New and naïve but eager to start life with a sailboat, Damian and I began our search for a boat despite little sailing experience. We did not know what we were doing. But we were determined to find a boat that we could live on and learn on. We took the leap of faith: bought a 30-foot sailboat and embarked on our amateur attempt of sailing her home from Deltaville, VA, to Kent Narrows, MD.
We had learned to sail the summer before on Kent Island, and we were hooked. The sailing school we had chosen, R&R Charters and Sail School, surpassed our expectations and provided us the unique opportunity to live onboard a sailboat while taking the class. Sailboatlistings.com became our new best friend as we put money aside to make our sailboat dream a reality. On a chilly January afternoon, we made an offer on a 1986 Catalina 30 in the sleepy town of Deltaville. To our surprise, it was accepted, and the boat was ours.
With only four days to sail her home to Kent Island, our mission was clear. Yet only two minutes after we set out on our voyage, we ran aground. Our keel plowed into a sandbar that only the locals knew about. Our bad luck continued when the line we were trying to pull free slipped and got tangled in our prop. We were dragged into a nearby slip and invited up to the marina office. We explained our situation to the dock master, who nodded toward a burly man, lounging on a sofa with newspaper and coffee. Apparently he was the local diver.
He was perturbed, but told us in his slow, southern drawl that he’d “get to it when he got to it.” We weren’t quite sure what that meant.
No more than an hour later, a blue, pickup truck backed up to our slip and out jumped the diver. With only a few gruff words of acknowledgement to us, he pulled on his dry suit and loaded up. He asked for a knife and plunged into the water with his air tank. Seconds later, our prop was free.
It was already mid-afternoon, and we were cutting it close with available daylight. We motored out, scanning the horizon for Windmill Point. We never found it, because we didn’t turn our GPS on for fear it was old and broken. Dumb mistake. On top of that, the Bay was choppy. White caps crashed over our bow with each erupting swell.
We just tried to keep the boat headed in the intended direction with only the compass needle flopping around wildly. The wind whipped our faces, and the ice-cold sea spray stung our cheeks. We kept motoring northeast as the sun waned inch by inch closer to the horizon. Would we make it by nightfall?
And then we saw it! A water tower and the faint shadow of land in the distance.
The Tangier slips housed mostly weather-beaten fishing boats. Would there be a deep-enough slip for our five-foot draft? No one was around. All of a sudden, we felt a jolt. We had run aground for the second time that day. Putting the boat in reverse, we felt the keel rock off the shoal and slip back into the water. I let out a sigh of relief. Our boat was free and with far less drama than before.
We inched closer to the T-dock but weren’t close enough to lasso a line over the nearest dock pilings, so, I jumped for it. With one great leap, my feet touched the dock, and I grabbed for a piling. We had made it to Tangier!
It was a ghost town after sunset. Fish shacks and shanties sunk into the water’s edge. Only the sounds of faint music and distant laughter pierced the eerie silence.
The watermen were off to fish the sounds of Tangier at 5 a.m. the next morning, and we awoke to the sound of their revving engines. After a few eggs, Damian set out to find the dock master about the bathrooms. I set to work washing dishes with bottled water. Fearing that our tanks leaked and would sink the boat, we weren’t using either the head or the water tap onboard.
When I was finished, I peeked my head out of the companionway to see Damian talking with an elderly gentleman saddled on a bright, blue motorcycle scooter. He was none other than the infamous Milton Parks. Friendly and reassuring, he invited us up to his house to use the bathroom, since the water was not yet running in the marina bathrooms. Then we were back on our way, heading north on the Chesapeake.
The skies were grey with rain as we kept Milton posted every hour on the VHF. Despite the steady winds, we were reluctant to raise the sails, because we were nervous about their condition. However, we got up the courage to try our auto helm. And to our delight, it worked.
As we watched for the next marker on our chart, I saw a faint, grey shadow rising up from the water with foaming white movement near the water’s surface. I was convinced it was an island until we got closer. It was a ship. Boy, did I feel dumb.
Ten hours after leaving Tangier, we motored into the Patuxent River and neared Solomons Island. We were both exhausted and craved a hot shower.
Docking was a disaster. On the bow, I tried to push us off the front two pilings while Damian kept the boat from plowing into the dock. Then we realized with humiliation that we had become the evening entertainment of two residents of a nearby houseboat.
Oddly enough, the marina’s bathrooms were located above a local restaurant. We had to climb an ill-lit stairway that you might find in a horror movie to get up to the two grimy bathrooms. That hot shower wasn’t what I had pictured.
Our sailing plans were delayed the next day due to heavy winds that were no match for our inexperienced sailing abilities. The following day was Easter Sunday.
We prepared to leave, but to our dismay the engine would not start. Click, click, click went the glow plugs in our effort to warm the engine. But it only whirred and choked. Then it made no sound at all. Our starter battery was dead, and we needed a new one. But would the nearest West Marine be open at 8 a.m. on an Easter Sunday? We trudged up the street on only a prayer that it would be open. To our surprise, it was.
We found the replacement battery weighing a whopping 40 pounds, and Damian hoisted it onto his shoulder. We headed back to the marina in the cold. Quite the spectacle we must have been, marching by the churchgoers decked out in their finest arriving for Easter services.
After installing the new battery, the engine still would not start. We felt doomed. Damian had done everything he knew how to do. We needed a miracle. And that’s exactly what we asked for. Churn, churn, churn. The second time we tried, the engine choked and coughed back to life. We were on our way again.
While hoisting the main, we discovered to our chagrin an old bird’s nest inside. Too late, bits of dried seaweed, twigs, and feathers showered down on us.
A few hours later, while attempting to pull in the sails, we almost were overtaken by a freighter in the shipping channel. During the short window of time we had to avoid a collision, our jib ripped as we tugged it in against the wind. Our mainsail spilled all over the deck and into the water on its descent. When Damian jumped up on deck to retrieve it, the boat lurched to one side. Thoughts of man overboard and hypothermia flashed in my head. But he managed to steady himself and heaped the sail folds on top of the boom, tightening them down with ties. All that mattered was that Damian was back in the cockpit safe and sound.
We were in the last stretches of our journey as we entered Eastern Bay, and again we were cutting it close with daylight. We caught the last opening of the Kent Narrows Bridge.
Damian beamed as he turned Gem&I into our marina. As we cleated the final line and turned off the engine, we had tears in our eyes. We still knew very little and had so much more to learn. But the journey had changed us. Even though we were still afraid and nervous, we were more aware of what we were capable of. The trip had given us a vision of becoming the sailors and adventurers we hoped to one day be.
By Hannah Joy Knecht