If, like me, you are fascinated with cognitive neuroscience, you have undoubtedly been following the research on happiness. Basically, we’re learning that things we think will make us happy don’t, usually.
New York Times columnist John Tierney is as taken with all this as I am, and he ran a little experiment a couple years ago in which he asked readers to list their ten most expensive purchases, and the ten purchases that gave them the most happiness. The point was to find the overlap.
And he found it. Houses, college, travel, home electronics, and some kinds of cars (a wide range, from Jaguar to Honda Civic) delivered in the happiness department. But lots of other purchases didn’t. Take out things we have to spend money on, like insurance and taxes, and the big expenses that didn’t make people happy were children, wedding ceremonies, and all the cars that weren’t on the other list.
And boats. If it’s happiness you’re after, says Tierney, “Never buy a boat.”
I knew that when we decided, over the winter, to buy a boat. Specifically, we bought a 23-foot Steigercraft, tricked out with all the electronics a fisherman could want, and an F250 diesel truck to pull it. For us, it definitely qualified as a major purchase. The only thing we’ve ever bought that was more expensive is the house we live in, and that was a purchase of a different order. Real estate often holds its value. Sometimes, it even appreciates. The value of boats and trucks, though, just dwindles down to nothing.
To add insult to injury, you have to keep putting money in as the value dwindles. For starters, there’s gas. An awful lot of gas. Then there’s registration and taxes, every year, on the boat, the truck, and the trailer. There’s maintenance. Repair. Eco-friendly chemicals to get the caterpillar-shit stains off the gunwales. It never ends.
A boat, in short, is expensive.
Our previous boat, a 19-foot Eastern, cost a lot less. (And it isn’t ‘previous’ quite yet – it’s for sale at Millway Marina, and priced to move.) We could tow it with a smaller truck, it took a lot less gas, and had many fewer things that could go wrong. And we got a lot of excellent fishing done in it. The decision to step up to a bigger boat was non-trivial, and we made it because we have found, in the four years that we’ve been here, that we love to fish.
It’s not just the fishing. If you come here often, you’ve heard me say it before and I hope you’ll forgive me for saying it again: some of our very best days have been just the two of us, on the boat together. There was one day, one summer, at Horseshoe Shoal that was for me almost emblematic of happiness. Bright sun, calm sea, biting bluefish, and Kevin and me.
We want more days like that, and so we bought a bigger boat.
But you never know how things like this will turn out. The bigger boat could just be a bigger headache. It could be a hassle to trailer, and to launch. Its bigger size and deeper draft could limit us. More electronics means more things to go wrong. You never know.
So I am happy to report that the boat bought us a day like yesterday.
We woke up to fog and a little bit of spitting drizzle. There was a wind out of the south-east, not too bad, but enough to blow up two-foot seas in Nantucket Sound. We hadn’t planned to fish, but the boat was all set up in the driveway because we’d gone the day before. (And the day before that, and the day before that – Kevin’s brother Marty had been visiting, and it was all fishing, all the time.)
We were still drinking our first cup of coffee when I ventured to suggest we could go out to try for bluefish. We had caught some the day before, trolling with top lures, but we sent Marty home with them because every single one had been hooked by his rod. (It’s always that way with Marty, and I don’t understand it.)
Kevin was game. All we had to do was load the cooler and ice onto the boat, dress for rain, and go.
This was not a day we would have taken the Eastern out because we would have been neither safe nor comfortable. Dreamcatcher (we’re keeping the name), though, could take a day like that and much, much more. She’s got proper navigation lights, as well as both radar and GPS. We can see other boats and make sure they see us. Although we wouldn’t voluntarily go out in pea soup, a day with half-mile visibility isn’t a problem.
Out in the Sound, about a mile offshore, we had the place to ourselves. I am a water sissy, and that used to make me nervous, but I feel much better in a boat that has the aforementioned radar and GPS as well as two batteries, a relatively new motor, and all recommended safety equipment. We have a marine radio that can send an automated distress signal with our location at the touch of a button, and we have a back-up, hand-held radio in case we lose all power. We have paper charts. We have a compass. We have two waterproof cell phones, and an up-to-date SeaTow membership. In weather that’s even a little dirty, we wear inflatable PFDs.
We were safe, and we were comfortable. The enclosed pilot house meant that the only time we weren’t sheltered was when we were setting up or taking in rods, or dealing with a fish. We went on the same troll we’d done the day before, trailing three lines with poppers, lures that bounce on the surface of the water. And we used our autopilot!
Yes, we have autopilot, and it is my candidate for the coolest thing ever. You can set a destination, or a route, or simply a heading. Press a button, and the boat takes over the steering while you control the speed.
There are a couple reasons that this is the coolest thing ever. For starters, the boat is much better at holding a course than you are. Driving a boat isn’t like driving a car; it’s very difficult to maintain a straight line. The better you are at it, the more efficient your boat is. You can burn a lot of extra gas zigging and zagging and correcting and over-correcting. I can’t hold a line to save my life, but the autopilot has mad skills and keeps us virtually dead on. If you set a destination it even accounts for drift!
Being able to set the autopilot for trolling means, first, that your lines are less likely to tangle because the boat holds its course. It also means that there is an extra set of hands, the hands that would have been on the wheel, available to help with the fishing. The danger of autopilot is that you can be lulled into not paying attention to where you’re going, and we make sure to keep a lookout at all times. We also make sure the radar is on, and set to sound an alarm if another boat gets close.
We were safe, we were comfortable, and we caught three nice bluefish. Not an epic fishing day, certainly, but exactly the kind of morning we wanted this boat for. Just Kevin and me, trolling for bluefish. Our lives are a little overcrowded, and being on the boat together, thinking about nothing but fish, ratchets us down a bit. As we came in, we saw a boat named “Off Switch,” and I thought it was apt.
The time may come when I curse the day we bought the boat. There are many boat-related scenarios involving time, money, and danger that could be enough to make me swear off boat-ownership forever. But for now, the boat – and what it lets us do – makes me happy.
Not only does it give us days like yesterday, it also lets us take people with us. We have friends who either don’t have a boat, or keep their boat in the water and don’t have the flexibility to fish both sides of the Cape, and we very much enjoy bringing them out to where the fish are. The boat also gives us fish. So far, a lot of fish – to date, we’ve landed about 60 pounds of striped bass filets (a bounty we’ve been able to share with friends), eight pounds of bluefish (drying in preparation for smoking, as we speak), and a pound of mackerel (which I pickled in an experiment I’m close to declaring a success). If we were keeping score, that would be about a thousand dollars’ worth, retail value, all caught in three weeks.
We’re not keeping score, because there’s no way we’ll ever come out ahead. What we spend on the boat and the upkeep would keep us in fish for the rest of our lives, and the fish don’t justify the boat. The happiness justifies the boat. The time out of mind justifies the boat.
Days like yesterday justify the boat.