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Red, right, return: buoys as rites of passage

It was always out there. Way out there. Tethered by an old chain to a mushroom anchor at the end of the long shoal stretching between the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers, where they joined in a Y to form the mighty York.

Reaching the elusive Red Buoy as a youngster was just the beginning of Tom's cruising adventures.

Thousands of years ago that shoal had been land, full of forest and marsh. Hundreds of years ago members of the Powhatan Confederation camped and hunted and staged war parties on what was then left of the land. But each year the storms had come and taken some of it away. So by the time I was around 10 years old, in the 1950s, the river had eaten its way up the dry land of the peninsula, lengthening the shoal to where it ended at a small river town between the banks of the two rivers. One end of the town looked out over the shoal, toward the Red Buoy.

It was a faraway challenge, an enigma and a lure to small boys. The grownups who went on the river talked about it. It was where those fortunate enough to have powerboats could go to fish. It was, for those heading farther down the river, a landmark, signifying that they were now really on the way or, upon returning, finally getting closer to home. But a small boy like me could only know about it from others because I didn’t have a boat with an engine. I could only imagine. But some things I knew.

From far down the river, steamboats used to churn their way to town, coming in from distant ports such as Baltimore and Norfolk. Near the buoy they had to change course to come up one river or another. If they didn’t heed it, they’d pile up on the long shoal. And sometimes it couldn’t be seen in the rain or fog.

When there was a drowning, you knew about it, if you didn’t already, because they would be firing cannons as they traveled past the Red Buoy “to make the body come up.” In the days of lumber-laden schooners, they would sometimes anchor there, just off the shoal, to wait for a favorable tide.

When bad storms came, the Red Buoy would be first to feel them as they roared up the river. When Hurricane Hazel flooded much of the town and left the surrounding countryside damaged for months, it came from the direction of the Red Buoy. When the tanker came and offloaded thousands of gallons of fuel for the town’s storage tanks — fuel to feed cars and pickup trucks, tractors and combines, chain saws and sawmills — it came past that Red Buoy. When the tugs came, hauling monolithic barges piled with wood or wood chips, they came past that buoy, and when they went away hauling paper and wood, they knew they were well on their trip when they again passed the buoy.

As a young boy, I always longed to see the buoy and to pass it. I knew that the broad river swept for many miles through farm and woods and finally opened into Chesapeake Bay. And I knew it wasn’t far from that wide junction that the Bay, sweeping between Cape Henry and Cape Charles, joined the Atlantic — and from there, a new universe. But I only had a 12-foot rowboat.

I knew I was lucky to have, it and I loved it dearly and cared for it daily. But I also knew I’d probably never make it to that buoy in my small boat. The current was swift, the buoy was far, and I was forbidden, both by common sense and by parents, from trying to row down the river to see it. But one day I did.

Tom graduated to bigger boats and nav aids.

The water was calm, the summer day hot and stable. The tide was running out, and it would help us. A friend and I got in my boat, each grabbing an oar, and started downriver to where we knew it would be. We couldn’t see it from the beach, but we knew it wouldn’t be hard to row in the right direction because if you wandered off the tapering shoal, the water changed into the dark patches and swirls of strong currents and eddies. And sure enough, we finally saw it, bobbing in the distance. At first we couldn’t tell whether it was red, and we worried. As we drew closer it looked white. As we drew even closer we saw that the white was only seagull droppings over the rusted red paint. I’ve never been so relieved to see seagull poo.

We had finally reached our goal. The buoy bobbed and danced with a bow wave around its upriver side and a wake behind it. We soon swept past it, and I back-oared to turn the skiff around to head home. But we kept sweeping beyond it. The tidal current, which had been weak and manageable upriver, had picked up to a force to be reckoned with downriver. We suddenly realized that we were going to have to do some reckoning with that tide, like it or not.

We knew that we first had to regain the buoy because the tide had swept us out into the deep channel with the strongest current. Pulling with bending backs, we finally regained the shallows, where it was easier but hardly easy. The sun punished us without mercy. We hadn’t thought to bring water.

We wanted to jump over and swim to cool off, but as soon as we stopped pulling we lost far too much ground. Our hands had calluses from normal summer work, but the calluses began wearing off to raw skin. And we knew we couldn’t stop rowing. We hadn’t told anyone we were going. All of the rules of parents and innate common sense of growing up on the river were suddenly making a lot more sense than we’d ever imagined.

It finally got shallow enough so that we could jump in, wading up to our stomachs, and pull the boat with the painter and anchor line. We knew that if we lost the boat we could still “walk home,” and we had to leave some skin on our hands. We rigged the rope around our hands so that it abraded other hand meat, but the salt water still stung our blisters as our feet carefully found holds in the sandy, grassy bottom, which was full of the hard crabs we’d been catching to sell to neighborhood ladies. We knew what a mad hard crab could do to toes or a foot.

As we got closer to the beach, we saw people watching. This wasn’t going to be good. The crowd included parents. Indeed, it wasn’t good, although by that time we didn’t need to be told we’d done something really stupid. Still, we were glad we’d seen the Red Buoy.

And that was just the beginning. As soon as I got an outboard for that skiff, I headed downriver, easily passing the buoy and returning. I went farther with each trip. I’ll never forget the first day I saw the mouth of the river and the Chesapeake, stretching away to regions far out of sight. To the north was the entire rest of the Bay. To the south was Hampton Roads, one of the largest shipping harbors in the world, and to the east-southeast was the Atlantic — the rest of the world.

In a way, it was like the first time I saw the Red Buoy. And I figured that, with a reasonable ration of hard work and perhaps a modicum of good sense, I’d reach the rest of the Chesapeake and even the ocean. The Bay came first.

Wolf Trap Light

Wolf Trap Light continued to play a role in expanding Tom's horizons.

The name alone would inspire a young teenager with curiosity. Surely they must have trapped a lot of wolves ashore. It was desolate in there, with deep woods if you made it from shore through the marsh. But it tweaked my psyche with far more than the ancient howl of wolves.

I’d heard about it for years from seamen and fishermen who worked the Chesapeake. I first saw it from the shoals of another lighthouse, New Point Light, standing proud off a beautiful small island that, in my mind, was like my very own tropical island, at least in the summer. I’d travel down the York and cross the mouth of Mobjack Bay and pole my boat up into the cut between the island and the mainland to explore. It’s now often crowded, but I was usually the only person there then. A farmhouse and keeper’s house had been there long ago.

On a clear day, looking up the Bay from New Point, you could see Wolf Trap Light, standing tall far off the shore. It had been guiding mariners for many years, its keeper rowing or sailing out and living in the scant quarters of the structure. One had died in a long-ago storm, and it was said that he haunted his house ashore on Gwynns Island.

Unlike New Point, where the keeper lived in a house near the base of the light (long ago washed away), Wolf Trap rose out of the waters, not from a spit of land, and the light keeper lived in the lower brick portion of the structure, underneath the light room. He lived in his own man-made island at sea — a fascinating life, I imagined.

So Wolf Trap beckoned. I not only wanted to see it close but also wanted to see what was beyond it — the entire rest of the Bay. But it took a whole day to get to New Point, and the light was far beyond that. Safe harbors, so far as I knew then, were few and far between on the coast below and above the light. I couldn’t just take off from the known territory of New Point Light and head up there. I had to explore the creeks in between and beyond first so that I would know the harbors of refuge and not be caught out in the Bay in the dark or, worse, a storm.

Eventually my desire to see the rest of the Bay got me to Wolf Trap. But I didn’t stop. I wanted to see Tangier Island, where I had heard that the people, mostly watermen, still spoke the dialect of those who came over from England in sailing ships. It was remote, low and a part of older times. And it was seemingly out of reach.

Wolf Trap was to me a first step in reaching it, like the Red Buoy had been a first step in reaching the Bay. Like so many other nautical landmarks in my life, Wolf Trap was a far place that was hard enough in its own right to reach, but it was only another beginning, for once you got there you pretty much had to keep on going.

One morning, after sleeping with the mosquitoes behind New Point, I headed north. By then I had an 18-foot skiff, and it was loaded with jugs of gas and provisions. The day was clear, and I could see Wolf Trap when I poked out of the cut. As I approached this old lighthouse, I marveled at the windows on top, which contained the lantern. Rusted twisted stairs rose from the docking area, and an elegant privy hung out over the side. But the light was automatic even then, with no soul around but me. After a few circles, I continued on to the challenge that Wolf Trap really presented.

From there, there were no more landmarks that I knew of. I knew that the shores of the Bay, mostly marshy, widened to the west to creeks and inlets such as “Hole in the Wall” and Stutts Creek and the Piankatank River, eventually to the yawning maw of the Potomac. I knew that this looked out over miles and miles of empty water, all the way to the distant and out-of-sight Eastern Shore with its creeks and rivers and inlets — none of which I had seen. And I knew that, in that broad expanse of water off the Potomac, I’d find Tangier.

But that’s about all I knew. My compass, rescued from a boat sunk in Hurricane Hazel, worked, kind of. My chart was an old “Esso Cruising Guide” showing the bay and “artistically” rendered landmarks and lighthouses, placed very roughly in the general vicinity of their true location. I anchored at night in shallow creeks, poling my way in, and by the light of my kerosene lantern I would try to figure out whether I’d seen anything that day that looked at all like the Esso pictures.

Somehow, and I’m really not sure how, I found Tangier. The people there were good, hearty folks who knew the waters more than most. When they saw me come into the creek and up to the fuel dock, they asked where I had come from.

At first they didn’t believe me. When they finally did, the word going around the island was that there was either a very brave, sea-savvy kid who’d floated in or a complete fool who was very lucky. I suspect that the prevailing consensus was the latter, and I believe they were right. But with this under my belt, I was ready to head farther. After many years and boats, I had explored most of the Bay and many of its tributaries. However, I couldn’t do this in the winter.

Gun Cay Light

By the early 1980s, I had seen many aids to navigation. Most were no more than that, just aids. Some held special significance, but all were important in one way or another. By then Mel, my wife, and I had sold our 41-foot ketch and gotten a 47-foot sloop-rigged motorsailer. We’d sailed her along some of the eastern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, around the Florida Keys, along the East Coast, and, yes, all around the Chesapeake.

We had a wood-burning stove aboard and had even anchored in snowstorms on the Bay. But we knew winter didn’t have to bring cold. We’d talked about the Bahamas for years. We knew this was a vastly different world of cruising, and we knew there were numerous ways to get there. We knew that there were few buoys there and that passing through reef and coral heads to enter the Bahamas Banks could take boats and lives. We’d listened over hot rum punch and winter winds howling in the rigging about a favorite entrance, Gun Cay Light. We chose to enter there.

This was a far destination from the Chesapeake. We planned to go down the coast and then wait for weather to take off from Angelfish Creek south of Miami. We talked with friends, studied guides and charts, and even had a Loran that we knew would be hit and miss as we sailed farther east. But we had baby daughters aboard, and we did everything to be safe.

The entrance at Gun Cay Light was only about 45 miles away from the East Coast, and if you left from Angelfish the Gulf Stream current would speed your crossing. We were anxious to get across the Stream because we had heard how rough — even dangerous — it could become if the weather goes sour. And winter was the time for northers.

We left at first light, carefully feeling our way across the lump near the outside of the “creek” and through Hawk Channel and the coral reef just off the coast. We appreciated all of the buoys that made this part of the trip so much easier and safer. And then there were none. The water was deeper than we had ever experienced, and our anxiety to see Gun Cay Light grew.

We knew that even when we reached that goal we’d have a difficult time getting onto the Banks because we’d have to motor straight in through shallow water to a rock wall, turn sharply to starboard at the right place, travel a short distance more, and then turn to port at the right place. The “right place” was important because the wrong place was filled with rock and shallow reef. But we knew that if we didn’t see the light, all of the places around would be the “wrong place.”

What lies beyond the horizon? Only the buoy knows.

The low, rocky islands of the Bimini chain rose first, like a gray smudge on the eastern horizon. What about the light? We were accustomed to conspicuous aids, experienced East Coast cruisers that we were. Even the Red Buoy had been obvious enough once the seagull poop was recognized for what it was. But in what was perhaps our most dangerous landfall to date, we weren’t seeing what we’d expected: a “lighthouse.”

Carefully, we continued eastward, watching the colors of the water change as the Bimini wall rose directly from the deeps, and the colors of the rocks and coral and sand shimmered through the blue. We knew we were supposed to come in at a rather precise bearing on the light, but you’ve gotta see the light to do that. We suddenly realized we were doing just that.

The little house-like tower to which we had been heading, with some vestiges of white paint on it (not seagull poo), was indeed Gun Cay Light. Other than that and a service dock and shack, the Cay was barren rock with scant scrub. But we were in the Bahamas. After that we spent 19 winters and many other trips exploring those islands and discovering more of the world and about ourselves. The interesting thing is that the Bahamas had very few aids to navigation, and those that were there we often didn’t trust. They had a tendency to wander.

Once, the Northwest Channel Light, a critical light for moving off the eastern edge of the Great Bahamas Banks into the Tongue of the Ocean, was gone. Now this was no mere drifting buoy. It was a steel structure of girders, rebar and platform. And it marked a very narrow, highly critical passage through the reef. We found our way by reading the water.

Imagine what the boat that removed Northwest Channel Light in the the Bahamas must've looked like after this accident.

We later found out that it had steamed into Nassau, proudly perched on the bow of a megayacht. The watch keeper apparently had set the autopilot to GPS, and it had worked perfectly. Like the Red Buoy and all aids since then, reaching it didn’t solve all problems.

We did learn to trust aids to navigation that people hadn’t built. We learned that if you know enough you can tell where you are by signs centuries old. The voluptuous roll of the Fat Virgin foretold the British Virgin Islands rising from the Caribbean. The twin hills beckoned to a special island in the Bahamas. The high land on the north Jersey coast, the big rock inside Big Rock Cut in the Exumas, the Great Wide Opening halfway down the Exumas and many more God-made ATONs told us not only how to get somewhere but also that we perhaps were in a place we wanted to stay awhile.

We learned to read the water and pick our way into perfect anchorages through tight passages surrounded by rock, sand and coral. We learned to read currents to predict drift. We learned where the lobster hid and how to see the grouper slowly emerge from his perfect camouflaged blend with the shadows under the ledge. We knew the type of bottom the conch loved. We did things, too. We found out what it was like to have sharks close on us as we hunted our dinner. We were bitten by the perils of paradise, including fire coral, sea urchin and ciguatera. We found our way and we survived — with a lot of luck.

Mile Zero

Mile Zero of the ICW off Red 36 means familiar waters for the Neales.

After each voyage to distant waters, we find our way back to some inlet on the East Coast. Unlike those of the Bahamas and many of the Caribbean, each one usually has a sea buoy. We’re glad to see them until we remember that they aren’t as reliable as reading the water and reading the landmarks. But we head up the coast, sometimes inside and sometimes out. The last leg is usually via the ICW because it is longer and less safe to go around Cape Hatteras. The Graveyard of the Atlantic is what it is, even in good weather.

We romp along the Neuse River after Beaufort, N.C., sneak our way through the narrow dredged channel of the cut between the Alligator and Pungo rivers, lazily travel the waters of the Alligator through that lonesome bridge and head across the sometimes treacherous Albemarle Sound. From there it’s easy, except for the perpetual nemeses of the bridges, and with each mile that passes under the keel our anticipation grows. We are nearing our native waters — Chesapeake Bay — to which the York River had taken me, beyond the Red Buoy, many years ago. On these trips we’re looking for another red buoy — Mile Zero of the ICW, just off Red 36. It is where the ICW begins if you’re heading south, where it ends if you’re headed north.

The first time we passed Mile Zero in our 47-foot motorsailer, we had two babies aboard, stores, parts and supplies for a year or more, schoolbooks, and enough excitement and anticipation and awe to fill a hundred of the container ships with which we had just shared the Elizabeth River. We were on the verge of discovering a new universe. Many had discovered it before us, and many would afterward, but to us it was “Going South.”

Year after year we passed Mile Zero off Red 36, heading south or north. We passed it enough times and for enough years that eventually the schoolbooks (and many more) were all read, and our daughters were young ladies and off to college, leaving Mel and me to do it alone, as we had begun. And each time we pass Mile Zero coming north, returning to the Chesapeake, we know that soon we’ll pass the mouth of the York River. It now has other buoys, but it still flows into the Bay.

March 2013 issue