Boating beyond your prime

When my wife Marcia and I were boat hunting a few years back, we encountered a flotilla of men and women in their 70s and 80s who were hanging up their dock lines because of bum knees or bad balance or failing vision – not at all for a lack of a desire to be on the water. We were looking for a powerboat, but from surveying the boating marketplace we could tell that aging was having the same impact on sailors as powerboaters. Few of the boat sellers we met wanted to get off the water, but most boaters – regardless of how stalwart and in spite of the call of the sea – do seem to reach a time when they decide to cast off no more.

Take the Seaway seller from Cape Elizabeth, for instance, who had been boating for decades and exuded a love of the sea. Reluctantly, at age 75, he decided to sell his sturdy, fit craft because his two painfully shaky knees made it downright unsafe to board, let alone to react quickly in an emergency.

Then the husband and wife who had motored their dependable and comfortable 1971 Albin 25 for years up and around the grand inland ocean of Lake Champlain. At their “advanced age” (late 70s), they had determined that the boat had become just too much work.

Another older seller had docked his classic, 60-year-old, wooden launch – with a roomy cabin and large galley – on the Merrimack River in Amesbury, Mass., for decades. Yet, after years of carrying family and friends on leisurely day trips, a need to downsize forced him to decide to part ways with his lovely tub.

Finally, the energetic couple from Belfast, Maine. Ten years earlier, at age 70, they had sold their beloved sloop and begun traveling the Maine coast in a compact cabin cruiser. When we met them, at age 80, they’d decided that the risk of a fall on (or off) a slippery deck on a foggy morning in a remote anchorage was too high, and that it was time to sell their Limestone 24. (We bought that one.)

For many, the inevitable frailties of age simply make boating – sail or power – too physically challenging, risky, or both. Some boaters go slowly, shortening their boating season and range, for instance, or keeping their boat (often aging with them) on a dock or mooring while they mess around and daydream. Others, like some of the sellers we met, just pack it in, yet still gaze wistfully out to sea.

Marcia and I always carried a sense of sadness with us when we returned home after checking out still another older boat for sale by still another older boater, and we’ve often wondered about those rueful boat sellers, who pointed out the attributes of their vessels with such obvious regret. We did hear from the Albin seller on Lake Champlain that shortly after we informed him that his well-kept boat wasn’t quite what we were after, he and his wife decided to take it off the market and give it a go for another year. What about all the other sellers, however?

Often, when we revisit our yearlong boat search, I’ll opine, “Tom was right,” as Marcia, predictably, rolls her eyes with a knowing smile. Tom – an intrepid mariner (and my sailing mentor) who sees nothing but endless horizons – many seasons ago mused about the need for a “Home for Aged Sailors,” a residence for sailors who might have grown too weary or infirm to safely maintain and sail their craft, but who still yearn to feel a bit of salt spray. At Tom’s idealized Home, located on the coast of Maine, of course, sailors still invigorated by pitching, rolling, and yawing would find a ready vessel tugging at its dock lines and an able-bodied crew eager to shove off into the main, plus all the medical care and amenities they might require.

I’ve thought a lot about Tom’s ruminations over the years. Now a stinkpot owner, I feel The Home should accept powerboaters as well as sailors. I envision an old coastal farmhouse or estate, situated on a quintessential Maine cove. The Home – might need to work on that name – would be equipped with a mechanism for safely and comfortably moving venerable boaters from the expansive porch to a deep-water dock, to accommodate residents who might need a wheelchair or lack the agility for negotiating a steep ramp at low tide. The dock would be equipped with a sturdy lift for moving non-ambulatory boaters from dock to cockpit, of course.

I’d like to see a fleet of at least four vessels: a sloop with a comfortable cabin and a beamy daysailer, as well as a small cabin cruiser and a seaworthy center-console skiff. Of course, given that some residents of The Home might want to donate a boat, the fleet might grow over time, which, in turn, means endless opportunities for the hours of puttering and trading scuttlebutt that boaters so enjoy. Naturally, all boats in the fleet would be modified with the adaptive gear needed to ensure the safety and convenience of residents of The Home.

Boaters who still possessed the seamanship (and eyesight) to weave a heeling sloop through a field of lobster buoys, or pilot a powerboat into a tricky inlet, could take the helm if desired. Likewise, residents no longer eager to unsnag a vagrant jib sheet on a wet deck or lean over the rail to hook a mooring ball could leave it for the younger crew from The Home.

I used to kid my friend Tom that he over-romanticized old age, but I’ve come to realize that he clearly was a nautical gerontology visionary. For old salts still eager to get out on the water, to feel a boat respond to the wind and watch the rail dip, to brace against a stubborn chop or ride the back of a swell, what could be more appealing than the companionship, the stunning view, and the opportunity to go to sea once more that they’d find at Tom’s Home for Aged Sailors?

And what better reason to retire on the coast of Maine!

Newburyport, Mass., resident Dan Edson cruises the New England coast aboard Sol e Mar, a 24’ Hinterhoeller Limestone powerboat.