by Shawn Hart
“Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again. Give portions…for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.”—-Ecclesiastes 11.1-2
On a mild, mid-November day 28 years ago, I was asked to help deliver a 38’ Bertram sportfishing boat from Cape May to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Who hasn’t dreamed of a hull slicing whitely through blue seas while dolphins roll like cannon barrels before the bow? Few, however, would trade holiday traditions and 10 channels of televised football for an unpredictable, hurricane-season ocean voyage.
November, we’ve recently been reminded, can be the cruelest month; fierce storms, big water and cold nights without power have crippled communities along the Atlantic seaboard, many still recovering while Christmas lights blink on in others. Pass the cranberries, please, but hold the ocean spray.
Yet, any holiday at sea promises to be memorable, and although the food may be an afterthought, the surroundings always seize one’s attention.
We boarded the Bertram at dawn. A cold front had clamped down on the region, and we had to pound frost from the dock lines with a hammer before casting off. Expecting — with three hands — to log 200 miles per day hugging the coast, we’d allowed more than a week to make the passage. But an enormous Nor’easter would hover throughout the trip, bringing high seas and raw, wet winds that turned us into the Chesapeake and then south via the Intra Coastal Waterway (ICW).
The ICW, also known as “the ditch,” links canals constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers with existing channels, bays and waterways into a “road” for commerce and travel. At times as open and straight as an Interstate, the ditch, at long intervals, is a wet ribbon of NO WAKE canals that slow like small streets through a school zone. Throw in a damaged prop, barge traffic and bad weather, and we were late before we left.
We ran through the rain for days: Cape May to Norfolk, an endless stretch of narrows east of the Great Dismal Swamp, then through open water across Albemarle Sound and into Pamlico Sound behind Hatteras. Overnight in Beaufort, NC, then on to Myrtle Beach, SC; the Bertram beginning to smell like the swamp we’d passed to starboard several days before. A week out, and it was Wednesday, Thanksgiving eve. We were late, dispirited and tied up at a dock that had no shore power, marine services or food.
Early Thursday morning we set out again for the warm sun of Florida, still hundreds of miles south. The weather turned worse the faster we went…and we were cranking for Hilton Head like it was paradise. In late afternoon after crossing a sloppy Port Royal Sound, we docked at Harbor Town, Hilton Head, soaked to the skin and worn out by the wind. Securing the boat up close to the red-and-white-striped lighthouse, we walked down the dock in fading light to a restaurant. It was open but virtually empty.
We read the Thanksgiving Specials board at the hostess station: prime rib, bluefish stuffed with crabmeat and, of course, turkey with all the fixins. Despite (or perhaps because of) our bedraggled appearance, we were shown to the table closest to the fireplace, an incalculable kindness, and while our soaked clothing began to steam, we each ordered a special to be shared along with bottles of red and white wine. We drank as deeply of the wine as we did the warmth of the fire and the quiet comfort of space that had stopped moving.
It was the second most appreciated Thanksgiving meal I could remember.
Eleven years earlier, I’d sailed from Belize to Guatemala on a hand-built, 30’ wooden sloop. My shipmate was then, and is now, a lifelong friend who was also aboard the trip described above. We had paid $1750 to purchase the boat, probably half the cost of the Bertram’s radar antenna and scanner. After crossing the Gulf of Honduras, we followed the Rio Dulce to its source, Lago Isabel, where we tied up near a tiny village named Frontera not far from the ancient Spanish fort of Castillo de San Felipe. From there, over the course of a few weeks, we made overland excursions to Guatemala City, Antigua and Lake Atitlan.
Thanksgiving is not celebrated in Guatemala, so it was just another Thursday when we set out downriver from Lago Isabel for the coastal town of Livingston to find a restaurant and some semblance of a holiday feast. There was little to do onboard (or off) at our anchorage near the river’s headwaters—even less once you’d killed all the bugs. Frontera hardly warranted a wet roundtrip in the dory to replenish our meager provisions with theirs, so after our morning coffee, we pulled the hook in heavy rain, already hungry, and turned into the current.
The downriver run was 30 miles or more through jungle thick with vegetation overgrowing the banks, an anticipated six-hour push from our small Johnson outboard. But the rain worsened with each mile, and within hours the current astern was so strong that we were losing steerage. Rudders are designed to work with water rushing by them from the front, not the rear, and the excursion turned into a nerve-wracking slalom though eddies of whorling, muddy water.
Exhausted, we vainly searched for a safe place to tie up, finally “steering” into the half-submerged vegetation along one swollen bank. We tied off bow and stern to the stiffer branches surrounding the hull, keeping the mast as clear as possible from anything that might foul the rigging. Tricky work performed in pouring rain with insects and debris showering down upon us from the jungle canopy.
We never reached Livingston.
Once we’d safely secured the boat into the trees, we slipped below, dried ourselves with towels and set up our single-burner stove to cook Thanksgiving dinner: fry jacks (flour, salt, lard, baking powder and water) fried in coconut oil and slathered with marmalade (from a jar that the collision with the shoreline had shaken loose) and countless cups of hot coffee sweetened with canned condensed milk.
Unquestionably, my most appreciated Thanksgiving meal ever.
At hospitals and shelters this weekend, survivors of “Frankenstorm” will be told they’re lucky to have escaped with their lives. Agreed.
From church pulpits and political podiums, we will be reminded to pray for those who’ve lost everything in the storm. Amen.
And I will remember these two Thanksgiving holidays aboard small boats with true friends, warm fryjacks and a roof over my head and feel blessed…and grateful still for all three.
Shawn Hart is a Mt. Airy resident and former editor at the Chestnut Hill Local.