Furling the far-borne canvas

Published on: January 27, 2011

Mitch Traphagen Photo

Mitch Traphagen Photo

The final chapter in an Observer News feature series


With a look at a map, you can see that Cape Cod juts well out into the North Atlantic Ocean far north of Tampa Bay. On a now-distant early May morning, I motored out of the North Side Marina in East Dennis, Massachusetts, with no idea whatsoever of where I was going, my only guidance was to sail south. At the time, my wife and I were living in Iowa and I didn’t know where home would be for the boat.  As for the boat itself, it was the first time any of the marina employees had ever seen her leave the harbor. She was a diamond in the rough — a neglected beauty who spoke to me of adventure while shrugging off her wounds of desuetude.


Dropping the anchor last week in a wide spot of the Intracoastal Waterway near Sebastian, Florida, I was re-introduced to sailing in warmer climes. It was a mild, beautiful day and SV Shadow Marie flew her sails proudly down the channel from Titusville. A few minutes after the anchor sunk into the soft mud, a dinghy roared up with two people aboard that I had only known from the Internet. When I passed their anchored boat, they recognized Shadow Marie from photos on my Facebook page. We spent a wonderful evening in the cozy cabin of their beautiful sailboat, effortlessly making the transition from a digital friendship to something much warmer and more personal. Despite the various outlooks and personalities of cruising sailors, we all have something in common. We all have shared experiences. Friendships come quickly and easily.

The next morning as I crossed the latitude of Tampa, I became a northbound boat despite what the compass was reading at the time. For the first time in the journey, home was north of me. My wife Michelle was waiting for me at a dock in Fort Pierce and together we completed the final southbound miles to Stuart, picking up the last available mooring at Sunset Bay Marina, appropriately enough, just as the sun was setting. All around us, we could see people in shorts and t-shirts, laughing and smiling while simply enjoying life on that warm evening. At long last, we had sailed out of winter and were now on the downhill run to home.

At some point, I also crossed a line of perception. Along the way, people would ask where I was going. When I responded by saying Tampa Bay, the reaction was always the same: “That’s a long ways away.” And then suddenly, it wasn’t.  I crossed over from a distant dream to an achievable objective.


Six miles offshore from Sarasota, a small plane circled twice to wave hello.

As I sailed in the sunshine of Florida’s east coast, I thought about the distance, and the challenges that I hadn’t considered when I motored out of the Cape Cod marina on that long-ago day in May. I wondered if I would have left had I known about the tornado in the Chesapeake Bay, or the snow and ice in North Carolina, or the cold wind that soaked into my core in Florida, or the loneliness I would experience on the miles spent speaking to no one but God. Surely I could have found a boat closer to home for less than what I paid, both tangibly and intangibly, for this boat on a spit of land jutting far out into the North Atlantic. But had I done that, had I bought a boat nearby, I would never have experienced the humanity to which I had been blinded until the good hearts of strangers cleared away my jaundiced mind’s eye. I would never have had the opportunity to challenge myself to not only organize such a voyage but also to actually make it happen.

We slipped the mooring lines at Sunset Bay Marina and headed west into the wilderness of the Okeechobee Waterway. With all three sails flying across the great expanse of Lake Okeechobee, Shadow Marie felt like a different boat. Always sea-kindly, the helm felt even lighter to the touch, as if she knew we were almost home. It was as if she knew that home was a place in which her spirit would not be forced into dormancy in a storage yard over a long and brutal winter. She seemed to know that she would never again suffer the indignities of being propped up on land, forgotten until the day came when the sun would warm her decks and melt away the ice.

Michelle and I could feel home, too. Dolphins welcomed us back into the Gulf of Mexico, zooming through the water alongside our boat, and we cheered as they launched themselves into the air. Perhaps they were simply showing off, or perhaps they felt sorry for us as we cut through the water at such a slow pace, their flippers propelling them faster and more gracefully than we could imagine. Later that night, as we quietly made our way through Tampa Bay in the darkness, they would surface alongside and we could hear them breathe.


Sunset in Clewiston, FL.

Less than 40 miles from Ruskin as I watched the last sunset of this journey, a friend sent a text message asking how it felt to finally be so close to home. I didn’t have an answer for him. For so long, my objective was to sail south and to get home. As I watched the sun sink into the gulf and the sky explode in color that exceeds my ability to describe, I wondered what I would do now. I had a long list of boat projects, emails to answer and people to see, but I worried about having a larger purpose. For two months (and much longer with planning) this trip was that purpose and I wondered what would fill the void left upon completing it.

And then I felt good about myself. I congratulated myself on pulling this off, on accomplishing something that I didn’t seriously expect to accomplish. Still I remembered that this was no singular achievement. Even when she wasn’t aboard the boat, Michelle was always with me in spirit, as were friends and readers who sent emails of encouragement. There were numerous times that I was convinced I felt God’s hand gently guiding the wheel, correcting my mistakes and I’m certain it was His thumb that held down the anchor, keeping me from disaster, when I was clipped by a tornado. There were the countless people I encountered along the way and as I lost myself in the glory of the sunset, I could see their faces and their hands reaching out to me, not in expectation but with generosity.

The moon rose with glory over Tampa Bay as the distance to home narrowed down to a handful of miles. The lines from A.E. Housman’s poem, Home is the Sailor, echoed in my head, despite the clichéd quality of the circumstances. I was no brave seaman returning from conquering the world’s oceans; I was merely bringing my little sailboat home to Ruskin. Yet the lines echoed:

Home is the sailor, home from sea:

Her far-borne canvas furled

The ship pours shining on the quay

The plunder of the world.


Michelle watches with trepidation as water fills the St. Lucie Lock, our first of five locks across the Okeechobee Waterway.

A day later, I was struck by a much more appropriate poem written by Sun City Center author and The Sun columnist Judy Kramer, a woman I have come to know as a kindred spirit and friend:

But there has been a sight

vouchsafed to me…

to see the moon ascend

above the sea

and spread before itself

a silver path

for me to follow

with my heart and eye.

The lonely calling to my soul

of the extremities of sea and sky.

In the darkness, we followed the moon’s silver path into our slip at Little Harbor Village Marina in Ruskin. A day later, harbormaster Brad Breseman showed Michelle around and I realized that of all the places I had been and the things I had seen, this was my favorite place of all. I thought of Judy’s poem, entitled The Moon, and I became aware that the larger purpose wasn’t to sail an old boat from Cape Cod to Ruskin, it was to give my heart and eye something to follow, something that will remain long after the voyage. The purpose was to open my soul to the lonely, my own loneliness, and to the extremities of the sea and sky to clear away my cynicism and jaundiced eye.

In every sense and after years of searching for a place for both my boat and my soul, I am finally home.