The last leg
Part one of an Observer News feature series
By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
CAMBRIDGE, MD - The temperature outside was falling into the 30s. A brisk wind from the Northwest gripped the rigging, causing my sailboat to shudder. The gust-induced rocking seeped into the dreams of my semi-sleep state, causing wild images and an occasional note of fear. But I had nothing to fear. There was no concern about the wind; there was no chance of waves breaking over the deck. I wasn’t standing resolute to heavy weather as much as I was simply enduring it. I was tucked into the forepeak bed under an electric blanket — the deck of the boat was 12 feet above the ground. My sailboat is in a boatyard in Cambridge, Maryland, not off at sea sailing through a dark and stormy night.
Although Cambridge is only 1,000 miles from Tampa Bay, I drove 3,200 miles to get here. Driving through snow showers from Indiana to western Maryland on my way to the boat made me question my plans. Snow and boats do not go together in my mind. Palm trees and beaches, yes. Snow, no. The thought of working on a boat and worse, sailing it, with snow falling does nothing to enhance my spirit of adventure. I’m simply not that adventurous. Fortunately, streaks of blue appeared in the sky and the temperature rose nicely as I neared the Chesapeake Bay. Until nightfall, that is. By nightfall, it was just plain cold--but at least there was no snow.
Somewhere to the south, hundreds, if not thousands, of boats are making their way to Florida, the Bahamas or the Caribbean. Most of them left the Chesapeake Bay more than two weeks ago with the mission of staying ahead of the cold weather. I am late in the season, but I know I won’t be the last one out. People sail their boats south in every month of the year — when is a matter of available time and fortitude for cold weather. Despite growing up in Minnesota, I no longer have much of a stomach for cold. I want to get south as quickly as possible. The rule of thumb is that every 50 miles south adds a degree of temperature. Right now, I need at least 20 of those “50 miles.” In other words, I need to be in Florida.
My boat is a three-day sail down the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk, Virginia; the starting point of the Intracoastal Waterway. The ICW is a 3,000-mile series of inland canals, rivers and bays running along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. Authorized by an act of Congress in 1919, it was designed to provide a means for commercial water traffic to travel without the hazards of sailing offshore. The ICW technically begins in Norfolk and ends in Key West. It picks up again in Ft. Myers and runs, to Texas. Tampa Bay is part of the ICW. The Army Corps of Engineers designed the entire length of the ICW to be maintained at a depth of 12 feet throughout, but limited funding has meant limited maintenance and dredging. Today some stretches are only seven feet deep, or even less, judging by the near endless tales of groundings by boaters transiting the system. From the boatyard, the cities along the ICW--Norfolk, Coinjock, Oriental and Charleston--seem as foreign and exotic as Papeete in the South Pacific.
Although officially it is less than 100 years old, the concept of the ICW was formed by America’s Founding Fathers. George Washington himself had a hand in it. While it is unlikely that hand held a shovel to dig canals, it did pull out a wallet to finance what would be the very beginning, now known as the Dismal Swamp Canal just south of Norfolk. Ironically, the first president eventually tried to sell his interest in the project to Harry Lee, the father of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In the end, Harry “Lighthorse” Lee couldn’t scrape up the cash and Washington held his shares until his death. The canal, connecting the Chesapeake Bay to Albemarle Sound in North Carolina, was dug entirely by hand. Today it is used exclusively by recreational boaters.
As I learned all too well during my voyage from Cape Cod to the Chesapeake Bay last summer, waiting for weather makes the difference between an ordeal and a dream come true. As winter sets in, the three-day window of good weather I need to reach the starting point is becoming an increasingly rare commodity. Other than the open water in the Chesapeake Bay, and a few short stretches scattered throughout the journey, most of the distance through the canals and rivers are traveled with the sails furled and the propeller turning. With the boat still up on land, just the trip to Norfolk seems roughly equivalent to a lunar mission.
In the morning the Northwest wind was still blowing cold and brisk, slapping lines against aluminum masts in the boatyard. On that Sunday morning in Cambridge, it made the sound, appropriately enough, of church bells pealing through the 325-year-old town. Reluctantly, I put on the protective clothing needed to begin scraping and sanding the old bottom paint on the Shadow Marie. By tomorrow, her bottom should look as good as new and if all goes to plan the Sailing Vessel Shadow Marie will be returned to the water where only the fish will be able to appreciate my hard work in the boatyard.
The beauty of travel is often found in the journey as much as it is in the destination. A journey of this magnitude requires some perspective. It is peaceful and stressful. It is restful and exhausting. It is amazing beauty coupled with moments of sheer terror. With that perspective, at this point in my journey I look at everything as the last leg. The drive from Minnesota was the last leg of the drive; preparing the boat for cruising will be the last leg in the boatyard; sailing to Norfolk will be the last leg in the open water; cruising down the ICW will be the last leg to get to Florida. So many last legs that it sometimes feels as though I am personally on my last leg.
The sun is shining and the temperature is slowly rising to a comfortable level. The people at Yacht Maintenance Boatyard in Cambridge smile and wave as they pass. Like people in boatyards everywhere, they are good people. I may be on my last leg but that only means that I still have a leg to stand on. This journey began last year on Cape Cod and the end is now in sight. I am finally sailing home.