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A Sailing Life for Me

Among boaters, the question that matters is how big were the waves
      The waves were 15 to 20 feet high near Cape Hatteras. The wind was gusting to 50 knots. Fortunately, our boat was snug in a Beaufort marina; we had dodged the storm by just a few hours …
      My lifelong attraction to boats sparked 55 years ago at a summer camp on Canoe Lake in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. I was 12, it was an all-boys camp and — perhaps coincidentally — the only way to catch a glimpse of a girl was to sail a dinghy by the island where the sister camp was located. 
      In my teens and 20s, I rented boats for a few hours whenever I could. One of many useful lessons in life on the water came when I confidently said I knew how to sail, stepped aboard a dinghy and promptly flipped over at the dock in Boston’s Charles River. I bailed it out and tried again with better success.
      Early in my office career, I asked a colleague about the Sail magazine on his desk. He had a boat, and, yes, it was for sale. His Hurley 20 — a sturdy, twin-keel, British-built craft — became my first boat, starting my adventures on Chesapeake Bay. First Light was the smallest boat in a marina with impressive yachts. Yet everybody talked the same language. The questions were not — as in D.C. — where do you work. Here everybody wanted to know what kind of boat is that, where have you sailed recently and what interesting mechanical problems did you solve. Returning from my first trip to St. Michaels, I felt like I had rounded Cape Horn. Slip neighbors had just finished sailing all the way around the world. 
      The next step, a few years later, was to find a boat with an inboard engine and room to stand up in the cabin. A Cal 29 fit the bill, giving me many years of cruises from Annapolis to Solomons Island, St. Mary’s City, Oxford, St. Michaels and other popular destinations. I also crewed for marina neighbors who enjoyed racing and began learning how many things can be tweaked to go a little faster.
      Each step demanded more. I regularly went to the boat show for inspiration. I took a learn-to-cruise course and chartered in the Caribbean. I started documenting time at sea and taking courses for a U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license. After learning a lot of useful information and some rather esoteric rules about navigation lights, I passed the test.
      One memorable evening I met two women in Annapolis who asked if I had a boat. If I did, would I take them for a ride?
      Sure, want to go tonight?
      They showed no fear about taking off in the dark with a stranger during a small craft advisory. With one, this marked the beginning of a long courtship — and many more boat rides. Finally she agreed to marry me.
      Our union prompted the search for a bigger boat.
      We had moved up to a 34-foot O’Day that was ideal for the Chesapeake. Then one winter, we were smitten by a beautiful 40-foot Wauquiez on display at the boatyard across the creek from our home in Annapolis. A new one was way out of our price range. A few months later, the broker called to report a similar boat, a couple of years old, for sale in Charleston.
      I joined an experienced delivery crew to sail her home. Bouncy conditions around Cape Hatteras, and my first experience with seasickness left me wondering if this boat-in-the-ocean thing was a really bad idea. I soon recovered.
      When 30 years of government service made me eligible to retire, I began serious planning for a trip to the Caribbean. I signed up for a rally from Hampton, Virginia, to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Neighbors with extensive ocean sailing experience agreed to join my crew. Blue-water sailing seminars were usually followed by trips to West Marine to buy more stuff. At one point I thought that maybe I should just get one of everything with an extra for backup: no marine supplies available on our 1,500-mile route. Lots of planning for details like food and water: four people, estimated 12 days = 144 meals to pack. No pizza delivery at sea. 
      We joined the Caribbean 1500 rally’s fleet of 78 boats leaving Hampton. In a few hours, every boat had disappeared from view. We were on our own except for radio contact twice each day. In spite of best efforts to strategize about the weather and medicate as needed, we crossed the Gulfstream in gusty winds with steep choppy waves that made everyone — even our round-the-world racers — seasick.
      Two miserable days gave way to blue skies and new worries about the lack of wind. Being at sea is challenging, not boring or relaxing. It takes time to adjust to being on watch at 3am and trying to sleep during the day — when not busy plotting courses and wondering what might break next. 
     We arrived in Tortola after 11 days and nights at sea without any of the misfortunes so carefully anticipated. My wife is proud to have made the trip in about four hours by airplane. 
      After recovering from the passage and celebratory parties, we were able to enjoy five months cruising around the Virgin Islands, living the dream that started about 40 years earlier. 
      Two of the guys who sailed south bravely came back for the return trip as my wife reversed her journey by air. An intense spring storm prediction — those waves 15 to 20 feet high and winds up to 50 knots — caused us to change course, seeking shelter in Beaufort, N.C. We completed the trip in the intercoastal waterway, confirmed that motoring in a ditch may be safe in a storm but isn’t as much fun as being out in the ocean with a lot fewer things to run into.
      Nowadays, over the winter, my wife and I often plan ambitious sailing trips around the Bay. In a week or two, we’ll visit St. Michaels and Oxford, Cambridge or maybe farther south: Solomons, and St. Leonard Creek, the Potomac all the way to Washington, the Rappahannock or Norfolk.
      When spring finally comes, we get busy with other commitments. All too soon, cold and gusty gives way to too hot, no wind. So a more typical cruise involves leaving our slip in Back Creek for a grueling 45-minute trip to downtown Annapolis, where we pick up a mooring. We proudly proclaim to the harbormaster that we have made the crossing all the way from the Maritime Republic of Eastport. If it gets too hot, we can water taxi to shore and walk home. As wimpy as that sounds, we have a wonderful time, with those sought-after feelings of escape and adventure and pure magic when the Wednesday-night races end with a spinnaker finish along Spa Creek.
      Maybe next year we will make an hour-long passage to Mill Creek.
      The boat seems to call out that its ready for another big adventure.