The day we left Portsmouth, an early morning fog in the Elizabeth River had started to lift but the forecast was for patchy fog off and on all day. Other boats who had pulled out before us were reporting that once you got out into the bay, the fog was gone. Having been at dock for three days waiting out 30 knot winds, we were anxious to be moving, so we slipped our lines, turned on our radar and headed downstream towards Hampton Roads, the crossroads between the Elizabeth River and the James River. This is one of the biggest natural harbours in the world and busy (think hwy 400 meets the 401). After about 10 minutes, the fog closed in again and we were hugging the edge of the channel moving from buoy to buoy, hoping to stay well out of the way of any tugs or tankers heading our way. I had the AIS on so we could see what big traffic was moving and we were satisfied that it consisted of only very slow-moving tugs.
At one point though, the fog lifted slightly and we glimpsed an Aegis class missile cruiser through the fog on our starboard side. As we ghosted past the ship, an armed soldier walked down to the edge of the pier to keep an eye on us. A minute later, thinking the fog was too heavy, we turned around and slowly passed the cruiser again. This time, the soldier on the dock was joined by four more on the stern of the ship itself. They stood there and silently watched us drift by, their rifles at ready. We were looking at them nervously, they were looking at us and we were all probably thinking of the USS Cole in Yemen. We were likely too close for comfort even though we were in the channel, albeit at the very edge.
It was too coincidental that right at this point, the US Coast Guard came on the VHF radio and announced that there is a 500 yard naval protection zone around all the warships in this area and all vessels must keep their distance: “We will use all available resources to keep you at a distance; arrest, prosecution or defensive measures including the use of deadly force”. Looking at the soldiers with their rifles at the ready, and thinking the message was directed at us, Blair got on the VHF to say we were a Canadian sailboat in the vicinity of a US warship just trying to find our way through the fog. No answer. We laughed later when the announcement was repeated, realizing that it was a general warning about “Warship 87″ (the destroyer USS Mason) which was going to be underway and outbound through Hampton Roads shortly. These announcements were repeated frequently because there were quite a few warships heading out for exercises that day. It surely was not a good feeling to be challenged like that though. We got as far as green buoy #25 when the fog closed in completely. It was just too dense to continue so we throttled back and hovered at the buoy for about an hour along with the research vessel Fay Slover. Suddenly, with a slight breeze, the fog lifted and we could see all the tugs, tankers and every other boat who’d been hovering in place near buoys. It seemed everyone had the same idea – stop beside a known marker and don’t move until the fog lifts (another one of those Nobody Move, Nobody Gets Hurt moments). Happily, at that point, we were all able to head out into the bay and enjoy a beautiful, hot sunny day on the Chesapeake.
Now that we’re back into the Chesapeake, the crab pots litter the surface most everywhere we sail. Unlike Maine though, the crab pots are set out in orderly long lines so it’s relatively easy to pick a safe path between them. We haven’t eaten any blue crabs as yet and all our inquiries as to where to buy fresh seafood meets with the disappointing response that we should go to such-and-such a restaurant. This is quite a change for us because on our way down the eastern shore of the bay last fall, the restaurants were scarce and the seafood stores abundant.
We spent our 32nd wedding anniversary up the Dymer River in Rones Bay behind Grog Island. The guidebook description of this island was intriguing; it used to be quite a bit bigger but the winter storms are washing huge sections of it away every year. Pretty soon, it will only be a sand shoal to surprise unwary boaters. The night was dead calm and we were the only boat for miles around as we enjoyed a beautiful sunset and toasted each other. We were both feeling pretty content. After 32 years, the last one in pretty close quarters, we both agreed that together was the best way to have spent it. After all this time, we have two amazing children, enough trust and respect for each other to have sailed 5000 miles south and back in big waters, and best of all, we still laugh at each other’s jokes. What more can you hope for?
The next day we headed north in a flat calm with a slight chill in the air. It’s hard not to compare the different areas that we’ve sailed through but we both agree that as much as we enjoyed the Bahamas with its warm turquoise waters and beautiful beaches, there is definitely something invigorating about sailing up here. We get up early each morning, crisp mornings that mellow into warm days. As we head further north, the landscape changes, the seabirds are plentiful and the trees are fuzzy with buds, coloured that beautiful shade of tender spring green. On calm days like this, the Chesapeake is like a big bathtub; drop a coin on one side and you feel the wake on the other side. As we motored along on the flat waters, periodically we’d get caught up in a side to side rolling but when we’d look around we could see no sign of anyone out there – this wake had come from some distant motorboat long out of Strathspey‘s sight.
Next stop was Solomons Island right at the mouth of the Patuxent River. We stopped in here for a few days last fall to explore and most importantly to get Strathspey hauled out and her anodes changed. This time, although we stayed at the same marina, Spring Cove, we had easier things on our mind, not the least of which was dinner with Faith and Chip Ross who we’d met down in Fernandina Beach last month. They have a beautiful century old home that they’ve lovingly and artistically restored; our favourite room was their kitchen/dining room that boasts a wall-sized collection of cookbooks. One of Chip’s hobbies is cooking and he didn’t disappoint us that night, serving up wonderful dishes with a Greek theme; feta and tomato/cucumber salads, Moussaka, Pastitsio, fruit and excellent European cheeses (read stinky here). Faith and Chip were “friends of friends” and we’re glad we looked them up when we landed in Solomons; they were interesting people and wonderful hosts who made our stopover in Solomons Island memorable.
That’s been one of the bonuses of this trip; all the new friends we’ve made over this past year. Some are sailors, some operate those gas-guzzlers (trawlers and motor yachts) and some are just as happy staying on land. I have to say that in most cases, these aren’t cheese and crackers type friends that you meet over drinks. They’re people that we played alongside, explored with, shared meals with and stretched our limits with. Always a chord was struck when we met them; sometimes in response to a joke or funny story or the way they matched our conversation, trading ideas and opinions, or sometimes they just reached out and made us feel at home through the goodness of their heart. They’re the kind of people that keep sending us emails updating us on their location and what they’ve been up to. The kind of people you promise yourself you won’t lose touch with. All of them without exception had a great sense of humour and sharp wit; high praise in our books.
On Saturday, we sailed north up the bay towards Annapolis. That day, it seemed that every fisherman in Maryland that owned a boat was trolling the bay. It was a hot, 80°F day and everyone was out taking advantage of the beautiful weather. These fishing boats took more than their fair share of personal space though and we had to keep a close eye out to dodge their fishing lines spread in a two hundred foot arc behind their boat. As well, the waters were busy with tugs pulling huge barges loaded with cargo. Just so we’d know what was coming our way, we set our VHF radio to a dual watch position to monitor channel 16 as well as channel 13 which is used by the tugboats. Eavesdropping, we heard two tugboat captains commiserating on how hard the trip had been that day because of all the fishing boats in their way. At one point in the conversation, one of the captains said, “Standby, I have to blow the danger signal just now”. More than once on our trip up the bay that day, we heard the tugs blast their horn to warn a drowsy fisherman to scoot out of their way. At lunchtime, Strathspey had to move out of the path of a cruise ship headed to Baltimore and taking up more than her fair share of the road. Her captain gave us one blast of his horn to say he was turning to starboard at the red buoy we were just abeam of; a blast that was so loud it made us bolt our food and just about knocked us off our feet. We’re pretty conversant with what each type of horn means but at such close range, to us all it meant was “I’m the boss and listen up!”
Turning left into Annapolis, it was a giddy feeling to sail into the “sailing capital of North America”. As we cruised into this harbour, there were at least five separate sailing races going on; Beneteau First One Designs, J22s, J80s, Lasers and Optimists. There were easily 400 boats tacking back and forth with many on a long downwind sail flying their colourful spinnakers. Amidst all this activity, we found our way into the main harbour and snagged a mooring ball, smack dab in the middle of the harbour, just off the main dock where so many times before we’d strolled during the Annapolis boatshow in October. The sun was shining and the pier was full of tourists, babies in carriages, kids on skateboards, people sitting in cafes under umbrellas sipping wine and beer. We had arrived and the weird thing was that because we were in the middle of all this, we felt no great urge to get ashore. After all, being on a boat in Annapolis harbour was what all those people ashore were yearning for. We broke out the libations and relaxed and enjoyed the scenery.
One thing I usually do when we get into any new town is fire up the internet and do a search on what’s happening ashore music-wise. We were beyond happy to discover that Nick Lowe, that icon of new wave music in the 70′s, was playing at the Rams Head Tavern here in Annapolis that very night. Blair called for tickets and they were sold out but were able to give him another number to call, “this guy might have some he wants to sell”. Oh, oh, that usually means inflated scalped prices but in this case, Bruce was happy to sell us his extra tickets for the same price as he paid; he had 8 tickets and was trying to sell 4 of them.
The nice thing about staying in Annapolis harbour is that the water taxi will pick you up at your mooring ball and deposit you just about anywhere for $2/person. But we just weren’t sure if the water taxi would be running late that night when Nick Lowe finished, so Blair pumped up our dinghy which had been rolled up and stored in it’s bag on our coach roof since we left Lake Worth three weeks ago. We’d not needed it because we were either at dock, anchored out in remote areas or depending on the kindness of strangers who were happy to either dinghy to Strathspey to visit or to pick us up and bring us to their boat. Either way, the dinghy got inflated and there were no complaints as we knew this would be a good show. Usually the warm-up act for these shows are local musicians with a goodly amount of talent but we couldn’t believe it when Ron Sexsmith, of Canadian fame, strolled out onto the stage. He was an added bonus and the highlight of the evening was a duet with Ron and Nick when the audience clapped non-stop for Nick’s encore. Excellent music and great venue for sure.
Sunday, all the long days finally caught up with us and we slept til 9 am, a first for us. When we poked our heads out of the cockpit, we could see we were the only boat left in the mooring field; it was the end of the weekend and a grey and cool day to boot so we think that’s why everyone boogied on out. No matter, we spent the day wandering around Annapolis which is an architects dream destination – all these beautiful old houses and churches. We took ourselves down to the Naval Academy to tour the grounds but alas our driver’s licenses were not enough of a photo ID to get us onto the grounds, being non-Americans. It seems foreigners must present passports so we went back on Monday morning and wandered around this huge area completely enclosed by an eight-foot concrete wall; a little city unto itself.
John Paul Jones, America’s first and most famous naval hero, is buried here at the US Naval Academy in the Naval Academy Chapel. His life story spans more than one continent; he was born in Scotland but was commissioned into the US Continental Navy, at one time he served Catherine the Great of Russia and was buried for about a hundred years in Paris. The French connection is stretched even further now that he is buried beneath the Chapel in a marble sarcophagus that was modeled after Napoleon’s own tomb. The walls of the visitor center pay tribute to all the astronauts that were graduates of the Naval Academy with the centerpiece being Freedom 7, the Mercury space capsule that the first American in space, Alan Shepard, squeezed himself into.
The campus was busy with cadets walking to and from classes in black or khaki uniforms but while wandering around the town of Annapolis, both now and during boatshow season, we’d seen all the cadets in blindingly white uniforms. According to two young female cadets we talked with, anytime you leave the campus, you must be in your formal white uniform. We’ve enjoyed being here in Annapolis, discovering the naval history, being in the center of sailing races and scooping tickets to Nick Lowe. The weather turned soggy and gray with winds on the nose the day after we arrived so we’ve stayed longer than we expected. Tomorrow we push on.