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You've Come a Long Way, Baby

by Cathy Dieter

He'd been there at the beginning. My husband's dad was one of the few ready, willing and able to join us as we made our first big leap from land to sea. Sink or swim--either possibility seemed equally likely as my husband Dave and I tried to make the huge transition from a DC commuter lifestyle to living aboard a 36 foot sailboat.

It's painful to remember how little we knew when we sat down with the Annapolis Sailing School instructor before the weeklong course that started it all. The three of us were being briefed on what to expect before setting out on Resolute, a 36 foot Hunter sailboat assigned to us for our Cruising class which would make a circuit around Annapolis and the Eastern Shore. "The winds are up, so we'll likely have to reef the sails," our instructor advised us. Avoiding eye contact, we tried to disguise the fact that we had no idea what he was talking about. In our defense, we had explained to the office that our prerequisite "Basic Sailing" course had fallen through, leaving us ill-prepared for this intermediate class. "No problem," was the response, "come on anyway." So we did.

Of the three of us--my husband Dave, his dad and I--Dad easily had the most sailing experience. Growing up on a farm, it wasn't until joining the Navy that he first ventured on to the water. In addition to duties as crew on his Navy vessel, Dad learned to sail during his tour of duty, crewing on sailboat races on the Finger Lakes in New York. Other than paddling a canoe, my husband Dave's only other boating experience was sailing tiny Sunfish at scout camp in the Adirondacks. By far the least experienced, my best qualifications came from having lounged on my brother-in-law's 26-foot sloop for a few daysails. So Dave and I knew we desperately needed classes before we could start on this new adventure. Which is how we ended up at the Annapolis Sailing School on Labor Day morning, with Dad along hoping to relive his days on the water.

As we headed out that first day, we could feel the wind stiffen upon leaving the protection of Back Creek and entering the Severn River. We also began to take in the sheer number of boats out enjoying this breezy last day of summer. Before the sails were even unfurled, our instructor realized our destination in the Magothy River would require us to tack our way up the Bay in the brisk northeast winds. After watching our performance on the first few tacks, he quickly assessed that our sailing skills were not up to the task and tactfully suggested we turn back and pick up a mooring in Annapolis  harbor. After a little sailing within the protection of the Severn River, we turned in and called it a day. Our mooring was less than a mile from where we had begun. A stellar first day.

The rest of the week proceeded more according to plan, but the wind, for the most part, didn't cooperate. Monday's brisk winds were replaced by light southerlies on Tuesday, forcing us to motor most of the way to Kent Narrows. Wednesday's route gave us the chance to pass through our first drawbridge on the way to St. Michaels, where docking proved to be--what's the word--interesting. Thursday, we pounded straight into the waves in Eastern Bay, as the brisk southwest winds made any attempt at sailing (or for that matter sitting upright) unlikely until we reached the open waters of the Bay. We were heading for a night at anchor in the Rhode River. As we made our way back to Annapolis on Friday, we managed to sail most of the day, the wind and the light schedule finally cooperating to give us some opportunity to sail for most of the day. Although the course was mostly for Dave and I to soak up all we could about life on board, Dad took a brief turn at the helm and sheets too, reaching back almost 50 years to bring his sailing days back to life again.

Fast forward three years and several thousand boating miles.

The three of us are gathered on a mooring in Annapolis harbor, only this time on Orion, our Beneteau Oceanis 36cc sailboat. We bought her only three months after that Labor Day cruising class, and she had been our home for more than a year. As Boat Show weekend ended, we were headed out for another weeklong cruise on the Chesapeake with Dad. We were determined to ensure this trip was everything the first hadn't been, allowing him as much time at the helm as he wanted. But the week wasn't starting out well, since the early fall day felt more like August as we welcomed Dad on board the evening of his arrival. The harbor was still, and the day's heat and humidity lingered into the early evening before finally giving us a faint breeze to cool the cabin so we could sleep.

We had planned a relatively easy cruising week, without too much pressure from schedules. We hoped be able to sail most of the week, picking our destination based on the wind. Our only commitment was to arrive in Solomons, Md., by week's end where Dad would be catching a ride with his nephew back to the airport. Winds permitting, we knew where our first stop had to be--the Magothy River north of Annapolis. The destination our inexperience and the winds wouldn't let us reach on that first trip.

This time the wind was cooperating--a light five to ten knots off our port quarter. We motor-sailed north on a broad reach, making our way through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Once through, we killed the engine to sail around the Sandy Point light and into the mouth of the Magothy River. As we sailed, Dad told us stories of his service in the Navy, and how one of life's fateful choices caused him to just miss being deployed to Korea. By mid-afternoon we were setting the anchor in the popular anchorage north of Dobbins Island. A pleasant and uneventful day. What a difference time and experience can make.

To escape the heat, we decided to spend the next night on a dock, so we headed south through the Bay Bridge, around the Thomas Point light and into the West River toward Pirate's Cove in Galesville. We would have all of its amenities at our disposal, which included the restaurant's tasty menu. As our course took us past the Rhode River, we reminisced about our two stays anchored there, both with Dad along. We had returned to the anchorage in the summer following our class, this time on Orion. Dad had joined us for a second weeklong "sail," during which we actually ended us spending more time on the dock than under way. It was our first time anchoring on our own, but it didn't go well. Mistaking our position relative to nearby landmarks, we almost immediately ran aground and had to call BoatUS to tow us off. The next day we slunk back into our slip completely discouraged. Dad didn't say much, but he didn't have to.

Looking back, we felt good that we were now giving Dad the cruise we had failed to deliver twice before. We left Galesville early Wednesday, having decided to make the jump down the Bay to the Patuxent River. Dropping anchor in St. Leonard Creek, we found ourselves alone there as the evening sun sank behind the cliffs that mark the entrance. Overnight, the weather finally cooled to more normal fall temperatures, and we enjoyed our breakfast on deck, watching the watermen tend their traps nearby. It was only a short run to Solomons, where our trip would end, but we would have the best sailing of the trip on this leg. The steady 25-knot northwest winds gave us a great downwind run south on the Patuxent through the Route 4 bridge. We took advantage of the winds and our short run to bring the trip to a close with an exclamation point, as we tacked back and forth in the river before reluctantly heading into Solomons harbor.

Thankfully, we hadn't let the setbacks early in our sailing careers discourage us from continuing on. Now, we were "old" hands at not only sailing, but anchoring, docking, and navigating the many miles of the East Coast from Boston to Florida and the Bahamas. And it meant more to be able to have Dad share it with us. After all, he knew first-hand how far we'd come.

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