I learned to sail when I was ten years old. Spending a month at Camp Morehead-by-the-Sea on Bogue Sound in North Carolina, lots of kids learned to sail during summer sessions filled with swimming, shooting, archery and oyster roasts as well as long days on the water. Captain Purcell, owner of the camp, was full of mischief, racing his golf cart around the open lawn before the mess hall dinner, nearly turning over to his delight. Headless Hattie made at least one appearance each session from her watery grave near channel Marker 13, shouting distance from the camp.
That summer, I earned both my red (fair) weather mark and my blue (rough) weather mark. Red weather was easy sailing in light wind in a Sunfish. Blue weather sailing required a solo sail in white caps (winds over ten knots). My knuckles literally turned white and cramped with the effort of maintaining control over the taut, wet main sheet that threatened to slip from my grip. It was the most exciting challenge I had ever had.
On a more relaxed day, we made a group trip across the sound in Lightnings. It was hot and clear with just enough wind to pull the wooden Lightnings into a gentle heel. We landed near Salter Path along an empty stretch of marsh. As we splashed ashore, our happy feet scattered fiddler crabs by the dozens into the grass and myrtle thickets. We swatted at flies and mosquitoes as we trekked across hot sand to the ocean on the other side of the island.
After that summer, I never had the opportunity to sail as much as I wanted, but I spent many wonderful days on the water in our family’s runabout and Boy Scout camps each summer. When I graduated from high school, my main goal was to spend time on the coast, preferably on a shrimp boat and surfing, but any kind of water sport would do. It was some months before I was able to land a berth that gave me what I was looking for, though not in a way I had expected. More on that later.
Once, when I was between colleges, I decided I needed to buy a Hobie 16 catamaran. I persuaded my father to go in for half the cost even though he had never sailed. We picked up our new boat behind Marsh’s Surf Shop on the causeway from Morehead City to Atlantic Beach. The folks at Marsh’s launched the boat in the canal behind the shop.
Dad and I hopped on and began to drift toward the sound in a very light morning breeze. My excitement about being on my own sailboat soon turned toward anxiety as I realized that the Marsh crew were yelling something about locking down the rudders, and I had no idea what they meant. And then we were in the sound, turning west to sail down to Emerald Isle; anxiety point number two as it dawned on me how far that is (at least ten miles by sea) and how long it might take (forever with no wind, no engine, no paddle), and we had brought neither food nor water.
What was I thinking? No review of an owner’s manual, no preliminary sail, no plan for the voyage, no backup plan. (Remember the days before cell phones; neither did we carry a radio or any other way to call for help aside from waving our arms in the air.) Fortunately, the wind began to pick up and we made good time over calm water, arriving early afternoon at a small beach on the backside of the island near my parents’ beach house.
But all of this came after my chance meeting with two men from Bermuda who were delivering a ketch from New England to Jamaica.