by R. Bailey
Many years ago in the late 60s, I followed the epic voyage of a young man who left Southern California at the age of 16 to sail around the world ... solo! National Geographic picked up on the story at that time and published a series of articles during the three years it took him to complete the trip.
About this same time, one of my friends decided to follow a similar dream by building a 35-foot catamaran, which he planned to sail all over the world. I was working hard to get ahead in my career to support myself, my wife and our infant daughter. Nevertheless, I was captivated also by the dream of sailing to far off places.
When I reached the age of 26, a drunk driver ran me down, crushing my legs and at least some of my dreams because I was left a double-amputee. This event brought many changes to my life. I was no longer able to participate in many activities that I once enjoyed and ... I was left no option, but to pursue new activities and dreams within new limitations imposed on my life.
Several years after the accident, I found that with some determination, I could still enjoy the water. I purchased a canoe and shared many wonderful hours with my children and friends on the rivers, lakes and streams in the area in which we lived. It was during this time that I also began to think that perhaps I could still learn to sail and acquire a boat that would allow extended overnight cruises. But it was not until many years later that I actually began to pursue this dream.
In 1989 I finally moved to Tidewater Virginia. It was my intent to build an architecturally barrier-free home by the water so I would have easy access to my own pier and pursue my old dream of sailing. I had been divorced from my first wife for a number of years by that time, so shared these thoughts with the woman I had been dating for a year and asked her if she would like to get married and follow my dream. After our marriage we moved into the new home and it was time to get on with ... the dream.
The spring that followed, I began to suffer from a raging case of sailing fever. The money I had set aside for the sailboat ended up in the home, which turned out to be larger than I had planned originally, but I watched the classified ads for a used sailboat that I thought I could still afford.
The first sailboat I went to inspect was a 22-foot beauty with a small galley, head and sleeping accommodations for four people ... if they knew each other really well! The boat seemed large enough for my needs, yet small enough to handle by myself. I didn’t want to wait for a crew whenever I was in the mood to sail. The boat had a fixed-keel and required a minimum of 30 inches of water. Unfortunately, the water at the end of my pier was only 24 inches at MLW ... mean low water.
That same week, Dave Barry wrote a timeless, classic literary masterpiece
about ... the call of the sea ... in which he used a rather sophisticated
engineering algorithm to quantify his observations about boating:
The boat was located at a marina 60 miles from home. It was a beautiful blue-sky day with a slight breeze ... definitely great for sailing ... and I was really excited when we arrived. Also, it was starting to get quite hot and humid as we hiked from the car to the sailboat, moored at the farthest slip from the parking lot ... which I guesstimated to be at least a mile away.
By the time I reached the sailboat I was dripping with perspiration. Sweat was burning my eyes and dripping off my nose and chin. My shirt felt as if it was glued to my back. I mean it was really hot!
I began to wonder if this were some kind of message and if I should be learning something. Also, I wondered if my wife were having similar thoughts. We were still married by the time we made it to the end of the long pier, but what I hoped would be the beginning of a joyous new life on the water was already putting a severe strain on our relationship.
The sailboat turned out to need more work and money than I could afford and it was a disappointment at best. As we huffed back to the car, I tried to remain positive or at least find something humorous about the frustrating trip when I asked: “Honey, are we having fun yet?”
My wife wasn’t even slightly amused. She didn’t reply. Nor did she smile. If I had been as smart then as I am now, I would have known that she was really miffed. Not long after that, I finally got the message when she moved out and filed for a divorce. I think the complaint noted something about mental cruelty ....
But I always try to remain positive about life and I did learn something from this experience:
Just looking for a sailboat ...
I accepted Ben’s offer with great enthusiasm. I felt certain that such a trip would finally give me the incentive I needed to acquire my dream sailboat or convince me, for once and for all, that sailing would not be the right choice for me.
I returned from this voyage with many mixed feelings but ... I would like to begin this saga by stating that I owe my friend Ben a debt of gratitude, if not money. He was, without exception, a gracious host and did everything to make the trip enjoyable for me. Without Ben, I would not have had such an experience and I’m grateful for his generosity.
On Sunday, October 18th 1998 at 8:00 A.M., we departed from my home when Ben and his wife arrived to pick me up. It was a beautiful, clear, blue-sky, morning with a gentle breeze from the southwest. We departed from Fishing Bay, on the Piankatank River at Deltaville at 9:00 A.M. An hour after casting off, we entered the Chesapeake Bay, heading south towards Norfolk at five knots under the power of an auxiliary, diesel motor. We unfurled the jib attached to a roller-reef, which increased our speed to five and one-half knots. I began to relax and tried to settle into what I hoped to be an enjoyable trip.
We enjoyed lunch as we moved on our southward heading through the Chesapeake Bay toward Norfolk. Late in the afternoon, about 3:00, the seas began to increase to about three feet with the wind at about 20 knots. Unfortunately, Ben’s sailboat, a 26-foot Watkins, began to pitch and roll. I found myself hanging my head over the leeward side! A few minutes later my retching ceased and I felt fine the rest of the day.
We entered Norfolk about 5:00 that evening, dropped anchor in a sheltered area close to the tunnel-bridge and enjoyed a steak dinner. Later we watched a the sunset turn the sky into brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange before turning in for the night.
The next morning, Monday, was the beginning of a another beautiful day. At sunrise, the wind was still from the south, so we motored through the Norfolk harbor ... one of the largest in the world. Several Navy carriers moored at the docks left a memorable impression as I observed their massive flight decks, as well as one submarine and a variety of other Naval support ships. The huge crane structures used to load commercial container ships left an impression also. Containers the size of tractor-trailers were stacked high like so many boxes of matches!
From the Norfolk harbor, we entered the Dismal Swamp cut of the ICW at the North Canal Lock and were lifted eight feet above sea level. The canal was of course calm, having a width of 100 feet and a depth of 15 feet. I experienced no additional motion sickness ... and was grateful. We motored through the cut for the remainder of the day, anchoring just before sunset at the south end to await the opening of the second lock the next morning.
Tuesday morning we were lowered back to sea level to enter the Elizabeth River. About noon we docked at a marina close to Elizabeth City for the remainder of the day. After a shower at the marina, we enjoyed delicious seafood at a nearby restaurant. On our way back to the boat, my wheelchair became entrapped in a 100-foot stretch of sand leading to the dock where we left the boat. I managed with some with some assistance from Ben but it was certainly a test. That event and several others like it that Ben was not even aware of, were defining moments for me. Later that evening as I watched the setting sun, I could not help but recall the incident in the sand trap and ... began to wonder if I were out of my element.
Wednesday at sunrise we cast off and headed south on the Alligator River and cut towards the Pamlico Sound. We docked at a marina north of the Sound for two days because of strong winds and high seas in the forecast. After the sickness I had experienced on our first day in the Chesapeake Bay, I was not anxious for a repeat performance in the Sound.
Friday we passed through the Pamlico Sound without a mishap, except for
the loss of my cap, which blew off in a strong gust of wind. That
evening we anchored in the ICW north of Morehead City about sunset.
I chuckled also, at his remark ... but from my lack of experience I was somewhat surprised. Upon further inquiry, Ben noted that on other trips ... one in particular to the Caribbean ... many of his friends and acquaintances experienced some type of electrical, mechanical or plumbing failure aboard their rather new, rather expensive sailboats for which there was no alternative but to improvise. Ben seemed to reinforce the axiom that more equipment is analogous with more breakdowns! I’ve heard this from other experienced sailors so it would seem that less really is better than more ... especially when it comes to boats!
Of the many observations I tried to make during our trip, many seemed to pass at such a slow pace that I was sure I would never forget a single detail. But as I write these words, I now find it almost impossible to recall all of the events I was sure I would never forget. I do, however, have some impressions that seem to be indelibly etched in my mind.
Namely, I found it difficult to keep one eye on the depth gauge and one eye on the navigation aides ... as we motor-sailed from one to the next, ever mindful that running aground in the narrow channel of much of the ICW is “not good” to put it in the words of another boating friend John.
Also, I found much of the scenery along the way ... or at least long stretches of the ICW cuts ... seemed to remain almost unchanged. Perhaps this impression evolved because we were cruising at six knots when the current was with us and less than five knots when it was against us. To travel a distance of 50 nautical miles in the 12 hours between sunrise and sunset was a pace that I suppose I was not prepared to appreciate. I can hardly imagine what it must be like to be at sea for weeks at a time and see nothing on the horizon but water for as far as the eye can see!
At one point we were trying to make our way to the end of one of the long ICW cuts to anchor in a safe area in a river away from the channel, but we ran out of sunlight. As we crossed perpendicularly to the channel to enter the anchorage area, I could see what I thought were several yellow porch lights of houses on the bank about a mile away. Because of the distance, the yellow lights seemed stationary, but in reality they were on the bow of a huge barge bearing down directly upon us! It was truly a defining moment for me and there were no lingering doubts about being out of my element ... I was completely sure!
Living aboard Ben’s sailboat was an experience also. I expected our quarters to be restricted so I was not surprised. The amenities ... stove, sink, head and bunks ... were quite adequate but since this was my first experience aboard for more than a few hours, it was still an adjustment for me.
Being physically challenged in close quarters did not help, but I managed and Ben could not have been a more gracious host. My only regret was that I was unable to do many of the chores and Ben did them all. If nothing else, I wanted at least to do my share and perhaps with modifications I could do so the next time around.
We spent the last two nights at the Ashley Marina in Charleston, South Carolina, about 60 miles north of our intended destination ... Beauford. We had originally hoped to reach Beauford the next day. We needed 12 hours of daylight to complete this final leg of the trip. Unfortunately, a bridge we had to pass under in Charleston would not open until three hours after sunrise the following day and we would not have enough daylight to reach our final destination.
While waiting for Ben’s wife to pick us up in Charleston the next day, we spent time relaxing, packing our gear, and cleaning. Also, I spent at least some time observing the many other boats moored at the marina. Two boats, in particular, captured my attention.
The first was a vintage 75-foot motor yacht that appeared to have been built in the 1920s. It was elegant and restored to pristine condition from bow to stern with a superstructure of teak wood glistening under coats of polyurethane. The vessel was unoccupied at the time and I could only imagine the guests that she had entertained and the stories that she could tell.
The second vessel, a 100-foot motor yacht, had two upper decks of tinted-black
glass and gleaming white fiberglass. The vessel carried no less than
six radio antennas, two radar systems, two power launches, and a rounded
dome that probably contained enough electronics to rival a sophisticated
I spent the last evening aboard Ben’s sailboat, looking out over the Ashley Marina. I began to feel like Jimmy Stewart in the movie “Rear Window” as he looked out over the courtyard waiting for his broken leg to mend.
On Friday, October 30th, my epic trip came to a close. I awoke at 4:30 A.M. before sunrise and sat topside to drink coffee, have a smoke and watch the sun come up. Unfortunately, while I waited in the dark of the early morning, I could not help but notice a very distinctive odor at the marina. Changes in regulations over the last few years, now require all boats to have holding tanks for waste water, which are to be purged at approved pumping facilities. The aroma may have resulted from the fact that it was low tide and four feet of the piers that would otherwise be under water were exposed, or that some folks were not playing by the new environmental rules. Nevertheless, there I sat, in the middle of millions of dollars worth of luxurious sailing and motor yachts ... in the midst of a pungent, undeniable smell that permeated the entire marina. This was yet another defining moment that seemed to kill any lingering doubts about whether boating was right for me, even at the prestigious Ashley Marina in the beautiful harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.
Later that afternoon after Ben’s wife arrived to pick us up, we headed back to Virginia. As we drove along the interstate at 75 miles per hour ... speed limit permitting ... I marveled at the thought of traveling more miles in an hour than Ben and I had covered on our best 12-hour day!
As soon as I got home I immediately called my family and friends to let them know that I had survived ... there would be no need to contact my life insurance company to surrender my policies.
Later that evening, while soaking in a tub of hot water, I could not help but recall some remarks by my friends, Dave and his wife, Mary Ann. Having owned a sailboat for more years than either of them will admit and having experienced many expensive disappointments for the privilege of sailing for only a few hours over those same years ... they assured me that several days on the water would completely cure me of my dream to own any boat.
So were Dave and Mary Ann right? I think Edna St. Vincent Millay
(1892-1950) gave us the answer to many of the dreams we harbor in life
with a poem called Feast in which she wrote:
The last was like the first.© 2005 R. Bailey, All Rights Reserved
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