The sun rises over the Bay. Vibrant hues of pink and red intensify, and I watch as the nation’s largest and most storied bay is illuminated, wave by wave, in resplendent colors.
You have to get a bit poetic, and delve into your vocabulary, for settings like this.
That morning, one of the major tributaries of this great bay was already buzzing with life in the pre-dawn hours.
I was awakened just before the sun began to clamber up into the sky, the dark stillness of night transforming into a subtle blue, though barely illuminated.
Like walking through a house in the dimness, save for the reflected light from a room far down the hallway.
Amidst all this beauty and poetry, jolted awake on deck when a radio blares out the new draft picks for the Baltimore Orioles and an outboard motor starts roaring, both belonging to a fishing boat racing by.
I was, with nine classmates, sleeping in the middle of the Chester River on a tiny schooner, the Sultana. We’re sailing down into the Chesapeake Bay.
While many people will always recall their first days at college, most do not begin their four-year journey on a recreated 18th-century British sailing ship. It was an odd start, but a good one, beginning the process of washing away high school routines and discovering a bigger world.
The original HMS Sultana was a miniature (fifty-nine foot) two-masted ship, Boston-built in 1767, patrolling up the Atlantic coast as far as Nova Scotia, as a British revenue cutter. It had the distinction of being the smallest warship in His Majesty’s Fleet. In the old days, almost all of the original crew deserted.
It’s pretty cramped below-desks, and maybe they got on each other’s nerves. Or got tired of eating lobscouse and maggoty biscuits.
But we didn’t eat lobscouse, as far as I know. I keep looking it up, but then forget what the heck it is.
And I did not desert. I loved this little ship.
Washington College, in Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, arranged this freshman experience with the Sultana Foundation. So there I was, a shy young landlubber from the hinterlands, raised far from salt water, on a wooden ship full of strangers, two thousand square feet of canvas, and a lot of complicated ropes (sheets?) for a week. With the exception of a backup diesel in the hold, it was authentic down to the working swivel-guns. And it was awesome.
The most remarkable memory for me was the first night, sleeping above decks, seeing more stars than I had ever seen, other than in the Adirondacks. Despite being on the edge of the light pollution from the vast megalopolis across the bay (DC-Baltimore-Philly) we could look up into a fantastic number of stars and shooting stars.
Sleeping on the decks felt great, and it seemed less humid on the river than ashore in Maryland. Waking up early, we felt pretty cool even in August.
Half-way through our voyage, we stepped ashore just in time to feel waves.
Generally not an active seismic area, on August 23, 2011, an earthquake rocked Washington D.C., with tremors felt as far north as New England. The shockwave cracked the Washington Monument, and the chimneys of my college president’s historic home. We were in a van, going on an excursion off the boat for one day, when it struck, and we just assumed the boom was the van backfiring. Later we learned it was a quake.
The next day, we were back aboard the ship, after a long day of sightseeing, history and culture lessons about the Chesapeake region, and an impromptu lesson on seismology. But a personal highlight of the little voyage was next, and also happened on land.
We had sailed a bit farther down the widening river, closer and closer to the Bay itself, and had arrived at the rural Maryland equivalent of “Millionaire’s Row.” Maryland is the richest state in the USA per capita, jammed with millionaires and billionaires, so a long succession of waterfront mansions wasn’t anything noteworthy to the locals. But when we docked at one, I was pretty excited. When a kid from a poor, rural, nothing town gets to spend the night at a mansion, it’s kind of a kick.
Well, technically, not actually guests in the mansion. We kind of went round the backdoor, and slept in the boathouse! Still very fun – their “boat house” was massive, enough room for two yachts, with a bathroom and a lounge of sorts. (What Mel Brooks movie had that sign, “Our Bathrooms Are Nicer Than Most People’s Homes“?)
We slept fairly comfortably there and when I awoke, a sartorially-elegant and very dignified man greeted us. I was happy to be able to thank the owner for his hospitality, and told him, I thought his place was lovely.
He laughed, and told me, he was just the butler.
This mansion, or I should say, villa (complete with an actual Roman bath/pool that we enjoyed, pilfered sometime in the last century from somewhere in the Ancient World), belonged to none other than the former owner of RCA, or some such mega-corporation. (And in case I didn’t come across right, I’m grateful that he let a mob of college kids stay on his estate.)
So that’s all I wanted to write about that trip – – no typhoons, U-boats, or mermaids to report. Kind of tame, but not everyone is cut out for “The Perfect Storm.” And if you think about it, that book wasn’t autobiographical. Because the crew was all underwater. If I have to choose, I’d prefer my writing to be dry instead of posthumous. But maybe you don’t agree!
I love history, don’t know if I ever mentioned that. Claiming that this brief college cruise gave me a deep insight into the Age of Sail would be pretentious and idiotic, but you have to seize upon whatever fragments or experiences you can. Enjoying the stars, or crammed below-decks when it rained, we perhaps gained a tiny, foggy glimpse of something of the past, that we hadn’t seen before. That’s all.
What also impresses me about this, is how quickly my own trip seems like Ancient History.
It really seems like quite a long while ago, and already my memories are jumbled. I know the chronometer was invented for sailors, roughly about the same time as the original Sultana was launched, but somehow, “being at sea” left me chronologically-confused as to where and when we sailed. (And before you say anything — the water was brackish, and connected eventually to the Atlantic, so I’m calling it “at sea,” so sue me.) But I think the memories, however disjointed, will stick with me, and whenever I read a mariner’s tale, or see sails out on the water, I start dreaming of a sea voyage.