Skip to main content

Dragons invade as cruisers head down the ditch

There seemed to be many more sailboats gathering in the Crawford Bay anchorage at Mile Zero than last year.

Built in the 1970s in California, the Dreadnought 32 was based on John Hanna’s Tahiti ketch from the ’20s, and was the stuff of dreams for the budget voyager.

In the marina where I sit, the numbers for this month exceeded last year’s (with a week to go until the 1st), so my observations may have some basis in fact, as well. And a headline in the business section of the Virginian-Pilot newspaper noted that the stock market had recovered from the latest “correction,” so traveling yachtsmen can feel a little better about their cruising kitties.

This is the best time to play “name that boat,” a pastime I enjoyed from a porch in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, for many years but without the sheer numbers of yachts passing by that I enjoy here. Drop by, enjoy the view. Or as the local yacht club used to say about its coffee-and-biscuits gatherings, “Come on by, just bring a dollar and a lie.”

Show Time

We’re headed into a quieter time of year now that we’ve wrapped up the Annapolis sailboat and powerboat shows, which are particular grinds for companies with a foot in both camps, cranking on for two weeks with two setups and breakdowns. In a moment of downtime I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the major trade and consumer shows I have set up and broken down since my working life began in the 1970s. My major shows count is more than 75, with probably an equal number of regional shows.

The setups and breakdowns are separated by a string of days trying to maintain a bright and steady salesman’s patois, and I find myself falling into the same greeting and engagement phrases I have developed across three industries and four decades. It is not all work; I love to talk, and there is nothing I enjoy more than a conversation about boats.

The drawback to the timing of the shows is that I miss one of the signature sailing events here in Portsmouth, Virginia, the finish of the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. It fills the waterfront with some spectacular vessels, including the Pride of Baltimore II, which won its class but was nosed out for line honors by the Annapolis-based Woodwind. Growing up in Maine, big schooners were a regular treat, and I hated to miss the Chesapeake celebration. Because my current target retirement age is in my 70s, it may be 2025 before I see another one.

Enter the Dragon (Boat)

Sometime in the fall a friend from the marina told me that he had received a call about towing six 40-foot canoes known as dragon boats from one place to another around Portsmouth and Norfolk. He asked me whether I knew what they were. I had a vague mental image of a human-powered vessel with a dragon’s head on the bow — other than that, a big blank.

And then one day there they were: four of these canoes with 10 paddlers on each side, a helmsman aft and a drummer forward, flying toward a finish line on the Norfolk waterfront. In the Virginian-Pilot there was a photo and a short article about a charity event for the local children’s hospital, along with a close-up shot of a lot of folks having a lot of fun. So off to the Web I ran.

Clearly I have been missing a whole subset of boating. Although I’m familiar with several multipaddler racing canoes and racing outrigger canoes through some dedicated paddlers in my family, dragon boats had not come up on my radar. Dragon boats have been raced in China for more than 2,000 years, and international organized racing began in 1976 when foreign crews were invited to a Hong Kong event.

Dragon boat racing is pretty big stuff in the Far East and growing fast elsewhere. Charity events work by hiring an organizer to bring in some boats and supply drummers and drivers. Local groups make up the paddlers and pay for the fun and bragging rights. The entry and sponsorship fees go to the charity after the overhead is covered. Google “dragon boat racing.” Maybe I’ll see you out there.

Another On-Water Competition

Tidewater Marina has some long-term liveaboards who have known each other for quite a while and developed a seasonal pastime I refer to as “competitive decorating.” I first noticed it last year as two adjoining yachts steadily escalated the level and sophistication of their decorations, including some quite stylish ghouls flying from the outriggers before Halloween. One of these boats is cruising and hasn’t returned to see what this year’s throw-down looks like. I can’t wait for the ante to be upped.

Last year I asked the skipper of one boat whether there was a little healthy competition going on with his neighbor. His answer: “Wait till Christmas. It goes from healthy to sick.” As you read this, the incremental decorative warfare will be well underway.

Today at Mile Zero

In addition to the Halloween shenanigans at the marina, there also has been a procession of interesting yachts — expedition motor- yachts, a 10 Meter Class sailboat with a U.K. flag (gorgeous) and a procession of recent Euro-style sailboats with sharp bows, wide sterns and twin wheels. My favorite group was well represented: the sturdy little cutters and ketches festooned with wind and solar generators, and lots of plastic jerry cans tied to the lifelines.

A particularly nice example of the Dreadnought 32, a Tahiti-style ketch, swung into the Travelift for a cutless bearing and prop change. A Maine hailing port gave me a reason to engage and discover lots of mutual places and people.

A big spectacle was the cruise ship Carnival Splendor doing its 180-degree spin in front of the office. At nearly 1,000 feet, her stern gets pretty close to the marina bulkhead, and the ship channel is effectively blocked. Her big horn prior to departure always brings some families to the seawall to get up close and personal, and wave bon voyage to the happy holiday makers.

The big stripers are headed home to the Bay, the oyster roasts and festivals are in full swing, and the transients have had a few nights to see how far they can get through the brew menu at the Bier Garden before they have to leave. It never gets dull at Mile Zero. See you at the bottom of the Bay, the top of the Ditch.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.