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The less complicated, the more a boat is used and loved

2010 January 4
I was wandering through a boat show recently, alternating in equal measures between lust for a new boat and gasping from sticker shock.

I came upon a pretty little 22-footer that reminded me vaguely of several small boats that had populated my past, and so I stepped aboard to take a look at this latest generation. No sooner had I settled my fanny in the cabin than Smiling Bob, the Boat Salesman From Hell, parked himself in the companionway. My exit was thus blocked unless I signed on the dotted line.

I find salesmen who follow you around to be loathsome creatures, whether it's an open house or a car dealership or a boat show, but that's a topic for another column. I just didn't want to body slam Smiling Bob to get out.

"Pretty darn comfy, isn't she?" he started. "Betcha don't have a couch that soft at home!"

I fingered the settee. "Feels like leather," I said, hoping to distract him. "It is!" he said, sensing a pending sale.

I took another look and, sure enough, this little weekender had genuine leather upholstery. And as I looked around, I realized that I had stepped not into a 22-footer, but a 60-footer that had taken reverse steroids. Built into the bulkhead was a flat-screen television that was larger than the one I have at home, which guests laugh at when they visit. There were stylish wall sconces that looked like they came from a mansion. And there on the wall was … a power receptacle! This itty-bitty boat had shore power!

Smiling Bob saw me looking, and went to Page Two of his pitch: "Yep, plug your blender right in there and knock out pina coladas all weekend!"

The thought alone knocked me out. I was dumbfounded. This toy boat, which was powered by an outboard on which you still had to yank the starter cord, had leather seating, a flat screen television and shore power.


I managed to get past Smiling Bob without signing, and left him moping in the cockpit. From a safe distance, I turned to look back, and the years seemed to fall away.

I was remembering my Cal 20, which was everything that this boat wasn't. It was simple. It was cheap. It was bulletproof.

And it was great fun.

When I bought Cal 20 No. 60 and named her Ping Pong in honor of her hull material (I'd previously owned only wooden boats), it had a pair of vinyl cushions that redefined the word "thin." I've seen thicker postcards. I actually looked inside one to see if someone had stolen the padding. But I could spill beer and potato chips on them, and never be concerned. And I seemed to sleep just fine after a day on the water, too.

Certainly the most endearing feature of the Cal 20, aside from her simplicity and joy to sail, was that I could literally rinse her out with the dock hose after a weekend at the island.

When I bought her used, she had apparently been owned by a chain smoker, and the fiberglass headliner was yellow with tobacco stains and the boat smelled like an ashtray.

The solution was simple, of course. I put on my bathing suit, threw the cushions on the dock, grabbed the hose and a short-handled brush, and lay down inside. Half an hour of upside-down scrubbing with a bucket of soapy water and the stains were gone. I pumped the bilge, and the boat was soon dry and smelling pleasantly of Tide detergent.

What happened to hose-them-out boats? Do we really need leather cushions and flat screens to have fun sailing? And where would I get the shorepower to run that blender if I'm sitting at anchor in a quiet cove? The mere presence of all those goodies would mean I was consigned to sailing endlessly from marina to marina.

Flashlight batteries powered everything on Ping Pong that needed electricity, from the running lights to the reading lights to the radio. No fuss, no muss. The bilge pump was muscle powered, but with her shallow bilge, a couple of yanks on the handle emptied her quickly. This was long before GPS, of course, but I was perfectly safe and quite content to use a paper chart and to hone my navigation skills so I could hit the outer buoy in a dense fog. The steaks were grilled over charcoal on a transom barbecue, and they (along with the beer) were kept cold in an Igloo filled with ice.

Other of my boats didn't even have electric reading lights, but had gimbaled kerosene lamps that sailors have used for centuries. There is something both romantic and relaxing to enjoy a good book by a light that occasionally flickers.
The more complex the boat, the less likely you're going to really enjoy it. Complicated boats cost more to buy, they're more expensive to maintain, and they give you more reasons not to go sailing. "No, we're not going out today. We're waiting for the service guy to look at the flat screen TV."

What kind of misplaced logic is this?

Leather upholstery or blenders or televisions do not improve sailing. Just sitting in the cockpit gives you the widest screen ever. Sailing is about freedom: freedom from land, freedom from complications. It's just wind and sails and spray and you.

The world is in economic upheaval, and I would suggest that one way out is to simplify our lives. With my Cal 20, I could be sailing on a whim: grab a jacket, cast off the lines, hoist the sails, forget my troubles.

I'm not alone with this line of thought. I have several friends who have downsized from rather luxurious sailboats to simple weekenders. The original reason was to save money, but they've found they're having a lot more fun, too.

Boatbuilders are struggling to stay afloat in this economy, and I would counsel them to consider the simple boat as a life preserver. Make them uncomplicated, make them inexpensive, and sell lots of them.

Now is a good time to get back to the basics. Go sailing on a simple boat and enjoy.