Being on the water is bliss. There is no other place I’d rather be. In my belief system, cruising for days and weeks on end is as close to Nirvana as one can get. Still, at the end of a toasty day after sweat has oozed out of every pore, there is no better denouement than a pleasant shower and a clean set of clothes. Just thinking about that, however, raises The Issue.
Let’s start with our beloved Mathews Brothers 29 built in Denton, MD. A comfortable cruiser perfect for poking around the nooks and crannies of the Chesapeake Bay, she is a bit small compared to those typically tied up alongside us during our explores. Here we are next to a Monk 36 trawler, for example.
And just look at this magnificent Selene in the next dock over from us when we took our Mathews up the Hudson River into Lake Champlain.
Over the years, I’ve been bewitched by these floating condos, particularly during Annapolis boat shows when their interiors can be examined microscopically. After one show, I couldn’t get a Kady Krogen Express 52 out of my mind for weeks. She had more room down below than an urban flat. Still, I wonder why boaters want to take these behemoths on long journeys, especially through the canals and locks we went through getting to Lake Champlain. It has to be a nerve-wracking experience, one we are able to avoid with our nimble craft.
I think the reason comes down to showers. By the end of the first week of a long cruise, you’ve had it with marina showers. Yes, there is a bathing system in the head of our boat, but with our small water tank, you’re limited to a quick rinse. If Dorie needs to wash her hair, she’s on her way to a marina shower, and that’s when a cloud passes over the sun.
Don’t get me wrong. The Chesapeake has some outstanding marina showering facilities. Tides Inn in Irvington, Herrington Harbor, Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield, and the Wharf and Marina at Onancock, for example. My favorite is Osprey Point Marina in Rock Hall. It makes you feel as if you’re in residence at a tony country club.
But these are the exceptions. Too often marina showers are endured rather than enjoyed. You want to wash and get back out the door as quickly as possible. It isn’t just the haphazard attention they seem to get from marina operators which results in one shower stall having no hooks for your towel and clothes while the adjacent one has four, something that happens altogether too frequently. It’s more than that.
It starts with the quality of the shower’s water. Marinas can be in towns with municipal water systems, but they also can be in remote locations. Showering using a well sunk along a waterway means sampling the region’s geology. It can be sulfuric. Once our hair reeked of iron filings for days. Our skin has been chalked white from a limestone slurry in which we bathed. It’s best never to open your mouth while in a marina shower.
Shower nozzles can be pain inducing. Mid-twentieth century vintage is common in marina fixtures with jets having become blocked by calcium sometime during the Carter administration. You can perform laser surgery with what hisses out the remaining holes. I carry a needle in my shower gig to free things up.
A lot of entomologists must be boaters because of the extensive amount of insect life that can be studied while showering. The Chesapeake is oppressively hot during the summer, and most restrooms are air-conditioned which keeps mosquitos to a minimum. But in New England that’s not the case because, theoretically, the weather is better. The way a shower room is dried up north is by leaving all doors wide open when not in use. At night when the lights come on, they become insect petting zoos.
If you have spent any time at a summer camp in the deep woods, you have a pretty good idea how most marina shower facilities are constructed. You rarely see ceramic tile. Tile is easy to clean and holds its appearance for years but is comparatively expensive. The basic idea of a marina restroom is something built as cheaply as possible using materials from a nearby cache of collected scrap. If something needs to be purchased, it will likely come from a farm auction or yard sale. No item should go directly from hardware store shelf to marina restroom because then it would be new, and proper marina restroom décor dictates the use of materials well worn to the point of being worn out.
Plywood is often used for walls, doors, and shower stalls despite the inevitable warping. Floors can be linoleum, paint over something hard to describe, and bare concrete. And not all concrete floors are flat. We have seen them hand molded to create shower pans and drains like a kid would do playing in a sandbox. If you find yourself in a shower with a fiberglass shower unit, you’re in a more upscale marina, no matter how cheap or beat up the unit might be.
And then there is the maintenance. Running a marina is challenging from a resource standpoint even if the operation fills its slips every weekend. Obvious repair items can be overlooked because of the shortage of working capital. We were at a marina once that, uncharacteristically, had two identical restrooms, both looking very nice and neither having warning signs attached. Pleased, I went into the first one and got all set to take a shower. When the faucet was turned on, nothing happened no matter how much I fiddled with it. Putting my clothes back on, I went to the second one only to find there was no way to lock its door. But at least the shower worked. I had one and later so did Dorie. Fortunately, no one walked in on either of us.
That clean thing can be a stumbling block for marinas because, after all, they may be working boat yards. Stepping off the dock can mean stepping onto gravel or shells if you’re lucky, but more likely a mixture of pieces of something hard, mud and various liquid substances. A walk across this surface goes by boats hanging from travel lifts that have had the glop from their bottoms sprayed into the ooze. Garnish that with drips from oil changes, other lubricants, and a dash of antifreeze, and you come up with the muck your shoes eventually track into the restroom.
But more than anything else, it is the hardware selections that truly distinguish the marina shower.
Most marinas have been around for decades which means they are places where watercraft have been serviced for long periods of time. During those eons, little has been thrown away. Boat parts are expensive, and you never know when something might be needed. Stuff gets tossed out back creating layers of yachting civilizations. It is from this detritus that the marina restroom draws its materials.
That is why fixtures are seldom alike or done in a uniform manner. Each door hinge and knob may be unique. If there is a fiberglass shower stall, chances are an access hole has been cut into it and then covered with a hatch off a dead boat. I have showered with the hot water coming through a kitchen sink faucet and the cold controlled by a lever valve from a retired boat’s plumbing system.
I’ve often thought that we could own and operate a killer marina by treating the restroom facilities like a destination spa instead of a necessary evil. It would be a commodious building with wide corridors and subtle lighting. Elegant marble tiling would be liberally applied. Faucets and fixtures would be sparkling chrome from places like Restoration Hardware. Plumbing and electrical conduits would be invisible, not the major architectural feature. An attendant who cleans the spa frequently would hand you a large, fluffy, freshly laundered towel so you wouldn’t have to bring your own from the boat, you know, the one that never really dries. You could luxuriate in a long, hot shower with powerful exhaust fans whisking away the clouds of steam. The entrances to each shower stall would be glass doors instead of cheap plastic curtains from a factory closeout sale if you’re lucky to have one at all. And the floor would be clean, antiseptically clean. If you accidentally dropped a shirt on it, you wouldn’t have to worry about major stain removal issues. Imagine a couple talking about their boating plans? “Yes, but only as long as it includes The Spa at Marina Creek.”
What possessed me to write this was standing in the marina restroom in Burton Island State Park in Vermont one morning feeling that something was amiss. It was devoid of nautical charm, yet everything functioned properly, even effortlessly. Was the lack of charm part of the reason why? Then it dawned on me that all the plumbing, hardware, and electrical fixtures were uniform and up to code. Why? Because it was a government facility. It was not built by someone in the marina business. The construction was done by a government contractor in accordance with specifications written by an architect. Everything was purchased new at taxpayer expense from a builders’ warehouse. The work was inspected to ensure code compliance. No, I’m not a socialist, just a boating realist.
I think the primary motivating force driving cruisers to move up to a larger boat is the shower. Yacht manufacturers have gotten wise to this and designed into their products separate shower stalls, 100-gallon water tanks, and large water heaters. That means the owners of these water-borne penthouses never need to use a community shower. Can you imagine someone with a tote bag getting off a Fleming like this one to head to a marina shower?
We have friends with a commodious Mainship 34 that is a home afloat, complete with a lounger. They are serious cruisers. They were on their boat for several months over one winter leisurely going to Florida and back from the Chesapeake. She says that she never uses the marina’s shower while he always does.
For years, I could not figure out why until we did our first four-week cruise. He is an engineer by training and otherwise the type who excels in solving mechanical problems. For him, showering in a marina must be a form of entertainment. I’ll bet he stands there soaping up with a big smile on his face, marveling at the ingenuity that went into putting all those disparate pieces together to create that boating icon—the marina shower.
Jeff McGuiness was the senior partner of a public policy law firm based in Washington, DC, and founder of HR Policy Association. A fine arts major in college who served as a photographer in the Air Force during the Vietnam War Era, he has picked up where he left off 50 years ago with Bay Photographic Works. He lives in St. Michaels, MD.