As instructed, we park the boat drone alongside the warehouse and look for a small service entrance. On a beat-up metal door, a perfunctory scrawl announces the name of our destination: Liar’s Bench.
I’m with my husband of 25 years, but that’s the only thing that feels familiar about this peculiar outing.
Inside lies a scene most remarkable, or perhaps precisely what you’d expect to find in a pop-up microbrewery located in the back half of a plumbing supply store in Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s fast-gentrifying Navy town.
On barstools below a chalkboard listing the selections of the day–Bourbon Barrel-Aged Aunt Mary Belgian Stout and France Pants American Pale Ale, among others–sit a cast of locals who would not be out of place in “The Perfect Storm.” (In point of fact, the Crow’s Nest, the bar at the heart of Sebastian Junger’s watery epic, is located mere miles down the coast, in Gloucester, MA).
Wooly cabled sweaters and caps alternate with hipsters sporting tattoos of varying discretion. Our host, Tom, from whom we hope to learn some valuable intel about plumbing unseen depths, is burlier and has better posture than his fellow barstool mates.
Upon spotting us, which isn’t hard, clad as we are in our conference room finest (think blazers and briefcases), he promptly stands and leads us to a private high-top table tucked in the back.
Dressed in jeans and a well-worn nanopuff jacket, Tom looks like a cross between a rower, a wrestler and a secret FBI diver, which in fact he is. I grab my pen and try to act like taking notes while sipping a boutique IPA at 5 pm on a week night is the most natural thing in the world.
I’ve been doing a lot of similar, and different, bluffing lately.
My husband, Jigger, has less trouble adjusting to the novelty of our situation. Unlike me, he knows precisely why we find ourselves in a setting that feels like a plot twist in a spy novel.
As the captain of a professional hydrographic survey boat, Tom does manually what my husband’s latest invention, a self-driving boat (or autonomous surface vessel (ASV) in marine tech parlance) aims to do sans people. Think Google’s self-driving cars, but out in the ocean, whose “passengers” are sensors vs. people that listen to, measure, and record any manner of things: eroding ocean floor bottoms, errant whales in the path of a cruise ship, a leaking oil pipeline, a bleaching coral reef, a brewing hurricane, a leaning offshore wind farm tower, a lurking military foe.
Unfazed by the pulsing house music, normally laconic Jig peppers Tom with a hail of bulleted technical questions.
I write furiously while also trying to coax small talk out of Rolf, our host’s shy sidekick. We find common ground in cooking. For years when our children were little, we spent ski weekends staying in a log cabin in the woods of Vermont, which required creative cooking to put it mildly.
I ask Rolf, is feeding a crew on a survey boat similarly constrained? Is he familiar with the high quality dehydrated options on the market, favored by transatlantic sailors and hikers?
I am out of my depth and hanging on. We have spent the day at a National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) annual meeting, and my head is still exploding from digesting presentations on Global Warming, whale migration patterns in the Gulf of Maine, and Harmful Algae Bloom detection efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, among other arcane marine topics.
Hours earlier, I had felt pretty good about hobnobbing with a Coast Guard commander, and sharing lunch with a London School of Economics professor who also just happens to chair one of the biggest international ocean tech conferences.
Now, out of practice for such long work days, I am spent.
Jigger, by contrast, appears to have infinite stamina. He and our intrepid host are hitting it off famously, hunching over nautical charts and technical specs of our drone with enviable zest.
They look like they could do this all night.
This is not the first time I have marveled at my husband’s work ethic. Over the course of our marriage he has started three companies, growing them from nothing to something. In his element when problem solving, Jigger happily heads to the office on Sunday mornings, and on car rides writes scary-looking equations on graph paper.
During the first two companies, each of whose gestation lasted approximately 10 years, I worked part time but spent the bulk of my energy manning the home fires and trying to strike the right level of helicopter momming of our two sons.
Rationally I knew that Jigger’s hard work financed the lion’s share of our comfortable lifestyle, and so I tried to maintain a saintly attitude when he would head off to work on yet another weekend morning, cut short or miss a holiday vacation, or spend a Memorial or Labor Day driving his trade show booth exhibit from our home in New England to Indianapolis, or Lexington, KY.
I plastered on a smile and in my most upbeat cheerful voice told our boys that Daddy was working hard, for us.
Still, I envied his apparent ability to do what he wanted, when he wanted. In my less generous moments, I’d marvel to him how much the arrival of children altered my life irrevocably, while seemingly not changing his at all.
I felt sad that after the excitement and energy he expended during his 12-hour days, we were left with only the crumbs.
It’s amazing how an empty nest can alter one’s perspective.
If you can’t beat them, join them. More like, if your kids don’t need you, but your spouse’s startup does, then why not?
My husband’s self-driving boat is persistent, versatile, and cost-effective. These days, so am I.
When I’m not mortified at how much younger many of the people we are calling on are, I am equally glad to have the fearlessness that maturity confers. I have never been shy or short of questions, and fortunately these skills are handy when you are a young company in a vast and hot field.
Ditto being willing to wear any hat–sun hat while hosting a sea trial of the boat in the middle of our harbor; baseball cap while standing on a breezy, drizzly dock with a bunch of marine robotics postdocs; or thinking cap when trying to be compelling in front of commanders and LSE profs.
True, my soup/salad lunches tend to be more expensive than my husband’s unadorned sandwiches, but the fact that I’m currently taking no salary keeps me very cost-effective.
Like that repurposed plumbing supply store, I am feeling trendy and relevant. I am also frequently exhausted, terrified, and way in over my head. But I’ll take it.
In addition to making me feel purposeful and intellectually stimulated to the bursting point, joining my husband’s company has proven surprisingly romantic. Sharing a hotel room together on a random weeknight (forget the fact that it’s for a Houston oil and gas conference), or heading to a farm-to-table restaurant (again omitting the part where we’re dining with a river dredger), are welcome diversions from our normal routine.
Same with my receiving solicitous emails from Jig in the middle of the day, patiently explaining the intricacies of our new customer relationship management (CRM) software. The business polite formality of his tone lends a surprising whiff of excitement and freshness to our correspondence. And don’t get me started on the thrill of filling out my name beside the Owner field in our Cloud-based contact management program. Yes!
These mini moments of desktop glory bring to mind the first time Jigger rocked my otherwise prosaic workday with a joyful jolt: the morning after our first date, when he sent me a single red rose, with a single word message.
Over the next few months more red roses followed–two, then three, then four–and so on.
It wasn’t long before my entire office became aware of Jigger’s personal theory on romance: that he knew he would be ready to marry someone when he gave her a dozen roses.
By the time our wedding day rolled around we had been stuck at 11 roses for months, a fact that honestly got lost in the shuffle of nuptial planning mania. This made for an especially dramatic exchanging of vows up at the altar which concluded with Jigger brandishing a bouquet of 12 red roses from behind his back, and me walking back down the aisle sobbing with genuine and delirious shock.
A typical oldest child, type A control freak, I consider myself a hard person to surprise, but Jigger has my number. I thought joining his drone start up would be many things, but definitely not romantic. I’m still not sure whether the fact that a perfunctory email exchange with him transports me back to one of the most fairytale moments of our relationship speaks more about his super powers or my powers of imagination, but either way, I find it sexy.
He may have my number, but seeing him in his element, innovating, also gives me welcome insights into further cracking his oh-so-private code. Having the opportunity to assist my husband in his hour of need is a privilege. Instead of receiving his “crumbs” at the end of the day, and debating how many probing questions to ask him when he walks in the door, I am already up to speed.
Funny, that collaborating on something autonomous has made me feel more like a team.
Maybe I’ll add that to our sales pitch.
Bianchi is Communications Director of SeaTrac Systems, Inc., in Marblehead, MA