A Duck Takes to Water

After a lifetime spent in courtrooms, Berkley Duck sets to sea

Published in 2004 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine

By David Kenney on December 1, 2004


As Berkley Duck saw it, he had little choice. After he spent his entire career — more than three decades — as a corporate attorney with the venerable Ice Miller Donadio & Ryan, the firm wanted to bump him up to managing partner. It was too good an offer to turn down, even if it did mean having to wait a few years to set out on what he knew would be the greatest adventure of his life. He accepted the position, knowing that he had just pushed back his retirement a bit further than he had planned. 

He would have to put his dream on hold for a while.

Three years later, in the summer of 2001, Duck finally did retire from Ice Miller. It was time to pull the dream out of mothballs and to set sail. Quite literally. 

Berkley Duck and his wife, Nancy, had spent much of their adult lives on the water. During the early years of their marriage, they raced small sailboats together. Then they moved up to larger boats — cruisers — that were big enough to live on. Eventually, they graduated to powerboats — a 32-footer, a 38-footer, a 42-footer and finally, in 1998 (about the time Ice Miller made Duck a managing partner), a 46-foot Grand Banks trawler that they christened Wings.The Ducks kept their latest acquisition at a private marina on Lake Macatawa, near Holland, Michigan, and from there made regular excursions onto Lake Michigan.

The Ducks had bought Wings with their mutual temporarily deferred dream in mind. For years, they had tossed around the idea of taking a full-circuit journey from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean and back to where they began. The dream would require them to navigate the boat through the Illinois Waterway, down the Mississippi River, up the Ohio River and down the Tombigbee Waterway to Mobile, Alabama. From there they would have to make their way around the Florida peninsula and up the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway to the Chesapeake Bay.The rest of the trip would take them up the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal and into the Great Lakes. They figured the trip would take about a year. “I thought it would make a great initial retirement activity to have a project like this,” Berkley Duck says in retrospect, “especially with all this newfound time on my hands.” After leaving Ice Miller, Duck immersed himself in preparations for the journey. Two months later, he and Nancy were ready to set off on their big adventure.As they headed out onto Lake Michigan, they couldn’t help but wonder — and worry — about what the next year might bring. It was September 11, 2001.

Berkley and Nancy Duck spent the better part of the next 12 months on their trawler, arriving back at the marina on Lake Macatawa in late August 2002. Looking back on the journey, Berkley Duck says it was everything he had hoped it would be — and then some. “We were really very pleased with the whole experience,” he says, “but it is an adventure. You’re operating in pretty primitive conditions. We boaters on the Great Lakes, at least on Lake Michigan, are pretty pampered. We’ve got nice marinas and nice solid docks and good electrical hookups, clean water available at the boat. When you go down the rivers, most of the places where we stopped, conditions are fairly primitive.You get a lot of patchwork marinas and mom-and-pop operations, rickety old docks, places you wouldn’t think about tying up [at].”

Despite the “primitive” conditions, the Ducks were never really out of touch with the people back home in Indianapolis. They carried two cell phones and could almost always place a call when they needed to. They also brought along a laptop computer, which gave them the opportunity to share their journey with a surprisingly large audience. Before leaving on the trip, Duck had assembled a list of about 30 friends, colleagues and clients who said they wanted to receive e-mail updates as the trip progressed. Every couple of weeks, Duck obliged, e-mailing travelogues — complete with digital photographs — via phone jacks at the marinas where Wings was docked. By the end of the cruise, the mailing list had more than doubled, and it would have grown considerably larger if Duck hadn’t limited the number of recipients at Ice Miller. “I sent the updates only to my former partners,” he says. “They passed the messages around within the firm.That way I didn’t clutter up their computer system by e-mailing to everybody.”

The e-mails apparently made quite an impression. When the Ducks finally returned to Indianapolis, many of their friends urged them to turn their electronic travelogue into a book. With his journey complete, and retirement staring him in the face, Berkley Duck decided to take up the challenge and try his hand at writing. As the following excerpt from his upcoming book, Just the Two of You?, suggests, the trip was the perfect way to kick off life as a retired attorney. “I didn’t have a minute where my mind wasn’t occupied,” Duck says of the cruise and the planning that went into it. “By the time I got home, I had fully settled into a retirement routine. I miss the office and I miss the people and the challenge of work. I love the practice of law. But  I haven’t been unhappy for a minute.”


What Kind of Person Lives on a Boat?

By Berkley W. Duck

On our “Great Circle” cruise,we met and talked with dozens of people who live aboard their boats, and we observed many more.They are part of a subculture with some distinctive shared characteristics. There were a few at the fringes — loners who didn’t seem capable of fitting in to a more rooted environment or adventurers who weren’t fulfilled unless they were thrashing to windward in a gale. But the majority were otherwise rational folks with familiar backgrounds — lawyers, airline pilots, engineers, business executives, school teachers, etc.

They had in common the absence of any significant commitments ashore. Most were retired, in the classic sense — people in their 60s and older who had completed a long career. However, many others were younger, entrepreneurs who had created, grown and sold their businesses and now had the time and money to do what they wanted. If there was a theme in their lack of rootedness, it might be the absence of an extended family settled in a single community. Children and grandchildren seemed to be scattered all across the country.

Most had grown up with boats, having been introduced to the sport by a parent, usually on a small scale that became grander as their resources increased. But a few had been attracted to the activity just because it looked like fun.

Almost all were comfortable dealing with the machinery that is a part of their lives. A surprising percentage would not hesitate to attack sophisticated repair and maintenance tasks. Even those without a technical background had learned by doing and observing, as dockside conversations tend to revolve around the care and feeding of the equipment. Most had extensive tools and carried large inventories of the spare parts and consumables needed to keep their boats running.

Although we saw a few, the image of a moss-covered, sun-bleached boat permanently anchored in some lagoon is atypical. Only a very few were reclusive. Almost everyone we met was more than happy to spend a few minutes on the dock chatting about their boats, experiences, destinations and — the single most popular subject — the weather. Living and traveling aboard a small boat, the weather is more than just a conversation-starter. Boaters are helpful. From jumping off their boat to help you land to offering up advice, tools and parts, there is a real sense of sharing of resources and experience.

These are not “yachtsmen.”They think of, and refer to, their boats as “boats” and not “yachts.” The average length of the boats we encountered that were either liveaboards or extended cruisers was about 35 feet.We did not have the sense that these were “rich” people. Some owned no home; their only residence was their boat. Some were pretty obviously counting their pennies.We met no stuffed shirts. Even the few owners we met whose vessels did rise to the “yacht” level seemed to be nice guys with a sense of humor and perspective on their good fortune.

A cruising boat is a home, and you never set foot on another person’s boat without “permission to come aboard.” Long-term liveaboards seem to gradually accumulate decorating touches and practical adaptations to their boats that are highly personal. Almost all have pets, usually a cat (or two or three) but a surprising number own dogs.A very few of the dogs had been trained to use boxes, but most have to be walked off the boat, off the dock and (usually) some distance away from the marina.This is a substantial commitment. We know one dog who swims herself to shore and back when the boat is at anchor. Otherwise, a ride in the dinghy is necessary.

What do they do all day? Boats require constant attention, and these are people who like to keep busy. Generally, liveaboards stay in good shape. Very few were seriously overweight, and all seemed healthy. Living aboard is fairly strenuous, with a lot of stairs to climb and places to which you walk, not ride in a car. Most had bicycles and used them for errands and recreation. Many had satellite dishes; most could plug into cable where it was available. Many marinas have lending libraries for books and video tapes. As a group, liveaboards probably are a little out of touch. 

We certainly did not follow the news as closely as we do at home, but we didn’t seem to miss anything important.

Liveaboards do a lot more than just live aboard. They travel, and in many cases, cover a lot of ground. Some may spend time in both Key West and Maine in the course of a year.“Snowbirds” annually follow the sun from north to south and back again, as the seasons change. The Bahamas and even Cuba are frequent ports of call.

Living aboard a boat requires some sense of adventure and a willingness to cope with logistics that we take for granted, such as grocery-shopping. Some sacrifice of creature comforts must be made. It’s not for everyone … but it is fun.

Chicago to Alton, Illinois (The Illinois Waterway)

We left Lake Michigan at the Chicago River Lock, right at the shoreline, just south of Navy Pier. The lock assures that the river will run south rather than its natural direction, north. We managed to get through without any problems, although it turned out that conditions in this lock — which drops only two feet — were more difficult than those we later encountered because of the heavy surge from Lake Michigan.This was the last wave action we were to feel until we reached Mobile Bay. Once out of the lock we passed under Lake Shore Drive and then into the canyons of the city. It was a big kick to travel under all of the streets over which we had driven, and seeing the city from the river provides a different experience. Seated at the upper helm station, we had to hunch down in order not to hit our heads on the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the lowest in the city. However, it seemed that we were out of the downtown in minutes, and quickly into a commercial and industrial part of the city. We had to wait about 30 minutes for a railroad bridge to open, but otherwise our progress through town was unimpeded.

Several times during the trip we had to stop while a towboat maneuvered its barges into a dock or from a dock into a string tied along the shore. As you would expect, most of the industry along the Waterway is petroleum and bulk materials such as sand and chemicals that can be moved efficiently by water. Many of the barges had warning signs all over them relating to the hazards contained inside.

A loaded barge draws about nine feet of water, and only has about 18 inches of freeboard (the distance from the waterline to the deck).The barges are about 200 feet long and 50 feet wide. The towboats also have very low freeboard, and run with open doors at deck level.The tows (which is the name for the combined towboat and the barges that it pushes — often as many as four long and two across on this part of the Waterway) are held together with steel cables, but are vulnerable to being broken up by wave action.Therefore, the towboat operators frown on being passed by a pleasure craft throwing a large wake. The towboats vary in size and design, but the big river towboats — usually with a New Orleans hailing port — are impressive. They are three stories high, usually painted gleaming white, and seemed to be in excellent condition. Barge transportation is about 10 times as fuel-efficient as hauling by truck, and about two and a half times as efficient as rail transport. Even so, all the fuel we used on the entire trip was less than what a big towboat burns between breakfast and lunch.

The procedure for passing a tow is to call it on the VHF radio. Channel 13 is designated for this purpose. We would say: “Northbound tow at Mile XX, this is the southbound pleasure craft Wings ahead of you. Where do you want us, captain?” (There are “daymarks” at intervals along the river, 20-foot-tall structures on the riverbank with a large red triangle (left side downbound) or green square (right side), and the mileage to the daymark from Mile Zero at the Mississippi.) A southern rural voice would come back and say: “Good mawnin’, Wings, this is the Doyle R. Pickett [or some such name]. Ah’ll git over a bit and let’s us pass on the one.”We would respond:“Thank you, captain. On the one.” He would say (usually): “Y’all have a nice day.” If you are born into the family of a towboat operator, there is an excellent chance that a wonderful boat will be named after you.

“Pass on the one” refers to one whistle, the sound signal used before radio to indicate the intent to leave the approaching boat on your port side (like passing an oncoming car on the highway). If, as sometimes happened due to the configuration of the river, the tow wanted us on his starboard side, he would ask us to pass “on the two,” or two whistles.We would, of course, agree.We were so very deferential because the tows weigh thousands of tons and take several football fields to change direction, and then only slightly, and require over a mile to stop when running at cruising speed (perhaps six to eight miles per hour). They would, as the saying goes, crush us like a grape.Also, we needed the cooperation of the towboat captains on various matters and we didn’t want to get a bad rep.When we got close to the towboat we would slow down as much as we could and still maintain steerage, and we would pass, sometimes only a few feet from the tow’s barges.

When overtaking a tow from astern, the same procedure applies; that is, on a one-whistle pass we, the overtaking boat, would stay against the bank on our righthand side and the tow would move to his left (where he would be on a one-whistle pass if he was going the other way).This is more than a little confusing at first, but your survival depends on getting it straight in your mind: one whistle, right-hand bank; two whistles, left-hand bank, whether passing or overtaking.

Although radio has made the need for whistle signals unnecessary, use of the “whistle” terminology eliminates the confusion that would exist in attempting to describe to an overtaken vessel your intent to pass him “to port,” for example, as you would need to go on to explain whether you meant that you would leave him on your port side or on his port side. We observed several instances where boaters unfamiliar with the whistle system nearly came to grief as a result of their failure to appreciate the ambiguity they had created.

Overtaking a tow is more difficult than passing. The towboats swing propellers with nine-foot diameters. Their impressive prop wash extends at least one-half mile astern, and the turbulence makes it difficult to steer accurately. It was always a relief to get past the prop wash and into the calmer water alongside the towboat. But you don’t want to get too close, as the suction created by the props can pull you into its side.As we went by, we would wave and usually they would wave back. We were asked by one towboat to use particular care, as it had alongside a “store boat” from which supplies were being transferred to the towboat while both were underway. As we were traveling at almost the same speed, it seemed as though we were alongside the overtaken tow, only a few feet away, forever,moving down his side foot by foot, staying far enough away for comfort but close enough that we did not get out of the channel and run aground. Once clear of the lead barge, we could work our way back into the middle of the channel, but I often wondered what might happen if our engines decided to quit at that moment.

Excerpts from Just the Two of You? by Berkley W. Duck, Copyright 2003 All rights reserved. To order a copy of this book, send a check for $29.68 payable to Berkley Duck to Berkley Duck, 484 E. Carmel Drive, PMB 377, Carmel, IN 46032


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