Dec 05, 2013, 05:31AM

The Boat People

Will they be okay for winter?

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Whoever lived on the ramshackle boat had to be the most interesting person on Tilghman Island, but the person was a mystery. It was surprising to discover there was a live human on this boat in the first place. The vessel doesn’t look like it should be floating on the water, much less serving as a residence, a place that someone would call home.

Kayaking through the channel in summer, sometimes there might be noise coming from the boat. But no way, because that’s an old abandoned boat, there can’t be someone there. The raft attached to it is deflated, there’s duct tape and plastic over the porthole window, no glass, it’s listing to one side.

But one day there was a person on the bow of the boat, welding.

Oh nice, someone must be fixing it up.

The boat was covered in debris: metal and wood, stacked high, who knew how it stayed afloat, how one could walk around with so much stuff piled everywhere. A metal welding helmet masked the boat’s owner, probably some guy trying to get it to the point where he could sell it. One day a woman in another kayak yelled hello in between welding sessions, that one 15-second pause between the bursts of flying sparks and deafening noise.

And when the helmet was lifted, it was a woman. All her messy curls dropped from the helmet, creating images of the scene in Flashdance while simultaneously shattering gender stereotypes, and she smiled. She answered the questions of the woman in the kayak: they're German and yes, she lived on the boat, no not alone, with her husband, yes, they were planning to live on it year round, no, they were thinking of leaving the island to travel north in the winter, no she hadn’t thought about how that might be cold and she should wait for next summer to start the voyage.

She was polite, friendly even, but was finished answering questions. She waved, lowered her helmet, and was off to welding land again.

A married couple lives on this beat-up boat. All the time, not just in the summer.

A thousand more questions were born from the original ones answered, radiating outward like concentric ripples from a rock thrown into a still pond. They don’t know anyone on the island? What if the boat sinks in a storm when they’re sleeping? Do they have electricity? How will they stay warm in winter? There isn’t even glass in the window and they want to travel north? Do they have other relatives in the U.S. they can visit? What if she gets pregnant? How do they make money? Do they have a car? There isn’t even a grocery store on the island.

None of these questions will be answered, because you can’t just show up at a boat slip by land with a fruit basket and scare the hell out of some poor young European couple with 120 questions and maybe a wool blanket or two. But on the island, everyone takes care of each other. Only these people aren’t exactly on the island, they’re kind of floating next to the island. So they don’t have neighbors who can check on them, because no one is next door.

The only thing to do is keep kayaking by once in awhile, even in winter, say hello, and hope they will be okay.


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