Rob Chichester: A Famous Name And A Passion

By Charles Fort

One sailor's ancestor is famous for circumnavigating in a yacht; others found horror in a slave ship.

Rob Chichester is a sailor. With a name like Chichester, how could you be anything but? For those who don't know, Sir Frances Chichester was an Englishman who won the first single-handed trans-Atlantic yacht race in 1960, sailing the legendary Gipsy Moth III. Chichester also held the record for the fastest solo circumnavigation and was knighted for those feats by the Queen of England.

Rob Chichester (who claims Sir Frances as his 12th one-half cousin, three times removed) is a full-time software engineer in New Jersey whose other side of the family arrived in Annapolis Maryland on a slave ship around the time of the American Revolution.

For most of his life, Rob has had a passion for sailing, which fills his spare time and includes sailing his 41-footer on Chesapeake Bay, captaining charters in exotic places, and skippering a schooner. To many sailors, that's the trifecta of part-time sailing.

"Sometimes I think I came to my sailing life in reverse," he says. "What I mean is that I knew from the age of 15 that I was drawn to ships and boats. They embody man's efforts to coexist with the earth's natural resources. And perhaps more than anything else, they represent transportation and travel."

As a high school student in Washington, D.C., Rob recalls a National Park Service presentation on the U.S. lightship Chesapeake (now a museum on the Baltimore waterfront) and was soon taken on as crew. From then on, he was hooked and regularly crewed on the program's 45-foot ketch and its 45-foot harbor tug. He parlayed his time aboard the vessels into his U.S. Coast Guard captain's license, which opened up a world of possibilities.

You'd think someone with a full-time day job wouldn't get in much captaining, but it was in Rob's blood and he soon began setting up weeklong charters in the Caribbean, Croatia, and the canals of France, using vacation time from work. He also started to offer two- and three-day charters in Chesapeake Bay on his 41-foot Hunter, Bay Poet, out of Rock Hall, Maryland.

But perhaps Rob's biggest accomplishment is as relief captain on A.J. Meerwald, the state tall ship of New Jersey. Meerwald is a 118-foot restored oyster dredging schooner, built in 1928 and which now serves up onboard educational programs in the Delaware Bay near her home port of Bivalve, New Jersey, and at other ports in the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware region.

Rob skippers the boat when the other captains are on vacation, and recently started as crew on Meerwald for the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race, which has its history rooted in the trade rivalry between Baltimore, Maryland, at the northern end of the Bay, and Portsmouth/Norfolk, Virginia, at the southern end. The swiftest vessels to their destinations got the best prices for their cargo. Rob was encouraged to apply for the relief captain position on Meerwald by another record-holding circumnavigator, Bill Pinkney, who was the first African American to sail around the world single-handed in the early 1990s.

Pinkney convinced Rob that he was qualified and capable to serve as captain on nearly any of the East Coast schooners and now, Rob says, he and Pinkney are the only two African American schooner captains in the U.S., something he figures all of his ancestors would be proud of.

"My history can be traced back to my African forbearers who shivered in fever and fear in the hold, as well as my Europeans ancestors who arrived on deck and in command," he says. Whichever ancestors drive him, it's clear there is much more sailing in his future. Captains, like ships, he says, were not meant to stay in port. 

— Published: June/July 2018

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