The graduate at the wheel

The graduate at the wheel

Nothing quantifies the passage of time as clearly as watching a child grow up and it was the celebration of one of those adolescent milestones that brought us back to Virginia, our niece’s 8th grade graduation. In a few months she will be walking the halls of her new school as a lowly freshman and in a few more summers she’ll be graduating again. It will be interesting to compare these photographs to those of her next graduation. How much will she have learned between now and then and how will she have changed? How much will I have learned between now and then and how will I have changed?

A niece and her uncle goofing off on the bow of the boat

A niece and her uncle goofing off on the bow of the boat


To the best of my sailing knowledge the following is true or fairly close to it.


The skipper

The skipper

Also while in Virginia Captain Chris asked me to join his crew for the Cock Island Sailboat Race and since I don’t mind doing things for which I have limited experience or aptitude I did. Chris skippers a fast, forty-foot boat with an outstanding crew consisting of Mark and Justin. I was added primarily for ballast but was handed the nautical maps (oops, charts not maps) and told to keep us from sailing into shallow waters or striking submerged objects such as old pylons.


As I understand it, crossing the starting line at just the right angle and ahead of all your competitors is critical to winning a sailboat race. Blow the start and you will most likely not win.


Of course all the other captains know that secret also so in a very small patch of water, just behind the start line, boats from all the classes are tacking back and forth in a frenzy, circling like hungry sharks. As the frenzy intensifies so do the near crashes and warning shouts: “On your starboard! ON YOUR STARBOARD!!”


Capt'n Chris and Mark in racing mode

Capt’n Chris and Mark in racing mode


The Norfolk Virginia waterfront

The Norfolk Virginia waterfront

Bulging eyes planted in faces frozen with fear stare at one another as their hulls pass within inches. Seconds after they realize they have narrowly escaped impact the two crews give a nonchalant wave, then whisper to their shipmate, “Holy shi—, that was close.”


Despite all the chaos when the starting gun finally fired we were at the front and it felt good to break free of the circling sharks and start sailing. Mark and Justin were smart and quick at adjusting the main and jib for optimal speed and worked well together. Capt’n Chris could use twice as many crew as he has but that day what he had worked magic and the captain sailed his boat well.


As for my duties, to keep a boat out of shallow water you first need to know where you are and since you are moving as fast as you can and there are no street signs it’s a little tricky. Also if you don’t read nautical maps regularly it takes a minute or two to get oriented, figure out your location, what number buoy your are near and finally the water depth. Nautical maps are a collection of thin lines peppered with a ton of itty-bitty numbers. If you didn’t bring your bifocals and are wearing sunglasses it takes a little work to get the fine print in focus. But I didn’t run us aground so I guess I did my job adequately, with some help from my shipmates.


The Blue Jacket (sailor) facing the USS Missouri on  the Norfolk Waterfront

The Blue Jacket (sailor) facing the USS Wisconsin on the Norfolk Waterfront

Sailing in the Norfolk harbor is tricky because the tall buildings breakup the airflow, which results in moments of good, strong wind, followed immediately by no wind or wind from an unexpected angle. But there were some good stretches further down the channel where the wind blew strong and steady long enough that the sails filled, the telltales snapped, the boat heeled over just like in the movies. Justin and I climbed to the high side for ballast and sat with our legs dangling over the side and our arms resting on the lifelines. Of course others skippers use a handful of young beauties with tanned bodies, sweet smiles and waving arms for ballast and to distract the other captains. Chris’s choice of a port engineer and a portly physician gave him a clear disadvantage.


Despite having to do a few extra tacks we stayed ahead of our rivals and crossed the line in first place! Kind of, Captains Chris’s boat is rated such that the other boats get to deduct so many seconds a mile from their race times. So even though we crossed the finish line ahead of them they beat us on paper. When all the numbers were crunched we technically came in third. But it was fun and I am grateful I was given the chance to sail with a great skipper and crew in the long running Cock Island Sailboat Race.

The Skipper flanked by his crew

The Skipper flanked by his crew




Categories: Travel, Writing

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2 replies

  1. Thanks fir the help Tom, we couldn’t have done it without you. BTW, we call them charts 🙂

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