Guest column


Stopped at the light in Millville recently, I noticed the Volvo in front of me sported a bumper sticker that read “I’d Rather Be Sailing.”

I figured the driver didn’t sail his boat around here in Coastal Delaware, since he had Maryland plates. I had to assume he sailed the Chesapeake or one of its many tributaries, since — despite the multitude of its charms — our area will never host the America’s Cup.

I’m speaking from the perspective of a guy who has owned small sailboats for his entire adult life.

By “small” I mean nothing larger than a 28-foot sloop, which we kept near Annapolis for a number of years. The boat we brought with us to Delaware was a 24-footer, built in 1970 and owned by me, off and on, for some 25 years. (The story of my buying and selling my Kalea three times will have to wait for another column.)

My first year down here, I limited my sailing to the Indian River, constantly struggling to keep the boat off the shoals and away from the lines of all those trolling fishermen. I got lots of glares from powerboat skippers who feared I would snag their tackle. Although I never fouled any lines, I did manage to run aground twice that year, suffering the ignominy of a tow back to the dock.

Mine was one of three sailboats in the entire Indian River Marina. The powerboat population was in the hundreds.

The relationship between powerboats and sailboats historically has been contentious and adversarial.

The powerboat crowd calls us “ragmen.” We return the compliment, calling them “stinkpotters.” But most of that hostility is unfounded.

Motorboaters have come to my assistance several times over the years, pulling me off sandbars, etc. Alas, there’s little that a sailboat can do to reciprocate, except try to stay out of their way. Sudden tacks across the bow of a powerboat are not viewed with equanimity.

In my second year of Delaware sailing, I girded my loins and took Kalea under the Coastal Highway bridge, through the usually-turbulent channel, and into the ocean. A traditional sailor’s prayer is: “God, please protect me. My boat is very little and the sea is very large.” I think the author of that prayer must have known these waters.

One certainly does feel puny and vulnerable in a small sloop with only a sail and a 15-horsepower motor to help you find shelter when you’re caught in an ocean storm a couple miles off Dewey Beach.

We never encountered any big blows out there, but there were times when we were pitched and rolled and bounced around a lot. Even if the day were benign and the sailing fine, you had to think about your return, back through the dreaded channel and under the menacing bridge.

The distance from bridge to water is 35 feet. From the masthead to the water line of my boat was 34.5 feet.

I never was foolish enough to try to take Kalea under the bridge at high tide. But even when I knew I had sufficient space to slip through, there was the worry that one of the big powerboats from the marina or one of the fishing charters returning from the Baltimore Canyon would suddenly emerge to kick up a big wake that easily would have raised my mast into harm’s way.

Every day of sailing was a white-knuckle experience: dodging the fishing boats that trolled the Bay, playing Russian roulette with the bridge, bucking the 7-knot current that kicked up 4 to 5 foot waves in the channel when the nor’easters were blowing.

It was punishing both for me and Kalea. So I did the prudent thing and sold her.

A fellow in Washington state saw my ad on the Internet and brought his truck across the country to trailer her back to his home in Twisp. He has plans to sail her up Puget Sound into Alaska’s Inner Passage. Part of me would like to be along on that challenging voyage. But the other, more practical part, would rather hear about the trip in the warmth, comfort and safety of my armchair.

“I’d rather be sailing,” read the Volvo’s bumper sticker.

Speak for yourself, skipper, say I in response.