Susan has the mind of a scientist, the slim physique of a woman who walks at lunch instead of gobbling trans fats, can turn dwindling food stores into a delicious dinner and is quick to help with the wet, muddy job of “anchor detail”. Her interest in sailing is as slim as her figure, she is aboard primarily to help her husband, the skipper, fulfill his dream of sailing to the Bahamas. I make up the third and final member of our crew for this two hundred and twenty-five mile section from Norfolk, Virginia to Morehead City, North Carolina. But unlike Susan I look forward to taking my turn at the helm of this forty-foot sloop as we wiggle our way down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW).
In preparation for the trip I read “Sailing Fundamentals”, watched YouTube videos and followed Cruisers’ Net. During my time aboard I hope to learn a few boating skills and employ the knots I’ve tied repeatedly to the leg of my writing desk. Over the years I’ve done some Hobie Cat sailing, a few sailboat races and served two years aboard ships as a Navy physician, but I don’t make any claims of being a sailor.
The ICW or “Ditch” is a twelve hundred mile string of canals, rivers, and sounds that begins in Norfolk Virginia and ends in Key West Florida. This protected route is the safest way for boaters to travel from the Chesapeake Bay to the warm waters of Florida and is especially busy with south bounders at the tail end of hurricane season, October and November. You can recognize the long haul cruisers on the ICW because they are the ones with diesel cans and bicycles lashed to their lifelines. Some are just heading south from Annapolis or NY, others are doing the grand loop from the Great Lakes to the Saint Lawrence Seaway down to the Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic ICW into the Gulf of Mexico up the Mississippi across Illinois and back to the Great Lakes. Others are just heading home, like the Australian fellow I met on his way to Sydney.
Unlike the silent walk you typically take down a city street, a stroll down a pier is an interactive experience.
“Hey, is that your CS 40? I have a CS 36 back in Annapolis. Great boat. Solid. Where ya headed?”
Other times the conversation begins with chatter about the shoals you just crept through or the winds and weather that is headed your way. ICW cruisers, like Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, are sharing an experience and hence interact more like teammates than strangers.
We began our voyage under grey skies, which turned to rain when we hit the Chesapeake Bay; it was there I realized my raincoat was no longer waterproof. As we passed over the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel a line of grey Navy ships returning from a deployment dwarfed us. I took the helm and discovered how much more slowly the boat responds to a turn of the wheel than my Honda CRV. The bay was a good place to practice my driving as the water was deep and wide, unlike what lay ahead. We turned south past the largest US naval base in the world, the pier where my Navy ship was docked twenty years ago, past the Norfolk skyline and arrived at our first port of call during a heavy rain, downtown Portsmouth Virginia. As we drew near two guys from a boat already docked came out in the downpour to catch our lines and help us tie up. There is a spirit of helpfulness that permeates the boating community.
Despite my efforts to the contrary Portsmouth Virginia keeps appearing at the milestones in my life. In 1979 I was twenty-one and happily living in San Diego California. I was up for orders and decided to make it cheap and easy on the Navy, I just asked to be stationed “anywhere in California”. The Navy answered my request by sending me to Portsmouth Virginia. Fourteen years later I was a newly minted physician on a Navy scholarship and once again I found myself in Portsmouth Virginia. (That time it was my choice.) Now on the first night of my sail down the ICW I am again in Portsmouth. Clad in my porous raincoat I climb out of the hatch, jump onto the pier and walk by myself in the rain and dark through my old neighborhood. My Tilley hat is the only garment that repels the falling liquid, my feet, legs and trunk are cold and wet. Across from my old apartment sits a new hotel with a waterfront bar and soft recliners positioned a few feet from a warm fire, a perfect place to dry out and reflect on the past and future.
To be continued…