Oysters and Jam
This tale comes from a time early on in my cruising days…
I had just gotten a job, but I was broke and hungry waiting for my first paycheck. I was on my annual migration south. Actually, I think it was my first annual trip southbound on the ICW. I had worked construction in the summer, so I had a little cash saved and I had some groceries stocked up. But being my first trip down the waterway I had a tendency to go ashore too often, and that was making my cash reserves go faster than I had planned.
When I sailed south from Charleston I knew that I would have to be stopping for a job soon. Being new to the areas I was traveling through, I did not know what to expect in the towns that lay ahead of me. One thing that I did know is that gasoline is expensive on the waterway, and my little motor was not fuel efficient. For that reason I sailed as much as possible, even in light or contrary winds. The only problem with that philosophy is that I was not making as much southbound progress as I would have liked, and my store of groceries and other supplies was being depleted.
Well, I sailed south from Beaufort, SC and made it to Hilton Head, SC, where I stopped at the first marina I saw so I could buy some fuel.
There were some folks hanging out there as the marina, and we were having a fine yam. Somewhere along the way I mentioned that I needed to be finding a job, and soon. When the dockmaster heard that, he told me that the boatyard there at the marina was looking for help – someone mainly to wash and paint boat bottoms. It is a dirty, nasty job, and the pay is low – so I was very qualified. I was told to come back in the morning and talk to the boatyard boss. I kinda waited around after that, hoping for an invitation to spend the night at their dock at no charge since I was a prospective employee. That never materialized, so I moved my boat off the fuel dock and anchored in a nearby creek.
I showed up back at the marina first thing in the morning, and I was hired on the spot. This was on a Friday. I was told to show up Monday for work. That’s the good news. The bad news was that this was one of those jobs that pays every two weeks, and the pay period for the next payday just ended, meaning that it would be almost three weeks before I got my first check. I did not have that much food onboard, and I had very little money. I was going to have to be very careful until I got my first paycheck. One thing that I added to my stores was a ten pound bag of potatoes. A ten pound bag of potatoes is cheap enough, and that is a lot of spuds for one person to eat.
I got into the routine of my job very quickly. As I had expected it was wet, dirty, physical, and almost mindless work. The kind of work that really makes you want a beer at the end of the day.
I had no beer on the boat, but there was a pub between my work and my boat – well, it was on the way if I took the long way home, which I did. There I ran into some of the liveaboards from the marina. Now I know that I was only going to stay for a beer or two, but it had been a while since I had been out, and I am known to have an affinity (some would call it a weakness) for beer. And boy, the hamburgers there looked like the best food in the world at the time. And isn’t having a “cheeseburger in paradise” part of what my whole adventure was about?
So a couple of hours later I am heading down home to my boat. One of the positive aspects of living aboard is that “home” is always downhill. That was a good thing that particular evening since I was feeling light-headed, and I had a full belly to boot. The bigger problem was that now my wallet was lighter than my head, and I still had over two weeks till payday.
The next evening after work I did an inventory of my stores. I had plenty of non-food items to last me, such as toothpaste, soap, shampoo, rolling tobacco, etc. My food supply consisted of about 9 pounds of potatoes, flour, oil, ketchup, half a dozen jars of homemade jelly, and about ten cans of mystery food.
Mystery food was a problem that I ran into in my early sailing days. For whatever reason, aboard my boat the labels would fall off a lot of my cans of food. Whether it was due to moisture, the way I stacked and packed them, or the jostling of being on a boat I never figured out.
The mystery food was always the last thing left onboard to eat. That’s because it takes two cans of food to make a good, filling dinner for me. With mystery food you never knew what combination of food you were going to end up with.. I am sure that there were times I got lucky and opened a can of ravioli and a can of spaghetti O’s rather than a can of corned beef hash and a can of corn. But I’ll tell you, more often than not I remember coming up with some weird (bad) food combinations. Clam chowder with a side of boiled peanuts – yuk!! Spaghetti and lima beans – eww!! Corn and corn – well, at least they don’t clash, but let me tell you, by the time your belly is full you are sick of corn. And then the next day you get to see a reminder of how much corn you really ate – gross!!
I made it all through the next week just fine. Don’t get me wrong, I was craving a thick, juicy steak, but really I had been eating pretty good. I would just open a can of mystery food, then decide how I would want to cook my potatoes. I had a grill, so I could bake them, I could fry them on the stove, and I also had canned milk, so I could mash them too. Sure potatoes every night was getting kind of repetitive, but I was coming home from work tired and hungry every night, so that helped.
By now I had noticed all of the oysters everywhere. The tidal range is about 5 feet at Hilton Head, so at low tide you can see a lot of marshes and mud flats, and they were covered with oysters. Well, I know better than to eat oysters from around a marina. Oysters filter the water to feed, and boats use an anti-fouling bottom paint that leaches into the water, the marina sells fuel, and any other waste that may be discharged into the water, intentionally or not, will be filtered by the oysters and toxic levels of very bad stuff can build up in them. Waters near golf courses and farms are other areas from where I would never take oysters. Those places tend to use a lot of fertilizer and pesticides which can run off into the waters when it rains heavily. I have been lucky and have never eaten a “bad” oyster, and I hope I never do.
When the weekend came I took my boat out to find an area that looked to have clean water and a lot of oysters, and soon I found a spot. As the tide dropped, there were oysters for the “picking” everywhere. I normally prefer my oysters steamed as opposed to raw, but not that day. The first couple of dozen I collected I popped open, rinsed in the creek and slid into my mouth, and they were incredible. I don’t know how many oysters are in a peck or a bushel, but I had a cooler-full.
I took my boat back to my slip at the marina, then I steamed oysters until I could not eat another one. What I did not eat I would be able to keep alive by keeping the water “fresh”, so I would eat oysters for a couple of more days at least. And I did. I ate so many oysters that I swore I would never eat another oyster again. But just as I did with all 10 pounds of potatoes, I ate all of those oysters. I had to. I was out of all other food – almost. They mystery food was all gone, as were all of the potatoes. All I had left were flour and some home made jelly.
I have never claimed to be a great cook, but I had to do something after coming home from work. Instead of just getting a spoon and eating jelly, I got some flour and added a bit of water. Just enough so that I could shape and work the dough. I tried to flatten it out like a tortilla, then I fried it in oil. I have had people tell me that I did make flour tortillas, others have called it pan-bread, but they did not taste it. It was fried flour, plain and simple, and it was not good. Thank God, actually, thank-my-big-sister for the homemade preserves. At least the fried flour gave me something “edible” to spread the blackberry jam and apple butter on.
Now I was into the week that payday came. Just got to make it till Friday. Then I can go out for a steak if I want to. Mmm, and a salad bar!! All the sweat tea I can drink! But not until Friday.
Being off on a boat, living day to day, week to week, you tend to lose track of time. If it weren’t for the Monday thru Friday job that I had at the time I would have no clue as to what day of the week it was. My calendar went more by the sun and the weather. When the days got long and the weather was hot, it was time to head north. When it started to get cold, follow the birds south. With that loose schedule, and add in a lack of television or newspapers, I was very surprised when I was told that I did not have to work on Thursday – it was Thanksgiving. I was informed of the employee party on Wednesday night, the day before Thanksgiving. And it was to be catered!
That was a big surprise. I knew that it was a corporation that I worked for, that is why I was not in a position to get an advance from my boss. But I did not know that so many people around the marina, the boat brokerage, real estate sales and maintenance all worked for the same boss as I did.
What that meant for me was a big party, and a lot of food. Boy, did I eat. And eat and eat and eat! My boss in the boatyard knew of my limited menu over the last 2 ½ weeks, and he must have spread the word. I had a few people come up and ask if it was true that I had been eating nothing but oysters and potatoes for two weeks. I said “no, I had some fried flour too – with homemade jelly.” After a few drinks among the partygoers it had become a much talked about subject. That was fine, I was fat and happy, and for a bonus, I got first pick of the leftovers to take home. I took some turkey and a whole pie.
As I mentioned at the beginning, that was one of my first sailboat cruises. I like to think I have learned a lot since then, things like:
I try not to get so broke before I stop;
Carry a lot of rice at all times;
Roll your own tobacco;
A big jar of peanut butter goes a long way;
And always, always use a magic marker to write the contents of canned food on the top of the can.
Years ago I was up in the Chesapeake Bay, somewhere in Maryland. I don’t know what the year was, but I was in my twenties.
I had spent the summer cruising and exploring the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, something known as “Gunkholing” up in those parts. I had no rhyme or reason for the places that I chose to go to, Continue reading
MASTER AND COMMANDER
“Red in the morning, sailors take warning.” Every sailor remembers those words from his childhood, but what does “light rain in the morning” forewarn? That is what I was destined to find out for myself as a wet, gray dawn broke the Maryland sky one May morning.
I had my 27 foot sailboat “Soulshine” ready for a 105 mile trip up the Potomac River to our nation’s capitol.
This trip was to be a first for me in that I had never before attempted to venture so far inland up a river.
I was starting out from Point Lookout Marina in Southern Maryland. I happened upon this out-of-the-way marina — complete with a boatyard, first-class restaurant, picnic area, and beautiful gardens — the same way in which I had ended up at so many other places; by sheer chance.
I was in my mid-twenties and I had been sailing well beyond my means. I was broke and my galley was low on food, so I anchored near to the marina and rowed my dinghy to shore to look for work.
My timing was perfect. It was early May and the busy Chesapeake Bay sailing season was soon to start, so there was a lot of work to be done at the marina.
The owner of the marina was a man in his 70′s named John. He seemed to take a shine to me when I explained my situation — that I was basically just cruising around on my sailboat, stopping for work when I needed money. He offered me a job for a couple of weeks doing basic handy-man work, helping to get the marina ready for the busy season. They pay was not going to be that great, but then, the work was not going to be that hard either. And, bedsides, I would be getting paid in cash and be allowed to tie up to the dock for free. It seemed perfect.
Work started off as good as work can. I was given the simple task of using stencils to paint numbers on the individual slips on the docks. It was going to take a while to finish it — there were a couple of hundred slips, and I had to paint the numbers on each slip twice — once so you could see it as you walked along the dock, and the other so that you could see it from a boat approaching on the water.
I was only a couple of hours into my first day of work when John came to me and told me that he needed me to ride to town with him to get some things. It didn’t seem to me that he really needed my help, but rather that he just wanted some company. John was an old sailboater himself, and like every other sailboater that I’ve ever met, he loved to spin a good yarn. Since John was the boss, he could hijack me from my duties whenever he wanted to, and in fact, it was to become a regular part of my employment.
Over the course of a couple of weeks working at the marina, my labor became a hot commodity. Besides my various assignments from the owner, the boatyard manager was always wanting me to work in the boatyard painting boat bottoms, the owner’s wife wanted me to help with her many flower gardens, and the operator of the marina restaurant wanted me to wash dishes at night. My temporary employment seemed to be in danger of becoming a real job, so I felt that it was time to assert my independence by announcing my intention of sailing to D.C.
I gave four or five days notice of my departure, but since I would be sailing right by the marina on my way back downriver (and most likely be broke as I did so), I agreed to return and finish up the list of assignments that John had for me which I never got around to doing. Now the work was behind me; my pantry was stocked, my cooler was full, and there was cash in my wallet. I was ready to go.
On the morning of my scheduled departure, the temperature was mild and the wind was fair. A slow, steady rain was the only drawback, but I was not going to let a little bit of rain delay me.
Every sailing trip, especially one into unfamiliar waters, comes with varying levels of excitement, anticipation, and trepidation. As I untied my docklines and made my way out to the Potomac River, my mind brought up images that I associated with river sailing: strong currents, floating debris, heavy boat traffic, and narrow waters. At least narrow waters wouldn’t be a problem as I started out — the Potomac River is about seven miles wide at its mouth.
Despite the rain, it was a good day for sailing upriver. The outboard motor on my boat was not very reliable. In fact, it was a piece of junk. But so what! My boat came with sails for a reason, and with the wind direction the way it was that day, I would be sailing downwind.
I got my sails set, turned on the auto-pilot, and then got out of the rain as much as possible. The auto-pilot is a wonderful device — I named mine Gilligan– but it can’t do everything. The way the auto-pilot works is that once I get my boat on the desired course, I engage the auto-pilot, and it moves the tiller as needed to keep the boat headed on the set course. For the auto-pilot to be able to do this, the sails must be set properly and trimmed as the wind shifts. So although the piloting of the boat is hands-free with the auto-pilot engaged, I couldn’t go down below to the cabin to stay completely dry. Besides, I had to keep a lookout for other vessels and adjust my course to follow the channel.
I had planned on two days to get to D.C. I would sail all day the first day and look for a safe place to anchor before it got dark. The following day, I would get up early and finish my trip.
I wanted to make as many miles as possible the first day, so I decided to fly my spinnaker. Flying a spinnaker (a very large, multi-colored sail, also known as a “chute”) is not an easy task, especially when sailing single-handed. In fact, one of my sailing books says that it takes a crew of four. My boat though, was designed to make sailing single-handed easier, and I had some tricks, including my auto-pilot, that made it possible to fly my chute without any crew. Still, I only ever attempt to use it when the wind is light and constant in direction, and when I will not be changing course for a while.
That was the case on this day, so I decided that it was worth the fifteen (or so) minutes that it took to set the chute, and also the extra attention that was required to tend to it.
When all was said and done, the spinnaker was set and flying beautifully. I was kicking back in the cockpit admiring my boat, myself, and my life in general. I was also making great boat speed.
My day was going great. I only had to make minor course changes to follow the channel upriver, and Gilligan was doing a fine job at the helm. The hours and miles were flying by.
Later in the day, while scanning the horizon for markers and boats, etc., I noticed that the mast of a sailboat well behind me, at the limit of my vision. In days gone by, a vessel such a distance was referred to as being “hull down.” As it neared, and the hull of the boat became visible above the horizon, it was said to be “hull up.”
Due to the distance of the boat behind me, and the weather conditions, all I could make of the other boat was that it was a sailboat with no sails raised. I couldn’t guess at the size of the boat, nor its heading, and I really didn’t expect to see much
more of her. If she was heading upriver, like me, then she would have a hard time catching up to me. My spinnaker was still set, and it was pulling me downwind at close to my maximum hull speed.
So imagine my surprise when the mast behind me kept getting taller and taller, meaning that the boat behind me kept getting taller and taller, meaning that the boat behind me was getting closer and closer. I could now make out that it was a two-masted boat, but she remained hull down. As she ate up the distance between us, I began to realize that she was a very large boat. Shoot, she was a ship!
When the ship caught up to me, the Potomac was a couple of miles wide, and she never got closer than a couple of hundred yards to me. Because it was still raining, I couldn’t get a very good look at her as she passed me by. Still, she was close enough that a few things stood out; She was a schooner – a twin masted sailboat in which the foremast is shorter than the aft – or main mast. She was also the largest sailboat that I have ever seen under weigh. She had to have been over 100 feet long!
As the schooner had been catching up to me, I knew that she was moving fast, but now that she was overtaking me, I got to see just how fast. She was going faster than I had ever seen a sailboat go before.
I was sitting out in the rain, trying to get a better look at her though my binoculars, when I heard a call on the V.H.F marine radio.
It was a female voice, and it said, “This is the schooner ‘America’ calling the sloop near (whatever channel marker I was at) on the Potomac River.”
I answered, “Schooner ‘America’, this is ‘Soulshine’… go ahead Capitan.”
She asked me to switch to a working channel, so I did so. (On marine radios, Channel 16 is used for hailing and emergencies only. When you contact your party, you agree on which working channel to switch to. Once on that working channel, you are free to talk all you want to.)
She called me back and said that she just wanted to compliment me on my boat. Then, in a teasing manner, she told me what a pretty color my big sail was — but didn’t my Momma ever teach me to come in out of the rain?
I responded that it was a lot of work to fly that big, pretty colored sail, but I wasn’t going to let a little rain stop me.
Then I said mockingly, “I’ve got to tell you — that’s a beautiful motorboat that you’ve got.”
That got her good!
She got defensive and told me that they had a reservation at midnight for an opening of the I-95 drawbridge near D.C., and that they needed to keep their speed up to be sure to make it on time.
I knew what she meant about the drawbridge. To get them to stop traffic on I-95 and open the drawbridge, you have to make a reservation at least 24 hours in advance, and even then, it will only open between midnight and 6AM.
I didn’t have that concern, though. My mast was not tall enough to need the bridge to open for me to pass under it.
I was told that they would be docking the ‘America’ at the city marina in Alexandria, Va., and that I was invited to stop by for a cocktail.
I thanked her, and told her that I might take her up on her offer. That was about it for our conversation, and the ‘America’ quickly left me behind.
The rest of the day was uneventful. At the end of the day I dropped anchor right off the FBI training center in Quantico, Va., and had a peaceful night.
I awoke the next morning to a beautiful sunny day, and I continued my cruise upriver. I sailed by Mt. Vernon, and as I did so, I blasted my horn (for my lack of a cannon) in a traditional salute to the father of our country. That was kind of cool.
It was early in the afternoon when I made it to Alexandria and saw the ‘America’. When I got to the city docks where she was moored, I saw that there were plenty of empty slips, so I decided to stop by for that cocktail.
I didn’t call the dockmaster for a slip. I wasn’t planning on staying for long, so I didn’t want to have to pay overnight dock fees. If the dockmaster came to me after I tied up, I would deal with it then. It was my time-tested mantra of “It’s sometimes easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.”
I got ‘Soulshine’ tied up and walked over to the ‘America’. I introduced myself as the captain of ‘Soulshine’, and I was invited aboard. Once onboard, I met the captain, the lady with whom I had spoken to on the VHF, and some of the crew. I was given a tour and learned about the ship.
She was 139 feet long, and a replica of the 19th century schooner that won the first race that, from that point on, would forever be called “The Americas Cup.”
She was brand-new – built in Albany, NY and just launched. Although she was a replica of a ship originally built in the 1800′s, she was totally modern. She had a fiberglass hull and down below she was amazing. The galley was huge, and came complete with a water-maker, refrigeration, freezers, etc. The staterooms were incredibly nice, and she even had a washer and dryer.
After the tour, we all sat around in her beautiful, round cockpit and had a few drinks. That led to us telling each other extravagant tales of our own sailing adventures.
Quite a few drinks later, I made my way back to my boat. After experiencing the grandeur of the ‘America’, she seemed so small. As I sat there, reflecting back on my conversation with my new friends, one thing really stood out.
Here were these folks on this huge, brand-new, four million dollar vessel. I was told that everyone onboard the ‘America’ had their eyes on my little boat as they passed me by. While they were huddled down below, keeping out of the rain, hurrying to get where they were going, they spotted my spinnaker well ahead of them. When they caught up to me, they saw me sitting out in the rain, seemingly enjoying the hell out of myself, and that’s what prompted them to call me on the radio.
It reminded me of a story that I once heard:
A man and his young son went out on a fishing trip. They were on a small, leaky jon-boat with an old outboard motor, and they were fishingith cheap rods and reels.
As they were fishing, a big, million dollar sportsfishing boat went by. She was a beautiful boat, equipped with thousands of dollars worth or fishing gear. The man in the jon-boat pointed to the big boat and said to his son, “Now that’s fishing.”
At the same moment, in that big sportsfishing boat, was an older man and his grown son. As they slowed down so as to not to rock the little jon-boat too badly, the older man looked down at the tiny boat with the two people onboard, and he was reminded of similar days that he had spent with his own son so many years before. He pointed down to the little boat and said to his son, “Now that’s fishing.”
I had been looking at the ‘America’, jealous of all her amenities, her spaciousness, and of her ability to sail anywhere in the world. Yet at the same time, those onboard the ‘America’ were looking at me and ‘Soulshine’, envying her simplicity and the freedom that I had that only comes when one is master and commander of his own vessel.
The next morning, I made it the final few miles to D.C. I was high on life as I dropped my anchor within sight of the Washington Monument. I had already had a great trip to D.C., and I hadn’t even stepped ashore yet.
For me, that’s the beauty of sailing; the journey can be just as rewarding as is the destination.