October 1, 2013

Cruise long enough, and the mystery of their wide variation is solved.

We’re at Burton Island State Park in Lake Champlain having a great time. Looks as if we will be here for three nights which has given me an opportunity to explore one of the more fundamental issues involving the cruising life.  

As you’ve noticed from the pictures, our boat is a bit small compared to many of the others that you’ve seen tied up alongside us during this cruise.  Here we are next to a Monk 36 trawler, for example.

And just look at this magnificent Selene n the next dock over from us today.

Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with one of these seaworthy condos one after another, typically during Annapolis boat shows.  I couldn’t get a Kady Krogen Express 52 out of my mind for weeks after one.  Trawlers like these in the 50 to 55 foot range have more room inside them than our place in downtown DC.  Still, I wonder why cruisers want to take
these behemoths on long journeys, especially through the canals that
we have been through which must be a nerve wracking experience.  

Sitting in the marina at Burton Island for what will be, according to Dorie, our 21st night spent sleeping on our boat this trip, I think the reason is the showers. By the end of the first week of a cruise, you’ve pretty much had it with marina showers.  Yes, we have a shower system in the head of our boat, but with only a 20-gallon water tank if that, you can’t afford more than a quick rinse. If Dorie needs to wash her hair, she’s going to need a marina shower.

It's true that nearly every marina has showers, but most are barely adequate for their intended purpose.  You want to get back out the door as quickly as you can.

Marina showers are in a league of their own.  Most people want more from the experience than warm water being sprayed on them.  They want a transcendent moment. They want to luxuriate as the sweat of a summer day is rinsed away. They don’t want to worry about whether it was five or did I only put four quarters in the machine that governs how long the shower is going to last.

If you have spent any time at a summer camp in the deep woods, you have a pretty good idea what most marina shower facilities resemble. 

First, you rarely see ceramic tile. It’s simply not done.  Ceramic tile is easy to clean and holds its appearance for years but is comparatively expensive.  The basic idea of a marina bathroom is something built as cheaply as possible using no materials other than what you already have lying around; and if after looking through your cache of collected scrap all possibilities have been exhausted and something needs to be purchased, then it must come from a farm auction or yard sale.  The item must never be purchased in a retail store because then the item would be new, and the idea of a marina bathroom is to be sure everything is well worn to the point of being worn out.  

In marina bathrooms, you find extensive use of plywood for walls, doors, and shower stalls, and maybe even floors.  The floor covering is typically linoleum, paint over something that’s often hard to describe, or bare concrete.  And not all concrete floors are flat in these facilities.  We have seen it hand molded to create shower pans and drains like a kid would do building a form in a sandbox.  And if you find yourself in a shower with a fiberglass shower unit, well you’re in more of an upscale marina facility, no matter how cheap or beat up the unit might be.

I think a lot of entomologists must be boaters because of the extensive amount of insect life that can be studied while showering.  In the Chesapeake Bay area where it is oppressively hot during the summer, most restrooms are air-conditioned.  But in the Hudson Valley and on Lake Champlain, none we've seen have it because, theoretically, the
weather is better.  The way a shower room is dried out there is by leaving all doors wide open when not in use.  And often the lights are left on as well making these facilities bug magnets.

As for water quality, most marinas are in towns permitting access to city systems.  But marinas can be in remote locations, requiring dependence on wells.  That means the variation from one marina to the next can be remarkable.  With a well, the water is a sampling of the region’s geology. Some showers have left us smelling of iron filings for days, others chalk white from limestone.  It’s best to never open your mouth while in a marina shower.

And then there is the maintenance.  Running a marina is challenging, even if the operator can fill its slips every weekend of the boating season.  That means the resources available for maintenance, both in terms of staffing and hardware, are limited.  

Plus, most marina operators seem to view their hygienic facilities as a necessary evil, not something that could actually be used to attract customers.  Obvious maintenance items are often neglected. We were at a marina once that, uncharacteristically, had two identical bathrooms, both looking very nice.  Pleased, I went into the first bathroom and got all set to take a shower.  When the shower faucet was turned on, nothing happened no matter how much I fiddled with it or tried to figure out the problem.  I put my clothes back on, went to the second bathroom only to find that there was no way to lock its door.  But the shower worked.  I
had a shower and later so did Dorie.  Fortunately, no one walked in on either of us while using it.

I’ve often thought that we could own and operate a killer marina by treating the restroom facilities like a spa. Instead of afterthought spaces, it would be a commodious building with wide corridors and subtle lighting.  Elegant ceramic tile would be liberally applied.  Faucets and fixtures would be sparkling chrome.  No plumbing would be visible.  An
attendant who cleans the spa hourly would hand you a large fluffy towel so you wouldn’t have to bring your own from your boat, the one that never dries. You would luxuriate in a long, hot shower with powerful exhaust fans whisking away the steam.  The entrances to each shower stall would be glass doors instead of the cheap curtain from a factory closeout sale you typically get if you’re lucky to have one at all.  And the floor would be clean, antiseptically clean.  If you accidentally dropped a shirt on it, you wouldn’t have to worry about any major stain removal issues or even having to wash it.  Can you imagine a couple talking about their boating plans for the weekend?  What’s she going to say?  Only one thing.  “Yes, honey, as long as it’s The Spa at Marina Creek.”

One of the finest marinas on the Chesapeake Bay, Osprey Point Marina

But that clean thing will always be a major stumbling block.  Marinas, after all, are working boat yards. When you step off your boat, you typically step onto gravel if you’re lucky, but more likely into a mixture of gravel, dirt and mud.  You then walk across this working boat yard surface.  You pass travel lifts which haul boats out of the water so that all the glop on their bottoms can be powerwashed and deposited in the gravel/mud/dirt ooze.  Roll into that stew drips from oil changes and other lubricants, and you come up with the muck your shoes
eventually track into the bathroom.  Even if you had a full time attendant
mopping up every time someone walked into a marina bathroom, you still couldn’t keep the floor clean.  It’s a virtual impossibility.

But more than anything else, it’s the hardware selections that truly distinguish the marina shower and bathroom.  Most marinas have been around for decades.  You rarely see new marinas being built because of all the zoning and environmental issues.  Plus simply deciding to operate a marina requires a wildly romantic view of what marina life is all about. 

All this means that marinas are places where people have been servicing boats and marine equipment for very long periods of time.  And during all that time, nothing has ever been thrown away.  Boat parts are expensive, and you never know when you might need one.  Old parts are thrown in the back of marina buildings which over time creates layers of ancient civilizations.  It is from all this detritus that the marina bathroom evolves.  If anything breaks and needs replacement, an archaeological dig begins.  Hey, here’s some old plywood we pulled off that house after the hurricane.  Let’s use it to replace that shower stall with the hole in it. We can put a coat of paint on it every year, and it shouldn’t rot too much. 

That’s why in marina bathrooms, seldom do you see any two fixtures alike or anything done in a uniform matter.  One shower stall might have no hooks on which to hang your clothes, duffel bag and towel while the one adjacent to it will have four, each one different of course.  Every hinge on every door and every door knob is one of a kind.  If there is a fiberglass shower stall, chances are that there is an access panel to the plumbing which is a hatch off a dead boat.  

Shower nozzles are a treat, typically mid-twentieth century vintage with most of the jets having become blocked with calcium some time during the Carter administration.  You can perform laser surgery with the jets of water that shoot out from the three remaining non-clogged holes.  

And in the same shower you can have knob from a sink faucet for the hot water and a lever operated valve from a boat’s plumbing system to adjust the cold.

What possessed me to write this was standing in the bathroom in Burton Island State Park after cruising for three weeks and realizing that the facility is actually very nice, that everything functions as it should, and that all plumbing, hardware, and electrical fixtures are uniform and up to code. Why?  Because it is a government facility.  It wasn’t built by someone in the marina business.  The construction was done by a government contractor in accordance with specifications written by an
architect.  Everything was purchased new from a builders’ warehouse, and the work was inspected to determine compliance.  

So that’s why I think serious cruisers often move up to large boats.  Yacht manufacturers have gotten wise to this and designed into their products a separate shower stall, a 100 gallon water tank, and a large water heater.  That means the owners of these boats never have to use a community shower in a marina.  Can you imagine  someone getting off a Fleming with a tote bag at the end of the day and walking up that gangplank to community shower room?

We have friends with a commodious Mainship 34 that is a home afloat, complete with a lounger.  They are serious cruisers, and over one winter season, they were on their boat for three months, leisurely going to Florida and back. She says that she never uses the marina shower.  He always does.  Until our trip, I had never been able to figure out why, but now I understand.  He is an engineer by training and otherwise the type of guy who excels in solving mechanical problems.  For him, it must be a form of entertainment.  I'll bet he stands there with a big smile
on his face, marveling at the ingenuity that went into putting all those
disparate pieces together to create that boating icon—the marina shower. 

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