January 15, 2007
Great Bridge , Virginia
36º 43.24 North
076º 14.27 West

The Springtime Of Cruising Romance

By Bernadette Bernon

An inflatable dinghy chugged up to Ithaka, and one of the two fellows aboard called out to us, “That’s a pretty boat. What kind is she?”

We told him it was a Shearwater, from South Africa, that we’d just anchored here in this pretty harbor, and that we were about to go ashore to see what was what in Georgetown.

“We’ve been here a couple of days,” said one of the guys. “We can tell you where everything is.” That was a nice offer. We invited them aboard, and offered them cold drinks. We didn’t know it then, of course, but this little encounter was to be the beginning of a friendship that would be the last important relationship of our cruising life on Ithaka.

Georgetown offers an exquisite waterfront boardwalk. The anchorage is perfectly located for easy access to everything, and the town goes out of its way to make their waterfront public and beautiful.

Douglas and I were happy to be in Georgetown, happy to be safe and sound. We’d had a boisterous voyage offshore from St. Augustine, Florida. Although we’d hoped to sail for three or four days, and make it farther up the coast, the forecast was way off base, and the weather began to deteriorate at a rapid pace. Squall lines were everywhere around us, many carrying thunder and lightning, downpours, and heavy winds. NOAA was issuing warnings right and left for it to get worse. Oh, forget it, we said. This sailing season is a mess! Let’s take a left into Winyah Bay.

Heavy weather makes the decision to tuck into Georgetown an easy one. (Photo courtesy of Captain Bill Band)

It was our first visit to the bay, and even though we were preoccupied with the heavy wind and rain as we sailed in through the buoys, the beauty of our surroundings awed us. Sailing in, you pass through the inlet from the sea -- a wide channel bordered on either side by rocky shallows – then the bay opens out to you. The banks are pastoral vistas of swaying swamp grasses, grassy hills, long white beaches on one shore, and unbroken tree lines in deep greens. Here and there are old white plantation houses, harkening back to far different days. The land around this whole bay was once taken up by vast rice-farming plantations, and coasting up the bay it’s easy to imagine how it looked in bygone times – the elite plantation owners riding out by horseback everyday from town, or from their mansion houses, to check their empires.

Throughout Georgetown are exquisite old homes.

Winyah Bay is formed by the confluence of several rivers – Waccaaw, Black, PeeDee, and Sampit – and this would make it a great summer destination, or a wonderful place to explore for a week on the way down the ICW. And then there’s Georgetown itself, offering 360-degree protection from the wind, and according to our guidebook offering many charms. So we set our sights on staying there for a few days, until the weather died down, then carrying on offshore again. Those were lofty plans, but all that was not to be.

The entrance to Winyah Bay from the Atlantic

That evening, Douglas and I dinghied over to Third Age. It turns out that Bob and Warren like to cook, and they’d invited us over for a tasty array of hors d’heuvres. We sat together, drank wine – well, except for Warren, who prefers a well-chilled Newcastle Brown Ale, served in a proper stein -- and we all got to know each other. They’re from Austin, Texas, retired early from their careers. Bob was an executive who’d lived overseas, and Warren was a computer software designer. Both were most interesting people who’d had full lives and lots of good friends in Austin, a city they both loved.

Bob and Warren of Third Age

After a health crisis rocked their world, they decided not to waste another year just thinking about the adventurous life they both dreamed about. They downsized their lives, and set out to find what life held in store over the horizon. They sailed their Beneteau 41, Third Age, along the Gulf Coast, port hopping, and taking it easy. After rounding Florida, they were exploring the highlights along the East Coast of the United States, and exploring their options – all with an open-ended schedule. Their goal for the season was to take their time, and see what the cruising life had to offer. Now, here was Third Age anchored off our port side. Our cruises had intersected, and were about to harmonize.

Making cruising friends is a lot like dating. After breaking up and saying goodbye to people who are as close to you as can be imagined, people with whom you’ve shared the ups and the downs of the cruising life, together, the prospect of starting it all up again with new people seems emotionally exhausting. In fact, for Douglas and me, whenever this has happened to us --- such as just recently, after we said goodbye to David and Shauna on Zia Lucia in Fort Lauderdale -- we seem to avoid making any new friends for a while. The goodbyes are wrenching, and afterward, for quite some time, there doesn’t seem to be enough space in our hearts for any more of it.

Throughout the anchorage we made new friends who sometimes just swam by without speaking at all.

Then, something changes. An interesting couple comes up to you in a dinghy and strikes up a conversation. Reluctantly, you perk up a bit to realize you have things in common – a love for theater and music, say, a love for cooking and entertaining, a love for the same books, a connection on values and outlook. And suddenly you find that you’re laughing at the same things. Suddenly, you find that you’re looking forward to seeing them again. That’s how it goes. Suddenly, you’re ready to have your cruising heart broken one more time.

It turned out that Bob’s and Warren’s destinations for the summer were almost the same as our’s – heading north to Newport, Rhode Island. Our goals were different, however. We were headed home, and excited to get there with some dispatch. They were fancy free, and hoped to spend some time in the Chesapeake Bay before poking on up to New England. Hey, we could work with that, we thought, as we got to know these two wonderful men. Why not stay together as long as it’s fun?

Cruising offers a never-ending look into the mirror.

We didn’t know it then, but Ithaka and Third Age would share a month of adventures on our way north together. We’d come to know so many things about Bob and Warren, and expose our souls as cruisers do. We’d weather a tropical storm together, hunkered in Southport. We’d anchor in tranquil bliss in Pungo Creek, Adams Creek, Wrightsville Beach, and other magical anchorages. They’d pull us off a muddy mountain one afternoon when we cut it a little too close to a buoy. We’d tell them stories about the cruising chapter we were closing, as they were opening theirs. Already they’d learned what all cruisers quickly find out, that where you go is the least important thing; what’s most important is the setting out on a voyage of discovery. We’d share stories, and meals, and laughter, and secrets, and before long it would seem as if we’d always known each other. All of this was ahead.

We anchored in the shadow of the old clock tower.

But meanwhile, we spent the next three days in Georgetown sheltering from the heavy winds, playing tourist in this gem of a port, and reprovisioning at the local Piggly Wiggly, where the manager heard us telephoning for a cab, and offered to give us a ride back to the boat. This was a neighborly place, with definite southern charms.

Before the Civil War, Georgetown was a very rich little burg, a thriving community of slave-labor, rice-plantation owners. Today, the stunning architecture of that era still stands, and it’s a pleasure to stroll the historic district and admire the stately houses.

With Ithaka and Third Age anchored in the shadow of the Rice Museum’s historic clock tower, in the evenings we walked along Front Street, the town’s refurbished waterfront, and its beautiful boardwalk. This whole area could be a model for how a coastal community could use and open up to the public a waterfront that has been closed off by private homes and businesses.

Shopping was a pleasure on the wide old main street of town.

During the day, I set out on my own to check out the shopping opportunities. I found a very nice “vintage” clothing shop, bought a sexy black cocktail dress for $15, some amazing upholstery fabric, and two new sundresses. What a score! Now all I needed was a place to wear one of them. With Warren and Bob, we went out to a jazz club one night, listened to a terrific band, and toasted the fact that our paths had crossed. The next night, we all decided to get together and plan our tandem departure from Georgetown. We had so many things to decide together – where to go next, whether we go inside the ICW, or outside, and what highlights we didn’t want to miss on the way north. To brainstorm all these possibilities, we all had dinner at the River Room, one of Georgetown’s nicest restaurants. It was a splashy sort of thing for Douglas and me to do, but what the heck, we decided. We’d started dating again, after all.

Ithaka under sail