A mariner's migration

After years on the Chesapeake, he's a visitor no longer

June 01, 2008|By Dick Cooper

The Canada geese have left and the osprey are in their nests, sure signs that another migratory flock is heading for the Chesapeake Bay.

They come every Friday, headlights cutting the darkness of marina parking lots from North East to Kent Narrows. The sound of popping trunk lids is followed by the rhythmic click-clack of cart wheels on dock boards.

The "Pennsylvania Navy" has returned to Maryland for yet another season of boating on the bay.

For 28 years, I was a sailor in that fleet. Every weekend, from April through November, while most of my colleagues and neighbors fled inland Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware for the sandy beaches of the Atlantic or the cool mountains of the Poconos, I drove two hours south to get to my boat on the Chesapeake.

I was not alone. According to Robert Gaudette, director of boating services for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, about 28,000 of the almost 200,000 boats registered in Maryland belong to people who live in other states. While he does not have a breakdown of where these boat owners live, a look around the marinas on the upper bay tells the story. Almost all of the cars are from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The hailing ports of the boats include the seafaring villages of York, Lancaster, Radnor, Bryn Mawr, Bethlehem, Medford, Cherry Hill and Dover, all places where the resident sea gulls live over shopping mall parking lots. Some friends make the trip from State College and Pittsburgh every weekend to sail the bay.

If you don't love boating, it is hard to understand why we leave our homes to drive the back roads of the Eastern Shore, dodging deer and raccoon, to spend days sailing, eating and sleeping in a space a bit bigger than a Hummer.

But once you have arrived at the marina, the stress of a week's work slips off like a loose silk tie. The fresh air, with its salt tang, fills your lungs clearing out the city smog. The squawk of a heron, flying low over the harbor, drowns out all memories of traffic jams.

Saturdays are spent cruising the bay by sail or power to marinas, villages and quiet back creeks. Riding at anchor for the night is one of the true joys of life. The only sounds are night birds, the lapping of small waves at the hull and the occasional splash of a fish. The sunsets on the bay are wondrous, and you end the evening in the cockpit under a blanket of stars so thick it is hard to make out major constellations. Sundays we head back, refreshed.

Pennsylvania Navy members are an interesting lot. We spend a fair amount of time talking about sailing adventures, storms survived, boat parts in need of repair and the latest electronic device. We may know a fellow sailor by first name only, for years. We share a common love for the water but often know little about each other's lives on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line.

I once passed a well-dressed man on the sidewalk in Philadelphia and realized minutes later that he was a boater I had known for 10 years. Never before had we seen each other in long pants.

Pennsylvania Navy sailors use their boats differently than the natives. We treat them more intensely as weekend homes, the way others treat their shore or mountain retreats. The natives use them when the weather is nice or the fish are biting.

This leads me to a short summary of the life cycle of a Pennsylvania Navy sailor.

First Stage: Buy a boat you can barely afford but can sleep and cruise on (23 to 30 feet long) and keep it at a Maryland marina as close as possible to your home, reducing the drive time.

Second Stage: Buy a bigger boat you cannot afford, but can sleep, cruise and entertain guests on (30 to 40 feet) and move it to a marina an hour farther south - realizing an hour in a car is the same distance as a day in a boat.

Third and Final Stage: Decide to live in Maryland full time and keep your boat at your own dock or at a slip minutes away. You get to enjoy the wonders of the bay on weekdays, when the weather is good, the fish are biting, and all those Keystone Staters are long gone. Then you are supposed to resign your commission in the Pennsylvania Navy.

I have.

Dick Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize winner who spent 36 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, lives and sails in St. Michaels. This article was distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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