Local Couples Cruise Big Boats On Area Waters — Sometimes For Months At A Time
By Brad Goins
Ben And Trisha Garber
Whenever Lake Charles residents Ben and Trisha Garber head out for an extended spring cruise in their 52-foot-long boat Contraband, the first place they direct their boat to is Orange Beach, Ala.
“It’s where we like to go” to start a trip, says Ben. It’s the couple’s “home base.”
Last year, they headed out for their leisurely spring cruise on March 24. Traveling at a top speed of 8.5 knots (10 mph), it took them seven days to reach their destination.
In their forays out from Orange Beach, their many stops include Destin and Ft. Walton in Florida; they usually make a good number of stops in the Florida panhandle area.
They’re “visiting with relatives and friends along the water,” says Ben. But they never have to make a burdensome number of visits. “The boating community is pretty small.”
After three months traveling along the eastern Gulf coast, they returned to spend the summer in their home on the Calcasieu River on Old Town Road near Loggerheads. “We like to stay close to home” during the summer months, says Ben. “There’s a lot going on on the river and it is extremely hot.” Although the couple is semi-retired, they work together in computer consulting (a long-term interest for both). They also have older parents in the area.
Last fall, they headed south, spending two months cruising along the Texas coast. Among the places where they docked were Kemah, Port Aransas and Corpus Christi.
It’s typical for the couple to boat for five hours, then make a stop. “There’s a lot of little places” along the coast, says Ben. They travel with bicycles on the boat. That’s how they get around in the ports and towns. They also enjoy bicycling just for diversion.
There’s not always a convenient stopping place after five — or six, or seven — hours of boating. Sometimes the two must cruise 10 hours at a stretch, which Ben says is “a little tiring.” They have had to cruise overnight before.
When the couple wants to boat overseas — usually for a week — they charter a large boat. In the past, they’ve done this in Greece and the Virgin Islands. They don’t need a captain as Ben is a U.S. Coast Guard 100 Ton Licensed Captain.
In a typical year, the couple spends three to six months boating. “Being semi-retired has allowed us to expand our range,” says Ben. Last year they cruised a total of 1,650 miles. That meant more than 200 hours spent at the helm.
Maintaining A Big Boat
Their 52-foot-long power boat — Contraband — is a yacht. They acquired the boat in the year before Hurricane Rita — 2004. Ben notes that the boat’s insurance lapsed between the landfalls of Katrina and Rita. And because the Louisiana Gulf coast had been the site of such widespread destruction, Garber’s insurance company declined to renew his policy. Fortunately, Contraband received only minor damage from Rita.
What about the maintenance of a boat that’s 52 feet long? Is it a continual challenge?
“It’s something you’ve got to stay up with,” says Ben. “There’s always something you have to upgrade or fix.” He refers to the old joke that “boat” stands for “bring on another thousand.”
Before the couple got Contraband, they had a 32-foot-long Carver boat. When he was growing up (and after), Ben’s parents cruised in Hatteras boats.
Ben’s father was an active member of the Lake Charles Sail and Power Squadron. Ben and Trisha have long been active in the same group. Ben says it’s the place where prospective sailors learn to do things like dock boats and tie lines. “That’s where you learn stuff,” he says. “It’s the school of boating.”
The Squadron welcomes all prospective boaters, including those who use sailboats, power boats, PWCs and so on.
The group has an active Facebook page that informs readers of such things as planned boat rides and obstacles in local waterways.
The Wrong Weather At The Wrong Time
For 25 years, Garber worked for W.R. Grace & Co. His wife Trisha had a lengthy career as a computer consultant. The two had shared an interest in computers when they first met in their college years, and early on, they worked together as computer consultants. Today, they do the same thing once again, but this time at a more casual pace.
Although Ben and Trisha now spend up to half a year boating, when they were younger, they faced the same dilemmas other young, working boaters face. For one thing, their boating vacations were limited to the time of their actual work vacations: usually two weeks.
Those two-week cruises could be shortened by a factor that could knock out weekend trips altogether: the weather.
Garber has a simple approach to the boating weather forecast: “Double the forecast. It’s always a little worse” [in reality]. So, if the forecast is for 1- to 2-foot waves, anticipate 3- to 5-foot waves.
Garber says he and Trisha don’t have much trouble docking at marinas and docks along the Gulf Coast. But when they do have some difficulty, the culprit is always the same: the weather. Even for an experienced boater, docking at a floating dock in a 20-mile-an-hour wind can be a daunting prospect.
If boaters are planning a weekend trip and the weather that’s forecast is more than they feel comfortable dealing with, the only reasonable response is an unpalatable one. Don’t go. Such a practical response can be a real disappointment to those who don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing the times when they go boating.
“Your schedule has to be flexible,” says Garber. “That’s the real struggle for younger, working people.”
But those who can stick with boating until their retirement years may find that their persistence is rewarded. Trisha tells the story of a Houston couple she knows. When they retired, they sold everything they owned and cruised to the Caribbean, where they lived on their boat for three straight years. If hurricanes came around, they simply cruised south of them. This couple found an elegant and enjoyable way to deal with undesirable weather.
Mike And Buffy Petry
Spouses who are boating enthusiasts can have different priorities when it comes to boating. Take Mike and Buffy Petry. Mike is strictly a sailboat person.
“Sailing is different than a powerboat,” he says. “Sailing takes a little bit of skill.”
Sailing, says Mike, is “just a feeling … Sailing is enjoyable … There’s a tranquil sound.” He says the sound can resemble the tinkling of a waterfall. He says he and Buffy (and other couples as well) can just “sail back and forth” on the lake without having any particular place to go. “But if you’re in a powerboat, you’re going somewhere.”
Mike’s wife Buffy does indeed like to use a boat — a power boat — to go somewhere. The place she likes to go most often is Berry Bay, which is slightly southeast of Moss Bluff. Sometimes other couples join Mike and Buffy for boating in the bay. Most often, Buffy and Mike see their trips to Berry Bay as overnight getaways. They simply anchor their 24-foot Sea Ray powerboat and spend the night enjoying its air conditioning and many other amenities.
Buffy had started off with the idea of getting a camper in which the couple could make brief getaways. But it occurred to her that a boat might serve as an excellent substitute and the site for many convenient and relaxing over-nighters or weekend trips.
All of this goes a long way toward explaining why the couple’s powerboat is named Blame It On Buffy. (Buffy, by the way, is a given name; not a nickname. Buffy’s name is a tribute to the little blonde-haired girl in the once-popular sitcom Family Affair.)
Mike’s beloved 27-foot-long Catamaran sailboat bears the name XLR8. He came up with this name because he was amazed by how fast the boat could accelerate as it climbed to astonishing speeds — as high as 18 miles an hour.
Mike also captains the Lady of the Lake three-tiered yacht that provides a monthly cruise that begins at Loggerheads Bar and Grill. Mike spent many years teaching math, science and P.E. in the Vermillion Parish school system. He also coached football, baseball, basketball and track.
During those years, he needed to find a job during the summer months. And it was in the summer that he acquired the Captain’s License he now employees on the Lady of the Lake.
He’s had several jobs through which he can earn money from sailing. But he’s quite sensitive to the possibility of a “problem with making money doing something you like.” The risk is that the work aspect might wind up taking the pleasure out of the activity.
‘A Weather Thing’
Unlike her husband, Buffy is still working full-time in insurance. I wondered whether the couple felt they had enough time to do all the boating they wanted to do.
“That’s a weather thing,” said Mike. He said the couple might have to cancel boating outings three weekends in a row because of a run of rainy weather.
Had the couple ever had a close call with weather? “Anybody who’s sailed long enough is going to go through tricky weather,” said Mike. If the weather gets tricky enough, he says, the thing to do is drop anchor and go below deck.
The Best Kept Secret In Town
Every other year, Mike and Buffy charter a “big Catamaran sailboat” and go to sail the islands of England. Mike has come a long way since 1970, when he got his first boat — a Hobie 16 sailboat. He says he was “18 or 19” at the time.
Like Ben Garber, Mike recommends a place where people who love boating or are intrigued by it can go to learn skills and get experience. He says the Lake Charles Yacht Club is the “best kept secret in town.” The club is “very inexpensive.” You don’t have to own a boat to go. Mike says it’s a good place for family activities.
A particularly good time to visit is Wednesday, when there are practice races. Those in the audience can enjoy hot dogs. You might want to visit the site lakecharlesyachtclub.com before you head out, as several of the recent races have been cancelled due to COVID-19.
Bobby And Lily Soileau
Bobby and Lily Soileau have been powerboating in the Lake Charles area for more than 10 years.
Before Bobby started powerboating, his boat activities were confined to fishing. “It’s a whole different thing,” he says. “You see a million bay boats on the water. Having your condo on the water is different.”
If Bobby and Lily get too hot on top of their 47-foot-long power boat, they can just go below deck — where there are four air conditioners. Bobby says there are also two bedrooms, two heads and a large salon. “We have all the comforts of home.” The boat also has a generator. “We can be self-sufficient as long as we provision properly,” says Lily.
So comfortable, in fact, is the big boat that when they acquired it, the couple downsized their home. When their boat went from 21 feet to 47 feet, their house went from 3,000 square feet to 1,600 square feet. “We pretty much spend the weekends on the boat,” says Lily.
Like other boaters mentioned in this story, the Soileaus sometimes anchor in Berry Bay. In a process called “rafting,” a number of boats anchor right next to each other, side by side, in a row. Boaters then move from boat to boat to socialize or to try the food or drink prepared by the captains and admirals of the various boats.
The Soileaus’ big boat is a Meridian yacht named My Gypsy Soul. Lily says everyone thinks the name comes from the Van Morrison song “Into the Mystic,” but in fact, it’s from a Willie Nelson song titled “My Threadbare Gypsy Soul.”
The couple bought the boat in Jupiter, Fla., then boated back 2,500 miles to Lake Charles. The trip took two and a half weeks. Bobby says they used their “shakedown crew” — a term that’s used to indicate a crew that works on a newly bought boat to “get to know all about it and run everything out of it.”
These days, time is a consideration when the couple sails. Bobby still works full time (at the Plumbing Warehouse). Long trips can eat up a lot of weekend time. It’s a five to six hour boat trip to the Sabine Reservoir. The trip to Houston takes a full day.
And fuel is bound to be somewhat of a factor as well. When the boat is travelling at the speed of 18 mph, it gets 1.2 miles per gallon of fuel.
The Soileaus would go sailing every weekend if it weren’t for two things: other obligations or the weather.
Their worst weather experience occurred when they encountered a major wind storm as they were boating in Florida waters, traveling from Pensacola to Venice. The sky in the distance seemed oddly colored. But they couldn’t tell they were approaching a wind storm until they were almost upon it.
They were 18 feet up on the helm. The waves were four to six feet high. They were being hit by gale force winds. The boat rocked from side to side. Says Lily, “We couldn’t tell how far the storm was going to go. ‘Do we turn around?’ [we wondered].”
They finally decided to boat away from the storm. Having started in Pensacola, they wound up — safely — in Biloxi. “We have been very fortunate [with weather],” says Lily.
The couple is sometimes stressed when they have to dock in high winds. But they are able to see the humor in the situation. Lily points out that “when the boat is moving, the captain (Bobby) is in charge. When the boat is in dock, the admiral (Lily) is in charge.” Because of the noise made by the winds, Bobby and Lily must often raise their voices in order to be understood by the other person. Sometimes people who hear them from a distance who are not experienced boaters think that the two are yelling expressions of anger at each other. In fact, they’re just trying to make themselves heard above the roar.
Other strangers who have seen the couple as they boated felt for sure that they were going to have troubles with water depth. The Soileaus sail down many narrow tributaries in the Lake Area. Sometimes people in fishing boats look at them in astonishment, wondering how they are going to maneuver the shallow depths. But My Gypsy Soul has a good depth finder. The two always make it through the small waterways just fine.
Peacefulness And Friendship
As we would expect, maintenance on a 47-foot-long boat is an ongoing challenge. “You’re your own on-board engineer — electronics, toilets, moisture, humidity,” says Bobby.
Bobby strongly recommends that all people who are considering getting deeply involved in boating “be educated in boating safety.”
But as important as safety is, it won’t get a boating couple too far if there is a lack of cooperation and mutual interest and enthusiasm. Given the demands of maintenance, the work of boating, the stress of weather watching, chances are two spouses won’t become a big boating couple if one of the two is unenthusiastic about the activity. “You both have to love it,” says Lily.
“The peacefulness of the boat on the water makes it all worthwhile,” says Bobby. “And the friendships.”