June 1, 2006
Joining the cruising community is a little like signing up with the Foreign Legion: your personal identity is not an issue and you're accepted regardless of your background. Indeed, we know the surnames of very few of our cruising friends; most people introduce themselves according to their first names and the name of their boat (we're known as "the Giddings"). What you did in your former life is rarely relevant to the discussion at hand unless you happened to be a diesel mechanic and the person with whom you're chatting just blew his head gasket. And, like the Foreign Legion, many of those who are self-recruited to the cruising life are there to forget. Forget the hectic pace of the workaday world, forget the pressures to conform, forget the plunging winter temperatures.
Forgetfulness is a celebrated feature of the cruising community. Many sea gypsies claim to be afflicted by what they call "cruiseheimers", caused perhaps by a combination of too much tropical sun and too much cheap rum. ("What day is it today? Saturday already? Gosh, what happened to all those plans I had for the week ... oh well, there's always next week ...")
But cruising is also about remembering. The island landfall silhouetted on the horizon, the local people who welcome you, the friends you make among boaters in a new harbour. And the marvelous thing about the human brain (even if it's rum-sodden) is its ability to remember the good things and to forget the nasty stuff. We'll recall in vivid detail a brilliant rainbow arcing across the sky, but conveniently forget the miserable downpour that immediately preceded it. In fact, if it wasn't for the selective nature of our memories, we probably wouldn't still be cruising. We've been told that cruising is sort of like parenting in this respect; if all that parents remembered were the downsides of childbirth and baby rearing, they'd stop having kids (which would be most unfortunate for non-firstborns such as ourselves). By the same token, if all that cruisers remembered were the stormy days at sea they'd never leave port.
And so it is that we now find ourselves a thousand-odd nautical miles north of our winter cruising grounds, wondering how we got here. It seems only a few days ago that we bolted out of the Bahamas; events since then are a bit of a blur. Working backwards, today is the official onset of the Atlantic and Caribbean basin hurricane season. We haven't got the best track record when it comes to hurricanes. Last summer and the summer before we opted to leave the boat on the hard in Florida, where Little Gidding experienced three direct hits by hurricanes: Frances, Jeanne, and Wilma. Three years ago, we sailed Little Gidding up to the Chesapeake for the summer and were on board when hurricane Isabel passed overhead. Although we and the boat survived all of these storms with nary a scratch, there comes a time when you wonder how long your luck's going to hold out. This year we decided to sail all the way back to Ontario, our home province, for the summer. The last (and to our knowledge, the only) hurricane to hit Ontario was Hazel in October 1954. That was almost 52 years ago. Eileen wasn't even born then so she can be forgiven if she doesn't remember the event. She does remember very clearly, however, driving through the wreckage left by Wilma last year, two days after its landfall. We don't want to repeat that experience.
With some serious tracks to make, we didn't dally much on our way north. Our most significant detour was a brief stop in Vero Beach, FL, to check in with David's stepmom Meg. After visiting for four days, an offshore weather window opened up, we told Meg we'd see her in the fall, and we headed out the Cape Canaveral canal to the open sea. It wasn't a perfect passage. The good part was that we had plenty of wind behind us -- 25 knots-plus most of the time. That combined with the Gulf Stream current had us cooking along at a good eight-to-ten knots. The bad part was that we had seven-to-nine foot following seas trying to join us in the cockpit. It was a bit too rolly for Eileen's stomach. The low point occurred when she was down below embracing the porcelain throne; the boat suddenly lurched and the toilet seat hit her on the head. After that, the wind swung around more to the west, the waves assumed a more comfortable direction, and by the time we reached Beaufort, NC, Eileen was back in the galley baking muffins. Another forgettable passage.
Beaufort was pretty much as we remembered it -- which is good, because it's one of our favourite ports. The wild ponies were grazing along the Taylor Creek shoreline a stone's throw from where we anchored, the world's tackiest speedboat was at its dock next to the public dinghy landing, and the regulars were holding court in the Back Street pub. Some things never change.
Three days of motoring up the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and we were in Norfolk, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay; another three days and we arrived in Annapolis, another of our favourite ports. We anchored in our usual spot near the head of Back Creek. Unlike the times when we've visited in the fall during the annual boat show and have had to shoehorn ourselves into a parking spot, we had the place all to ourselves. We couldn't leave Annapolis without remembering some of our friends who live in the area. In a flurry of socializing, we saw no fewer than five groups of friends, promising all that we would spend more time with them on our southward migration in October.
We'd like to say we enjoyed a memorable cruise down Delaware Bay after leaving the Chesapeake via the C & D canal, but to be perfectly honest, the trip is mostly a blank in our minds. We caught an ebbing tide and the featureless coastline quickly slipped past us until Cape May appeared off our bow. In all our voyages up and down the Delaware, the only landmark that stands out is the Salem nuclear power plant. We're sure there's more to Delaware. Maybe we'll get to see it the next time.
We left Cape May in midmorning for the hundred-odd mile trip up the New Jersey coast to New York harbour. At 0100 hours early the following morning, the wind died and we drifted into a fog bank. For the next six hours we crawled along under power, listening intently to the VHF radio as various commercial vessels announced their positions to those of us without radar. The fog began dissipating just as we reached the seaward buoy marking the Sandy Hook channel into New York's Lower Bay. Although relieved that we hadn't been schmucked by an oceangoing barge, neither of us was in a celebratory mood. Maybe it was the sombre sky and the dirge of distant fog signals, or maybe it was the memories crowding in from our first visit to New York, but we both felt a sense of melancholy welling up around us.
We sailed down the Hudson River into New York harbour on a crystal clear September day in 1994. We had left our home port of Toronto only a couple of weeks earlier and we were fairly bursting with enthusiasm. So many adventures lay ahead of us; the world was full of promise. Off our port side were the legendary towers of lower Manhattan. Ahead to starboard was the Statue of Liberty. We remember Eileen hamming it up as we sailed past Liberty, lifting a mug of tea to acknowledge the good lady's upheld torch. Now, retracing our route, we passed terse signs warning us to keep our distance from Liberty Island. On the opposite shore, two holes were punched in the Manhattan skyline. A dozen years later, the world seemed a less certain place.
We didn't linger. Off The Battery we caught the change of tide and were swept up the Hudson -- past the crowded commercial docks, under the George Washington bridge, past sprawling Yonkers -- until the dense development on either bank began to give way to a more pastoral pastiche. After the bumper boat activity of New York harbour, the Hudson seemed strangely empty. We rounded a bend and spied a two-masted wooden schooner under full sail coming our way. What century were we in? The crackling VHF radio brought us abruptly back into the current millenium. Someone was calling Little Gidding.
In the distance we could see a sailboat overloaded with gear -- obviously another cruiser. It was Persephone with Jerry and Karen on board. We had seen Persephone this past winter in George Town and had crossed paths with Jerry and Karen elsewhere in the Bahamas and Caribbean in previous years. Like her mythical namesake, Persephone transits the seasons twice a year. Jerry told us over the radio that their home base is in upper state New York and that they cruise every winter in the tropics; this was their 22nd trip along the Hudson.
We admitted this was only the second time Little Gidding had plied the Hudson. "I guess you don't need to steer your boat," David said. "It must know the way by now." Jerry laughed and gave us all sorts of tips on places to visit in the miles ahead.
David hung up the radio mic and we were silent for a few minutes. David looked at the steep wooded banks on either side of the river, punctuated by the occasional palatial home. "You know, I can hardly remember any of this. We must have been in such a rush on that first sail down the river that nothing really registered."
"Don't worry," Eileen said. "I'm sure it will all become very familiar after another twenty trips."