So the phone rings a few weeks ago. It's a friend calling from down south. She and her husband own a lovely Krogen 42 trawler and they've wintered over in the Bahamas, before he stepped off a dock, landed badly and shattered his ankle. Could we possibly come help move the trawler back to North Carolina from Florida?
For 40 some years the answer would have been no. Jobs, kids, obligations. But for decades I've wanted to run the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway down to Florida -- maybe all the way around to the Gulf and as far as Brownsville Texas. My college roomie's father-in-law and mother-in- law took such a trip on his retirement. And now that we're retired, it took me this long to say yes: "Lemme think about it OK we'll go."
A few days later we were in not-quite-sunny Vero Beach City Marina, loading up four dock carts worth of groceries, whiskey, clothes, wine, dogs, foul weather gear and old salts and heading up the Waterway. I once wrote a story for the Charlotte Observer about the two grand routes flanking North Carolina and much of the East Coast -- the Blue Ridge Parkway to the west, running from Tennessee through North Carolina and Virginia and linking up with national parks at either end, and the ICW, linking Norfolk to Florida as part of a longer route of protected shipping routes that you could take from New England to Texas, if you knew how.
I've long known the Parkway was a magnificent thing to see. I had traveled the ICW only from above Belhaven N.C. to Little River S.C. But over nearly three weeks in a trawler whose top speed with the wind and the tides was about 9 m.p.h., and whose slowest cruising speed against wind and tide was maybe 2.5 m.p.h., I saw wonderful things -- manatees and dolphins in the water and osprey and hawks and herons on the wing, snowy egrets in the shallows and armadillos in the sawgrass and wild horses and not-so-wild people along the way. We anchored in Walter Cronkite's favorite anchorage not far from Brookgreen Island, toured R.J. "Dick" Reynolds' fabulous mansion on Sapelo Island, saw the remains of the Carnegie family's "Dungeness" mansion (on a site where Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, namesake of my hometown Greensboro, had his own place first), toured Brookgreen Gardens for the first time since boyhood days and found a suitable dive (Salty Mike's concrete-floored barroom) in Charleston to watch a little basketball while a gale and rainstorm blew itself out.
We crossed bouncy inlets in Port Royal Sound and Winyah Bay and slid up smooth waters along the Indian River and the lower Waccamaw, where we saw ruined rice fields and miles upon miles of rotting and decaying wooden bulkheads and watergates used to flood and drain the fields in that long-ago era. We saw lighthouses and an a quaint brick toll booth in the middle of nowhere and elegant old bascule bridgehouses in the law country. We watched sunsets in places of almost indescribable peace and ran aground so briefly in one inlet that it could only be described as a touch-and-go. The lesson was a good one: If you're going to go aground, do it on an incoming tide. That way you won't be there long.
It's more work handling a boat at an average speed of 7.5 m.p.h. over a 700-mile fetch of the ICW than driving a car at an average of 45 m.p.h. down the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway -- more dock lines to tie off and springlines to warp in and dinghies to hoist and currents to fight, not to mention wind gusts that can make you break out in cold sweats in tricky channels barely wider than the boat. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. I was good to feel the rise and fall of the deck in a choppy shipping lane, hear the slap of a changing tide at anchor in the full moonlight and feel the lift when an incoming tide speeds you on your way home again.
John Masefield wasn't writing about a diesel-powered trawler when he wrote his poem "Sea-Fever," but as an old sailor I appreciate his sentiment:
"I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking."
p.s.: I know. For some reason Masefield omitted some form of the verb "go" in the third word of that poem, and I have often seen it printed with "go" inserted ("I must go down....etc.). Wikipedia, if it is correct, preserves Masefield's use of "down" as the verb. It's a curiosity, and one I like. If a writer can't break the rules now and again, where's the fun of it all? JB