Monday, October 29, 2007

The Ever Expanding Obsession

As readers of this blog know by now, as do all my friends and relatives, there is nothing I like better than sailing wooden boats on the Chesapeake Bay. Yes, I even like it better than poetry, but don't ask me to choose between them! They can be accomplished simultaneously, one lived through the other.

Over the period of October 17 - 22 I once again crewed aboard the Martha Lewis, this time for a trip down the bay to the Crisfield Watermen's Festival. Crisfield is about as far south as you can go on the water and still be in Maryland. I also learned many new an interesting things, including how each and every one of us has a built in map of the Chesapeake Bay. To use it, raise your arm up straight, but put a slight crook in your elbow. The fingers tips are the head of the Bay with Havre de Grace. The elbow is an Annapolis. The armpit is Crisfield. Extending the anatomical metaphor, Norfolk is your rear end. Or to put it this way: If you were going to give the Chesapeake Bay an enema, Norfolk is where you would insert the nozzle. I'll spare you the rest of the watermen's humor I encountered.

Everywhere we go, we meet watermen who tell us about the time they served with Martha or some other skipjack. I have noticed a common thread. Speaking as they do in the common language, intent only on talking about things that matter to them, watermen are developing a peculiar figure of speech. More than once I have heard an older waterman describe himself as working on the Bay "back when winters were cold." Global warming may be a subject of debate to people who lived in climate controlled boxes in cities, but for the people who live and work the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, it is a manifest fact.

When I tell young people that a hundred years ago the Upper Bay used to freeze over and that ice cut from it was Maryland's second largest export, they are astonished. Their grandparents then chime in to tell about how when they were young and the Bay would freeze over, they would walk across the ice from one side to the other. More astonishment. When I ask them when that was, they say the 1950s. Indeed, as late as the 1950s, skipjacks were sometimes caught in the ice and had to be rescued by the Coast Guard. Wooden boats are no defense against the slow grinding crush of winter.

But while Crisfield was interesting for many reasons, that which most attracted my attention (aside from a few brief but exciting moments when my glove was pinned against the samson post and the skipjack was swinging out of control at Tilghmans Island), was the three log sailing canoe, Ruby. She belongs to Randy George who lives on Galen's Creek, or as it used to be known and still is known to oldtimers, Red Cap Creek. He kindly invited us to go out on it with him, and three of us accepted.

the magic trick
of dawn:
a slim white sailboat
from the mist

Arriving at night, the creek and sailboat were invisible. But as dawn rose, the slim white lines of the sailboat emerged from the mist. What a beautiful sight to behold! About thirty feet long, including her Roman-nosed bowsprit, and about six feet wide, she sported a single mast with a skipjack rig. She was built in 1895 and is an example of the working type of log sailing canoe. She had been used for oystering.

The log sailing canoe was evolved by the colonists from the Native American dugout canoe. In the case of the Ruby, three logs were affixed side by side and hollowed out with axe and adze to make the hull. Then her sides and coamings affixed and the whole lot rigged as it pleases. The result is an extremely shallow, narrow, and quick sailboat, so much so that they survive today in the sport of log canoe racing, which is unique to the Chesapeake Bay. The modern log canoe with its trapezoidal sails and hiking boards is a strange and unmistakeable sight. There aren't many of them left, and even fewer that are still rigged as workboats. The oldest canoes in the racing fleet are over a hundred years old.

The Ruby then was a sweet little boat and when I saw it I think I must have felt much as Mole felt when he first saw the Water Rat's little boat, and for much the same reason. As Kenneth Graham said in The Wind in the Willows , "There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

my hand on the tiller
like Water Rat and Mole
with no particular place to go
and no particular desire
to get there any time soon

Randy very kindly let us each have a turned at the tiller, so we sailed down Red Cap Creek to the Big Annemessex River. The marshes were all brown and sere, quite, and with few insects about. The waters were placid and a light breeze blew. The curves of the waters wended through the stands of tall marsh grass, and the higher ground ('high' is a relative term) with its trees and houses fell away. The sky overhead was the purest blue, fading into silver at the horizons.

How my heart went out to it! A skipjack is and always will be beyond my means, but wouldn't it be possible to some day perhaps have myself a log sailing canoe? It's not so very large, and the skills -- knocking out the rotten wood and replacing the Bondo and other makeshift repairs with something more solid -- requires no great skill. Mast hoops made of rope and a sail that I could probably stitch myself . . . why not?

Ah. The real difficulty is not with the boat but the shore. Where to keep it? It won't fit in the living room. Where to store it where it could live safely while I puttered with it for as long as it took my meager funds to slowly patch it back together and return it to the water? I'd live in a shack if it had a bit of creek for a boat. I have, at times in my life, been gifted with chocolate, plane tickets, medication, and old clothes, but never with a waterfront home.

Alas. Such is not be. I've got a job working at Walmart, running my legs off so that people who make as little as I do can have their DVDs and gaming consoles. How they spend, spend, spend on HDTV, the latest pop album, and gadgets for their gadgets. It feels a little strange to be selling people things I have no use for, and if they had any sense, they wouldn't have any use for them either. Once upon a time, little boys messed about in old wooden rowboats and explored the riverbanks and marshes. Nowadays their parents keep them away from those dangerous places and give them better entertainment, like 'Grand Theft Auto' and 'Hitman.'


No comments:

Post a Comment