Issue: September 2002
Trawlers, Ho!

If it’s September, this must be Solomons, where little ships and lovers thereof gather in great numbers.

 

     Having bought a trawler, it seemed only natural that we should take it to Trawler Fest. This is rather like the impulse new dog owners have to take poochy to the park so he can play with other dogs-and so they can schmooze with other pet owners, and maybe pick up chicks. I didn’t want to pick up chicks, and if Clint did, he didn’t tell me about it. But we thought we’d have a good time showing off Escort, our 42-foot Krogen, and admiring other people’s trawlers. And we did. It was fun. Just plain fun. And quite frankly, by the end of last September, when the annual Trawler Fest arrived in Solomons, Md., as scheduled, we were ready for a little fun.

     So we headed off to Solomons on Thursday morning, plowing just the teensiest bit through some surly wind-tossed waves as we worked our way south from Poplar Island. We rolled enough to make breakfast unthinkable, and just enough to remind us of how much we had loved shoving along on a tight reach with waves crashing over the bow of our sailboat. As it was, waves were frothing routinely over Escort’s bow and slapping savagely at the windshield. Clint actually had to turn on the wipers so he could see, poor dear. And we recalled how he used to stand in the cockpit on trips such as this in times past, spray dripping from the hood of his foul weather gear, while I handed out a cup of steaming coffee or some such solace from the cramped comfort of our old galley. And then, of course, would come my turn at the wheel.

     But handling the sailboat was one thing; handling this whale of boat is completely another. I get the willies even thinking about taking charge. Yes, it’s lovely to be high and dry. It’s lovely to bust our way through the swell, knowing that we’ll get where we’re going even if the wind dies. But this new boat has a whole cabinet full of buttons and switches that have to be prodded into submission periodically or things won’t flush, or pump or light. And deep in its bilge are things that go bump in the night if they aren’t shut down properly. I quail at the thought of sidling up to a gas dock or backing into a slip. Even long spells at the wheel give me the jitters. My true love tells me not to worry about it; he’ll do all the hard stuff-the docking, the anchoring. He’ll push all the buttons. I can just relax and enjoy the ride, he says. But I hate the feeling of dependence. Worse, I would be hard pressed to bring this bus to bay should something happen to Clint. And as we barreled toward Solomons, I found myself wondering yet again if I would ever muster the courage to master this tub.

     By the look of the advance Trawler Fest literature, I sensed that I wouldn’t be the only woman with such a blank slate where powerboats are concerned. There were plenty of “women only” seminars listed. Maybe here was my chance to learn more about this brave new world of boat handling. And so, with thoughts of Super Trawler Woman dancing in my head, we pulled into Calvert Marina, where Trawler Fest is held every year, and hurried to join the throng of fest goers.

     Trawler Fest isn’t like a boat show where you have to stand in line to get your hand stamped before you’re allowed to step into the hallowed harbor. It isn’t a circus of tents cram-jammed with vendors trying to sell a knife or a gold-plated set of binoculars to hordes of people wondering how in the world they could ever afford such things if they actually bought a boat. There isn’t dock after dock of spiffy new Wannabe 50s, each with its own set of navy-clad brokers flashing genuine smiles and knock-off Rolexes. Nope. Trawler Fest is more low-key, I’d say. We found a tent where people sporting Trawler Fest exhibitor tags (with easy names like Captain Bob) would have been delighted to extol upon the wonders of the latest in generators or navigational equipment. But they seemed equally happy to talk about their last cruise to Punta Gorda, and it seemed to me as I ambled by that I heard more about the latter than the former. And this was good, I thought, since I didn’t want a generator at the moment. But when I did want one, I’d probably like to buy it from someone named Captain Bob who’d actually done some serious cruising aboard a boat just like mine and, from the looks of his deck shoes, on the same sort of budget.

     And there were plenty of trawlers at the docks. Some were spiffy new takes on familiar designs, some were fabulous mouth-watering one-offs, but most were comfortably broken-in models of every year and make that had gathered like a flock of the faithful to hear the gospel according to Trawler World-115 of them, to be exact, ours among them.

 

     Trawler Fest is the real-world counterpart of Trawler World, an online trawler newsletter and website that has acquired some 4,000 readers since it started in 1996. The brainchild of Georgs Kolesnikovs, the website serves as a focal point for a worldwide fleet of trawler owners and lovers who routinely share tips and swap parts on its pages. Kolesnikovs never imagined that either the website or the trawler get-togethers would strike such a responsive chord. “I was just getting into trawlers [in 1996],” he told me, “and I wanted to meet trawler people, but there was nowhere to go [that wasn’t a club-sponsored activity].” So he organized the first Trawler Fest in Solomons in 1996, which drew 320 people and 45 boats. Now he runs four different events-in Melbourne, Fla.; Poulsbo, Wash.; Grand Haven, Mich.; and, of course, Solomons-which draw a total of about 3,000 people. And these folks aren’t just ponying up a few bucks for a stroll down the dock. Trawler Fest admission ranges from a one-day dock pass at $15 per person ($75 includes the seminars) to a four-day package at $375 per person (or $330 in advance) which includes the seminars, test rides, demonstrations, lunch, dinner and the chance to crawl around as many trawlers as your little heart desires. Boat docking costs extra; slip reservations are a must. Plenty of comers opt for land accommodations at nearby hotels or commute daily from home.

     “The camaraderie here is just unbelievable,” Janet Steelman says when I ask why she and her husband Dick made the trip. They hail from Lottsburg, Va., and have just bought a Camano Troll they named Intrepid, 31 feet with a flybridge-modest by trawler standards, but they’ve moved up from a much smaller sailboat, so they probably won’t notice. This is their first Trawler Fest, and they’ve been attending seminars and diligently taking notes. “I want to learn everything I can, take advantage of it all,” Dick Steelman adds, tapping the clipboard on his knee.

     Becky and Mark Overland of Minnesota (Minnesota!!) are here to shop. They already have a sporty little Cruisers Express, but that won’t cut it for long-term cruising, they think. They’re looking to take a year off and do the Great Loop down the Mississippi, up the East Coast and back through the Great Lakes. Originally they thought the trip was something they’d do when they retire; now they’re not so sure. “Everyone tells us not to wait,” Becky says, flinging her silky black hair over her shoulder. She and Mark look like they’re fresh out of grad school with the prospect of retirement pretty far in the future. Mark gives a nod of agreement. “We’re young and agile now, and healthy. That could all change, and we’ll have missed our chance.”

     Retired Navy lawyer Bob McLeran says he brought Sanderling, his 35-foot Hampton, here for the people and the parties (although he is also involved with one of the seminars). “You make friends here, get to know people,” he says. “You want to see them again.” When he first came to Trawler Fest (about four years ago, he reckons), he was like the Steelmans. “I wanted to learn everything about my boat, my engine. I went to as many seminars as I could and talked to other boatowners. But after a few shows,” he shrugs, “the seminars begin to get repetitive. I tend to go to the ones about different places now. Look at the slide shows. Or I just check out all the boats.” What McLeran really values, though, is the Trawler World e-list. “If I need to replace something or I’m wondering about a new product, all I have to do is send [my questions or concerns] out on the list and within an hour or two, I’ll have two or three replies from other owners who have been there, done that, and are happy to share their experiences.”

     Over and over again, people tell me that they just love being here. It’s friendly and familiar. Everyone has so much in common. They’re all retired, more or less. They all spend extended time on their boats-weeks, months, years. Many have been to the places others are going. And they’re all on the lookout for ways to make life aboard even easier and more fun.

     So I get to thinking. What would make my life easier and more fun aboard Escort? More handling experience, I decide, and sure enough, as I scan the Trawler Fest program, a tidy little xeroxed number with a staple in one corner, I spot exactly what I’m looking for. I head for the “Try a Trawler” dock, and lo and behold, there is occasional-Annapolitan Robin Allison running a Mainship 34 designated “For Women Only.” I talk my way on board and settle into an hour plus of hands-on instruction led by someone who explains things without making me feel stupid. (Heck, she even explained things twice sometimes.)

     “The first thing you need to know is that this boat has a seven-turn wheel,” Allison says as we pull away from the dock. “That means you’ll probably have to turn the wheel more than you’re used to.” Mary Holmes, whose own boat is Journey II, a DeFever 41, takes the helm, and Allison gives her a few minutes to get the feel of the Mainship under power. Holmes executes a tight figure eight in the Solomons harbor before heading for the empty tee end of a marina dock. With Allison gently coaching her in, she pulls the boat alongside the dock like a pro. “If my husband could see me now,” she says.

     One by one the rest of the trainees on this trip take the wheel: Dolores Neel, Alice Mantell, Susan Hillenbrand, Kris Lehmkuhl and moi. We go in circles to feel the way the boat moves and turns. We play with the bow thrusters. We laugh and joke. We applaud as we each successfully complete our ultimate mission: to pull into and out of a gas dock unscathed. I’m already feeling way more confident about driving a powerboat-and that’s only after an hour. Give me a full session of one-on-one and maybe I could even learn how to handle my own boat. And judging from the popularity of Allison’s “For Women Only” gig, which has a full roster throughout the three-day event, I’m not alone.

     The guys, on the other hand, seem to be more interested in swarming over each other’s boats and climbing in and out of each other’s engine rooms. I come back to Escort to check on Clint only to find two or three unfamiliar butts waving in the air over our open engine hatch. We use an old 120-hp Lehman diesel to push Escort through the water. I think it’s original to the boat, and it operates at approximately the speed of dark-we toodle around at a humble six knots (1.5 gallons an hour, mind you). Nowadays you can get twin engines and cruising speeds of 18 knots, so why is our classic engine drawing such a crowd? According to Clint, everyone is amazed at how much room we have in the engine compartment. (I call it the basement.) I suspect guys stick their head inside our engine room because that’s where Clint hangs the girly posters his nephew gives him.

     There’s plenty of opportunity to poke and prod and ooh and aah over someone’s boat, but if you really want to sink your teeth into Trawler Fest, you gotta go to the seminars. They run on a tight schedule and are held at the local Holiday Inn (a bus shuttles fest goers to and fro). This year 40 different seminars are on the roster, most offered one time only, a very few-perennial favorites or hot new topics-offered twice. Up to six are scheduled concurrently, guaranteeing plenty of variety and, hopefully, thinning out the crowd a bit. Presenters ranged from around-the-world-cruisers to naval architects, from interior decorators to engine mechanics.

     I am astounded by the standing-room-only popularity of the ones I’ve selected: “Trawlering from the Woman’s Perspective” and “Color and Space Aboard Trawlers.” (I would have gone to “Diesels 101 for Women,” but I got buttonholed in the hallway and, well, by the time I could get away the room was jammed to capacity.) In the first, long-time liveaboard Millie Rose expounds upon the virtues and pitfalls of traveling aboard a trawler (or any boat, for that matter), and women listen with rapt attention. When the question-and-answer period begins, a hundred hands flail the air. “How did you manage to fit all your clothes into such a tiny storage locker?” a woman asks. “What clothes?” Rose says with a laugh. “I’ve whittled my wardrobe down to a couple of pairs of shorts, a pair of nice slacks and a crush-proof, go-anywhere dress. And a bathing suit. If I have to dress up more than that, I don’t go.” A sea of heads nods enthusiastically, and other liveaboards chime in with their own experiences: “My husband got one of those fancy white planter’s shirts. That’s as dressed up as he’ll ever get again.” “Who needs winter clothes? When it starts getting chilly, head south.”

     The second seminar I attend, on interior decorating no less, is surprisingly erudite. Presenter Lowie Block offers bona fide tricks of the decorator’s trade and accompanies them with slides of her own boat, Salty Dawg, which just happens to be tied up near ours. (I noted throughout the remainder of the festival that a perpetual line of wanna-sees curled up the dock from her deckhouse.) So, how does she keep the lamp from sliding off the chart table in rough weather? With hidden screws running up from the table into the lamp base.

     The “men’s rooms” were equally crowded (I peeked). And there were plenty of couples who came and went together no matter what the seminar topic. Others chose to divide and conquer, each painstakingly reading through the seminar descriptions and flipping coins over who would go to what.

     This year, because of scrambled or delayed flight schedules in the aftermath of September 11, three seminar presenters were no-shows, which was a severe disappointment to many. A number of people were hoping to meet naval architect Stephen Seaton, for example, who designed Starship, a Northern Marine 75, for German entrepreneur/explorer Michael Poliza. But Poliza himself was on hand, to receive the Passagemaker of the Year award and dazzle fest-goers with a multimedia presentation about Starship’s millennium voyage-a 75,000-mile, 1,009-day, 53-country web-interactive journey he began in 1998. Trawler Fest does trot out its fair share of maritime notables.

     But the real fun part of Trawler Fest is in the community dinners. A vast tent is set up on the high ground of the Calvert Marina, and catered meals are served each night to the folks who register for the full event. Seating is casual; even Clint couldn’t avoid meeting new people. And there is enough cold beer to make everyone friendly. On successive nights we faced down a festive Italian spread, a crab feast and a roast beef banquet (we missed the opening barbecue). But beyond the food is the floor show, emceed by fest organizer Jack Rose. Friday night there is an auction, an annual event which benefits the William B. Tennison, the oldest bugeye hull still working on the Bay (these days as a motor launch for the Calvert Marine Museum). In an hour of cajoling, teasing, begging and bombasting, auctioneer Chuck Hawley of West Marine (a Trawler Fest co-sponsor) gaveled in about $3,800, including the highest bid ever for a roll of toilet paper ($915-did I mention all the cold beer?).

     During the awards banquet the accolades are abundant: for the boat that traveled the farthest to get to Solomons; for the people who traveled farthest (not necessarily by boat; winners have flown in from as far away as Australia); for the oldest boat to arrive; for the biggest boat; for the biggest fleet (Grand Banks took it, hands down). Finally, the People’s Choice award for the boat fest-goers considered the most appealing-this year, the Joyden, owned by Dennis and Joyce Maud of Blue Point, N.Y.

     When all was said and done and the smoke cleared (along with the weather-there was a bit of a blow on departure day), Clint and I were convinced of two things: We both knew that I should learn how to run our boat, and we both knew we wanted to come back. Heck, maybe we’d even volunteer for something. Roll up our sleeves and join in. I mean, if we’re serious about moving aboard our trawler, we might as well get with the program. From the looks of it, the world is full of trawlers full of people just like us. And I’ll bet more than one has girly pictures tacked up in the engine room.