Like many adventures in life, this one started with a brochure that said all the right things. Leave the cruise ship crowd behind on a private rented houseboat in the Florida Keys. Your fully-equipped, 55-foot catamaran is like a floating luxury hotel, transporting you and your friends to places where natural beauty and serenity surround you. Swim and sunbathe in stunning tropical splendor and snorkel among colorful coral reefs. A whiff of gourmet food signals the presence of your award-winning chef Pierre, creating memorable meals of island-inspired fare and continental favorites.
So with that enticement, plus the muted "we'll go if you go" encouragement of six of our friends, my wife and I ignored the extremely reasonable voice in our heads that warned, "This is a bad choice for two people who don't swim or camp." We signed up for a weekend houseboat getaway. Excerpts from my trip log follow, with the caution that some of the events depicted are graphic in nature and may not be suitable for the easily sickened.
It's our last night at home before setting sail in the morning and my apprehension is building. In the process of attempting to dislodge a bundle of mail from our mailbox, I yank violently upward and cause the edge of a clump of letters to gash my nose, drawing blood and leaving a jagged cut visible at the tip. While this freak domestic mishap makes me question my fitness for life at sea, I decide that the scar will make a good story about my encounter with the whip-like tail of a stingray and how I got revenge by snapping off several revealing photos of the creature and selling them without permission to a snorkeling tabloid.
My wife Sherry and I arrive at the houseboat in Islamorada, Fla., just in time for the orientation. Our hosts, Rick and Meg, who in an unimpeachable act of self-preservation will not be accompanying us, zip briskly through the intricacies of navigation covering the minor details of starting, stopping, steering and anchoring in approximately 90 seconds. Using my vast life experience piloting large sea vessels as a frame of reference, I'm able to deduce that the houseboat operates somewhat differently than my car, though both share a tendency to hesitate upon acceleration.
"Did you get all that?" my friend Jack asks as our hosts wish us luck and hightail it back to the dock.
"Can I fetch you a Coast Guard approved safety vest?" I offer helpfully.
While Jack and I continue our inspection of Coast Guard endorsed safety equipment, Pete and Don, who are rumored to actually have some boating skills, manage to navigate our massive vessel to within precisely seven inches of a roped-off swimming area by a public park. Sensing that we could do a lot worse, we declare victory and drop anchor for the night.
As we enjoy an invigorating swim in three feet of salty gulf water, the girls notice a spectacular beach house that was featured on the Home and Garden television channel as the grand prize in a dream home giveaway. The house appears to be empty and we jokingly discuss breaking and entering. I soon realize that some of us are joking while others who will remain nameless (Donna and Elaine) are grabbing the binoculars to look for an open window or removable patio screen. The rigors of sea life can change people. Tonight I will sleep with my life vest on and one eye open.
After a restless night marked by stifling heat, a mosquito invasion, and a world-record-shattering display of snoring by a crewmate who will remain nameless (Pete), the increasingly mutinous crew set sail for new horizons.
A crisis in the making soon surfaces as panic spreads about the amount of water left in the boat's 100-gallon tank.
"I don't mean to be an alarmist, but the way the light's hitting the water meter, it looks like we might be down to our last 10 gallons," Barb announces.
"Did someone flush the toilet this morning?" Elaine probes suspiciously. "I haven't been flushing to conserve water."
"I haven't gone to the bathroom since last night," a bloated Jack shoots back, a collection of empty beer cans at his swollen feet.
"I went in my swimsuit," I confess heroically.
"You pig," Sherry protests, conveying the disgust that only a wife can level at a husband with full authority.
"I did it for the good of the group," I clarify defensively, distracted by the realization that I was still wearing my swimsuit from the day before.
"Okay, nobody flushes, nobody showers from here on out," Barb declares. "That's what the gulf is for."
"God save the manatees," Pete mumbles, brushing a tear from his eye.
"God save us all," Don adds solemnly.
Relying on their keen ability to interpret complex navigational charts and follow marked buoys over long distances on the open seas, Pete and Don manage to navigate us to within precisely 5 inches of a roped-off swimming area by a public park that looks remarkably like the public park we left earlier that day. While we enjoy cocktails and grilled hot dogs on the roof deck, someone spots the beach house from the Home and Garden channel again. For reasons I can't fully explain, the sight of it fills me with profound optimism that the trials and tribulations of our houseboat adventure will return us to our lives stronger and wiser than ever, our friendships unbroken. As our boom box plays Duke of Earl during a postcard perfect Florida sunset, I celebrate by going to the bathroom in my swimsuit again.
While inspecting the houseboat after our return to the dock, Rick and Meg make the shocking discovery that we used only 10 gallons out of our 100-gallon water supply.
"We thought we were running out," Sherry ventures weakly.
"Unfortunately, I can't give you a refund for unused water," Rick chuckles. "You city slickers really know how to rough it."
On the long car ride home I reread part of the houseboat brochure.
Brilliant, sun-splashed days melt into rosy sunsets, and a relaxing stroll on the roof deck after dinner turns into a romantic dance beneath a starry sky. Let the Houseboats to Nowhere team introduce you to the breathe-easy, clear-headed rewards of a private cruise created just for you.
My eyes drift down to some empty space at the bottom of the brochure and I mentally write in a small-type disclaimer:
*Idyllic houseboat experiences may vary. Dolphin sightings, secluded coves and magical moments under starry skies are subject to luck, weather, mood shifts and personal chemistry between crewmates. Showering and maintaining basic hygiene are the sole responsibility of the individual. Houseboats to Nowhere and their subsidiary, Budget Booze Cruises, will not be held liable for any lingering aftereffects or nightmares involving small bathrooms, offensive odors or unattainable beach houses featured on the Home and Garden channel. God save the manatees. God save us all.
And with that, we start planning for next year so we can do it all again.