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Coming Home

Sometimes you have to sail across the ocean and to faraway lands to get back to where you started

Until you don’t have a home, you don’t think about exactly what it is. At least I didn’t. Is it a house you know well in a familiar neighborhood? Someplace close to your friends and family? Maybe it’s no specific place. Maybe it can be anywhere as long as you’re with the one dearest to you.
    I’ve learned that, for me, time is essential to making a home. Time salves the hard edges of a just-moved-into house. With time, it starts to feel right. I remember what drawer the corkscrew lives in, where the hall light switch is despite the dark, whether that toilet noise is the beginning of a huge problem or just a handle that needs to be jiggled.
    In time, in enough time, when you turn the key in the front door, you say, It’s good to be home!
The Call of the Water
    South of Crisfield, Pocomoke Sound notches up into the Eastern Shore. Farther south, past Tangier Island, Onancock Creek reaches a crooked finger into the land. Finney Creek, an Onancock Creek tributary, ripples on the marsh 300 feet from the house I bought less than a year ago. The water — sometimes silver, sometimes green, sometimes whitecapped and cold, sometimes smooth and shimmering — is a road to the rest of the world.
    My grandfather, my namesake, plied that road for 50 years. Apprenticed in a sailing ship in 1888, at age 14, he worked his way up to captain and moved from sail to steam when the interests of the White Star Line demanded. I’m convinced his home was not with his family in Brooklyn but at sea. Transferred to shore duty on the New York docks when World War II broke out, he died within five years.
    On April 27, 1916, he was captain of the Industry, a 4,000-ton freighter built in Belfast the year he was born. I wear the ring that was on his hand that day, when the German submarine U-45 torpedoed the Industry near Fastnet Rock off the Irish coast. The Finland, a ship on its way to Newport News, pulled him and his crew from lifeboats.

Taking to the Sea
    In February of 2013, I joined Richard and Jessica Johnson and their daughters Emma and Molly aboard the 62-foot catamaran Elcie. Janet, my wife of 30-some years, had died the previous March, leaving me adrift. She and I spent wonderful times on our boat Mucho Bondo, a shallow-draft skiff excellently suited to the Bay and its tributaries. But Mucho, at 24 feet and less than a ton, is not a full-time home. Could a boat become my home, or should I keep my roots in the land? I needed to know.
    Richard and Jessica have felt at home on the sea for many years. Both went to sea (and met) on sailing vessels in their 20s and hold 200-ton Master’s U.S. Coast Guard licenses. Before the fall of 2012, Emma and Molly’s home was a waterside house near Oxford. Emma, 12 at that time, attended Easton Middle School; Molly, 10, White Marsh Elementary in Trappe. Both enjoyed the water and boats as they grew up, but that November their parents convinced them to try some serious sailing.
    “We’ll be gone two years. Say goodbye to your chickens, your bikes, your girlfriends, the house you grew up in. Your home will be a boat located, well, all over the world.”
    That’s serious sailing.
    Between their 2012 departure and their return in June of 2015, the Johnsons logged about 37,000 miles, sharing sailing duties and joys with crew members who joined at various ports. I joined them twice: first in 2013 in Cartagena, Columbia, as they were outbound, and a second time in 2015 in the outer islands of the Bahamas, on their final leg home.

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I spent nearly three months on Elcie on the first segment, traversing the Panama Canal, visiting the Galapagos, then crossing the Pacific to Pitcairn Island (of Bounty fame), the Gambiers, Tuamotos and Marquesas, then to Tahiti. I returned with memories of dolphins phosphorescent in the nighttime sea, breaching whales, beautiful islands and people and a Polynesian tattoo on my shoulder.
    The trip taught me well what boat living was about but also convinced me I was not prepared to make a home on the water. Not at age 71.

The Voyaging Family
    With my dear friend Nina, I rejoined Elcie in May at Elbow Cay in the Abacos. The Johnsons were on their trip’s final leg, a Gulf Stream crossing and up the coast to the Chesapeake. Richard and Jessica were the same as I’d left them, but Emma and Molly were much more grown up.
    Supplementing the obvious physical changes kids go through at that time of their lives, both had become much more self-confident. Their parents ascribe that to the broad range of people and cultures they’d seen. In addition to the places I visited with them, they’d been to New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Australia and all through French Polynesia.

Molly, tutor Annie Wiles, Emma, Richard and Jessica Johnson relax in Elcie’s cabin.

    Schooling was provided by a Calvert School program, taught sometimes by Jessica and sometimes by tutors who joined the crew. Twenty-two-year-old Annie Wiles of Dallas holds a master’s degree from Trinity College in Dublin. From January of 2015 through the trip’s completion, with a short break, she served on Elcie as working crew and as the girls’ tutor and friend. When I joined them in May, spring semester was over and the girls’ interactions consisted mainly of playing games, braiding hair, swimming and giggling. And, like all the crew, standing watch.
    Though I knew next to nothing about the Johnsons when I began my first trip with them, it was clear they were a close family. When I rejoined them in May, their closeness seemed only to have intensified. Although Elcie has private and semi-private cabins for sleeping and storing clothing and personal gear (she accommodates up to 10), the crew eats, plays, stands watch, cooks, navigates and pretty much everything else in the main cabin, a room about 20 feet by 15 feet mounted atop and between her two hulls.
    What came to mind as I watched them in the cabin — hugging, teasing, arguing, debating one course versus another, sometimes parently instructing — was a pioneer family living in a cabin on the frontier, close physically, cooperating to make a life and a home together. The Johnsons all agree the voyage brought them closer.

Coming Home
    Elcie picks Nina and me up at Elbow Cay, one of the islands northeast of Great Abaco, and we spend our first night anchored off Guana Cay. In the morning the forecast is favorable for crossing the Gulf Stream, and we sail north toward the Chesapeake. Because Elcie is fast, our trip is very quick, three and a half days. The straight-line distance from Guana Cay to the Bay’s mouth is a little over 700 miles, so considering course adjustments necessitated by wave action and wind direction, we probably sailed 800 miles.
    The first two days are not very comfortable, with confused seas, mostly off the starboard beam. Using electronic charts of current velocity and water temperature, Richard shows me the Gulf Stream is far more complex than I’d realized. Rather than a simple coastal current, it varies in both speed and direction as it moves north, with multiple eddies and tongues of water lapping out into the Atlantic and toward the U.S. coast.
    By the third day, the wind has clocked around to the south and Elcie turns into a smooth, speedy sled. In my cabin, I can barely distinguish her motion from being at anchor as we ride the swells toward Cape Hatteras. Early in the morning, we catch our first glimpse of our home country: lights along the North Carolina coast.
    The current waypoint on our autopilot is just seaward of Diamond Shoals, Cape Hatteras’ dangerous teeth. However, this notorious “graveyard of the Atlantic” does not live up to its reputation on this trip. For that we’re all glad, particularly Nina, who’s spent the previous two days in the misery of seasickness. Now she rallies, even able to eat some of the mahi-mahi we caught. We are finally convinced she won’t die (she’d been threatening it) and we don’t need to break out the IV hydration kit.
    Early on the fourth day, Thimble Shoal Light and the lights of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel emerge from the dusk. We’ve stayed fairly close to shore, avoiding the cluster of big freighters and warships off the Bay’s mouth. Now, entering Thimble Shoal Channel, we are in heavy ship traffic. A fleet of seven or eight menhaden trawlers, lit up and looking for all the world like a water parade, passes, heading to sea. I can’t help but wish they stay at sea, giving a break to the Bay menhaden, on which many larger species depend.
    We hug the Bay’s eastern shore, and by noon we’re entering Onanock Creek, dodging the crab pots lining the channel. Elcie rounds East Point and, in its lee, for the first time in over two and a half years, her anchor drops into Bay mud, in U.S. waters. To the east, there’s the mouth of Finney Creek and the tip of my dock. We bundle some of us (not all will fit) and our stuff into the dinghy and head there.
    This is the first time I’ve come here from another country, and the first time from an ocean-going boat. Walking to shore on the dock and walking down the path to my house feels different than it did.
    I turn the key in the front door. It’s good to be home.

Elcie, her voyaging and her crew are more fully described on the website ­Having decided to live (mostly) in their Oxford home for the next five years or so, allowing the girls to enjoy a normal school experience, the Johnsons have put Elcie up for sale.