By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
On a cold Thanksgiving night in Norfolk, Virginia, John helped me tie off my sailboat and run the electrical cable — much needed for the electric blanket I hoped to soon be tucked into. He was at Rebel Marina, a family-owned establishment that took me in that night at no charge since it was Thanksgiving. John was waiting for the winds to die down enough to lower his mast. He was headed south, but the mast was too tall to fit under the numerous 65-foot, fixed bridges of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW).
He didn’t really want to travel down the ICW, his preference was to go offshore, out into the Atlantic Ocean. Along with his wife, he has been sailing most of his life, and his large sailboat was imminently capable of handling most of what the ocean could throw at him and he was knowledgeable enough to avoid the rest. John is an experienced sailor who has seen much in his travels around the world. But his wife was having health problems, and the oft-feared Cape Hatteras lie between Norfolk and warmer weather to the south. With his wife recuperating, he knew he would need help so he tried to find a captain to hire for the passage. But winter had arrived and winds were forecast to reach 60 miles per hour around Cape Hatteras — no captain was interested in making the trip; money meant nothing in light of those conditions.
John was disappointed, but he waited until the yard employees returned to work after the holiday, had his mast lowered and then traveled down the inland waterway to a point south of the dreaded cape where he again raised his mast and set out into the ocean. Sometime later I ran into him again in Titusville, Florida, none the worse for the wear.
John had the utmost respect for the conditions that Cape Hatteras could present at that time of year, but none of the fear held by the captains he tried to hire. He knew it would be uncomfortable at best, but he also knew he could do it. What was most remarkable was that John is 83 years old. At 35 years his junior, I’ve never even considered such a feat.
John has spent much of his life running away to sea. In past generations, thoughts of escaping the real world meant running away with the circus. But while it now seems the entire world has become a circus, dreams of running away are still in vogue, but the destinations have changed. People today use recreational vehicles, sailboats and trawlers to venture off to paradise — whatever paradise means for them.
Bruce Hoskins is the manager of the West Marine store in Apollo Beach. West Marine is the leading source for all things involving boats, and Hoskins has seen the dreamers and the doers in his eight years with the company.
“There are people escaping,” Hoskins said. “They just want to get away from everything. They sell their house, they sell their cars, and they put it all into the boat.”
He has also noticed that age is not a factor. As John demonstrates, there is no age limit to running away. It is done by both the young and old, but it is the old that most frequently have the resources to do it.
“I’ve seen people in their 80’s buying a sailboat, getting it fixed up and taking off,” he said. “We have a girl who works here, she’s an avid sailor. She’s 22 years old, just got married, and they are looking for a boat. I suspect within a couple of years, they’ll be gone cruising.”
Right now thousands of boats are passing through Florida on their way from somewhere to somewhere else. Some will spend the winter in the Sunshine State; others will sail off to the Bahamas, the Caribbean or beyond. In almost all cases, family and friends are left behind, wondering what would compel someone to leave the comforts of home and 24-hour superstores to live on a small boat. Yet in all likelihood, perhaps some of those friends and relatives wish they could do it, too.
Walking into the West Marine store in Apollo Beach and seeing Julie Stocksdale is an instant day-brightener. Her smile and cheery disposition is infectious. In many ways, she is a reflection of her boss, Bruce Hoskins, and of the philosophy of the company itself. Hoskins knows that she will leave her job at some point to hop on a sailboat and head out towards the horizon.
“Like many West employees I work here for a number of reasons,” Stocksdale said. “One is simply to be around boating and boating equipment. The second is for the employee discount and the third is the lenient policies towards taking time off to go cruising. I work part-time — I actually share a job with my husband. We can take off for three months in the spring to go cruising, and then we take off a couple of weeks here and there throughout the year.”
And then she returns to her job.
While many companies would be opposed to employees taking off in such a manner, for West Marine it is an advantage — their employees become experts in boating. According to Hoskins, the company has recently started a program in which some cruising employees are asked to take new equipment with them to test out.
Stocksdale appreciates the good fortune in her life. Last year, she and her husband, John (not related to the John in Norfolk) took three months to sail the Florida Keys aboard their sailboat, Jolie. This year, they hope to sail up to Georgia. With an elderly mother living in Florida, they currently feel unable to venture into the Bahamas and beyond, but someday they will. Yet Stocksdale takes nothing for granted. Whether at work or running off to sea, she appreciates each day. Her dreams began years ago, even before she spent years living aboard and cruising with her first husband.
“When my previous husband died, I had this dream — the two of us had spent years building a path to that dream,” she said. “When he died, I thought that dream died with him. That was very hard because then I didn’t have a dream anymore. And then, I met my husband and finding someone who shared that dream was an answer to my prayers. I meet a lot of people who wish they had a partner who shared their dreams, whatever they are. I feel very, very fortunate.”
Before he passed away, her previous husband asked her to marry again — and as soon as possible.
“I met my husband working in this store — I met him in the plumbing aisle,” she said with a laugh. “Every single day I wake up and I’m grateful for the day.”
Both Hoskins and Stocksdale see people coming into the store at various stages in their dreams. Some keep working on the boat with plans for “someday” and never manage to leave; others buy the bare essentials and sail off. And Stocksdale is enthusiastic for all of them.
“I want to grab them, hold them and say, ‘Sit down, let me tell you about what a wonderful life you have in store for you!’” she said with a laugh. “They want to get out of the store and I want to share everything with them.”
The Seven Seas Cruising Association is composed of people much like Stocksdale.
“We are for dreamers, doers and done-ers,” said SSCA association director Judi Mkam. “And the done-ers help the dreamers.”
Mkam estimates that roughly 60 percent of the membership of 7,000 people are at least part-time active cruisers. Thus many are the dreamers, sailors at heart with plans for the future, or even those who may never step foot on a boat but enjoy dreaming about it. Through the SSCA they can enjoy the camaraderie of those who have done it by reading the monthly published bulletin and by attending meetings, called GAMs, held throughout the year.
“Unlike other sailing clubs, we offer camaraderie with sailors helping sailors,” she said.
Florida is the center of the universe for many of those cruisers, either as a destination or as a jumping off point for the siren song of the Bahamas and Caribbean. Each year thousands of boats arrive, beginning in the fall, only to reverse their tracks in the spring. You don’t need to own a boat to enjoy the atmosphere — just head to a local marina or drive down U.S. Highway 41 to Regatta Pointe Marina for a cool beverage or a latte at the Riverfront Cafe Waterfront Deck to watch the runaways in their natural environment (often with sandpaper or paint brushes in hand).
“Go small, go simple, go now” are the words of Lin and Larry Pardey, two of sailing’s most famous authors. Running off to join the circus may have been a childhood dream for some, but running off to sea is an adult reality for many others. And everyone has their own definition of running away. The person you see in a grocery store, or the smiling and cheerful employee at West Marine, may be among the runaways. For some, running away may mean sailing to the Caribbean or crossing an ocean, for others it may mean spending a few weeks at Little Harbor Resort in Ruskin or Land’s End Marina in Apollo Beach. The point, for them, is to act on those dreams and make them come true.
“I think a lot of people just want to get away,” Hoskins said.
The door at the store kept chiming as customers walked in, each on a mission, following a passion as no one without a passion would throw money into a boat. Perhaps someday they’ll go cruising. Perhaps someday they’ll run away to sea, guided by the wind, waves and their dreams.
Further information about the Seven Seas Cruising Association is available at www.ssca.org.