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The Lessons of Life Afloat

During his tenure as the captain of the schooner Ocean Star, above, the author garnered numerous lessons regarding weather.
Many of my  experiences with weather stem from time spent aboard sailing vessels, from my first boat (a wonderful Gary Mull-designed Ranger 32), to Veracity (a French cutter designed by Claude Graf and built by Yves LeMarie (of Jacques Cousteau's Calypso crew). I have also been fortunate to have sailed as captain on the 90-foot schooner Ocean Star, the Open 60 Imagine, and the Whitbread 60 America's Challenge. All these vessels offered me new experiences and lessons in weather.

Just this past week I gained two more priceless weather experiences, the first while watching the start of the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race and the second as the master of an Army tug. That's right, in my other life I'm an Army reservist, and I work aboard tugs. But first let me tell you about the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. With only a 12-year history, this race is held each year during the week following the Annapolis Boat Show. I participated in the event during its early years, entering the Schooner Ocean Star, and always losing out to the fast and furious Pride of Baltimore, which sailed under the commanding presence of Jan Miles.

This year I had no schooner, instead my boat was a 1965 13-foot Boston Whaler, and I dearly wanted to view the start of this great race. So a week prior to the start I began monitoring the weather. I knew the limits of my whaler and since I would have to travel nearly 10 miles to reach the start I only wanted to go if the conditions were favorable. As the day of the start approached, I was encouraged to see a strong high-pressure system building over the Chesapeake Bay region. Cloud-free skies and 10 to 12 knots of northwest winds were predicted for the race's start, which make ideal reaching conditions for schooners. When the day arrived, you couldn't have requested better weather—65 degrees, sunny, and northwest winds. I fueled up my boat, grabbed a large cup of café mocha on my way through town, and headed out to the Bay Bridge where the race was to commence.

Thrilling action at the start of an earlier edition of the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race, a fall classic.

I was thrilled. This was one of the most gorgeous days to be out on the Bay—a pure blue sky, a steady cool and dry wind, and at least 20 schooners for me to zip around and observe. Assembled were the Pride of Baltimore, Amistad, Clipper City, Tree of Life, Norfolk Rebel (with the one and only Captain Lane Briggs at the helm), Mystic Whaler, and so many more. Mine was the only little spectator boat zipping around and I felt as if the race was being put on for my benefit. On board the vessels I saw friends from years gone past hauling on sheets and trimming gaffs. Then the starting horn blared and off they all went, heading south on the Chesapeake Bay.

The fleet was only going as far as Norfolk at the mouth of the Bay, but in my imagination they were all heading out for an around-the-world voyage. I followed them south, pulled along by the pure magic that only schooners under full sail can engender. I would have followed them all the way around the world, or to Norfolk at least, if not for the reality that six gallons of gasoline and a half-empty cup of café mocha aren't sufficient provisions for the intended voyage.

With great reluctance I finally put the wheel over and headed back up the Severn River from whence I came. As I throttled up to planning speed, I soon began day dreaming about how truly lucky I was to be out on the Bay enjoying that fall day, and having seen the best boats in the world take off on broad reach with fair winds and following seas.

"I felt as if the Bay was all mine, draped in a backdrop of red, yellow, and orange leaves."
I zipped past the Naval Academy and admired the SEAL team's fast-delivery boats moored along the bulkhead, and then up the Severn I went with only one or two other boats out on the water. I felt as if the Bay was all mine, draped in a backdrop of leaves that showed their fall colors of red, orange, and yellow. Too soon I was back in my creek and the trip and my escape to another world was over. But it lives forever now in my mind.

Only a few days later I found myself engaged in my other life, as a warrant officer in the US Army Reserves, driving large ocean tugs, which are used to tow cranes, barges, and military equipment to the far reaches of the world. There I was driving a large tug in Baltimore's outer harbor for weekend training. On this particular day the winds were out of the southeast at 20 knots with gusts to 25. We were executing docking and maneuvering drills, and I was having a great time backing and filling and making approaches to the dock. There is no boat more maneuverable than a single-screw, 900-hp tug equipped with a rudder the size of a barn door. You can maneuver and move almost any floating object with these craft.

But when the wind is blowing 25 knots you need to think through your approaches and always have a plan. Let me say that again—always have a plan. And make sure you brief your crew. If you have a plan, and a backup plan, and your crew knows your plan, you can do almost any maneuver. And so this is what we were doing, training for those maneuvers where we are sent to far-off parts of the world to offload ships, push barges, and keep supplies moving. And once again knowing the wind and waves and having a plan that works with the weather is all so important whether you're on an Army tug or a private cruising vessel.

Driving tugs such as the one above has also helped form the author's outlook on weather and weather-related topics.

As I was driving the US Army Tug Anzio around Baltimore Harbor and one of its tributaries, Curtis Bay, I saw with great surprise and amazement the first Coast Guard Cutter I sailed on as an officer, the USCGC Sweetbrier. She was moored at the US Coast Guard Base in Curtis Bay, on her way to being decommissioned. Seeing this ship brought a flood of emotions, as I had sailed on her in Alaskan waters from 1977 to 1979, covering all of the Aleutian Islands, the Bearing Sea, the Gulf of Alaska, as well as transits to Hawaii and Seattle. Oh how many watches I had stood on her bridge, how many storms and gales I had gone through on her, and I had only been on her for two short years. I could hardly take my eyes off her. Ships do have personalities and I could feel myself drawn back to those days, over 20 years ago. They seemed like just yesterday.

As I nudged my Army tug up close to take a better look at each little detail on her hull and deckhouse, everything seemed just as it were when I was aboard. I thought to myself that there is no better life than that of a mariner. I throttled back Anzio, spun over the wheel, goosed the big diesel into forward, and the tug surged ahead.

Michael Carr is offline  
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