When I made a career change requiring I move to Philadelphia, I had to decide where to live. My home was more than 100 miles away on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Despite the relative proximity, I had never really visited or explored Philadelphia, other than to attend an occasional Army-Navy football game.
Much to my surprise, I uncovered a couple of small-boat marinas tucked away near my new work location. Having recently purchased Morning Star, a Cape Dory 33, the idea of living aboard popped into my head and I quickly sold myself on the plan.
Ready to embark on a new adventure, both professionally and personally, I sailed Morning Star up Chesapeake Bay, through the C&D (Chesapeake and Delaware) Canal, and into the Delaware River on my way to Philadelphia. The first spring and summer passed in a blur as everything was new. There was the excitement of a new job, the culture of a new company, a big bustling city to explore, and a new life afloat.
My position required frequent business trips for days at a time. One such trip was a week of travel to Seattle in the middle of January. During that week, I spent an unusual amount of time watching television as I monitored the track of a severe winter storm marching up the East Coast. In the course of staying attuned, I stumbled into watching “American Ninja Warrior,” the reality-TV competition show in which contestants tackle a series of challenging obstacle courses.
As the Ninja competition heated up, the weather news continued to chill. Several feet of snow and gale-force winds were expected to shut down Philadelphia and much of the East Coast. Despite knowing I had done my best to prepare my boat for the harsh winter weather, I caught the first available flight home once airports reopened. Landing well after 1:00 a.m. in a very cold and quiet city, I was lucky to find a taxi driver who had braved the weather. As we made the slow and slippery ride to my marina, my mind wandered back to “American Ninja Warrior” and the obstacles I would have to overcome to reach my boat.
Opening the cab door, I stepped into the first obstacle, a foot of snow that quickly penetrated my boat shoes and thin socks. As the taxi drove off, I searched for a channel through the 5-foot drifts over sidewalks outside the marina. With no other choice, suitcase in hand, I plunged deeper, snow going up, over, and into pant legs up to my knees. Heaving my suitcase over a precipice, I felt my right shoe come off. Stopping in my tracks while balancing on one foot, I stuck my bare hand into the snow and began a search pattern for the missing shoe. When I found it, I sat into the drift to empty the shoe and reinsert a foot that was losing circulation.
Then I trekked forward, past the drift, commencing high-knee steps and leaving deep holes in the snow as I moved toward the spring-loaded jaws-of-death gate at the head of my dock ramp. I located the key fob in my pocket and pressed it against the sensor, but no matter how I positioned the fob against sensor, the magic green light simply wouldn’t come on. Clutching the fob in one frozen hand and my suitcase in the other, I tromped down to the next gate, which mercifully opened.
I now faced the “descent into hell” gangplank. True to the adage “time and tide wait for no man,” the tide was very low, so the ramp was very steep. While slipping and sliding, suitcase in hand, I glanced toward where my boat should be. One mast was way too short. My heart met my throat as it flashed through my mind that my boat and home may have sunk!
Fairly running now, I blindly made my way down the rest of the ramp and onto snow-covered docks and eventually to my slip. I felt sadness and relief upon realizing that it was the boat in the slip next to mine, rather than Morning Star, that had sunk. A floating fuel-containment boom encircled the sunken boat resting on the Delaware River bottom.
I quickly turned my attention to one of the last obstacles in the Ninja course. Morning Star lay covered in snow with the top of the portlights barely visible. Without slipping into the icy water, I had to pull the boat closer to the dock and board. I leaned over the water, grabbed a shroud, and simultaneously stepped up and onto the toerail with one foot while executing a 90-degree body twist to allow my other leg and foot to hurdle the lifelines. I nailed the landing and dropped both foot and suitcase onto the snow-covered sidedeck. An imaginary crowd roared its approval!
I made my way aft, then into the deeper snow of the cockpit. I crouched under the dodger punching my smartphone screen with frozen fingers to get some light on the combination lock. After what seemed like minutes, I aligned the numbers and pried the frozen lock open. Sweeping snow away from the hatch boards, I entered what felt like a tomb.
In the dark, I found and flipped the breakers and flooded the tiny cabin with light, then turned my attention toward my natural-draft diesel-fueled heater and its detailed ignition sequence.
Fingers trembling, I lit a small piece of toilet paper and, before it could burn my fingers, threw it through the tiny portal to make it past the top burner ring and into the pool of oil at the bottom of the burner pot. In the best of times, I’m a 50 percent shooter at this game and alas, the flaming ball of toilet paper landed on top of the burner ring, quickly and uselessly extinguishing itself in a ball of ash. My second attempt was no better, so I grabbed my homemade poking tool and gave it another go. The third attempt was a winner. I closed the tiny glass window feeling like an early human mastering fire.
Before stopping to pull my suitcase in from outside, I watched through the tiny window, assured as the flames climbed above the top burner ring. After closing the hatch, I removed frozen shoes, socks, and pants and quickly replaced them with dry sweat pants and wool socks.
Once the stove priming was complete, I opened the valve to add fuel to the fire and watched as the flames grew. I had another 20 minutes to wait for the heater and chimney pipe to warm up before I could open the fuel valve further,
Four hours after landing, having successfully completed the entire obstacle course, I finally snuggled into my down sleeping bag for a few hours of sleep. I knew I’d have to wake early for my next challenge: clearing the boat, pier, and gangway of snow. Now where can an American Ninja Warrior purchase a snow shovel close by?
Damon Hostetter is owner of Wayfinder Marine (wayfindermarine.com), a yacht insurance and consulting firm. Damon still owns and sails his 1981 Cape Dory, Morning Star.