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Coming in from the cold

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Part four of an Observer News feature series

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

I had never been so cold in my life — and that is saying something coming from a former Minnesotan. The wind blasting across Norfolk harbor shook my spine and instilled fear deep into my heart — not a life-threatening fear so much as a will-I-ever-get-out-of-this fear. I wanted it to end.  I wanted a 737 to take me back home.  For the first time in days, I didn’t miss my wife.  I wouldn’t want her to endure the cold and choppy waves blasting spray over the deck.

norfolk-carrier
One of the mightiest ships on the sea viewed from one of the smallest: a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in Norfolk harbor. MITCH TRAPHAGEN PHOTOS
Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, the icy cold hand clutching my heart began to release its grip. By the time I sailed into downtown Norfolk, conditions were almost pleasant — at least as pleasant as things could be with a temperature in the 40s. But as the waves subsided and the sun warmed my skin (what little was exposed) and I remembered why I was doing this, my outlook brightened with the rising temperature.

If you have a bad day or reach a point in your life where you wonder if there is any good left in this world, I can assure you there is. Let me introduce you to Captain David Briggs.  He is tall and sun- and wind-tanned with silver hair at a young age. He is an unpretentious man who exudes calm, confidence and utter competence. In short, he is a very good man.

Wind, waves and current were not in my favor as I sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk, Virginia. From the start, my forward speed hovered at a walking pace and I realized that there was no way I was going to reach my planned anchorage before nightfall. As the bitter cold of the bay reached into my bones, I began to think that spending the night tied to a dock with shore power, under my electric blanket, was the best possible way I could spend Thanksgiving. In the hope of finding a dock, my wife Michelle called the marinas in the Norfolk area; but, as it was a holiday, none answered. She left messages without confidence that anyone would call back.

sailing-crockett
Boats are a way of life in communities along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Built in 1924, the F.D. Crockett is among the last large log boats built. The boat is berthed at the Deltaville Maritime Museum in Virginia.
Then David Briggs called her. He told her I could tie up at a floating dock in his marina just inside the mouth of Norfolk Harbor. When she asked for the cost he replied, “I can’t charge him, it’s Thanksgiving.”

Wow.

When I arrived at Rebel Marina, Briggs introduced himself and invited me to the marina lounge for Thanksgiving dinner. There I was told to help myself to a feast of turkey, stuffing, green beans, yams, mashed potatoes and several pies for dessert.

David Briggs invited me, a total stranger, to stay at his marina free of charge and to enjoy Thanksgiving with his family and friends. I was cold and tired and they took me in, expecting nothing other than my company in return.  He even refused my offer to help with the dishes. I am grateful for who he is and for his considerable generosity in providing a free boat slip and a Thanksgiving dinner. He represents what is good in this world.

It turns out the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  His father, Captain Lane Briggs, was widely known for his generosity and kind heart. In the early 1980s he developed the tugantine — a tugboat that uses sail power in addition to fossil-fuel burning engines. He used a tugantine named the Norfolk Rebel for towing, commercial fishing, and even occasionally for carrying cargo. The Norfolk Rebel remains as the world’s only sail-powered, schooner-rigged tugboat.

sailing-docked
I was lowered three feet at the Great Bridge Lock 12 miles outside of Norfolk, Virginia. It is the only lock until I arrive in the Okeechobee Waterway in Florida.
One Christmas during the height of an oil crisis, he organized a fleet of carolers, led by the Norfolk Rebel, to sing to homesick crewmembers of ships that were at anchor in the harbor, waiting for cargo and better fuel prices. Captain Briggs was a founder of the Great Chesapeake Schooner Race, in which dozens of schooners race from Baltimore to Norfolk. The race has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  He was well known in the world of schooners and tall ships — not just up north but all along the coast.  In 1983, he was named an honorary citizen of Tarpon Springs.

Captain Lane Briggs passed away five years ago.  His son resisted the fast money of the real-estate boom years to keep the marina his father created as a family-run operation.  He stands tall in my eyes, as a kind-hearted man who took in a cold, lonely, and tired stranger on Thanksgiving.  It seems it was just what his father would have done.

There are small things that you notice after spending a few hours at the marina.  There is the little door in the wall for cats to come in for supper and warmth, there are the dogs that showed up and found a home, there is the gas fireplace in the boater’s lounge that is on early to ward off the morning chill, and there is the large ice machine without padlocks but with a sign saying ice is sold on the honor system. The father and now the son have created a special place in this world.

sailing-sunrise
The sun rises over the Chesapeake Bay on my last day of sailing that beautiful yet moody body of water.
The marina cats were tucked inside the boater’s lounge on the morning I set out from the Rebel Marina. The wind was howling out of the northwest and the National Weather Service was predicting overnight low temperatures at freezing.  It was hard to leave the comforts of the dock, but I knew that time for going south was running short.  I knew that I was pushing my luck being so far north in late November and so I untied the lines and powered into Norfolk harbor.

The harsh conditions I encountered aside, Norfolk harbor is an amazing place.  As the home of the world’s largest naval base, it is a truly awesome display of America’s military might.  Almost everything the United States Navy has to offer passes through here, from submarines to aircraft carriers.  The collection of ships is stunning and the aircraft carriers dwarf them all.  At the far end of the harbor in Newport News is the newest of them:  the USS Gerald R. Ford, expected to be placed into service in 2015. This is the only place in the world in which that ship could be built. Seeing the ships with flags flying, knowing everything is run at the highest professional level was a warm thought on that cold day.

Just entering the harbor is awe-inspiring. Norfolk is part of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area with 1.8 million people. Bridges are as much a way of life here as they are in Tampa Bay. Upon entering the harbor, all vessels, large and small, cross over the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. The bridge-tunnel consists of a bridge at both ends with a tunnel in the middle. Man-made islands form the mouths of the tunnel.  It is an unusual sight to sail in and see the headlights of cars barreling towards the water, only to disappear beneath the surface.  

sailing-marie
A calm respite for the night after a bitterly cold morning, Shadow Marie is securely tied to a free dock near Great Bridge, Virginia. The bridge is visible in the background.
But the most awe-inspiring sight after a cold day spent out of sight of land in heavy gray clouds is the American Flag flying over Fort Wool. Seeing the flag flying as large commercial ships entered and left the harbor, welcoming all who come from the sea, caused me to shiver — and that had nothing to do with the cold weather.

That flag, along with Captain David Briggs, made for a warm welcome to the city. I had expected to spend Thanksgiving alone at anchor having only canned soup or a cold sandwich — and even that is much to be thankful for. But in Norfolk, I was given so much more.  How do you say “thank you” for bolstering faith in your fellow man?

Past Norfolk, into the Intracoastal Waterway, the scenery changes from urban and industrial to serene and picturesque.  Twelve miles south of the city I was lowered three feet closer to Florida via the Great Bridge Lock, the only lock of the entire voyage.  Past the lock is a canal bulkhead where visiting boaters are invited to dock overnight, free of charge. On this night, there are three sailboats at the bulkhead. We are all sailing for Florida, but I’m the only one aboard alone. That will soon change as Michelle is making plans to meet me in Wilmington, Charleston or some other city down the line near a major airport.  

The compass is pointed south and I am sailing home as fast as I can.  Sailing away from winter.  Sailing towards Michelle, wherever she may be.

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