Maddie Peter, former Hillsdale student, now sails off the coast of Florida. Maddie Peter | Courtesy

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.”

  • Sandy Daze

    Thanks, Madeline Fry, for this evocative article on #mar­itimemaddie & her Papa Jack.

    Only thing missing is the smell of the salt water. ;~))

    To the intrepid crew of Black Horse:


  • Greg J

    Hello from Alaska, tell the Captain ,
    Greg says hi