Harbors of Healing

Post by - Published on 04/29/24 4:00 AM

Meet Rod Heckman, a seasoned mariner whose lifelong love for the water steered him to new harbors, new adventures, and plenty of new experiences. After purchasing his dream boat, a Legacy 32 called Freedom, Rod and his spirited Labradoodle, Guinness, voyaged from the brisk shores of New England to the balmy waters of Key West. Since then, Rod and Guinness have continued cruising all over North America! This story navigates moments of solitude, reflection, and new beginnings. 

By  Rod Heckman

I had a boat before I had a bike.  

That’s what I tell folks when they ask how long I’ve been boating.  And I’ll be 80 years old this July.

I’ve owned six boats as an adult: three sailboats that I sailed with my wife Cathy on Long Island Sound, and three power boats that I’ve kept on the Chesapeake.

This is a story about the last of those boats – Freedom – and single-handling her to Key West.

The Boat I Always Wanted

Just before Christmas in 2019, I lost Cathy to cancer, after 51 years of marriage.  I knew she wouldn’t want me to sit around home and stare at my navel, so I made two decisions that changed the trajectory of my life. 

First, I found a new companion, a Labradoodle puppy that I bought from a local breeder.  He was chocolate brown, like a glass of stout; and he had a white blaze down his chest that looked like he had dribbled the foam down his chin.  I named him Guinness.  

As winter turned to the spring of 2020, we found ourselves in the Covid lockdown.   I was talking to a friend about a boat I had always admired - the Legacy 32: a Downeast-style express cruiser powered by a 325-hp Cummins Diesel. Legacy sold its molds to Tartan in 2008, but Tartan doesn’t build the 32 anymore; their smallest offering is the 36.

My friend asked, “Dude, you’re 75 years old.  If that’s what you’ve always wanted, what are you waiting for?”

At the time, there were 4 Legacy 32’s on the market, all in New England.  That weekend, Guinness and I drove to Massachusetts and bought Freedom.

Summer Shakedown

I figured there was no sense rushing home, since the boat was berthed in Marion MA, right at the top of Buzzards Bay, with a clear shot to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Cuttyhunk.  

If you read Dave Horne's column in the April issue of The Running Fix, you’ll see that my boat looks a lot like his (albeit smaller).  Buzzards Bay blows 15 knots from the southwest almost every summer afternoon, and Freedom could take whatever the Bay dished out. YOWZA!  

Guinness and I spent most of the summer enjoying the islands and the boat.  As the summer wound down, we brought Freedom south and berthed her in Rock Hall, MD, on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake.

Alone But Never Lonely

It was the first time I’d ever spent several months living on a boat, and I was pleased at how comfortable it was.  Just me and Guinness, my Jameson’s, a case of Vinho Verde, my cigars, and my music. I had assembled a playlist of over 200 songs…everything from Gershwin to Gaga, Billy Joel to Billy Eilish, and everything in between.  I realized two things: I had plenty of time to think; and I wasn’t lonely.

I was also pleased by how easy the boat is to single-handle: she has autopilot and thrusters at the bow and stern.  Not as sexy as the new joystick propulsion systems, but they sure help when you’re docking by yourself.

Back in the Chesapeake, I enjoyed a couple of week-long trips around the Bay, but I immediately began to plan for a trip south on the ICW.  I doubt there’s a boater alive who hasn’t dreamed about that trip. I had; but calendar constraints (work and family) always got in the way.  And to be honest, I’d never had a boat that was up to the task.  

South on the ICW

For months I poured over chart books and cruising guides, created a provisions list, and stored my spare parts.  By the time I left, I had built a day-by-day float plan in Excel.  We left on a bitterly cold November 4th, 2020.

We stayed at marinas almost every night.  It’s just much easier with the dog.  And we visited friends and family all along the way.

We quickly fell into a habit: we would leave at sunrise and travel for 4-5 hours…roughly 80 miles per day.  

The boat could travel more than twice that before refueling, but it’s tiring to be at the wheel alone more than 4-5 hours straight.  Leaving early makes sense for several reasons… first, it gives us time to recover if something goes wrong, and it gives us time to enjoy the next town on the route.  I told friends I was a 9-to-5 kind of guy: in bed at 9, and up at 5 to walk Guinness.

It was a beautiful rhythm: the evenings were spent with my playlist, my dog, my PerDomo’s, and a bottle of wine.

The schedule made sense for another reason: every day around 4PM, we’d get out the charts and the cruising guides, and study the next day’s route – mile-by-mile.  For the most part, the ICW is well marked, but there are treacherous areas caused by shoaling, and there are a couple of spots where the ICW turns sharply, and if you don’t watch your buoys, you’re going to miss your turn.  It’s also interesting that sometimes the colors of the buoys reverse from red to green, depending on whether you’re approaching an inlet or leaving one behind.

Despite my careful planning, I made two stupid rookie mistakes that year, due entirely to impatience and inexperience.  In the first instance, I was trying to read the name on the transom of the boat ahead of me, so that I could hail him and offer him a slow pass.  I took my eye off the chartplotter, got outside the channel, and grounded the boat in mud.  While backing out, I forgot to check my rudder position, and I sheard the “key” that marries the rudder post to the steering gear.  I lost a day while the good folks in Oriental, NC fabricated and installed a new key.

Several days later, I arrived at Brunswick GA earlier than I had planned, and I thought, “I feel pretty good.  I can go on for a couple more hours.”  Big mistake.  Just south of Brunswick, the ICW enters Lloyd Creek, which is guarded by a stone breakwater which Iies UNDERWATER at high tide.  I became confused by the buoys and range markers, got out of position, and clink, clink, clink, clink…I heard every blade of my 4-bladed propellor kiss the stone breakwater.  

I knew I had a spare prop in the bilge…a $3,500 gift from the original owner.  So, I limped into Brunswick, and Brunswick Landing Marina had me back on the water 24 hours later.  

The Payoff

By early December, we were in Key West, and we spent a wonderful month there, at the Galleon Marina.  Guinness liked to swim out to the stone jetty that guards the marinas and chase the marine iguanas.  We had to put a stop to that once a pair of Bull Sharks took up residency in the marina.

The Healing

They say that grief comes in waves; that holidays are tough; and that the anniversary of a loved one’s death can be particularly poignant.  Christmas of 2020 ticked all those boxes.  I went to the Christmas service at St. Mary of the Sea, and I fell asleep feeling sad.  I awoke to a double rainbow.  I took it as a sign to get on with the adventure and the healing.

I played Kenny Chesney’s song: Boats…vessels of freedom; harbors of healing.

Later that day, the owner of a 125’ Westport – also named Freedom - brought me a home-made Christmas dinner prepared by her crew!  It’s a pay-it-forward gesture I now try to emulate.

There’s more to my story with Freedom.  I now spend almost the entire year on the boat.  In the summer, I go north, and in the winter, south.  Since Key West, Guinness and I have travelled Florida’s west coast; Maine as far east as Bar Harbor; the Abacos and the Exumas; and the Canadian Loop up the Rideau Canal to Ottawa and Montreal and back through Lake Champlain (149 locks).

But those stories will have to wait for another time.  

Follow ALL our adventures at www.FreedomKeyWest2020.com

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