Spartina Comes to Ocracoke
I was down at the dock early yesterday morning when I caught sight of a spiffy little gaff-rigged yawl scudding merrily across Silver Lake on the morning breeze. A lone sailor sat at her tiller under a broad-brimmed hat which called to mind old photographs of Capt. Joshua Slocum as he sailed his famous yawl SPRAY around the world over a century ago.
I could have stood admiring the boat indefinitely had I not been called back to the present by my biking buddy, Mariah Daisy, who was eager to get on with our routine trek to Springer's Point.
Later in the morning as I tended Sundae's nautical shop (i.e., sat in a porch rocker reading a book) said broad-brimmed sailor suddenly appeared at the porch step asking for a little local knowledge.
He introduced himself as Steve Earley from Chesapeake, Va. and, after answering a few questions about his boat and his current itinerary, he agreed to be photographed and interviewed for the Current.
The yawl SPARTINA was designed by a New Zealander named Welsford and is called a "Pathfinder." With a sparred length of 24' she is only 17' 4" on deck. It took Steve 22 months to build her in his garage – he completed her in 2006. Since the boat is trailerable, he has taken her on 16 or 18 cruises so far, mostly by himself. The beautiful varnished spars are all of "bird's mouth" construction (a traditional technique for building wooden masts in the good old days).
Steve launched the vessel in Elizabeth City a few days prior to his arrival here on his present cruise, spending the first night in a remote cypress swamp off the Alligator River, the second night off the town of Belhaven and the third night in East Bluff Bay just across the Sound from Ocracoke. This style of cruising is almost unheard of in this era of high-tech gadgetry. The bare bones simplicity of single handing in an open boat really puts the sailor back in touch with the elements. He sleeps under the stars on clear nights (and frequently under mosquito netting!). A simple boom tent shelters him from rain. Eschewing both refrigeration and ice, Steve has fruit cups and granola bars for breakfast. He boils water on a propane burner for freeze-dried back-pack meals.
I commented that when I first saw him sailing, I thought his boat might be a Drascombe Lugger. This is a British production yawl that was popular among small boat enthusiasts from the mid 1960s through the 70s. The type was made famous in some circles by a wildly adventurous single-handed circumnavigator named Webb Chiles. As expected, Steve was quite familiar with the Lugger, but I was impressed to hear that Steve knew Webb Chiles personally and had actually sailed with him. Several years ago, I’d read three or four of Chiles’s books and had rather assumed, given his egregiously risky lifestyle, that he couldn’t possibly still be living (in fact, I seem to recall that his first boat was called Egregious). Au contraire! Steve tells me that Chiles is currently on yet another small boat circumnavigation (as well as his 6th marriage!) and that he has written a few books since the last one I read. I look forward to reading the rest of his books and I suspect, if you’ve hung in there long enough to still be reading this, you’d enjoy them as well.
Steve’s plan for this little adventure is to sail from here to Wysocking Bay, thence to Roanoke Island followed perhaps by a visit to Columbia before returning to Elizabeth City to haul out for home.
Last night, Mariah Daisy and I had a “sleepover” on the Windfall II, which rocked us to sleep with her rolling and pitching in the dock slip all night. When we arose this morning at 6 and looked out the hatch, the Spartina was still anchored at the head of the harbor with his riding sail set [the aftermost “mizzen” left up at anchor and sheeted tight to keep the vessel pointed straight into the wind so that it doesn’t sheer back and forth all night].
But when we finished our blueberry pancakes a bit later and headed home to get ready for school, the boat had vanished. The 20 to 30 m.p.h. wind was enough to cancel my sunset cruise but for Steve Earley and his able little yacht it was just another ticket to ride!