The Bahamas in Baltimore -
September 11, 2003
We spent the last three days surrounded by a bunch of people in sandals and T shirts, swapping stories and sharing food and drink. We complained about the new cruising fees in the Bahamas, debated the merits of boxed wine, and discussed weather in excruciating detail. For the company and the talk, we could have been in the Bahamas. But we weren't; we were in Baltimore. The event that drew some 236 boats to this unlikely cruising destination was the third annual Southbound Cruisers' Reunion. The means of organization was as surprising as the choice of venue: the entire event was put together by volunteers (most of whom do not live in Baltimore) and publicized largely through word-of-mouth. And it was absolutely free.
The idea of a cruisers' reunion originated with Ron and Karen Sobon on "Sea Dancer", a Morgan 45 sailboat. As Karen explained to us, "We were in George Town in the Bahamas in the spring of 2001 and didn't want to lose touch with all of our new-found cruising friends. As the boats began to disperse for the summer we put out a call for anyone interested in attending a rendezvous somewhere in the Chesapeake area. The response was amazing. By the time we got back to the States, we were getting e-mails from all over asking where the rendezvous was going to be held. We had spent the previous summer in the Anchorage marina in Baltimore and liked both the facility and the city. We approached the management and they agreed to provide free meeting space as well as a discounted rate for any cruisers who wanted dockage. We picked September because that's when a lot of boats begin to stage for the trip south."
With the location and time decided, the word spread rapidly among the cruising ranks. Volunteers weren't hard to come by. Bob and Donna Peters on "Island Way" (coincidentally, another Morgan 45) were among the first to come forward and took on a key organizing role. Then came a response from Sara and Monty Lewis, creators of the very popular Explorer Chart kits of the Bahamas. They volunteered to give a free talk on cruising in the Bahamas. Other experts followed. Soon a simple get-together had mushroomed into a three-day event with a schedule of seminars and presentations to rival any of the professionally organized commercial boat shows.
The date chosen for the first reunion won't be soon forgotten: September 11, 2001. Despite the tragic events of that day, the reunion went ahead. Karen recalled, "All of the harbour north of the marina was closed, but we still had 90 boats attending." It was enough to convince the organizers to start planning another reunion for the following year.
We found out about the 2002 reunion when we were passing through Vero Beach, Florida, in late spring of that year and saw a notice on the bulletin board in the municipal marina. Eileen sent "Sea Dancer" an e-mail volunteering to perform for the group and three months later we visited Baltimore for our first time (see our September 12, 2002 entry, "Road Tour"). Word-of-mouth communications clearly work within the cruising community; a total of 204 other boats also found their way to Baltimore last September.
Even more boats showed up this year; we had a lot of neighbours in the anchorage and all of the transient slips in the marina were filled. Actually, "reunion" is a bit of a misnomer for the gathering we just finished attending. While we saw a number of familiar faces - people we had met at last year's event as well as at other cruising encounters - probably half of those in attendance were newcomers. Many were on their first southward migration. For them, the get-together was an early introduction to the cruising community, an opportunity to meet other cruisers and to experience firsthand the spirit of camaraderie that pervades the liveaboard world. There was plenty of time to ask questions and gather tips during the social portions of the agenda: morning coffee hour; lunch break; happy hour; and that pinnacle of cruising culture, the potluck dinner, held last night.
Outside of the informal socializing, the organizers had put together a formidable list of seminars led by experts in the field. Both cruising novices and salt-encrusted old-timers benefited from the material that was presented. Several writers and cruising guide authors gave talks: Rosa and Bruce Van Sant, author of "Passages South" (the southbound cruiser's bible); Sara & Monty Lewis, "Explorer Charts"; Gary Reich, "Waterway Guides"; Skipper Bob, intracoastal, inland, and Bahamas guides; and Tom Neale, "Cruising Coast and Islands". Weather was thoroughly discussed by Chris Parker, author of "Bahamas Weather, the Essential Handbook", and by National Weather Service experts Tim Rulon and Lee Chesneau. Other topics covered included offshore safety equipment, yacht insurance, diesel fuel additives, galvanic corrosion, and proper radio grounding.
Karen explained the choice of speakers, "The Sunday after each reunion the volunteers meet to plan the following year's event. Among other things, we decide on the topics we want to cover based on the feedback we've just received. Last year, we put an emphasis on medical matters; this year, we stressed weather." Bob added, "Around January and February, when I'm in Florida, I contact prospective speakers and plug them into the schedule. We're at the point now where we have more volunteer presenters than available time slots."
Pulling off an event of this magnitude requires a lot of work. Bob shared with us the organizational chart he uses to put it altogether. We were impressed. This guy should be working for NASA to plan their next planetary probe. Key to the whole exercise is a committed cadre of volunteers. The forty-odd workers are divided into six teams headed by "area managers". Every detail from renting chairs to ordering donuts to greeting guest speakers is determined in advance. The most amazing aspect of the end result is that it costs nothing to attend. In addition to the "free" labour donated by the volunteers, several companies contribute goods or services at no charge, and the organizers advance any necessary funds out of their own pockets. Karen, Ron, Bob, and Donna take a leap of faith and count on the sale of items such as snacks, T shirts, and raffle tickets to recoup their expenses. So far, the attending cruisers haven't disappointed them.
The Southbound Cruisers' Reunion epitomizes what we like most about the cruising community: committed individuals who go the extra distance to welcome others to their ranks and to share their experience and knowledge. We hope to see you in Baltimore next year; circle the second week of September on your calendar.