“Higher in the Gulf Stream,” an excerpt from Boat Girl: A Memoir of Youth, Love & Fiberglass (2012), is about the first of my family’s fifteen annual migrations south from the Tidewater area of Virginia to the Bahamas. Boat Girl is about my life growing up on a boat and spans from before I was born to the present time, weaving in memories that are mostly true but are only as reliable as the narrator (the five-year-old me, in this section).
I spent my entire childhood, from my birth in 1979 until I turned 19 and moved out, living aboard a 47-foot sailboat with my sister and my parents. We followed in the footsteps of my maternal grandparents, who ran a veterinary practice in Portsmouth, and who, in their retirement, began traveling south in the winters aboard their trawler.
My sister and I were boat-schooled from kindergarten through high school, and never set foot in a classroom until we went to college. After college, I bought and lived aboard my own 28-foot sailboat in North Miami while attending graduate school. Throughout our travels, we encountered drug smugglers, federal agents, hurricanes, sharks, and people from all over the world. It wasn’t always an easy life, and it wasn’t always fun being a family of four confined to the very small space of a sailboat, but this life was the best gift my parents could have given.
The East Coast and Bahamas, Fall and Winter 1984-1985
It takes about sixteen hours to drive from Virginia to South Florida on I-95. When you’re on a cruising sailboat, traveling at about seven nautical miles per hour, it can take a month. The first year we went south, it snowed in North Carolina and the decks of our sailboat were dusted with white. Carolyn and I made snowballs and threw them into the brown water where they steamed as they melted. We passed through the bridges—bascule bridges, swing bridges, fixed bridges—concrete and metal structures that stretched across uninhabited water and marked the only trace of civilization we’d see all day. Eventually, when we’d been making the trip back and forth on the Intracoastal Waterway for several years, the bridge tenders started to recognize us. “It’s about time y’all passed through here,” they said. I wanted to be a bridge tender so I could sit and look at all the boats that passed through.
My grandparents had gone south ahead of us on their trawler, and they were already over in the Bahamas by the time we left Virginia. “If you leave now, you can travel with us and we can show you where to go,” my grandfather had told my dad.
But we waited, because everything on the boat had to be perfect, and because my other grandparents were trying to talk us out of going. “We’ll do it the safe way the first trip,” my dad had told them. “We’ll stay inshore, on the Intracoastal, where we’ll always be in sight of land and in VHF range of the Coast Guard.” The VHF was a short-range radio that people on boats used to communicate with each other, the nautical equivalent to the truckers’ CB.
The palm trees started in South Carolina—scraggly silver palmettos that spiked the banks of the Waterway. The weather turned warm around Fort Pierce, FL, where taller palms of different pedigrees lined the shore, and the water turned bluer than I’d ever seen it. We started shedding layers of clothing, exposing white limbs to the tropical sun. It felt like we were awakening and unfurling, our skin prickling with heat and excitement. Fort Lauderdale and Miami were everything I had imagined they would be—colorful cities where speedboats whipped past our lumbering sailboat and skyscrapers reached towards the clouds. Anchored in Biscayne Bay, our last stop before crossing the Gulf Stream, we could see the Miami skyline lit with neon colors spreading out behind us. I thought it was beautiful.
“Look at all that craziness,” my dad said. “All those people, stuck in the city. They have no idea what life is really about.” He sat in the cockpit and drank bourbon from a Tervis tumbler. “Miami is an awful place,” he said, moving his gaze from the skyline to me.
“Too many people crammed into too little space. Bad things. Crime and drugs.” He shifted his gaze again, this time to the blackness that spread out in front of us. A few flashing markers and lights from fishing boats sparkled in the darkness of Biscayne Bay, but for the most part it was black. The wind here was warm, and I liked the way it ruffled my bangs and the way it smelled like flowers. I would learn later that the oleander it smelled like was highly poisonous. “Out there,” my dad said, pointing into the blackness, “is where we’re going. You’re going to like it much better than Miami.”
I sat and sipped a glass of water and stared at the Miami skyline, wondering what it would be like to be in the middle of all those lights.
I woke up the next morning with a stomach flu. My dad tried to figure out where I had gotten it. He decided that I had probably picked it up from the grocery store in Miami where we had done our last-minute provisioning.
“Dammit. I should have known better than to take them ashore in Miami,” he said, pacing back and forth in the Chez Nous’ small main salon while I perspired in the forward cabin, leaning over the V-berth every now and then to throw up in a large steel mixing bowl that my mom had placed on the floor next to my bed for that reason. The marine weather was being forecast over the VHF radio, and my dad scribbled notes on a legal pad as he listened. The voice from the National Weather Center was computerized, and it reminded me of the words that came from the Speak-And-Learn toy that my Neale grandparents had purchased for my sister and me. “Waves inshore 2 to 3 feet and higher in the Gulf Stream,” the computer voice said. My dad wrote it down.
We stayed at anchor in Biscayne Bay for another day, waiting for my fever to go down, but we couldn’t wait too long because, according to my dad, we had a “weather window.” We didn’t know how long the window was going to stay open. Other boats left ahead of us, heading for the Bahamas, their crew calling out to each other on the VHF, excited to be heading into the Gulf Stream.
On the day after my temperature returned to normal, I woke up to the sound of the diesel engine and the anchor chain as it clanked into the anchor locker at the foot of my bed. My dad stood on the deck right above me, shouting back to Mom, who was at the helm, to “motor up on it,” and “stop.” He operated the electric windlass, which pulled the chain across its cogs and dumped it into the locker. I could smell the seawater and bits of seaweed that clung to the chain, a rich and heavy smell. When the anchor was up, it made a loud bumping sound as it nested securely into its spot on the bowsprit, and my dad’s feet thumped on the deck above me as he moved to fasten the chain in place. The hatch above my bed was open, and the same wind I smelled before, heavy with flowers, blew in through my room. Carolyn must have been up in the cockpit because the berth next to mine was empty.
Chez Nous moved smoothly through the water, and I could hear the splashing of our wake as water slipped past the hull, only inches from where my head rested on the pillow. I closed my eyes and listened—the sound of the engine, the vibration of the boat moving through the water, the splashing, and the wind, all of it combined made me sleepy and happy, and my stomach, which been nauseous and unsettled, began to feel better. We began a graceful up-and-down motion, which meant that we were getting out into the open ocean. I drifted back to sleep.
I was pulled from my sleep when we slammed into a large wave. It must have been several times bigger than the ones we’d been going through. I stared up at the hatch above me and saw blue sky one second and green foam the next as water rolled over our bow and across the deck. In a solid stream, it poured through the hatch and onto my bed. I sat upright and pulled my blankets around me, hoping to keep them from getting wet. We went over another wave, and more water poured through the hatch. I wondered if this meant that we were in the Gulf Stream.
My mom came running up to the forward cabin. “Oh no,” she said. “Oh shit. I forgot to close the hatch. I am so sorry, Melanie. She pulled herself up onto Carolyn’s berth and secured the latches that held down the hatch. Then she stepped down and looked at our beds. “Everything is soaked,” she said.
“Are we in the Gulf Stream?” I asked.
“We must be.” She smiled and went to work stripping the sheets and blankets from our beds and rinsing them sparingly with fresh water in our shower and spreading them out in the cockpit to dry. I suddenly felt better and wanted to be upstairs with the rest of my family.
In the cockpit, Carolyn huddled down on the deck with a beach towel wrapped around her and a bucket by her side. She had Saltine crackers in one hand and a Coke in the other. She was seasick. She’d gotten seasick a few times before. I hoped that my mom had given her Dramamine. She looked at me, misery in her eyes, her honey-blonde hair tangled across her face. Her hair was always tangled. She was wild, even at three. I felt bad for her.
I sat up in the cockpit and stared out across the ocean, which was a deeper blue than I’d ever seen before, and realized that I couldn’t see land anywhere. This was a first. I looked in front of us and looked behind us. Nothing. Just the flat horizon and rolling blue swells. My dad sat at the helm, his oversized sunglasses resting on his big nose and sunscreen smeared across his face but not rubbed in. He looked ahead, intent on getting his family across safely.
Virginia native Melanie Neale holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in creative writing. She currently works as the director of career services for a private art college in northern Florida, where she lives with her husband and daughter.
Her first book, Boat Girl: A Memoir of Youth, Love & Fiberglass, was published in 2012 by Beating Windward Press and is available in print or e-book from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and anywhere else that books can be purchased.