Chesapeake Convocation -
nbsp;October 12, 2003
According to the Gregorian calendar, the new year begins in January, shortly after the winter solstice. Most North American kids, however, feel that the annual cycle really commences in September, right after Labour Day. For them, the return to school is a more significant marker of the passage of time than the sun's position over the Tropic of Capricorn. The cruiser's calendar is similar. We think of the cruising year as starting in the fall and extending through to the following summer. Like other migratory species, the seasons determine our movements; when the days grow shorter with the waning summer sun, we know it's time to head south for a new round of adventure.
Nothing fuels the desire to get underway more than watching the thermometer's plunging mercury. But there's a catch, a big one. It's still hurricane season down south. Unless you're foolhardy (and well-insured), you don't want to be messing around on your boat in the Bahamas, Mexico, and most of the Caribbean islands until at least the end of October. Even early November can be tricky, as participants in the Caribbean 1500 cruising rally learned a few years ago when they got walloped by the remnants of Hurricane Mitch en route from Norfolk to the Virgin Islands. (Mitch had already destroyed large portions of the northwestern Caribbean before turning northeast.) In September and October, cruisers with any sense of self-preservation congregate north of the main hurricane tracks, put on their fleece jackets and wool socks, and wait it out. For east coast boaters, the refuge of choice is Chesapeake Bay; on the west coast, it's San Diego. (But, as readers of our October 18th and 25th log entries will recall, you shouldn't take anything for granted - even the Chesapeake gets hit by the occasional hurricane.) This week and for the following two weeks we'll examine more closely who is heading south and how they're getting there.
As each group begins a new year, it's hard not to notice some parallels between southbound cruisers and school bound children. Novice cruisers, like young school kids, are full of excitement and nervous energy (perhaps betraying just a tinge of trepidation). They look smart in their brand new matching sets of foul weather gear. Their boats gleam. The more experienced cruisers tend to affect an air of casual indifference. They've travelled this route before; the novelty has worn off. Their clothing is as weathered as their faces, their boats dulled and scarred.
The pooling of cruisers in the Chesapeake each fall brings with it opportunities both to learn and to socialize, not unlike the return to school. The newer cruisers are keen to find out more about what's in store for them. They want to talk about boat systems and safe anchorages and reliable weather forecasts. The cruisers who have been at it for a few years are interested in meeting old friends and exchanging tales (usually embellished) about where they've been and what they've done. Not surprising, a number of scheduled events have come to be organized to take advantage of this pent up propensity to congregate. The purpose of some of these events is primarily to sell products and services. The cruiser who is still equipping (or re-equipping) his boat may score some great bargains; the challenge is being able to stop before the cruising kitty is sucked completely dry. Other gatherings have no commercial motive at all, but are held to share information and foster ties.
The US Sailboat show in Annapolis, held the second weekend in October, has all the makings of the ultimate assault on a cruiser's pocketbook. It's the world's oldest and largest in-water boat show, attracting 50,000 people each year. There are more than 200 exhibitor tents and over a mile of floating docks filled with all sorts of wonderful things that, unfortunately, cost money. This year, Eileen went shopping for new foul weather gear. The good news is that she found a set that fit well and was generously discounted. The bad news is that she still ended up spending about twice what she had budgeted. "I couldn't help it," she explained. "It was such a great deal."
"A few more deals like that and we'll have to mortgage the boat," David replied.
For the cash strapped or consumer weary cruiser, there's an alternate venue on sailboat show weekend. On nearby Back Creek, the Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA) has a tradition of organizing an all day gathering of cruisers on the Saturday of the show (see www.ssca.org). Rather than new boats and gear, it offers camaraderie and mutual support. Dee Carstarphen, one of the original members of the SSCA who now lives on the Bay, told us about the organization's origins in Coronado, California, in 1952. "We called ourselves a disorganization. We didn't want a long set of rules and regulations. Everybody got to be a Commodore because everybody had a say." Now with an international membership of ten thousand, that tradition of inclusiveness has not been lost. The main purpose of the SSCA's Annapolis gathering is to bring people together who are interested in cruising and would like to share their experiences. It's a great antidote to the manic materialism that pervades the rest of boat show weekend.
We spent all of yesterday at the SSCA gathering. Cruising icons Hal and Margaret Roth were there. Hal started the day by reading from his latest cruising book. His first book, "Two On A Big Ocean", was inspiration for David to go cruising twenty years ago. Throughout the day, we heard talks by knowledgeable experts on topics ranging from gelcoat repairs to cruising the Mediterranean. Eileen closed the event with a performance of her original cruising songs. By that time, organizer Nancy Zapf had declared that the beer was free since the last remaining keg had been opened and couldn't be returned. This fact raised the spirits of the audience considerably. Eileen has never had such an enthusiastic accompaniment to her version of "The Drunken Sailor".
But the event was much more than a series of seminars and presentations. Some of the most valuable moments occurred during breaks in the schedule and over dinner at the end of the day. During happy hour, we caught up with our friends Michael and Mary Beth on "Madeline" whom we first met last year in a Chesapeake boatyard. We ate dinner with Mark and Monique on "Spindrift". We last saw them this past spring in the Bahamas. But the biggest surprise was bumping into Harvey and Gerbrig on "Soulstice". We met Harvey & Gerbrig nine years ago in Annapolis during the sailboat show. It was the first time heading south for them as well as for us. Over the years, our paths have crossed and re-crossed, the last time when we explored the south coast of Cuba together. We were sad when we read an e-mail message from them last year explaining that they were back in Canada and "Soulstice" was up for sale.
"What are you doing here?" David exclaimed after giving both of them a big hug.
Harvey shrugged. "We couldn't sell the boat, so we decided we'd better come back down here to be with our friends."
Over the course of the day we met a lot of cruisers who were just like ourselves and Harvey and Gerbrig nine years ago; heading south for the first time, full of questions, bubbling over with anticipation. They were a willing audience for those well worn cruising anecdotes of David's that cause Eileen's eyes to glaze over.
As we packed away the sound equipment at the end of the evening, we decided that the class of 2003/04 had great promise. We look forward to seeing them at next year's convocation.