Photos by Zak Bennett
For Electronics Editor Ben Stein and his family, their 57-foot vessel became the ideal place to hunker down.
In 2016, our family, including Laura, Ben, Molly, 13, and Madelyn, 10, embarked on a Great Loop adventure aboard our 57-foot Carver Voyager Have Another Day. The trip brought us closer together than ever before. We got used to spending all of our days, evenings and weekends together. The girls fell into a routine of homeschooling, and traveling opened their eyes to experiences that no book could ever teach.
After finishing the loop, we continued to spend most of our time on board Have Another Day. When COVID-19 first hit the U.S., we became a lot more cautious in our daily activities. Once we understood what would be involved with quarantining, we agreed that the boat was the best place for us. We have a house in Chicago but months spent indoors due to cold weather, coupled with being in a large metropolitan area, didn’t sound so appealing. It turns out that staying on the boat was the best decision we could’ve ever made.
We headed for the warm waters of southwest Florida, where there is lots of sunshine to enjoy in Ft. Myers. We were already used to living, working and homeschooling on the boat full-time, so the transition was much easier than it has been for many families these last months.
Usually, the girls are making new friends for play-dates, going to the library and visiting stores and restaurants. When the pandemic began, all that was put on hold. It has been a little harder to keep the girls entertained. We get outside as much as we can to run and bike. They had a good dog-walking gig during the winter months with so many boaters in our marina. But they miss their friends; thank goodness for FaceTime and Zoom.
A live-aboard marina is actually perfect for social distancing. We see our friends on the dock while maintaining the appropriate distance. Our neighbors across the way have docktails from their cockpit while friends set up chairs on the dock. Conversations and laughter aren’t impacted by a few feet of separation.
During the shutdown, we took the Carver out to anchor for the night several times. That gave us a sense of calm. We grabbed the paddle boards and swim noodles and enjoyed the sunrise and sunset without worrying about washing our hands every five minutes.
In January, we bought a 22-foot Cobia center console, which has been a lifeline during the shutdown. It gives us the option to take a late afternoon cruise to a swimming hole or a run down to the beach. We don’t have to worry about depth or wind or much of anything. No dealing with power cords or securing all of our belongings on the big boat. If the sun’s shining and the forecast looks good, we throw lines and go; all we have to do is pack some sandwiches and grab the sunscreen.
Our weekly routine includes pulling the girls around in a tube and hitting one of the local sugar-sand beaches (once they reopened). The beach is huge and spread out. We’ve never once felt crowded or unsafe. We could’ve never imagined back in January just how thankful we would be to have a second boat for these local jaunts.
School was one transition we did not have to make, which we are grateful for everyday after watching so many of our friends struggle with suddenly having to teach their kids at home while working full-time. Our school year was not interrupted at all.
As the school year wrapped up, we had to reconsider our summer plans. We usually travel a lot, but that will not happen this summer. We had intended to leave Ft. Myers in mid-May and head to the Bahamas before heading back to Chicago for July and August. The Bahamas trip is not happening, and Chicago is up in the air based on infection rates later in the summer. So we’re keeping busy in Florida, and luckily there are many online classes and tutorials to keep the girls occupied.
Food shopping, storing and prep is always interesting on board and has become a bit challenging at times during the pandemic. We usually enjoy grocery shopping, but we were nervous to go into a store during the early days. After weeks of experimenting with food delivery services and dealing with cracked eggs and missing items, we just wanted to pick out our own produce.
We shop every two weeks. If a quick run is ever needed, one of us will go, but the kids don’t go to any stores. Thankfully, after living on our boat for almost four years, we have food storage figured out; we know how to pack the fridge, and shopping every two weeks has not been a problem. We’ve discovered that gallons of milk don’t fit well in the fridge, so we buy organic half gallons. We can store three of them in our various fridges (two under-cabinet fridges and one small drink fridge on the flybridge). We have also found that, after mostly skipping Costco trips while living on board due to space, buying some items there works for us. We can stock up on produce, cereal and bread, and it all gets eaten.
Having a vacuum sealer on the boat for meat and fish lets us individually portion those items by sealing and freezing them. It also helps us fit more in our under-cabinet freezer. We have a well-equipped galley, and we can cook on the boat as easily as we do at home, although cooking every day is getting tiring.
As for testing and writing about new electronics, many things have changed but many have also stayed the same. A full spring of manufacturer events, product announcements and meetings were all canceled. An in-person seminar on marine electronics that I was supposed to teach turned into a multi-day webinar, but many product evaluations have continued as normal. Though I’ve had delays in getting some products because of supplier shortages and representatives of companies being furloughed, I’ve been able to get enough products to keep me busy. With each passing day it seems like more companies are figuring out how to operate in our changing landscape, so I’m hearing from more and more companies.
I’ve been testing several products on the Carver and our center console, but several recent tests on the Cobia have required significant time on the water. So, ever the selfless slave to work, I’ve spent many hours on the Caloosahatchee River, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and in the Gulf of Mexico testing new equipment. I’ve been fortunate that in southwest Florida there haven’t been restrictions on boating beyond a prohibition on raftups, capacity limits and the closure of some parks and beaches.
We’ve already seen boaters re-energized about getting out on the water. It turns out that boats are especially well-suited for social distancing. Based on the amount of people we see cruising the local waterways, it appears that people are using their boats now more than ever. Once the lines are cast off and the boat has left the dock, little can replace the overall escape, relaxation and recreation one feels far from the shadow of a global pandemic.