Let’s dispel one myth right away: boating isn’t always the romantic tableau that poems and inspirational posters would lead you to believe. Generally speaking, cruising is a lot of work in uncomfortable or less than ideal conditions. Pitching around in rough seas in cramped quarters isn’t exactly conducive to a romantic glass of merlot. Crawling around the engine room looking for the source of that new oil leak doesn’t scream passion and desire. For a young, single liveaboard, sweet talking someone into walking down the dock to “see the boat” might work as a pick-up line, but climbing over lifelines and down the companionway steps has a way of putting the chill on whatever was working back at the bar.
Day-to-day boating life is rewarding, exciting, and adventurous. Romantic? Not so much. This isn’t to say that boating can’t be a perfect setting for a couple to grow a relationship. A good day (or night) onboard can be idyllic and wonderful, but it takes some luck, planning, and a healthy sense of adventure to overcome the reality of life on the water.
For as long as human beings have sailed away from the sight of land, we have romanticized the sea. Its natural rhythms, amazing views, and promise of new horizons drew poets, philosophers, and adventurers to cross oceans in search of some higher meaning or purpose to life.
They would return with epic poems, treatises on mankind, and stories of mysterious lands teeming with exotic women. It is worth noting, however, that sailors were exclusively men, and the romance they found at sea was not that of Valentine’s Day and bouquets of flowers. It was a philosophical romance, one of adventure. There was certainly nothing romantic happening aboard sailing ships in the early days. They were dirty, dangerous, chaotic places. The seas, in fact, were competition for healthy relationships, with men drawn to sea at the expense of their lovers and families on shore, as Shakespeare warns us:
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.”
Men have been historically torn between their sense of adventure and their longing for companionship on land. The skeptic in me thinks that boat owners want their partners to join them on the water not out of any sense of romance, but out of hope that time together onboard will simply buy them more time with their boat. Maybe that’s just me, but ask yourself how many men have tried to teach their partners to golf so that they wouldn’t have to give up their weekends on the links.
Undoubtedly, most people reading this piece love boats. We love our own boats, sometimes to a fault, and we love the idea of boats. Some people get in trouble for looking at a pretty guy or gal walking past their table at a restaurant. We get caught admiring the curves and overhangs of a well-kept trawler approaching the dock. That’s good. Without that love, the absurdity of boat ownership would become obvious, and then where would we be?
A good romantic date onboard begins with the boat. Of course, we have the boats we have, so unless you plan to go out and buy, borrow, or steal a boat to impress a partner, we are left dealing with the vessel we have. Any boat will do, just be realistic about what your situation is.
Back when we had our Cape Dory 27, date nights aboard usually meant most of the night was spent at a dockside restaurant or bar, because once you go below in a 27-foot sloop, your options are limited. Small boats are ideal for spending a stormy night tied to the dock, listening to music, sipping wine, and playing card games. Much more than that would be outsized for the setting. It helped that we had a little gas fireplace onboard to add some ambience, but climbing unceremoniously over one another to get to the icebox or the head doesn’t scream “romance!” for most.
During summer nights on a small boat, you can spread out to the cockpit or foredeck for a sunset or some stargazing, but at that point you’re often fighting the cold. Let’s just say it isn’t always ideal, and your partner has to be game for things to be a little rough around the edges.
As boats get bigger, the Date Night Playbook opens a bit. A full galley allows for a home-cooked meal. A proper refrigerator and freezer give you cocktail options unavailable with a simple icebox. The head might even be far enough away from the main salon so that no one feels too self-conscious excusing themselves to the restroom (a bigger deal than you might think). On our 34-foot trawler, date nights now often consist of a nice meal, a crisp cocktail or two, and curling up on the couch to watch a movie after a brief intermission to turn the dining table into said couch, of course.
Now, if you are one of the very few who owns a boat as large as the average Seattle apartment, the world is your oyster. Go nuts. Throw a party. Hire a band.
I’ll be honest here, the very best date nights my girlfriend and I have had onboard have been impromptu dashes to the marina for a quick getaway or overnight stay where we never even start the engines, let alone cast off the dock lines. The water still laps at the hull, the birds still holler from the jetty outside the marina, our resident mama seal still snuffs at us as she swims past the transom. Being onboard in itself is romantic.
I am here to argue that when it comes to date nights onboard, less is more. Chances are your boat is moored within walking distance to at least one decent restaurant or bar. Consider the relative value of actually “boating” on a watery date night. One of our favorite things to do on a dry, calm night is to put the dinghy in the water and row around the marina, looking at boats and watching people. Our destination is usually the guest dock near one of the restaurants where we tie up the dinghy and go enjoy a meal. The row back to the boat in the dark is quiet and remarkably romantic, especially for my Southern Californian partner who is allergic to the cold and must settle for body heat until we get back aboard where the heat has been left on.
If your plan involves even a short cruise, the key to making things work is to be as prepared as possible. Imagine for a moment a scenario where you and your date arrive at the boat to find a friendly neighbor has unplugged your shore power. The food in the fridge has gone bad. The batteries are flat. The heat hasn’t been on. This isn’t hypothetical, it happened to me. Obviously, it was the end of that romantic evening. Or imagine that date night is the night your trusty diesel decides to not turn over. You get the picture. Prep the boat.
Once you know the boat itself won’t be the reason your plans go awry, be realistic about the value of the “cruise.” Destinations in Puget Sound are a long distance apart. If your date is not already a boater, a two-hour “quick trip” to another harbor could be a long, uncomfortable cruise. Keep it short.
At the north end of Lake Union, there are two restaurants with their own docks. Ivar’s Salmon House has a well-maintained floating dock running east and west (12 inches high and about 225 feet long). Smaller boats can dock at either side on the western end. Usually this dock has a fast turnover, as people are often picking up from the take-out bar that is on the street side. This high-traffic area can get some light chop from a southerly wind combined with passing boat traffic passing under the University Bridge. It’s a lively scene, so keep your lookout sharp while maneuvering.
Another simple reality is that this is the Northwest. Weather here is unpredictable year-round, and even on our most beautiful summer afternoons, the wind and waves can kick up and make for a very bumpy ride that makes sipping rosé a challenge.
If you are worried about the distance to get anywhere “good” on your date afloat, consider this pro tip: stage the boat ahead of time. Want to take that special someone through the Ballard Locks and into the lake for an evening? Move your boat to the guest docks at Shilshole Marina the day before to set up for an easy trip.
Spending the night somewhere other than your homeport? Make a reservation. Knowing where you are tying up and knowing for sure that you have a place to stop for the night takes the pressure off and allows you to focus on the other aspects of date night.
Boats and boating can be unpredictable. You never know what is going to happen, and you can’t prepare for everything. Just be thoughtful before you commit to a complicated plan that is reliant on everything going just right. Buy me a beer sometime and I’ll tell you about the perfect night at anchor in the San Juans that ended up with me, sans clothing, on the foredeck trying to reset an anchor in a sudden gale. That was decidedly not how I expected that night to go…
A romantic day on the water can mean anything from a quick sunset cruise to a weekend at anchor in a secluded cove. Here are some tried and true options that incorporate boating into your date night plans.
Dinner at Dockside
A simple candlelight dinner takes on a new level of romance when it’s aboard a boat. Don’t bother casting off. There is enough nautical magic in the marina itself for a well-planned dinner around the dinette table to be an excellent date. Choose a meal that is easy to make in the (usually) limited galley onboard. Prep food ahead of time and pair everything with a nice wine. Perfect. Most boats are devoid of big screen televisions and other distractions, so being aboard allows for actual human-to-human interaction. Even for those of us in long-term relationships, a meal and glass of wine onboard can be an excellent diversion from the usual routine of life.
The Puget Sound is blessed with dozens of excellent restaurants with easy access from marina guest docks or private floats. There is something special about walking to your reservation from the dock, as land-bound patrons look on in jealousy. Try not to travel too far for a sail-in meal if you can avoid it, especially if you need to make the return trip after dinner. Note also that many waterfront restaurants in Seattle and on Lake Union and Lake Washington have very limited dock space. See last month’s feature Boat Appétit! for info on that scene.
While usually in the summer months and far too late for a Valentine’s Day outing, more and more marinas are offering special event nights. Port Ludlow, among others, has regular sail-in movie nights, for example. Sail up, drop anchor, or tie to the guest dock, tune your stereo to the right station for the audio, and you have a nautical drive-in movie. We have taken advantage of many of these events over the last few years, and I must say it is hard to beat sitting on the flybridge under a warm blanket, eating popcorn and sipping a cocktail while a silly 1980s flick plays on a giant screen. A few marinas also have waterside concerts and other events. Farmer markets, art festivals, and food and wine events take place somewhere in the Puget Sound all summer.
People on vacations pay good money for a ride on a boat as the sun goes down. It stands to reason that a personal sunset cruise would make an excellent date night. With no destination necessary, you can slip out of the marina and lazily motor around as the sun hides behind the Olympic Mountains. One of our favorite sunset cruises is anywhere in Elliott Bay, where the low sun reflects off the glass and steel buildings downtown Seattle.
Plan ahead. During the season, head out early in the day and set a couple of crab or shrimp pots. Then, on your date night cruise pull those pots and cook your bounty right onboard. Fresh cracked crab as you cruise to your destination? That’s hard to beat and can’t be replicated in many places as easily as here.
Fishing for salmon or other native fish is a riskier proposition and isn’t as easy as crabbing or shrimping. It’s always worth a shot if you are set up for it, but a word to the wise: I wouldn’t count on catching anything right away and impressing your date. Just in case, stash a little store-bought “bounty” in the icebox.
I hope I don’t have to say that “trapping” a date on a long overnight or weekend getaway is a bad, bad idea. But if you and your partner are at the “weekends away” phase of your relationship or he or she is just up for anything, you can enjoy any number of amazing, romantic destinations from most ports in the Puget Sound in a quick day of sailing or cruising.
Our favorite destination for a romantic getaway is by far Gig Harbor. The waterfront is quaint and delightful. The restaurants, breweries, and bars are wonderful and varied, and the whole place just feels like you’ve gone back in time.
For weekend getaways, we usually prefer to marina hop to allow us to get out and see the sights, but nothing says you can’t take your dockside dinner plan on the road and settle at anchor in a quiet cove.
Love at Sea
Physical intimacy onboard can be something straight out of a fantasy, or it can be a ludicrous adventure in elbows, knees, and bumped noggins on bulkheads.
Though there is a lot to say on this subject, it’s best that we keep it family friendly on these pages. Let’s just say, as with all life aboard a boat, be very aware of the limitations your vessel imposes upon you. A cramped V-berth on a small sloop may be your best option, but that doesn’t make it a good option. I firmly believe that anyone who chooses to go all the way onboard—even on a medium-sized boat—needs a good sense of humor and an adventurous spirit.
And please, close the shades.