Issue: May 2004
The Night Stuff

I love night sailing. The sky like a black bowl full of stars, the comet trail your boat leaves as it carves the water's bioluminescence, the reverent quiet of darkness, the electric rush of adrenaline when you confirm that those twinkling lights behind you belong to a . . . tug pushing a barge! Oh, yeah, that part. Maybe I love night sailing because one thing's for sure: It's never boring.

Last summer we chose a Friday night to sail to Oxford, planning to leave mid-afternoon so we would be well into the Choptank by nightfall. But events conspired, as events will. By the time we left the Severn River it was blowing 15 to 18 on the nose, NOAA was predicting the end of the world as we knew it, and damn if it wasn't nearly cocktail hour. To go or not to go? Johnny, the kids and I took a vote. Four thumbs up.

A few hours later we were rocketing southward and happily noshing pizza. Except for a tanker or two, the Bay and that warm, wet southerly were all ours. Van Morrison was singing about sailing into the mystic, and we seemed suspended between two worlds-the twilight eastern sky blue as a raven's back, the western edged with fire. It was magic.

Then came the night. Now, I am not particularly squeamish about thunderstorms. Actually I find them quite thrilling, something like Bengal tigers and hurricanes. But as night settled in, what was happening west and north of us looked a little too much like Armageddon even for me. Lightning lit up the horizon like a night game at Camden Yards, and the dull rumble of distant thunder echoed from shore to shore. Channel 16 was crowded with voices as the Coast Guard answered panicked calls from a boater near the Bay Bridge, and another on the Potomac. "Get ready to get pounded!" we overheard a southbound pilot tell a northbound ship. We were between Tilghman Island and the shipping channel when the storms literally inhaled our breeze, leaving us flat calm in a night suddenly thick with humidity. We wasted no time furling the jib and firing up the engine.

By the time we cleared the green can just east of Sharps Island light and turned into the Choptank, we started breathing again. At least here, we knew we could find a safe mark and wait nearby if the apocalypse caught us, well away from any heavy metal. . . . Right? "Hmm," I said, looking aft and reaching for the binoculars. "Very interesting." Those lights were definitely the Christmas tree on the front of a tug, and the white, red and green were perfectly clear. He was coming our way.

In the end, after watching him gaining on us all the way upriver, we finally had to pull over and let the big guy pass, barely a mile from our destination. By the time we tied up it was nearly midnight. We peeled off our sweaty foulies, poured ourselves some cold drinks, and watched the stars pricking to life from behind the shredded clouds as a clearing breeze riffled the water. It was magic. And it sure wasn't boring.