cruising experience with which I am familiar.

A version of this column appeared in this space in 2002. DAC