February 1, 2007
Norfolk VA to Newport RI

Night Passage Toward The Rest Of My Life

By Douglas Bernon

The usual yardsticks that sailors depend upon to measure time, distance and direction are technically critical but emotionally useless when returning home from a six-year adventure. Right now we’re 60 miles due east of Tom’s River, New Jersey, and 58 miles due south of Bohemia on Long Island. Or at least that’s where we are on a nautical chart. But where we are in life is not measurable, because we’re on our way home, and our distance is more a function of perception than space.

I remember a Nepali man I met while trekking in the Himalayas in 1981. He was a long-distance porter, a short man who toted a giant bamboo backpack with a strap that pressed against his forehead. He hauled bundles of cinnamon bark, each piece the size of my arm, south from central Nepal, and he returned with salt from India. He did all this barefoot, one round trip after another. We shared a campsite one night. He asked where I was from, and I told him America. He considered this. “How many days walk,” he asked, “is that from here?”

As Bernadette and I made our way from Norfolk to Newport, I know that after we left the harbor in Virginia, we had a rhumb line of 040 ° and a distance of 328 miles to the southeast corner of Block Island, a tick-shaped island with a perfect anchorage that’s just
19 miles south-southwest of the entrance of Narragansett Bay. From the Narragansett entrance between Castle Hill and Beavertail, it’s a leisurely hour into downtown Newport, Rhode Island, through an entrance channel that’s several miles long, very deep, and shouldered by sweeping lawns, dramatic mansions, exquisite memories, and frightening prospects. We’ve talked about it, argued about it, agreed about it, and thought it was for yet another day. But now, for real, without doubt, we’re coming home.

Even once we get to Newport, our trip isn’t over. Not by a long shot, but as we make our way, we talk endlessly about what’s next, about how best to sell Ithaka – a bittersweet decision that seems hard to imagine right now, as she romps along beneath us -- about what kind of work we want to, where we want to do it, and how to cobble together the next chapter of our lives. Coming home, we’re discovering, is just as big a deal as setting out in the first place.

The lock at Great Bridge is about 12 miles south of downtown Norfolk.

Our departure from Norfolk was pretty messy. We’d left Great Bridge, Virginia, about 12 miles south of Norfolk, aiming for the first bridge opening at the 8:00 a.m. We were inside the lock and tied up alongside by 8:20, and puttered out the other side by 9:00. It was smooth motoring up the ICW to Norfolk. There were no headwinds at all, but with all the bridges in Norfolk proper we didn’t actually make it out to sea until evening. By then a squall appeared out of nowhere and blew gale-force winds down our throats for several hours as we crossed the shipping lanes and headed out to sea.

It feels as if there are thousands of bridges as a boat putters through Norfolk, but this one is worth stopping for, just because its so beautiful.

However, nothing lasts forever, and once the squall blew through, we tweaked Homer, our Monitor wind vane, adjusted the sails, and reset our course. From that moment on, for the past two days, we haven’t needed to steer for even one minute. The wind has been lighter than we’d like, but neither nature nor our boat have served up any drama, and that’s as clear a definition for “good passage” as you’re ever going to find.

Homer is by far the most skilled driver on our boat. He never tires. He stays on course dutifully and he doesnt mind taking a long watch.

As I write this now, we’re a day or so from dropping our hook. Bernadette and I seem to be oscillating through phases of high energy talking and silent contemplation. I found myself starting to compile one list of things I’m going to miss once we live on land again, and another for those aspects of this life that I won’t. I’ll surely miss the sunrises. I love them even more than sunsets, and sorely will I miss moonlight as an on-watch traveling companion. I’ll miss lazy afternoons of reading, long days of hunting fish, and overall just living out doors. I’ll miss the spontaneous aspects of this life that surely we will trade for a more regimented schedule on land. Mostly I’ll miss the kind of relationships that grow among cruisers. Not since college have I so enjoyed doing stuff with friends.

The cruising social life is different than the one we have on land. At home, it seems we make plans to get together for dinner three weeks from now, and then when we get together we talk about what we’ve been doing. Among cruisers, frequently we spend the day actually doing projects with each other, or diving, or snorkeling, or going ashore for provisioning or exploring, and then breaking bread together in the evening. There is immediacy to the friendship, and a shared daily experience. This is tougher to replicate with our friends back home, people who have busy lives, daily time constraints, places to go, and things to do. Bernadette and I talk about this a great deal, and hope we can share more simple experiences with our friends at home.

I will miss enormously the glories of living outdoors.

I will miss going sock-less, or for that matter pant-less. In other words, I’m not entirely looking forward to the external expectations that are a part of adulthood and of civilized North American life.

A late night watch is always made more fun when theres a kindly moon to keep one company.

I will miss the stars and the exhaustion, the triumphant arrivals and the giddy relief that floods the soul after every near miss at a reef. I will miss the challenge of just getting there, wherever there might be, and the occasional adrenalin of terror. But I will not miss being afraid, feeling so little and incompetent. I will miss being part of this extraordinary fraternity of like-minded spirits; I am already pining for that. I don’t know how I or we can create that same sense of brotherhood and sisterhood in our land lives. One of the gifts of cruising is that, simultaneously, it narrows the world and broadens it. Cruisers are a self-selected group who may be profoundly different in the most fundamental ways, but all share some elements of the same dream, some elements of the same schedule, and a sense that we’re in it together. Those are powerful bonds.

I won’t miss some of the tensions that are inevitable on a cruising boat, tensions between husband and wife, tensions between captain and vessel, and the never-ending responsibilities that can’t be sloughed off. I will not miss at all the endless annoyance of “dinghy butt,” the inevitable result of sitting everyday on wet hypalon and never fully drying out. Nor will I pine away for the chance to tuck in yet another reef at 0300.

Elkhorn coral is forever beautiful and often full of snapper.

I keep wondering how on earth we will hold onto some of the consciousness that we managed while cruising. The demands of land life — for convention, consistency and form — are so great, and societal inertia so powerful in promulgating the many “shoulds” of life. This makes me worry about preserving our joy in coloring outside the lines, behaviors that are frowned upon in a culture where many people actually pay organizations to press starch into their collars so they can be more rigid and confining.

It’s not as if I’ve never lived in the States before, and it’s not as if I don’t like it there, but I’m fearful about how and where I will fit in now, about how I can use what I’ve learned cruising and combine it with my professional background. I know that I’m blessed to be struggling with these kinds of questions, rather than struggling with tragic decisions such as what kind of chemotherapy I might need, or whether or not we can pay our rent. Returning from cruising presents existential problems, not dire ones. But still, as we ghost along tonight in the moonlight, as I check the GPS to see where the world would say we are, and whether or not we’re headed in the right direction, whatever that is, I wonder. Where are we going?

As much as any part of cruising I will miss going out regularly to find us some dinner. Stopping at the Piggly Wiggly will not be anywhere near as satisfying.