February 1, 2004
Sassafras River, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland
39° 22.712
075° 57.003

Daring To Imagine A Different Life

By Bernadette Bernon

Everywhere we travel by boat, owing to the slow pace and the resulting amount of time we spend in each destination, I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to really live there. A few years ago, when we anchored in Beaufort, North Carolina, just before Thanksgiving, I remember wandering around the pretty little town, getting to know the place. We didn’t get a weather window to head offshore and south for well over a week, so the town became a temporary home.

One day, as I got a haircut at the Dutchess salon there, I listened to the ladies who were getting their blue rinses chat about the holidays, the parties they were gussying up for and the family get-togethers they needed to orchestrate.

“I’ll just be setting a plate of tater tots in front of those picky kids in the kitchen and they’ll be just fine,” I recall one chubby grandmother saying to another. Sitting amid this hair-do construction site, and watching great sky-scraping feats of hair-sprayed engineering chirp out the door, I wondered where life would take us in this little town if Douglas and I bought the old Cadillac for sale out front and settled in for awhile.

In the marshes of Mobjack Bay we found this old farmhouse, and imagined what it would be like to live there.
The same thoughts drifted through my mind when we anchored Ithaka near a beautiful empty farmhouse surrounded by swaying marshes in Mobjack Bay, in Virginia – “Just imagine how beautiful, Douglas, if that place were our’s, and we fixed the broken windows, and put on new roof, and a fresh coat of red paint. I mean look around at how peaceful this all is...” And I thought the same thing as I sat having a cup of creamy strong café con leche and listening to a Spanish guitarist in the public squares of Cartagena, Colombia; and as we collected mussels along the river banks in Maine; and as I strolled through the vegetable markets in Salvador City, El Salvador. And I thought about it a lot this week, as we sailed up Chesapeake, and poked Ithaka way up into the breathtaking Sassafras River, near the top of the bay. What would life be like here, I wondered, in a cottage tucked somewhere along these copper-colored cliffs, or amid the glistening cornfields lining the river banks.

We found a cranny in an elbow of the river to nestle Ithaka’s anchor, all the while thinking we’d be here a night or two, tops. Little did we know that foul weather would hold us here well over a week. Around us were forests, farming fields, fallen trees at the foot of great cliffs, bass fishermen drifting here and there. Now and then, magnificent dragonflies with gossamer wingspans touched down on Ithaka. Nearby, at Ordinary Point, were the remains of steps from a colonial tavern that stood there centuries ago, a gathering place that attracted folks from all along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In those days, the colonists were originally from Bristol in Cornwall, England -- which helps explains the difference in their accents today.

Ithaka at anchor in the Sassafras River
Over the hills and cliffs to the north was the charming little hive of Chesapeake City, smack dab in the middle of the third busiest canal in the world. (Only Panama and Suez exceed it.) Not far from that was Elkton, the wedding capital of the country, where there are seven wedding chapels, and only a three-hour waiting period to get married; no blood tests required. Close by was Delaware’s thoroughbred horse industry, including the long-famous Dupont farms, with their yellow and gray racing colors. These were the original colors of the Bayard Inn in Chesapeake City where, in the 1720s, a group of ingenious and motivated men met and planned how to dig the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal by hand, using the labors of ex-slaves and Irish immigrants. It was on that canal, in the 1800s that the huge James Adams’ Floating Theater used to travel back and forth from Philadelphia to Baltimore, docking in Chesapeake City. The James Adams became famous in Hal Prince’s beloved musical Showboat.

One of the beauties of the Sassafras is that you can be surrounded by such a rich history, yet be secluded in a private world of unspoiled nature. We felt like we were anchored in the back of the beyond. Douglas and I untied the kayak from its resting place on the foredeck, popped it into the water, and every day after we did all our boat chores, and checked and rechecked the weather, I’d set off for an hour or two, to explore some new facet of the river. I paddled the kayak into shallows overhung with trees and vines, then further into the tributaries where it was only me and the dragonflies and a wonderland of birds.

Here in the Sassafras is where we would linger, waiting for a good weather window to enter the C&D Canal, make the transit, sail down the Delaware, and head offshore to Newport, Rhode Island, our home. We needed a window of three or four days, just to be on the safe side. The difficulty was that there were extremely strong low-pressure systems intensifying and swiftly working their way northward from the Caribbean. One already was battering the United States coast, and so we knew we’d sit tight till that one passed. The question was whether or not we should take off after it calmed down, and try to make it home before the next one caught up with us. Once down the Delaware and past Cape May, our rhumb line on the ocean was 48° or almost exactly northeast. So we wanted as much as possible to have some breeze out of the south or west or northwest.

Every boat has a never-ending To Do list of repairs and maintenance. While we lingered in the Sassafras, we tried to check off as many projects as we could.

We listened to NOAA weather twice a day. We pulled down weather faxes that showed the low-pressure systems and their relentless progress north, and to be on the safe side, we also tuned in every day to Herb Hilgenburg’s broadcast on 12.359 MHz (upper side band) on our single-sideband radio. Since 1987, Herb has offered a unique service. Every day, starting precisely at 20:00 Zulu this independent meteorologist and weather guru comes on frequency from his home-weather center in Canada and advises cruisers. For specific advice you register with Herb via email (hehilgen@sympatico.ca) give your current latitude and longitude and where you want to go. Then, he’ll help you plan your passage, giving advice on when to leave, a highly specific route to follow, and weather systems to avoid. Offshore cruisers check in with him everyday, reporting their progress and current weather conditions. Once signed up to route an offshore passage, he stays with you until you get there, offering daily updates and advice. Amazingly, he’s been doing this for free for years. For bluewater cruisers all over the Atlantic and Caribbean, Herb Hilgenburg is the extra crew member we all rely upon. Cruisers revere him for his selflessness, his accuracy, and his tenacity.

Douglas checks and rechecks the weatherfaxes looking for a safe weather window to sail north offshore.
We began to tune into Herb’s broadcast, heard him talking to people out in the middle of the Atlantic on their way to Britain (to say the least, Herb wasn’t thrilled that they’d left when they did, but he was doing what he could to help); people sailing from Maine to Annapolis, Maryland (he recommended that they put in further north and wait out the worsening weather for a few days before carrying on); people wanting to sail from Florida north (“Stay exactly where you are for the next week!”); people everywhere who were tracking these lows, and waiting to go where they wanted to go. One by one, Herb gave priority to the boats underway, those folks trying to get to safety before the lows turned their worlds upside down. Finally, after going through those boats, and others already checked in with Herb from the day before, we checked in and told Herb we were in the Sassafras River, awaiting our opportunity to transit the canal, sail southeast down the Delaware River (we definitely needed a favorable wind for that or we’d be fighting a wicked chop in such shallow waters), and then we needed to turn northeast to sail about 225 miles to Newport, Rhode Island.

“Well, you’re not going to get the weather you need for two or three days,” he said, “so sit tight.” He confirmed what we’d been seeing on the weather faxes. “But maybe the day after that you’ll get a break. I’m predicting the wind will shift for a day or two in your favor. That would give you enough of a window, if you hurry. Check in with me tomorrow afternoon and I’ll give you an update.” Hmmm, a wind shift? That was interesting, as the faxes weren’t showing that.

Bernadette sets out on our kayak, the perfect vehicle to explore quietly, and to achieve some alone time.
Lingering in the Sassafras was no hardship. We made nice dinners, enjoyed the freedoms of being at anchor, kayaked here and there, and fixed several things on our “To Do” list. On Saturday and Sunday, busy boating days on the Sassafras, we shared our secluded anchorage with a few other boats. One circled us a few times, then held up an old BoatUS Magazine from September, the cover of which was our picture.

“You’re living our dream!” the man called over. “Someday we’re going too!”

“Well, Madonna is living my dream!” I called back. “But thanks for saying so!” And we all laughed.

On Sunday afternoon, a little 27-foot sailboat anchored near us, and we watched the young couple and their two little girls enjoying their day on the water. Just as they were about to up-anchor and leave, they dinghied over to say hello, and to tell us that they were following our “Log Of Ithaka” story online, and hoped to go cruising someday themselves – perhaps when their little girls got a bit bigger. We invited them aboard, and spent an hour or two with the Ondrejack family from New Jersey, getting to know each other, answering their questions about cruising, showing them how our boat works, and what it’s really like to live aboard.

The Ondrejack family
As we talked in the cockpit, and Adam told us about the multiple sclerosis that was beginning to impair his legs, their two little girls had the run of Ithaka -- even at only 39 feet, she’s a giant playground compared to a 27-footer – and by the end of the day, when we hugged them all good-bye, the girls declared that they wanted to live aboard a sailboat, too.

“That’s the first time I’ve heard them say that,” said Adam, and he looked hopefully at his wife. She smiled.

Finally, our weather window seemed to be approaching. We thought we saw it on the weather faxes, a few days between lows. Herb encouraged us to position ourselves at the mouth of the C&D Canal and be ready to boogie two days hence. If we went too early, we’d be hammered in the Delaware. If we waited even a half a day too long, we risked a monster low catching up with us before we got home. Herb said it was going to hit the Chesapeake far harder than it was going to hit New England – it was a true monster storm -- so we should take the opportunity to get out of this region while we could. We pulled the kayak and the dinghy back aboard, tied them down, took some last pictures of the Sassafras at sunset, and when the time was right we set sail for the canal, and the journey ahead. I admit, we were a little nervous to have a sizable storm heading north at the same time we were, but there you are; sometimes taking the chance and going for it is the best course. We’d find out.

Sunset on the Sassafras
Our afternoon with the Ondrejack family would not be the last time we’d hear from them. We’d hear from them again, not too long after, when they’d tell the following news. It turns out that after visiting us on Ithaka, they made a momentous decision. As they sailed back to their slip, unloaded the weekend stuff from the boat into the car, and got back on the road to New Jersey, they decided that they wanted to go cruising sooner rather than wait till some elusive “later.” They got home and immediately started looking for a cruising boat. Their search produced a 46-footer that sang to them, at the right price. They bought it, gave a long notice that they were leaving their jobs, and they plan to head for the Bahamas in the fall. The girls, they told us, are out of their minds with excitement.

When we travel by boat to places we’ve never been before, we can’t help but imagine different lives for ourselves. We imagine what it would be like to live in different houses, in different cultures, sometimes even in different skins. Sometimes, when the window is open just right, we make our move, we set out into the unknown, a little nervous, but we take the leap and make things happen. Sometimes, when you’re on a boat, everything seems possible.