The great outdoors awaits on the water

USNS Zeus transits the great outoorsPeople ask, “Can you sail full-time?” Sailing the Great Outdoors is a way of life for a select few who cruise off the coast and sometimes around the world. Some days are busier than others with big ships coming and going. Winds can become at once fluky and gusty on the York River. We observed a dangerous situation that got resolved by a puff of wind.

Helen and Jim Curtis of Finksburg MD went out one brilliant sunny morning in the spring. Off in the distance we saw a big Navy ship heading from Chesapeake Bay into the York. As it drew closer, I could tell it was the USNS Zeus, a cable-laying behemoth that spent the last six months out in the Atlantic, Sailing the Great Outdoors

Women like to sail the Great OutdoorsMeanwhile, my dockside friend Chuck Shaffner was sailing his classic 1926 Herreshoff out of our marina into a light breeze. As the wind picked up he started to soar and eventually crossed upriver under the Coleman Bridge. The Zeus was bound toward  Cheatham Annex, a few miles upriver. Chuck was unaware he was in the path. Let’s Go Sail lay roughly between the two. He was Sailing the Great Outdoors in significant peril.

Chuck nearly got crushed outdoorsThe Zeus turned at a bend of the channel and headed toward the bridge. I radioed my position and reported that I was proceeding north to get out of his way. Suddenly the wind died, so I had to fire up the engine to make my retreat. I turned and saw that Chuck’s wind had died as well, leaving him stalled out under the bridge and in the shipping channel, directly in the way of the Zeus.

Sailing the Great OutdoorsI radioed Chuck but he did not respond. So I notified the ship, “Zeus, this is Deadline proceeding north. The other sailboat off your bow has no radio or engine and has stalled out. Be aware. This is not intentional. Repeat, NOT intentional.”

The Zeus captain calmly took that in stride and proceeded to hail Chuck on his radio, to no avail. They closed to nearly 200 yards when a faint gust of breeze caught the Herreshoff and blew it out of the way, thanks to oversized sails and light weight. Before long Chuck was sailing toward us, safely Sailing the Great Outdoors.

The Zeus passed a river cruiser docked at Yorktown and chugged through the bridge. The radio operator thanked the Coleman Bridge operator as he started swinging the span back to normal. I advised the Zeus of a new challenge. It faced a tight fit a few miles upriver at Cheatham Annex because the USNS Cornhusker State was already berthed there. Zeus is 573 feet long and Cornhusker State is 668 feet. You can see by the photo below that Zeus did well to tuck into the pier — without the aid of any tugboats. 

Cruise ship leaving YorktownWhen Chuck sailed past us, he shouted cheerfully, “I heard a noise and looked up to see the bridge starting to open. I thought, ‘Gee, I didn’t ask for the bridge to open.’”

A half hour later we heard a new report on marine radio from an American Cruise ship. “Constitution here. We are preparing to make way off of Riverwalk Landing dock and out the York River. Mariners should be aware.” We were sailing gently a few hundred yards away, almost stalled like Chuck earlier. I radioed back our intentions and asked if we should evade. “No, Captain. You’re fine. We’ll go below you” (meaning behind).

Back at the marina, Chuck executed his flawless docking into the slip under limited sail with no motor. I asked him if he was going to tell his wife what happened at the bridge. He thought a moment and chuckled quietly, “No.”

Two Navy ships snug at Cheatham pier

More River Adventure

They spent eight days raftingHelen and Jim Curtis were no strangers to river adventure. “We spent eight days on a Colorado River rafting trip,” he said. “Our boat had 10  high school kids and a parent along with them. We sat in the front with our legs over the bow and our hands behind us holding onto the lines. That way, we could be the first to jump off in the afternoon to find a good place to put our sleeping bags for the night. But the kids beat us to it anyway.”

I asked about the dangers. Helen said, “We went through three sets of Class 5 rapids. All we lost was a rudder, and they had a replacement with them. They were very professional guides.”

Jim added, “The trip is 258 miles. They proudly told us that the oldest person they ever had was 70 years old. I was 77 at the time but thought it wise not to mention that.” Today he is 87 and spry as can be. 

Sailing the Great Outdoors in RVs

In the afternoon, two couples in RV sales took a break from their work at a Gloucester County campground to enjoy the waters of the York River.

Thinking of buying a catamaranJim Reneau loved it. “I’m thinking of buying a big catamaran. I had a stroke that left me with some stability issues, and the cat is much flatter than a conventional sailboat. But don’t get me wrong, this is wonderful. Our home is in Atlanta, but we’ve been on the road for so long that I haven’t spent three weeks there in five years. Need to sell it and get a boat.”

While Jim roamed the boat and took his wife Brandy up to the bow, their friends Lori and Kenny McGann were content to sit in the cockpit with wine and cheese. “We’re celebrating our 40th anniversary,” Lori said proudly. She hardly looked old enough. “I got married when I was 14 and he was 17. Fortunately, we were mature teenagers. Our children arrived quickly and now we have three beautiful grandchildren. I credit our Christian faith for much of our success. Plus I come from a family with long marriages, so I knew what to expect.”

They work for a campground timeshareKenny and the others work for a campground timeshare that has hundreds of resorts down the East Coast, across the Gulf and along the West Coast. Some people with RVs travel all year long, like the proverbial widow who sails on cruise ships in perpetuity.

“I’ll tell you one thing that RVs and boats have in common,” Kenny said with conviction. “You find yourself repairing them all the time. And I mean all the time. But that’s okay because you have a passion for them and realize the premise.” Boy, did he get that right.

He used to sail with the Sea ScoutsWhile the two couples enjoyed the ride, Michael Davidsaver ran the helm. He and his wife Stacy were visiting from Wisconsin. “I used to sail with Sea Scouts on various lakes in Wisconsin. One time we got to go to Dallas and sail against Buddy Melges,” the famous boat designer and speedster. “He had four A boats in the race, 40-footers.” That was years ago, but running this boat for Michael was like riding a bicycle.

At one point Michael reluctantly took a phone call, and Kenny jokingly responded for him, “I’m on a sailboat right now, and this is not a conversation I want to interrupt me.” We laughed heartily.

Sailing the Great Outoors by Trail

The previous day, Wane and Joy Jackson drove from eastern Tennessee and passed up a trip to Washington for Williamsburg instead. Then they went sailing on the York River on a magnificent spring afternoon.

Daddy used to farm along the ICWWane said, “My daddy used to farm along the Inland Waterway in Georgia many years ago. Now all that has been taken for development. He used to see some mighty fine boats come by, including Walter Cronkite’s.”

Although he never sailed before, Wane did great on the wheel. He took the helm in light winds that led us across the river to Yorktown, but not quite. A swift mid-tide current kept us from making ground upriver.

We talked about the great outdoors. “I used to take my son hiking as a boy. Last year he walked the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, all 2,189 miles. He walked almost every day, taking time off in bad weather and to rest or take in a movie. At three places along the trail you come out into cities. He walked the entire length in five and half months. He did it light, without a phone. It changed him, made him more serious, with more confidence in himself. He’ll be 39 next month.”

I sent Wane and Joy up to the bow for several hours to take in the scenery and the birds. Afterward we sailed nearly all the way into the marina. “We really appreciated this,” Wane said. “It’s one of the nicest things I’ve done in the last three or four years.”

Let’s Go Sailing the Great Outdoors

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