People wonder out loud, “Is sailing a serene experience?” Entirely! A couple from the Shenandoah Valley went to Richmond to visit old friends in May 2018. Then they included a trip to Williamsburg where we wound up sailing serenely on the York River.
Right off the bat, we saw dolphins as we exited Sara Creek into the channel and then the river. As they frolicked, we tried to take pictures but they remained elusive.
Tim Hulings said, “When I was growing up in Princess Anne County, it was a big deal to see the dolphins off Virginia Beach. Now they’re everywhere.” Indeed, 20 years ago we had to wait till late August to see the first pods way out at the river entrance. Now they show up as early as mid-May and swim right into the creek channel. Waters in the Chesapeake Bay warmed considerably in recent years, and the dolphin sightings reflect that.
“I haven’t been on a sailboat since I was a teenager,” Tim continued. “I went out with a friend’s father, who advised me sternly, ‘Whatever you do, do not bleed on my sail as blood will not come out.’ I had no intention of bleeding on his sail and couldn’t imagine what he was talking about.
Tim’s wife Nancy said, “The last time we were on the York River was at the Hornsby House, a wonderful B&B with those two charming brothers [Phil and David].” In the course of recounting the Battle of the Capes and the Siege of Yorktown, we managed to get within visibility of the Hornsby House, next to the Yorktown Monument. “Take a picture with that big sailboat in it, and I’ll tell my brother that’s what we were on. He’ll be so jealous since he loves to sail.”
Nancy ran the helm most of the time, dealing admirably with light winds and a running current. Their friend Bill Heisey took over eventually and did better but only because of rising winds. Regardless, they had a serene yet exciting afternoon.
Next day, a couple vacationing from Florida caught a cruise before heading back. Don Eckstein taught history for years, and he and his wife Donna were anxious to hear about the Battle of the Capes and Siege of Yorktown. At one point I explained how some of the British decks were painted red to disguise the flow of blood in battle.
“Napoleon had that idea as well,” Don said. “French soldiers wore red pants into battle, and they did so right up until World War I. They made good targets.”
Don started out teaching in the early 1970s where Florida and the rest of the South were slowly desegregating their schools. “My first job was teaching at all-black school where I was the only white teacher. When it came to parent-teacher conferences, 99 percent of those parents showed up. A lot has changed since,”
Don described this as first Donna and then he took the helm in seas of two feet and winds from the east of 12 mph. They did a fine job tacking back and forth. My challenge was to time the arrivals at key points along the tour. We were going so fast that we had to double back several times to catch the key sites.
“How big are these seas? Donna asked. Two feet, I said. “I’m going to tell my kids they were three to five feet!” she laughed as we sailed on.
Sailing the Spectrum
An experienced couple and a newcomer family enjoyed brisk west winds along with a sailing lesson and a history lesson. Al and Janet Johnson were on a short weekend from Richmond. He’s looking to buy a boat in the 35 range, perhaps a catamaran. I tried to disavow him of that by suggesting that he begin by renting boats out of Deltaville or Annapolis to see what he really wants. Janet was nodding in the affirmative behind him. We went through a sailing lesson to refresh his memory on the points of sail. With the wind blowing a steady 10 mph, we got to practice a lot of close reach action. As gusts arose, we opened up to a beam reach to show how quickly that can calm the boat. He was great on the helm.
By contrast, Paul Oleson reprised a cruise from 2015 with his wife and Air Force son and his wife.
“I used to sail in Lake Michigan, including across the lake,” Paul said. “At the top of the lake near Sheboygan we could make it across if we left at night and sailed all day the next day. Coming back wasn’t so easy sometimes. My dad warned me about that. These boats were 44 or 50 feet.” Paul was even more adroit on the helm. He handled a tricky set of gybes back into Sarah Creek without running to close to the red and green day marks.
Julia Canestrari lives in Williamsburg and took her parents and sibling sailing on a breezy afternoon. Her dad Bob grew up sailing.
“My father said he had a surprise gift for my birthday as a kid. It was a beat-up sailing dinghy. He said, ‘Here’s a blowtorch. Take that thing in the basement and remove the paint.’ Certainly it took six months, I’m sure. I never saw so many coats of paint. When I was done he said, ‘Now sand it so you can paint it.'”
Later in life he and his wife Sally sailed an Irwin 38 out of Hampton Yacht Club, where they are still members. In gusts of 12 or 15 mph, he instinctively pinched into the wind. It’s a trick move that allows only 2-3 degrees leeway before luffing. I explained what he was doing to the others. Bob was nonplussed. I asked when the last time was that he went sailing.
“Not sure, maybe 15 years ago.”
And Sally enjoyed being out on the open water. “We haven’t done this in years,” she exclaimed with her arms out. “Why not?” Bob quipped, “Because of that damned powerboat we had.” She retorted, “Don’t blame that on me.” They were referring to a big cabin cruiser that they took to the Florida Keys to live on for six months of the time. “Went to a boat show and bought it when I had no intention to.”
Bob recalled boating with her brother. “He could do anything with a motorboat, turn on a dime or stop short. But he couldn’t navigate worth a damn. He kept getting lost on the Miles River” in Maryland. At one point we passed the entrance to Wormley Creek. “I took Sally out from there and into the Bay on a 21-foot sailboat. We got back at 2 in the morning.”
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