Issue: October 2000
Southward Bound

There’s a slight nip in the air, the autumnal equinox is behind us. And once again the Bay’s most dedicated species, the snowbird, returns to prepare for its grand migration.

 

     If you lived on the planet Yoblatz in a galaxy far, far away, and you used your very powerful telescope to gaze at the Earth, you’d see a lot of blue. And maybe you’d notice that the planet’s rotational axis is tilted roughly 23 degrees relative to its annual path around the sun. Watching for a very long time, you would eventually realize that this slight tilt is what causes the seasons on the blue planet. Zoom in even closer and focus on the Chesapeake Bay shortly after the autumnal equinox, and you would notice the first flutterings of a migration-the snowbirds heading south with the sunshine, again.

     With the predictability of stellar movements in the celestial sphere, liveaboard boaters transit the Chesapeake each fall, destined for the warmer waters of Florida or the Caribbean. If you miss them, don’t worry. Next spring you can catch them as they again pass through the Chesapeake, this time destined for New England or other points north. Snowbirds are, to borrow Thomas Pynchon’s term, human yo-yos-going up and down the Eastern Seaboard, following the fair weather like sunflowers bending toward their namesake star.

     It’s an enviable life. Just ask anyone living it. Most every day is a good one for cold Bass Ale and Bob Marley on the CD player. There are very few cubicles involved. Waking up is sometimes optional. You get to spend lots of quality time with the spouse or significant other. There is no contending with people in 6,000-pound vehicles bent on turning the morning commute into a Jackie Chan movie. The snowbirding life is . . . well, largely, it’s just plain peaceful. And while snowbirds certainly come in all shapes, sizes, colors and ages, they all seem to share a salty brand of Zen, worn on their sleeves-if they happen to be wearing sleeves.

 

     Snowbirds are easy to recognize in other ways, too. They’re a species marked by ruddy faces, a sort of congenital congeniality, self-reliance and the laundry drying on their lifelines. You might also notice an ease-making stillness, like that seen around the eyes of Jean and Ken Powell as they sit across from me in the cockpit of their 52-foot, French-built Amel ketch, Renaissance 2000.

     The Powells hail from Ontario and have been snowbirds for only eight months. They bought their boat in February from a Fort Lauderdale broker and headed north when spring rolled around. After getting stuck for awhile, waiting out unstable weather in the Carolinas, they only made it as far north as the Chesapeake before the approaching winter indicated a southerly change of direction.

     When I come upon the Canadian couple, it’s October, the boat shows are in town and the air is al dente, if not downright raw. Since Labor Day, they’ve been working on Renaissance here at Bert Jabin’s Yacht Yard on Back Creek in Annapolis. (With its wealth of on-site marine-service businesses and its no-nonsense boatyard atmosphere, Jabin’s is one of the more popular hangouts for snowbirds.) So far, a snapped upper shroud has been replaced, the electronics system has been tweaked to within an inch of its life, and supplies have been purchased (at a local bulk-foods store) to cover just about every flat surface down below. Within a week, this whole program is headed for Antigua.

     “We’ll head out what they call I-65,” says Jean, an outgoing but soft-spoken 50-something. “That’s 65 degrees longitude, then down, probably right on down to Antigua. We might make a stop at St. Martin. But we need to be in Antigua for Christmas time, because Ken’s daughter is coming down to celebrate the Millennium with us. Either go to Antigua first, then come back to St. Martin and pick up some good wine, or stop at St. Martin first and pick up some good wine.” Nobody said that snowbirds didn’t have to make some very tough choices.

     The Powells are fairly typical members of the snowbird species. They’re middle-aged, quietly hospitable and deeply in tune with their climatic situation, which helps to make at least one decision not so tough. “It was gorgeous yesterday morning,” says Jean. “But when I opened the zipper on the cockpit enclosure and felt the nip I thought: Oh, now I understand how the birds know it’s time to go south. Not that I don’t like snow, but it’s time to find warm weather so that Ken can get rid of his cold.” (See sidebar, to find out how Ken eventually did get rid of his cold.)

     The Earth is barely baring its bottom to the sun and already the snowbirds are spoiling for a migration. While we’re thinking about tarps and shrink-wrap and winterizing engines, these folks just keep on following their endless summer. Destination: somewhere warm. And I keep returning to the same question: How, exactly, does one afford to live life as a snowbird? Do you have to be independently wealthy, have a rich uncle or be just plain irresponsible in order to drop it all and take up this mode of living? The answer is no. Before tuning into the SSB, turning on the weather fax and dropping out of the rat race, Ken was a self-employed property manager and Snap-On tool salesman. Jean was a schoolteacher. Both earned decent salaries, but certainly nothing Gatesian. Planning, desire, will and a couple of modest yet steady sources of work-free income have enabled the Powells to make the shift. “We wouldn’t consider ourselves among the megawealthy,” says Jean, chuckling. “We’re basically living on my pension. We have a condo back in Burlington that has some income coming from it. But that’s it.”

 

     There are two main subspecies of snowbirds: the sailors and the powerboaters. Sailing snowbirds seem to migrate aboard a wild variety of craft, from large catamarans and tiny sloops, to medium-size ketches and squat motorsailers. For the diesel set, the choices are also broad, but one type of boat seems to stand out among the endless possibilities: the trawler.

     The choice makes sense. Trawlers won’t exactly burn up the cordgrass tearing down the gully of the ICW, but they have tremendous range and will get you where you want to go with a reasonable amount of speed and comfort. One diehard trawler fanatic, Johnny Morris, sits with his wife Ann in the comfort of their Grand Banks 42’s saloon. It is August, and the boat is tied up at the AtlanticYachtBasin, on the ICW near Chesapeake, Va. Morris explains the Jay-Jay III’s allure. “It’s a nice comfortable boat to live on and sleep on,” he says. “It’s been a real go so far.”

     So far? Morris bought Jay-Jay III at the Annapolis boat show in 1977. Since that fateful purchase, we’ve seen the rise and fall of Reaganomics, the entire career of Madonna and the death of dial phones.

     As Ann watches a video of the movie “Patriot Games,” Morris explains that he researched trawlers thoroughly and that the Grand Banks had what he was looking for in terms of construction and design. Before going trawler, he says, they did a lot of sailing, both around their native Pittsburgh and overseas-including charters in Greece and the Virgins. “We sailed a lot on the Chesapeake, too,” he says. “Then [Ann] got to the point where she said, ‘If you get a sailboat that doesn’t heel, I’ll go long-range cruisin’ with ya.’ So that’s when we started on the trawler.”

     After commissioning Jay-Jay III in November of 1977, the Morrises wasted no time in heading south to Key West, the day after Thanksgiving (snowbirds just have that instinct). Since then, they’ve been giving thanks for the opportunity to stay on the boat nearly full time, with regular flights back home to Pittsburgh. This financial and scheduling flexibility is largely due to the success of Johnny’s family business, J. J. Morris & Sons, Inc., a Pittsburgh construction company started by his father in 1916. “My name is John P., my son’s name is John P. Jr. and my grandson is John P. III, so if you call me at the office, tell the girl that you want the one that’s interested in boats,” Morris says. “Otherwise, she’ll think you’re tryin’ to sell stock or something.”

     During their 22 years of snowbirding, the Morrises have been up and down the Atlantic coast dozens of times. They’ve seen Bar Harbor when the maples were turning, and the Bahamas, after the leaves of Maine had long since fallen. Currently, they maintain a year-round slip at Old Port Cove Marina in North Palm Beach, which Morris considers the couple’s winter base. From there, they can take shorter excursions to places like Key West or the Bahamas.

     During any given year, Jay-Jay III’s float plan is determined by several factors: where the kids are vacationing, the weather and, perhaps most important, where the next trawler festival is being held. “It’s one of our favorite things,” says Morris. “We go to all the Grand Banks rendezvous we can manage.” That includes events from Maine to Miami. But Morris’s favorite is the one started by Bob Smith at The Tides resort in Irvington, Va. “I guess he started that about 16 years ago, something like that,” says Morris. “I’ll be going there the first week in October this year, too.” Not surprisingly, the trawler gatherings always seem to be held where and when the weather is good.

     Having putted into their golden years aboard Jay-Jay III, the Morrises have learned how to take things slowly, take them as they come. Constantly worrying about getting somewhere is no longer the primary concern. The couple is content to meander the waterway at their leisure and have even gained a sense of ownership over it. “As the wife and I say, it’s our neighborhood,” Johnny says. “She knows every good marina, every good laundry and all the good restaurants. And she has a list of them, all the way from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Key West, Florida.” The list has been consulted with increasing frequency since Mrs. Morris decided to hang up her kitchen spurs about five years ago. Johnny maintains that he still likes anchoring out, but that Ann’s love of good food-particularly if it’s prepared by someone else-makes that an impossibility. “I love to anchor out,” Johnny says. “But I have a first mate. And if she can’t go out for dinner every night, forget it.”

     As we talk, an incessant rain beats down outside the boat. It has been a rainy, cloudy summer on the Chesapeake, but the Morrises have taken it in stride. They’ve had their kids fly in to visit and taken them for rides on Jay-Jay III, despite the precipitation. This rain-be-damned cheerfulness is easier to maintain if you know that, come November, you’ll be back at Old Port Cove Marina once again, drying your wings beneath the indomitable sun of North Palm Beach.

 

     Down below, Cristine Staatz begins heating a percolator of coffee on the galley stove of Iona, a beautiful, dark green, 35-foot Camper & Nicholsons sloop. Next to me on the settee sits the boat’s other owner-Cristine’s husband Jack-who shares more than a few physical features with Ernest Hemingway. The nip of October hovers just beyond the companionway ladder. Iona is docked at Bert Jabin’s, just behind Renaissance, where the Staatzes have spent the past few weeks provisioning and preparing her for the run south. Like most snowbirds, these two are on their way somewhere, float plan always in hand. Says Jack: “That’s very specific. We have no set plan-and we’re sticking to it.”

     So far, they’ve stuck to it quite well. Both of them retired from their positions as high school teachers on the same day-in the spring of 1999-and have since cast their lots with the wind, weather and waves of the ICW. They departed Grosse Pointe, Mich., aboard Iona after five years of saving and planning. They haven’t looked back since, making do with their retirement incomes and sheer smarts. Their travels have taken them through the Erie Canal, down around Cape May and into the Chesapeake. They’ll be here for a few more weeks, provisioning, tweaking and touring, before heading down the ICW for parts tropical.

     Unlike the Powells’ more modern boat, Iona’s saloon is covered in beautiful woodwork, from the settee table to the trim around the bulkheads to the shelving. There is no television, but tons of books-everything from Joshua Slocum to spy thrillers. The cabin feels very cozy and warm, even though the temperatures outside are only in the mid-60s. Suddenly, through the companionway bounds a miniature tiger with a lifeline attached to a harness around its shoulders. The slender cat sits quietly for a second atop some supplies that are spread out on the table, awaiting storage. She observes the scene, then meows once, as if saying to me, “All right, you can stay.”

     The brown-speckled feline is Baker the Boat Cat-apparently, mistress of all she surveys. “I got her from a student, like, four or five years ago,” says Cristine, who has close-cropped hair and a ready smile and, of course, good grammar. “We’re very solicitous of her. We make sure she’s safe. I have a little life jacket for her someplace. She wears her harness all the time. This is definitely her ship.”

     You might say that Baker is part of the family. And we’re not just talking about the Staatz clan. This family consists of hundreds of people aboard hundreds of boats, all moving more or less in sync with the same seasonal migrations. They become familiar with each other at anchorages, marinas and, of course, at the boat shows. Once you’re a member of the family, you also share in its benefits and responsibilities. This reciprocal relationship among the snowbirds is legendary. It is based on the understanding that the next time, it might be you stuck without a 25-amp fuse, or with a failed engine, or simply in need of some sugar for your tea.

     Communicating with your fellow travelers is easy. There’s the good old VHF, of course, as well as SSB and the increasingly common cell phone. But another option for communicating with those outside the sphere of marine radio-say, the folks back home-is PocketMail. Like the Sailrite sewing machine, PocketMail (or devices like it) is on the current list of snowbirding must-haves, largely because you get to choose when to interact with it. It is a small hand-held computer that can access your e-mail account in a variety of different ways: You can take it to an “internet cafe” (Jack likes Ego Alley, the bar near City Dock in downtown Annapolis), which offers telephone connections for patrons. Or, you can just find a pay phone. The Staatzes also have an audio coupler that’s simply held up to a telephone’s mouthpiece. The machine emits its modem message, which is received by a central computer accessed by an 800-number, and e-mails can then be received and sent.

     They use e-mail not just to keep up with friends and relatives back in Michigan, but also to help bring their snowbirding experience to a class of fifth-graders living on Mackinac Island (their daughter teaches the class). They provide regular updates to a website dedicated to Iona’s travels (www.iona-cn35.net). They chronicle the local histories of their destinations, as well as their personal reflections on the adventure as it unfolds. Meanwhile, kids log on at school and correspond with Jack and Cristine via e-mail or regular mail. A recent card sent by one student reads: “Dear Jack-Chris Staatz on Iona. Thank you for sending all the postcards to me. I like soccer, football and card games like rummy. Well, have a good trip. Send me a pursonal [sic] letter. Sincerely, Sam Winsor.”

     “Pretty neat, huh?” asks Jack. And I’d have to agree.

 

     One of the great things about boating: Of all the ways to spend far too much money, it might be the most “couples friendly.” Indeed, there is something about the bond between two partners that even seems strengthened-or at least tested-by the act of boating. It is only natural, then, that the majority of snowbirds are husband-and-wife teams, or couples who are dating with some frequency. (Granted, my “polling data” comes only from first-hand observation.) As for longtime snowbird Chick Belmont, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “The fun is not necessarily being there,” he says. “The fun is getting there-together. If you’re a couple, you’re a couple. You do everything together. We’ve been together 43 years, so I’d say we’re a couple that gets along well.”

     Belmont and his wife Sandy live in Feasterville, Pa., which is near the town of Langhorn, where Chick owns and operates Belmont’s Garage (a full-service auto repair facility that’s managed by Chick’s brother when the Belmonts are snowbirding). Their migrational experience is vast, having “done” the Intracoastal Waterway-from their home port of Rock Hall, Md., to Florida and back-for 16 seasons running.

     Over the years, the Belmonts have owned and piloted a handful of boats, mostly trawlers, including a Marine Trader 36, a Marine Trader 40 and their current flame, a Tradewinds 43 called Dad’s 14. Their love of boating has always been a shared passion. “[Sandy] is the best line handler and navigator in the world. She’s also the admiral,” says the affable Chick.

     Still, during all those thousands of miles cruising-including innumerable docking procedures-neither Belmont has wanted to relieve the other Belmont of his or her “onboard” status? “I can honestly say that we’ve never had an inclination to throw each other overboard,” says Belmont, chuckling softly. He adds (hypothetically, of course) that were he to chuck Sandy over the rail, he would lose more than a terrific spouse; he’d also lose a darned good mechanic and manager of tight navigational situations. Then again, Sandy Belmont should be good at handling Dad’s 14. She’s always been along for the ride-literally and figuratively.

     A highlight of that decades-long ride came three years ago, when they took Dad’s 14 (named for the number that appeared on their sons’ high school sports uniforms, as well as the stock cars they drive today) around the Great Loop. It was a major trip that, of course, followed the warm weather. From the Chesapeake, they took the outside passage north, and fetched the Hudson River. This was followed by sojourns through the Erie Canal, the Great Lakes, down the coast of Lake Michigan, across to Chicago, and-when things got too cool-south, through the river systems into Illinois and Mississippi. Eventually, they picked up the ICW again at the GulfCoast and followed it around Florida before finally returning home.

     The voyage covered approximately 6,000 miles, the Belmonts’ longest one to date. It took 10 months, six of which were spent onboard, four of which were spent shuttling home for “grand-baby fixes” and business requirements. This was quite a departure from their normal run, a relatively quick affair down to Florida and back. Still, doing the Ditch never gets old for the Belmonts.

     Having taken the same general route each fall and spring for 16 consecutive years, you’d think a certain amount of sameness would dull the experience. According to Belmont, that’s just not the case. Regardless of how many times you’ve done it, he says, each run takes on its own characteristic, its own unique personality. This is less surprising when you consider the Chesapeake’s and ICW’s endless supply of nooks and crannies. Last year’s big discovery aboard Dad’s 14 was a side trip up the NeuseRiver to New Bern, N.C. Founded by Swiss interests in 1710, New Bern was also the site of a protracted Civil War conflict. Today, the little waterside town revels in its own history. “Talk about a pretty little place,” recalls Belmont, who says that typical runs to Florida, even accounting for such side trips, take Dad’s 14 about three weeks.

     The couple has yet to set their departure date for this year. Belmont says the weather will help them out with that. “One day we’ll just head down to the boat and listen to the weather station on the radio. If the weatherman says that it’s going to be nice-that the seas aren’t going to be rough-we leave.”

 

     Whether bound for Antigua, Grenada, the Keys or a trip around the world, snowbirds will always use the Chesapeake as a central stopover in their migrations. The marinas and supply companies are ubiquitous and capable. Hurricane holes are plentiful. And, besides, we don’t need to be told how beautiful this place is as a cruising ground. Still, it’s nice to hear.

     “We’ve always loved the Bay,” says Jean Powell. She and Ken have been coming to the region for years, usually to attend the boat shows in Annapolis each fall. “It’s the charm that keeps us coming back. This time, though, we’re on our own boat. We spent a week anchored in Mill Creek off the GreatWicomicoRiver. It has just been really delightful.”

     Not a surprising estimation to those of us lucky enough to actually live and boat on the Chesapeake full-time. Still, as wonderful a cruising ground as the Bay is, the weather does start to get a little chilly this time of year. And it’s not hard for me to imagine that, some day-when the kids are grown and the retirement check’s arriving in the mail each month-I, too, might be able to join in the great migration.