As the salmon-colored sun nestles the Florida skyline, Maddie Peter reclines on the bow of the Black Horse. Hotels and high-rises, burnished with pink-orange, fleck the coast of Clearwater Beach in front of her. Sometimes, on nights like this, dolphins glide among the boats docked at the ramp.
From her place on her grandfather’s yacht — “our boat” as she calls it — Maddie says the water is calm and the evening is a “little chilly,” but she hasn’t packed many long-sleeve shirts. When Maddie flew down to Florida with a one-way ticket in October, she only brought enough clothes for a week. Back then, she didn’t know the water would become her life.
After her grandmother’s death last fall, Maddie flew south to be with her grandfather. He said he wanted to buy a boat.
“He gathered all my aunts and uncles together and said, ‘I’m selling the house and buying a boat,’” Maddie says. “My grandma’s last wish was for him to buy the boat he always wanted and to find someone to share it with.”
So Maddie, who spent her freshman year at Hillsdale before working in town for a couple of years, stayed in Florida and started scrolling through the website YachtWorld until she found a boat in Galveston, Texas. A week later, she and her grandfather, John Maher, flew to check her out.
Maher had given Maddie a few criteria: the boat must be between 50 – 60 feet (it was 62), feel comfortable, and have plenty of outdoor space. The boat they found, Maddie says, has two Detroit diesel engines and a “beautiful upper deck where you could really host a party if you wanted.”
It was enough like love at first sight that the very next week, they flew back to purchase the Black Horse and sail her home to Florida.
During the nine-day trip through the Intercoastal Waterway from Galveston to Carmel, Maddie got seasick for the first (and, she says, “hopefully the last”) time. She has an excuse: the Black Horse got caught amid a storm so harsh it battered the yacht with 12-foot waves. Maddie and “Papa Jack” lost all power in the middle of one night, and they couldn’t contact the coast guard for several hours.
MaryMargaret Spiteri, Maddie’s older sister and director of the college’s contact center, says Maddie embraces challenges like these.
“The ocean has a mind of its own,” Spiteri says. “She likes the challenge.”
Looking back on the incident now, Maddie is able to downplay the seasickness.
“Sea sickness is really not that bad. You get through it,” she says. “Papa Jack? He does not get seasick.”
Since Maher sold his house in February, he and Maddie have lived full-time on the Black Horse. And now they have a reward for their hard work: they’re on their way to the Bahamas.
On Wednesday, they anchored off Key Biscayne, near Miami. But like the time they first sailed the Black Horse home, maritime life hasn’t been all sun and sandy beaches.
“Our windlass is on the fritz,” Maddie says, “so we just lowered our 60-pound anchor and 60 feet of chain by hand.”
The broken windlass, which helps lower the anchor (when it works), is one of many hiccups they’ve had to deal with recently. Maher says he and Maddie almost ran out of clean water last week.
“One aspect she needs to be very good at is making sure we have enough water,” Maher said. “The individual who has this position is referred to as the water king. And that carries a great deal of authority. The water king might have to say no showers today. We were probably close this morning.”
The next day Maddie posted a photo of the two of them on Instagram with a caption about smiling despite the shower ration. She ended the post, as she often does, with the hashtag #maritimemaddie, a nickname MaryMargaret’s husband, Derek Spiteri, gave her last fall.
“At Thanksgiving he just started called me Maritime Maddie, and it was just a nice acknowledgement that I’d moved and was picking up something different,” Maddie says. “What better way to keep family close than to use a hashtag that family thought of?”
Maritime Maddie ends some days covered in bruises and engine oil. She just passed the exams for both a U.S. Coast Guard Captain’s License and a 100 ton license, for helming large vessels. From boat maintenance to installing fiberglass, she’s learning the art of life on the water, something she’s loved since she was 10 years old.
“Starting at a younger age, she always wanted to go down and sail,” MaryMargaret says. “My grandpa was very meticulous with his sailboat. We would go down to Le Cheval and the teak would have to be perfectly polished. My sister really grabbed onto that. As a kid, I didn’t really want to be polishing a boat for five hours, but she found this beauty in the sailboat.”
A dozen years later, Papa Jack says they’re “having a ball” as he and Maddie navigate the open waters.
“Her skills are developing at a rapid rate, as she has a very unique ability for mechanical understanding,” Maher says. “In addition to that, she’s a very good cook. Now that’s important when you’re at sea. She’s very good with jambalaya.”
When they’re on the boat for months on end, they’ll make meals with meat, packages of pasta and rice, a bread maker, and recipes from Maddie’s mom. If they run out of supplies, Maddie says, they can always go fishing.
Even with the unique challenges that come from living on a yacht, including the occasional power struggle between the boat’s two navigators, Maddie says she wouldn’t want any other life.
“I look back on my time at Hillsdale fondly. A friend keeps asking me if there’s any place I’d rather be. Every time I’m asked that, I can honestly say no,” Maddie says. “Because I know all my experiences, both my freshman year at Hillsdale and living in the community, have all lead me to this point and allowed me to excel at what I’m doing here.”
Over a phone call, Papa Jack talks about Maddie’s seasickness again, teasing her while she protests in the background. But even though she can “be very scared at times,” she can also be very courageous, very brave.
“I wouldn’t know what I’d be doing without her. It’s absolutely necessary that she remains on board,” Maher says. “She’s been offered opportunities for apprenticeships, but she says she wouldn’t want to be anyplace else — seasick or not.”