We were surrounded. On our left, a fishing boat protruded from the dock. From the right, a strong gust of wind shook the American flag on the fly bridge. Tall wooden pilings formed boundaries on either side.
Our slip at Pirate’s Cove Marina in Manteo, NC, was narrow and complicated. Using the bow thruster, my dad turned the boat to back in. I stood on the bow with a looped spring line wondering how I was going to lasso it over the first piling. Ahead, a nervous dockhand watched from the fixed pier.
He motioned us forward. I prepared to throw as my dad maneuvered the thruster, but we began to drift away from the dock toward the fishing boat. The bow thruster roared as my dad fought against the wind, which was too strong. A powerful breeze carried us closer and closer until our stern was inches from hitting the other boat’s bow.
My brother was asleep on the coach inside the cabin. My mom, who was standing watch from the cockpit cradling her injured shoulder, called for him, “Get a bumper!”
My brother came outside dazed and yelled back, “It’s a fender! Stop calling it a bumper!” But he rubbed his eyes and ran to haul one out from under the fly bridge stairs.
The owners of the other boat ran to their bow expecting a crash. The wind picked up, and my dad seemed to lose control of the thruster. I saw his scared face from the bow where I was still waiting, holding the useless spring line. Like a car accident or forgetting lines in a play, it was one of those moments when you wish time travel was real so you could try again. Memories of the last three days flooded back as I wondered how we got here.
Day 1: Crisfield, MD
Our journey began when my dad’s captain’s license finally arrived in the mail. To earn his license, he had endured a physical, a vision test, a drug test, CPR and a first-aid class and six written exams. Over the years, as my dad logged his 90 hours of sea time, our family took extensive family trips on sailboats, then motorboats and our 2017, 59-foot Prestige, Sababa. I loved a lot about those trips: gaining wind on the water, shuffling through rocky sands of uninhabited islands, strolling cobblestone streets under a blazing sun. But I also thought about sibling rivalries, petty fights and other things that happen when you stuff a family of five into tight quarters for a few weeks. When we docked at our home port, we were always surprised to find everyone had made it, that nobody was left floating somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay.
Still every captain needs a crew, so in July we packed our bags and began a two-week trip to the Outer Banks. This year featured my mom, suffering from a shoulder injury that was only relieved if she lay very still on her back, and my brother, 16 and uninterested in anything but his Nintendo Switch. My sister was away at camp. That left me, who had a boating license but had also forgotten everything about boating, to take on the responsibilities of first mate.
This year, I was determined to be a major contribution to our crew. The morning of the trip, I dragged myself out of bed and yawned over my father’s shoulder as he taught me to start the generator, switch to general power, turn on the radar, thruster and chart plotter and set a course. We pointed the boat in the direction of Crisfield, MD, and engaged autopilot.
Docked and settled in Somer’s Cove Marina, we watched “Nights in Rodanthe,” a film that takes place in the Outer Banks, excited for picturesque sights and culture. The movie turned out to be depressing. As wild horses galloped on the beach and the credits rolled, my mom blew her nose. My brother laughed at her.
Day 2: Norfolk, VA
Motivated by the hope of seeing wild horses in Corolla, we continued to Norfolk. My brother brought in the lines as we pulled away from Somers Cove and went back to sleep, leaving me to coil them and put away the fenders. We weren’t adapted to life on a boat yet and acted like we would at home. After the inconvenience of docking and setting out, my brother slept and played video games. I read a book and flipped through social media. My mother had no choice but to spend most of the trip resting on her back. We docked at Waterside Marina by a Ferris wheel that glowed rainbow at night and toured the Nauticus museum and maze of cabins and machinery in the belly of the Battleship Wisconsin. On the museum walls, rows of white-capped sailors grinned from picture frames. Together in crisp matching uniforms, they pulled long lines and chains, landed planes and heaved barrels of gunpowder back in forth in impeccable assembly lines. The stakes on Sababa weren’t quite as high. I thought about calling up to the fly bridge, where my dad was trying to concentrate on steering around crab pots, and ask him how to tie different knots then untangle all the accidental ones I got stuck in the long lines. In a rumpled T-shirt, I yelled commands at my brother, who was spilling tortilla chip crumbs around the cabin and couldn’t hear me through his headphones. Family is messy, but a crew must work together. We weren’t there yet.
Day 3-4: Manteo, NC
We woke at 6 a.m. to brave the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). The trip to Pirate’s Cove Marina through a series of no-wake zones, locks and bridges could take up to eight hours. We had to be in Manteo, NC, by 3 p.m. to pick up our rental Jeep. Losing interest in the water, our imaginations were already settled in the Outer Banks driving over dunes, licking frosting off doughnuts, inspecting horse prints in the sand.
When we reached the Great Bridge Lock, I woke up my brother to help. He lay down on the couch and assured us he’d stagger up when the light on the lock turned green, permitting entrance through the first gate. From the fly bridge, my dad gave instructions for tying up to the side of the lock. My mom begged my brother to come out and listen. My dad threatened that he wouldn’t be allowed to practice driving for a week if he didn’t help, but he refused to budge. When the light turned green, he rose and tied up his line. He held it loosely with a blank bored expression. I pulled my line tighter to hold us in place.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked him. He didn’t even look at me.
Our interactions usually went like this. From a young age, my little sibling’s job was to irritate me. Growing up, we bickered and stole toys and told on each other. At home, we could squabble and cool off, continuing the conversation and the rest of the day as if nothing had happened. On the boat, we were stuck together. Trivial family arguments got in the way of efficiency and risk-free docking. Arriving at Pirates Cove Marina, we were annoyed and unprepared.
Sensing several potential problems, the dockhand directed us into a wider slip, and when the boat was close enough, he hopped onboard. He caught the stern lines and secured them to the dock. He hurled the spring and bowlines over the pilings, tightened and tied them. My brother and I watched, jumping out of his way. By himself, the dockhand accomplished the job of an entire crew.
I saw my dad’s disappointed face and knew we had failed him. To add to our misery, the marina had no pump-out, and our holding tanks were full. Using the bathroom at the marina was difficult. At low tide, the boat was too far from the fixed pier. Forced to use a slippery stepstool, we could not easily get off the boat.
But it was almost 3 in the afternoon, and our Jeep and the scenic sites of the Outer Banks were waiting for us. We shook it off and left for the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk, where the famous siblings took their first flight. We drove to the quaint town of Duck and wandered the boardwalk, eating popular Donutz on a Stick. Worn out, we used the bathroom at the marina and went to bed.
The next morning, pumping out became an urgent matter. Nervous to maneuver through the shallow Manteo channel, my dad watched YouTube videos detailing where to hug the green markers, where to make a sharp turn, which areas to avoid. Pulling out of our slip, we were all alert, now aware of the stakes. It was time to act like a crew.
My brother and I followed captain’s orders as my dad instructed us how he wanted the lines. To make the return easier, we left the stern and spring lines with loops for the pilings intact. My dad was prepared, and we made it to the pump-out station without running aground. We had made it through one obstacle, and now the final test loomed before us. On the way back through the channel, my brother and I scampered back and forth, anxiously rearranging lines, double checking cleat knots and loops, while mom relayed messages from dad on the fly bridge. Silent with concentration, we approached the slip.
Three anxious dockhands remembered us and awaited our arrival. My dad slowly backed in. I threw the spring line over the piling. To my amazement, it stuck. I turned; my brother had done the same. He threw his bowline, and when I struggled, he came to my side and threw it over for me. I tensed and prepared to save us from whatever peril we faced next, but we were settled in the slip. The dockhands hadn’t moved from the pier. The man who had helped us during our failed attempt told us “Good job. Good job.”
“I’m so proud,” my dad said in the cabin. The four of us smiled, wordlessly congratulating each other on a job well done. We helped each other off the boat and headed to our Jeep. Every crew needs some vacation time. At Jockey’s Ridge State Park, we hiked the largest sand dune on the East Coast. At the peak, hang gliders floated across the sand with views stretching 10 miles in every direction across the Atlantic Ocean and Roanoke Sound. In the evening, we watched “The Lost Colony,” a historic re-enactment show that has been playing on Roanoke Island since the 1930s.
During pirate-themed mini-golf, we shared a laugh like seasoned mariners when the captain bellowed, “Raise the starboard port!” Recognizing his mistake, I realized that I did understand boating. I had listened to my dad talk about boats for 10 years. I had learned to turn on chart plotters and electricity, fuel up the boat and pump out the holding tanks, set out lines and fenders (not bumpers). We all knew our way around a boat. We learned to fail and try again and eventually discovered that teamwork got us safely in the slip.
Day 5: Corolla, NC
After climbing all 220 spiraled steps up the Corolla Lighthouse, we let the air out of the Jeep’s tires and drove on the beach. Past sunbathers, warm waves and quiet houses, we drove off the sand roads following mounds of horse droppings. And there they were: three wild horses with long black manes chewing the grass in someone’s lawn. It wasn’t quite the image “Nights in Rodanthe” had instilled in me of horses galloping beside our Jeep, manes flowing in the wind, as they reared, kicking up and whinnying. I like to end a trip with reflection, perhaps an epiphany or two, but what I felt wasn’t so dramatic. My mom’s shoulder hurt, but she was pointing out horses, asking if we wanted to follow more mounds of manure. My dad, I knew, would rather be watching Wimbledon but instead was driving a Jeep on back roads, because he planned these vacations for us, our family. My brother opened a bag of Sour Patch Kids and offered to share. I looked forward to watching our last Outer Banks sunset as a crew who had unlocked the secret of working together and now would get along, at least until the next trip.