It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Cruising

By Douglas Bernon
November 8, 2000
East River, Mobjack Bay, Virginia
37 24.428 N 76 21.135 W

Onboard tonight, Bernadette is frustrated; she's trying to find election news on our FM radio, but reception is so poor in our little inlet she can't find a public radio station, and the local music stations are offering slim pickings in the news department. We're disconnected during this election mayhem, and My Personal Commodore, I admit, is more concerned about it than I am.

Photo of the banks of the East River, Mobjack Bay The banks of the East River, Mobjack Bay.

We're docked in the East River of Mobjack Bay, the last major inlet on the western shore before the southern end of Chesapeake Bay. Around us are the beautiful marshlands and quiet anchorages of Virginia, vastly different in landscape and feel than Maryland, which is just up the road, but which now seems like a long way from here. In the countryside, the fall leaves have just reached their peak and colder weather is in the air. Early mornings we wear several layers. By 10:30 the sun is high enough for short sleeves and sandals. By three we start to rebundle, and by 5:00 we're swaddled again.

We arrived here last Thursday, intending to hang out, maybe visit Williamsburg, do some work on the boat, and leave Ithaka at Zimmerman Marine for several days while we flew to Cleveland for a long weekend before leaving the States and heading south. As we approached this little corner of the East River, Bernadette was at the wheel driving; I was standing forward, peering through the binoculars in search of the number 13 red buoy where we planned to take a left, amble around, find a good spot and stop. We found the buoy. Near it was anchored a boat that looked familiar, and I studied it. "That's funny," I said to Bernadette. "That looks like Michel and Germaine's Westsail 32." We hadn't seen these friends since we left Newport in September, and hadn't expected to.

Photo of Michel and Germaine, with Minoux Michel and Germaine, with Minoux.

"That's really funny," I said. "They've got a Canadian flag, too." With its double-ended shape and tanbark sails, I hoped it would be Dharma III, the Westsail that our friends spent the last year rebuilding to perfect condition, right next to Ithaka in the boatyard in Rhode Island. We got closer. Suddenly, in my binoculars, I saw Michel looking through his binoculars at me looking through mine at him. In perfect harmony, we began waving and jumping up and down. Since that day, the four of us have enjoyed a sweet reunion in this peaceful, pretty place. These are two of the most inspirational and capable people I've ever met. Michel, a French Canadian by birth and an international citizen by habit, can fix or make anything on a boat. Germaine, a French-Vietnamese beauty, is an expert and perfectionist at sewing, varnish, painting, woodwork, insulation, upholstery, marlinspike — you name it. Their boat, which was in sad shape when they purchased her, is now a work of art. For more than 20 years now, they've cruised and worked: in Europe, the Caribbean, North America. We got to know them well in Newport when they were editors at Cruising World with Bernadette over the past couple of years. Talented people.

We looked forward to hanging out with them as soon as we returned from Cleveland for the weekend. They told us they were going to hang out in the East River. "This is one of the most beautiful anchorages you'll ever find," said these cruising veterans. "We want to stay for awhile and enjoy it."

Going to Ohio this weekend to visit my family and childhood friends, to re-connect with important people we won't see for awhile, Bernadette and I traveled by air at about 100 times the speed we travel on Ithaka. This unfamiliar constellation of high speed over brief time and great distance is unlike what we're used to, as mostly we've been moving slowly hour after hour, and we don't get very far.

Photo of Angie and John Geller
Angie and John Geller.

We stayed with Angie and John Geller, two people with whom we always have the pleasure of picking up easily from where we left off before. John and I have known each other for almost 50 years now. Our friendship is our own but also transcends generations; our parents knew each other, and our grandparents were friends too — rare, good stuff. Bernadette says that when John and I are together, I laugh more. She's right. We tell and retell the stories from our Jewish childhoods, reminisce, and compare our thoughts and feelings on the vagaries of life. We are touchstones for one another. Bernadette and I settled in with John and Angie, and laughed and hung out all weekend. At night, Bernadette and I — now creatures fully acclimated to living outside in the Virginia cold — found ourselves tossing off the hot bed covers, and opening our guest-room windows to the bracing Cleveland air.

Photo of Aunt Jane Aunt Jane.

I don't have a lot of family left, so seeing my mother and Aunt Jane, 82 and 87 respectively, was important to me. They were full of questions about how we live, and how we spend our time, and what we do day to day. They and their friends, some of whom have known me since I was born, came over for lunch to see how we were doing.

"How many pairs of pants do you have?" (Three.)

"How many sports coats?" (None.)

"Do you really sit on the toilet and hold the nozzle over your head to take a shower?" (Yes.)

"Are things always breaking as much as you say, and are you really always fixing things?" (Yes.)

"Do you mind only having what you need and not what you want?" (Not really.) They, along with various friends we've visited, all concluded after reading our logs online that this is much less vacation than they'd originally imagined. "It's like a job," said my Aunt Jane, "but there are no set hours, and you don't actually get money for doing it." (Right.)

Photo of my mother on WebTV My mother on WebTV.

My mother has been following our voyage through our intermittent phone calls and by reading our logs on the web. Never a technically inclined soul, for her to link up on the internet was a major victory. Initially she was terrified that she wouldn't be able to handle e-mail, and was reluctant to get a computer. We encouraged her to get Web-TV, which she did. She hired a tutor for several sessions, but also relied on one of her older friends (93, to be precise) who's experienced with the system. Sitting in a chair in her bedroom, the TV in front of her, the infrared key board on her lap, now she can send and receive e-mail, forward junk mail and jokes to her heart's content, read our log and other articles, and happily declare: "This old dog can still learn some new tricks!" I'm proud of her beyond belief.

My mother also recently bought a world atlas so she can keep track of our wanderings. My parents were not frequent travelers. My father's only time overseas was during World War II in North Africa and Italy, not vacation-style. And while my mother has taken some big trips with friends, my folks never had the chance to travel before he died. This weekend, she told me something that stunned me: "You know, your father loved to sit and read his atlas in the evening, hour after hour."

"Really?" I said, incredulous. I have no conscious recollection of this, and it touched me to think about him doing so.

"Sure," she said. "Bud had his nose in that thing every night." As a boy I can remember treasuring the maps that came with National Geographic. My parents kindled my wanderlust in ways I hadn't known until this week.

Meanwhile, the weekend flew by as we visited other friends — Juana deBoyce and Stephen Zeitz — and Bernadette and my mother rummaged through the back of my mother's and aunt's cupboards for plastic platters and bowls for the boat. Some daughters-in-law covet the family's silver, but not Bernadette. She covets good picnic-ware, and we brought several pieces back in our knapsacks.

Our trip to Cleveland was emotional, satisfying, and too short. In booking our tickets I'd failed to apply a key lesson I'm learning about cruising, which is that it has less to do with boats than it does with taking advantage of time and place and connecting with people. On this trip to the Midwest, we didn't have enough time with people we love, which is, I suppose, always true on a grander scale as well. This is a point worth keeping in mind.