From our boat, pre-Covid, we can typically hear the drudgery of traffic on I-880, the planes coming and going from Oakland International, children squealing at the marina playground, sirens and car alarms and parties on neighboring boats. It feels, in short, like we live in a city. Despite my sailing background, I am an unapologetic city person. But during those first months of shelter-in-place, the skyline was empty and quiet, the playgrounds taped off, the raucous energy of the Bay Area silenced. It was deeply unnerving to stand on our boat deck and see only the occasional car on the interstate, not a plane in the sky.
Even so, the forced break from our collective business gave me room to breathe. Given all that was happening in the world, I can’t imagine remembering the early days of the pandemic fondly. But in those moments, when my mind went to the darkest of dark places, I took comfort in our boat-home and all of the ways it was the best possible place for us to be.
But life aboard the Red Headed Stranger isn’t idyllic. Like living on a farm or a remote corner of Alaska, it is both magnificent and messy — challenging in ways you can’t fully appreciate until you’ve experienced them. For me, early on, the learning curve sometimes felt insurmountable. Boats are complex systems. Marinas are peculiar places. Tim and I have had to become intimate with marine plumbing in a way I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. We’ve lost innumerable Legos, two iPhones, and a high chair (long story) to the voracious waters of the estuary. We installed a new washer-dryer using the boat’s built-in dinghy crane, a feat that involved swinging a $1,200 appliance over the open water.
And we regularly fend off the excesses of our fellow boat owners, who bumper-car around the marina when their motors, or they themselves, are too impaired to navigate. Even during normal times, living on a boat was more exciting — with higher highs and lower lows — than our landlocked, apartment-dwelling life.
The pandemic had already upended that reality. Then the wildfires arrived.
The fires burned for months, one after the next. Surrounded by water, we were fortunate to be spared from the flames that consumed so much of our region. But the fires created a blanket of smoke that forced us indoors for weeks at a time. With two small, extremely active children, our boat-home went from a peaceful refuge to a squalid, claustrophobic animal shelter. We were the animals, and we were increasingly feral.
Without its openness to the outdoors — the hours on its roof deck, painting or splashing or hammock-swinging, the barbecues and boat drinks on the back deck, the socially distant get-togethers with a dear friend who arrived by sailing dinghy or paddle board — the boat became a goldfish bowl with a 360-degree view of a horrifyingly orange sky. But the worst of it was the heat. Old boats, like old houses, are drafty. They’re built to breathe. Suddenly, the boat’s airiness was not just another quirk of boat life, but a genuine danger. To keep the smoke out, we sealed ourselves in, using insulated cardboard to block vents and seals around the doors. Our salon, as the main living area is called, reached 100-plus degrees. The air was suffocating and stagnant. What we’d loved about the room, its loft-like wall-to-wall windows, now made me feel like a fly trapped between dual-pane glass.