Flames on the ICW

By Bernadette Bernon
December 1, 2000
Beaufort, North Carolina
34 42.992 N 76 39.949 W

Photo of leaving the seascape of Norfolk We leave the seascape of Norfolk astern.

We left Norfolk astern last week, slowly, and with a touch of melancholy. Eager and excited to press south, we were torn, too. Already we've learned that new cruising friendships are the most intense kind, and they're to be savored, because cruisers all seem to know, intrinsically, that they may never pass this way again.

It rips you up a bit to leave a place when you've met such generous and warm people, as we did at Norfolk Boatworks. The owners rolled out the red carpet for us — though we'd never even met them before, and we weren't having any work done there. Fellow boat owners and local policemen leant us heaters, tools, gave us lifts to hardware stores, and invited us to breakfasts and Thanksgiving dinners. The generosity of the people at this little yard was overwhelming.

Our friends Michel and Germaine helped us to cast off at 7 a.m. on Wednesday, in 25-degree cold and biting wind. They're smarter than we are; they'd installed a cozy Espar heater on Dharma III back in Newport, so were not as driven as we were to move on. But here on Ithaka, frost on our noses in the morning and ice on deck were powerful motivators. We hugged Michel and Germaine and promised we'd try to see them somewhere in the Bahamas or hopefully sooner, yet knowing without saying so that we might not. Ithaka puttered past rows of bulk carriers and Navy ships, gigantic commercial docks and tugs, and away from the warmth of new friends. Norfolk had been a wonderful surprise. As Douglas and I entered the Intercoastal Waterway for the first time, ahead of us were bridges to go under and around, narrow channels to negotiate, and a lock to ride through — all on our first day.

The first thing that happens on this stretch of the ICW is that you begin to monitor channels 13 and 16 on the VHF radio with a devotion not felt before. Channel 13 is where all conversation with the bridge tenders occurs, as well as any communication with passing commercial vessels. With their unflappably courteous radio demeanor and warm southern accents, the ICW bridge tenders manning the first bridges and locks after Norfolk seem to be hybrids of country-western DJs and camp counselors for nervous, first-time, ICW greenhorns.

Photo of Douglas steering Ithaka Douglas steers as all our wet fleece gloves and hats dry, hanging from our backstay, and other protuberances.

"Bring her on up a little closer, Cap'n," a bridge tender tells us as we creep up sheepishly to the first single-pivot swing bridge, waiting for it to open. "Keep her comin', now. You'll be just fine. Come on. Come on ..."

Just then, the bridge tender is hailed by another boat a-ways back down the channel. The skipper has a French accent. We look around but can't see the boat yet. The bridge tender says, "Cap'n, git on up here. I'm gonna open this baby in one minute, whether you git here or not. I cain't be holdin' her for ya, Cap'n, so put a quarter in it and keep her comin'."

Finally a black-hulled Colin Archer design steams around the bend, its Canadian flag flying. The bridge pivots and we all funnel through.

Douglas steers as all our wet fleece gloves and hats dry, hanging from our backstay, and other protuberances.

"Bridge! Bridge!" we hear another boat screaming on the VHF. "The bridge isn't opening!"

"Cap'n," says the bridgetender calmly "I got her open right now. Where are you at?"

"I'm right here and it's not opening!"

"It's open, Cap'n."

"No! No, it's not!"

"Cap'n, why don't you tell me, what does the bridge look like?"

"Uh ... I think it's a lift bridge."

"Cap'n, this here's a single-swing pivot. I believe y'all must be at the railroad bridge."

"Oh ..."

"Cap'n, maybe y'all need to git a road map on that vessel," the tender suggested, laughing. "Don't worry. Y'all' l be just fine. You see a train goin' over that bridge?"


"Well, that bridge cain't open until that train goes over it, right? You just sit tight and she's gonna open in just a minute. Then just keep her comin' awright now?"

"Sorry about that, sir."

"No problem, Cap'n. Y'all have a nice day."

And so it went all morning, with the patient bridge tenders and lock tenders talking all of us along. Douglas and I took turns, one at the helm while the other took warm-up breaks below, played with our Maptech navigation program on the laptop, and watched our progress on the screen. When we reached the Atlantic Yacht Basin (AYB), we pulled over to the side of the waterway, tied Ithaka up to the dock for the night, and plugged in our little heater, purchased in a hardware store in Norfolk.

Photo of toe warmers in shoes We used toe warmers in our shoes, and finger warmers in our gloves against the cold.

At AYB, we planned to stay through the next day, Thanksgiving, take luxuriously long, hot showers, refuel, check our e-mail in the AYB cruisers' lounge, go to Wal-Mart and a few other stores for supplies with the AYB courtesy car — all the simple but sublime pleasures of a pit stop at a full-service ICW boatyard. We arrived giddy and a bit disheveled after our first frigid day on the waterway, grabbed our towels, shampoo, and soap, and headed to the showers. Douglas went first. On his way, a couple of fellows on a lovely yawl that had tied up near us called him over and handed him a couple of bags.

"What's that?" I asked as he walked back to the boat.

"You're not going to believe this," he said. "They're full of food."

Inside the bag were frozen cans of concentrated orange juice, frozen quarts of Egg Beaters, frozen packages of ground sirloin, and other nice groceries. "They said their trip was ending here. They're unloading their stuff into a car and said we could have it."

By the looks of us today, I suppose they thought we could use it. We laughed. Thinking back, every time we'd taken a bareboat-charter vacation — and we'd taken one by ourselves or with our friends almost every year for many years — at the end of the trip we always gave any food we hadn't eaten to whomever we could find who looked neediest. Usually we tried to give it to locals. But in the end, we always gave the last cans and fresh foods to the poorest-looking cruisers we could find. Now, here we were, perceived by the kind folks on this yawl, if their thinking was in any way aligned with ours, to be in need of some red meat. I was touched and grateful, and at the same time chagrined. I couldn't help it; I took a long look at Douglas and myself — each of us in preshower mode and looking bedraggled. I know, I know, who cares about such things, right? But trust me, the next time someone tosses a quarter into your coffee cup, you too might feel the urge to check your appearance in the nearest bathroom mirror.

Photo of a marsh along the ICW The ICW from Norfolk, Virginia, through Beaufort, North Carolina, is a narrow waterway of lined in marshes, connecting open rivers and sounds that get the blood moving, such as the Pamlico, Neuse and Albemarle.

It was a strange sensation to spend Thanksgiving tied to a dock at Great Bridge, North Carolina, far from the cozy dinner tables of our families. We were thrilled with ourselves for what we were doing, yet if you could have it both ways, on a holiday such as this one I'd probably choose to beam up and materialize in a place surrounded by all my loved ones. But that wasn't an option this year. Indeed, we're so far behind the season and off our schedule at this point that we were also about to miss our first major cruising rendezvous: my parents were flying to meet us in the Bahamas in two days' time, and here we were still stuck in this North Carolina arctic cold front, at the rate we were going still a good two or three weeks away from our Nassau meeting point. With their tickets and hotels arranged ages ago, of course my dad and Suzanne decided to go ahead and make the trip to the Bahamas anyway. This taught us all an expensive lesson about the folly of trying to couple passagemaking with rendezvous schedules. The two just don't mix.

Douglas returned to the boat after downloading our e-mail, which we hadn't read in over a week, and sat down at the nav station to read the messages as I fiddled around with dinner. For our Thanksgiving feast, we planned a simple meal, but one we hoped would capture some of our old traditions. We sprinkled a chicken with Herbes de Provence and popped it in the Force 10 oven to roast with a bunch of garlic. We made fresh cranberry relish, baked sweet potatoes, tossed a salad, and looked forward to topping it off with a cranberry tart. (Translation: Accustomed to cooking for a dozen, I'd over-invested in cranberries.)

"Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh my God ..." he moaned suddenly.

"What!?" I said, alarmed. "What is it?"

He stared at the computer screen. "Jason is dead. Oh my God!"

Photo of Jason Stern Jason Stern.

There was a message from the mother of a good friend of ours, Donna Lilienthal, that her son Jason Stern had died suddenly in Maine the week before, that she'd tried to reach us but couldn't, and that she'd finally resorted to e-mail to let us know. We looked at each other in stunned disbelief. I picked up the cell phone and called her in Florida. Over the next half hour, as Douglas sat there staring at the e-mail message, Donna and I talked, and then Donna and Douglas talked. It was true. One of the most alive people we'd ever met was gone.

Jason Stern was a professional documentary photographer whose work often appeared in Cruising World. He took the picture on this month's cover (December) as well as the photos of Douglas and me inside. Those pictures were taken in September, when we spent a week hanging out with Jason and his family in Mt. Desert, Maine — a week that we consider to be one of the highlights of our entire summer.

In the mid 90s, at the age of only 24, Jason and four of his college friends sailed around the world, with some sponsorship from Patagonia and a few other companies to create a "classroom of discovery" through the internet with elementary schools around the United States. On average, he told me, he shot almost a roll of film a day on that voyage, an incredibly impressive body of work that served to launch his career after he brought samples of it in to Cruising World and other magazines three years ago.

One day, Bill Roche, CW's art director, poked his head into my office and said, "Got a minute? There's a photographer here, and you should take a look at his stuff." This was highly unusual for Bill. He always asked promising young photographers if he could keep their portfolios of slides for a day or two, so that we could examine them together later, without the pressure of the photographer looking over our shoulders.

"Really?" I said.

"Really," he answered. "This is something special."

We went into the art department, I met Jason, and there on the light table were sheet after sheet of the most amazing sailing slides Bill and I had ever seen. From that day forward, we used Jason's work constantly, and sent him on assignment whenever we needed to capture the essence of a person — for that really was his forte, even more than the boats themselves. At the same time, Jason became our friend. As his career in New York began to flourish with the big-name news and fashion magazines, he still liked to gravitate back to CW, to the good friends he made there who could relate to his sailing passions, and to how his cruising experiences had changed him. He confided in me that he found it hard sometimes, after he came back from cruising, to relate to his peers and fit in the same way he did before he left. His vision, he said, had been enlarged by the experience.

When I confided in him that Douglas and I were going to go cruising too, he was delighted, and we began to talk on a fairly regular basis. He promptly gave me his favorite Royal Suva Yacht Club tee-shirt from Fiji. In Maine last summer, he gave Douglas and me a beautiful leather-bound signature book for the boat. And just a few weeks ago, he sent us one of his photographs to put on the boat. "So there will always be a little part of me with you on your travels," he wrote. We looked forward to Jason coming sailing with us for a week in Cuba in a couple of months. We looked forward to knowing Jason for many years and following the growth of his career.

That this young man, with all the promise and talent in the world, and with such a magnificently loving family, and with the devotion of so many friends who adored him, could be dead was inconceivable to Douglas and me.

The rest of the day went by. We ate. We cried. We talked about it every which way. We cried. We sat in silence.

Jason's death has been what the rest of this past week has been about for us: As we puttered along the beautiful ICW and watched it open up to us like a winding wet path through the heart of the south; as we bundled up against the cold and at the same time felt it slowly begin to warm up; as we tried to stay dry in a couple of days of thunder and rain storms; as we listened to the adrenaline pumping through the voices at Cape Hatteras Coast Guard station as they talked to vessels that were aground, vessels that were lost, vessels that were taking on water, vessels that found their way again. As we crept farther and farther south, in every silence our thoughts defaulted to Jason.

Already, this sailing life has taught us that friendships made through cruising are some of the most passionate kind, and they're to be savored in as intense a way as possible, like a flame that rises up red hot, but that can be blown out just as quickly by parting. Cruisers all seem to sense that they may never pass this way again, so they give more of themselves than we're accustomed to. I like this aspect of cruising, and I welcome the opportunity to be more like this myself. This week, Douglas and I used our cell phone a lot, because although we're still in the States, we feel farther and farther away from our old lives. We called people we care about and we told them we loved them, that we were thinking about them, and that we were missing them. With each phone call, we dearly wished we could do the same with Jason, and we cried because we would never have that chance again.