So many noises on a boat, yet there is still a peace and calm about the lifestyle such that I don’t find myself wanting to turn down the volume. Of course, on a power boat there is always the drone of the engines when underway. There are a lot of additional noises when we’re underway as well: navigation alarms that go off every time we pass a marker, the crackle of the radios, the rattle of everything in the cabinets whenever someone wakes us, the sound of the fly swatter as I go after the annoying creatures that always manage to get in no matter how careful I am. Both Dave and I actually prefer sailing for that moment of overwhelming quiet when you get the sails up and first turn off the engine, leaving only the gentle sound of the water as the boat cuts through it. But sailboats aren’t ideal for The Loop, whereas power boats are ideal for the coastal cruising we want to do. So hear we are. (See what I did there?)
Even when the engines aren’t running and we are at dock or anchor, plenty of noises become background music. There’s ‘wave slap,’ or the sound of the water against the hull. In strong winds or with a passing boat’s wake, it’s louder. I actually find it quite lulling. There’s the splash of fish jumping nearby. Down in the hulls near the waterline, you can frequently hear the crackling of fish feeding off the stuff growing on the docks and boat bottoms, as the sound gets amplified through the water. Then there are marina noises – engines of passing boats, conversations as people pass on the dock, the occasional dog barking or bird calling. And then there’s boat noises – water pumps, fans and air conditioning, marine heads, the gurgling of the sink drain. All this might sound more like it combines into a cacophony, but all have become so familiar by now that I have lumped them into the category of ‘peace and quiet.’
One thing I learned in 30+ years of pediatric practice is that sometimes the best way to hear something abnormal is to stop hearing. For example, picking up a heart murmur is sometimes more about relaxing into the heartbeat rhythm, and then realizing there’s something annoying in there that’s messing up the zen of the heart sounds. I’ve heard enough babies crying (okay, admittedly sometimes I’m making them cry) to know the difference between a pain cry, a frightened cry, and a drama cry. Talking with teens is more about what they don’t say, or reading between the lines of the questions they ask (e.g. ‘Is it normal to sometimes skip a month?’ is really ‘Am I pregnant?’) because they always beat around the bush until you’ve got your hand on the doorknob at the end of the visit. So you learn to listen without really hearing, and to listen to that nagging little voice in your head that something has changed, something is different this time.
It was while we were in St. Augustine that The Noise penetrated my dreams as that something different from all the other usual sounds in the wee dark hours, a brief mechanical buzzing occurring a couple times a minute. I got up to check, and it seemed loudest in the starboard head. It wasn’t like anything I had ever heard, but my mechanical repertoire is limited to broad categories of clangs, buzzes, whines, and thunks. I woke Dave up to come listen. Of course, once I was duly assured that he was hearing what I was hearing I went back to bed while he started checking all the things one checks to make sure nothing bad is about to happen. After about 20 min of looking at gauges and readouts and poking around, he also came back to bed.
“Sounds like a servo,” he tells me.
I, of course, don’t have the faintest idea what a servo is or does. I’m not even sure I’ve spelled it right. However not desirous of enlightenment at this time in the morning, I took a broader approach. “That means we’re not sinking at the dock tonight?” to which he assured me that he was 90% sure we were not. I decided this was good enough odds that I did not need to sleep with my life jacket on and drifted back off for a few hours.
The next morning, Dave spent a couple hours systematically turning breakers and switches on and off, pulling things out of lockers and deep dark compartments trying to localize exactly from whence The Noise was emanating. He was obsessed; now that he had heard it, he couldn’t unhear it. All to no avail as the mysterious noise persisted. He finally proclaimed that he didn’t think it was on the boat, and perhaps it was something marina-based and thus a water-transmitted sound. I liked this theory, but the fact that I was hearing it loudest above the waterline was a little problematic for me. “Let’s just give it some time and see if it goes away.”
Ah, yes! The old ‘let’s wait and see what happens’ induced a flashback to when we were living in Virginia Beach. Two days before he was scheduled to deploy for six months, we opened the garage door to find a very large puddle of water around the water heater. Yet we couldn’t find any active leaking, hole, or broken connection.
“Let’s give it a couple days and see if it happens again,” Dave said.
I stared for a few beats, my incredulity comparable to if he had suddenly sprouted tulips from his ears. “It’s a water heater! It does NOT have an inherent ability to heal itself!” I’m fine with waiting out a headache, or a limp in the dog, or a rash because living things have regenerative abilities. But in my experience, anything mechanical that’s making a noise or doing something weird is going to continue to do that or progress to total failure unless you intervene.
“Oh, no-no-NO! We are not ‘waiting a couple days’ because in a couple days you are going to be at sea and I’m going to have to deal with this,’ I said. I don’t know if he saw the logic in my reasoning or it was the look on my face, but we had a new water heater the next morning.
So now here we were in St. Augustine almost 20 years later, in a remote marina without any services, and I was hearing that sentiment again. Circumstances dictated that we didn’t have much choice, so we were going to ‘wait and see’ despite my conviction that mechanical things don’t heal themselves. When we docked at Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, FL, the following day, lo and behold! No noise, servo or otherwise. We did not try to explain it.
Dave’s brother Chuck and niece Shannon joined us in Fernandina, having driven down from Virginia Beach. Shannon was on her way to Tampa to spend a few days training for an upcoming paddleboard challenge from Bahamas to Florida. (Yes, that is a shameless plug for how awesome Shannon is. She’s training for this while being a firefighter, mother of toddler twins, and whose husband is currently deployed overseas.) Chuck was joining us for a few days of our travels until Shannon could pick him up further north. Our first guests! We took the dinghy out for a run and had dinner in the very quaint town before turning in. Chuck got the guest cabin, while Shannon took the settee up in the saloon for the night before she was continuing on her way.
In the middle of the night, Dave and I both woke to a lot of rocking and rolling and the loud noise of waves slapping against the hull and the squeak of lines and fenders under pressure. It seems a surprise weather system was blowing through. Dave went up to check the lines, and after about five minutes when he didn’t come back I went up also, passing Shannon still asleep in the saloon. I was greeted by fierce 25+ knot winds blowing from the water and really kicking up some whitecaps visible even in the dark of night. I start helping Dave rig extra fenders and lines to keep us from bashing into the dock, joined shortly by Chuck. Shannon finally wakes up a few minutes later and decides it might be cool to go take some pictures of the waves, walks out to the cockpit and turns to the port side, marveling at the wind and chop and unaware of all the activity behind her on the starboard side. She finally turns to go back inside and sees the three of us rushing around on the deck and dock in our pajamas, alligator-wrestling fenders in place while trying not to get blown overboard. It’s worth noting that we were shouting at each other in the wind and she had heard nothing, a testament to how strong and loud the winds were. We finally got everything the way we wanted just in time for the system to pass and the winds and waves to die down as quickly as they had started. Well, that was fun.
Onward to St. Simons Island, crossing into Georgia. We Uber’d in to explore the town for a few hours, and our elderly gentleman driver on the way back to the marina was a wealth of local history and knowledge, and could trace his lineage back to the first baby born to Mayflower Pilgrims, Peregrine White. We got stuck in traffic (it was only about 5 miles on the single road into town, but there still was a traffic jam) so heard many stories. My favorite was how he was from Boston, and had met a girl who had never left the St. Simons area in her 26 years. She had grown up hearing how terrible Yankees were, detesting them though she had never met one, and believed New England was the land of rude, uncultured and unscrupulous people. But he convinced her otherwise enough to marry her, and had been in St. Simons ever since. When he took her to Boston for the first time shortly after they were married, she fell in love with it and her world opened up through future travel. I thought it a lovely story reflecting how everyone needs to get out and see places and people for themselves, and draw their own conclusions. They were married 35 years, until she passed away.
Out next stop was Kilkenny Fish Camp. Yes, it was as rustic as the name sounds but the only overnight stop for a long stretch of the ICW. The dock was rather undulating but functional, and instead of cleats there were 2 x 4s sticking up vertically about a foot above the dock. I thought they looked a little dubious as far as holding our 25,000+ lb boat, but turned out they worked and we learned how to tie off on vertical stakes. A former plantation, there were beautiful giant oaks at least a couple centuries old, dripping with Spanish moss and forming a canopy over the worn road. Made for a very pretty Roxy walk as the golden early evening sun filtered through, though surprisingly with all those trees not a squirrel in sight. The ‘marina’ was also the boat ramp for the small boats that the locals would take over to the nearby beaches accessible only by boat. But instead of the typical sloped boat ramp, this was a marine lift. We watched the orderly parade of boats returning late after a Saturday of sun and sand and beer, jockeying so as to stay off the mud in the small area waiting for their turn, driving their boat onto the sling, going to get their trailer as the boat was lifted up and over, then backing underneath to have their boat lowered onto the trailer and driven off for the next boater’s turn. There was a cadence and smoothness to it borne of long-standing practice and repetition; it was a ballet with pickups and boat trailers performing the pas de deux with hydraulic solos, all choreographed to an orchestration of dripping water and diesel engines. Okay, so maybe that might be more like a boat ballet to music of a punk rock band.
And that evening – the Return of The Noise! It was a bit different this time, a little higher pitched and less distinct. Once again it defied identification or location. A quick check of all systems again showed everything working fine. We rationalized again that it was actually off the boat and something related to the marina. The fact that both times we had heard it was in older, more remote marinas led us to believe it could be something with their systems. It felt good to blame it on that, so we went with it.
The following day Shannon caught up with us to retrieve her dad in Hilton Head, SC, and we also had an opportunity to have dinner with some Navy friends and former nextdoor neighbors in DC. It was so nice to catch up. Facebook is great for ‘keeping in touch,’ but there’s nothing like reconnecting in person. Shannon and Chuck left the next morning, following an uneventful night without winds and bouncing action. Dave and I took the day to catch our breath, do some overdue boat cleaning and laundry. The marina was in a lovely gated community, but away from Hilton Head town and we just didn’t have a burning desire to hit the tourist spots. We just enjoyed the beautiful afternoon and sunset.
We then stayed in Beaufort, SC (pronounced BEW-fert) for a couple days waiting out some rainy weather, and nephew Matt drove in from Aiken through a pouring rain to have dinner with us. He lived with us for awhile in Minnesota, and Roxy was so excited when she saw him walking across the parking lot she was making a squeaking noise! Beaufort is a beautiful, historic town. We enjoyed our walks amongst the old homes and churches, and the smell of jasmine in bloom was everywhere!
Two days later in Charleston, I was brushing my teeth and thought I heard something. It wasn’t the same as the servo buzz, but it still sounded new and mechanical to me.
“Do you hear that?” I asked Dave, toothbrush poised in mid-air.
“I don’t hear anything.”
“Wait…….There it is again. You must have heard it!”
“No! No! No!” he says, hands up as he’s backing away from me.
“ ‘No’ you don’t hear anything, or ‘oh no – we’re about to explode’ ” I ask in alarm.
“No-I-don’t-want-to-hear-about-any-new-noises, because then that’s all I will hear and I’ll stay awake all night wondering what it is.”
He had a point. But I had shared my discovery with him, transferring the Worry of The Mystery Noise to him. I came, I heard, I created chaos — my work was done. Unburdened, I could now fall asleep to a symphony of grazing fish and gently slapping waves. And while we still haven’t figured out The Noise, we also haven’t further heard it. Or perhaps it’s just become another track in the background music of boat life.