A month in America

To those of you who wondered where we’d got to, the answer is Knapp’s Narrows, on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. We’ve travelled all of 50 yards from where Tomia has spent the winter. The past month has sped by, on all sorts of boaty doings, improvements, repairs; we have now been in the water for four days, and may well get sailing again any day now...

At present Anthony is tying himself in knots inside small cupboards installing the wiring for a new wash–down pump; one of those boating jobs which initially seems like nothing more taxing than ordering the kit from the chandlery, and handing over the cash. Four or five days’ solid work, a new deck fitting, a distribution panel, a fuse box, a bus bar and much cable later, he is still convinced it will be worth while.

This blog is dedicated to our dear friends Don and MaryKay, who have made the past month a delight, not just a long slog. We originally met them when they joined us for a Little Ship Club cruise in the West Country, which we were using as Tomia’s shake–down. They were wonderfully calm and easy company then on a boat that we were very much still getting to know (I commend Don’s washing up skills to anybody), and since then we have spent happy days together last summer, when they introduced us to the delights of crab–picking, and sailing together on another joint LSC / Corinthian cruise in Maine.

This spring they invited us to stay with them while we’re working on the boat, and have not just been generous and welcoming to a pair of strays, but have, with their ease and warmth and with Don’s terrible puns, and our shared love of food, both good and bad, provided a true home from home. Their hot tub has been a splendid place to pummel away the aches of a day’s sanding, their breakfast table the venue to discuss wiring diagrams, their dining table a place to sew curtains. We have shared meals and excursions to the seaside, blown and decorated Easter Eggs together, done comparative tastings of wine and doughnuts, dissected books and boats, and watched the Royal Wedding eating a vast full English breakfast. Meanwhile, their two beautiful marmalade cats, Blaze and Fireball, have maintained an enticingly aloof dignity, with occasional brief teasing lapses into demands for attention. We shall be picking their fur out of our clothes for some time, and thinking with great affection of Don and MaryKay for a good deal longer.

Here are a few diary extracts from the past month:

Wednesday 30th March

Back on board. Tomia has acquired a Smell while we have been away. A gagging, nauseating Smell, comprised of marsh gas and diesel fumes, with a hint of rotten lemon and top notes of decomposed garlic and chives. We turn her inside out, trying to track down the source, lifting the floorboard, into every cupboard, expecting to find a nest of decayed baby mice floating in the bilge water. Nothing, and the Smell is so pervasive that we can’t identify where it is coming from.

Start putting things away, and am hit by the realisation that for the next six months, everything I need: felt pens, underwear, plastic boxes, rice, loo paper, writing paper, will be in a box in a locker under a lid under a cushion, or in a box behind another box in a tightly packed cupboard. Heart sinks.

Monday 4th April

Spring arrives overnight. All the trees are in blossom, the flowering cherries dance like petticoats, the boatyard is in full flight, the freedom of the seas calls us again. We set to work filling and sanding.

Two days away with the hatches closed, and hot weather has allowed the Smell to regroup; volatile, it floats to the top of the cabin and waits in the companionway with a sucker punch. I take one last gasp of fresh air and dash in, sniffing intently like a drug–seeking spaniel. The source is definitely somewhere in the galley and engine area.

Wednesday 6th April

Sun shining, trees in blossom, a sharp wind but off we go again. Have I found the source of the Smell? Clean out lower cupboard with all the spices, the banana ketchup seems to have gone off, could believe that the Smell had components of that, or marmite, or mouldy Angostura …

Tuesday 12th

To supper with Alice and Andy Mutch, in their stunning house just outside Annapolis. Alice turns out to be a fabulous cook, though I don’t think I should share the secret of just what makes the lightly grilled oysters so delicious.

Friday 15th

What a wonderful country this is. At Target [think upmarket Woolworth’s in its prime, to the power of ten] they have a mini golf cart to push the trolleys back from the car park.

Sat 16th

This morning, doing my exercises on the floor, Blaze comes in, vastly affectionate, purring like a steam–train. I tickle in front of his hip–bone, he stands there, tail thrashing, purring, occasionally rubbing his cheek along my side. The rest of the day he ignores me.

Sunday 17th

A day off. To Adkins Arboretum, lovely to be outside on such a beautiful day. Blue, blue skies, perfect temperature. Trees here are lovely in spring; we don’t know them as automatically as we do English ones, they are a constant surprise and urge us to really look at them, with an intensity and a wonder we have forgotten. Highlights: the maple that starts spring with what appear to be red leaves, which turn out to be little sycamore–type helicopters, and then the green leaves come through; dogwood, maturing from the small greeny white flowers like cherry blossom, to plate–sized white flowers; red oak with tiny red leaves unfolding as soft and flocked as an Indian restaurant’s wall paper, other oaks bearing catkins, all the flowering cherries and almonds, now just starting to turn, the Redbuds, close relation of our Judas tree. What a wonderful country this is.

In the woods also saw a Black Snake, about 4ft long. A rustle. How effective our ears are at triangulating that unseen potential threat.

Tue 19th

To Ocean City with MaryKay and Don, it is to be a junk food fest. We start as they mean to go on, at the doughnut bakery in Cambridge, which has an amazingly decorated collection of Easter cakes. Also a splendid rabbit face made entirely out of doughnut material and chocolate icing. If only there were a way of posting it to Ralf and Casper!

On to the rather splendid Ward museum of decoys in Salisbury, which has morphed into a fascinating collection of carved wooden birds of all shapes, sizes and relations to nature. The story of the original Ward brothers, whose decoys would, rather shamefacedly, be returned with gunshot in them. 2,000 year old Indian decoys found buried in some marsh. Amazing how people can create a representation of feathers in wood, they get the furriness, the soft haze, just by carving thousands of tiny straight lines in the wood. Don, who has done a very passable bird himself, says the target is 60 lines to the inch. A bald eagle, life size; lovely, less representational birds of prey; an osprey with a very dead puffin, all carved from wood.

Then on to the beach at Assateague, with the “famous” wild ponies, much photographed. A walk along the empty windswept beach, some horseshoe crabs thrown up, very ancient, amazing they have survived, they invest so much in the production of those vast shells. Finally, our true destination, the boardwalk at Ocean City. We join in with the spirit of the place, and eat Thrashers French Fries, which are as good and potatoey as you will find this side of Aldeburgh, Dolly’s Caramel Corn, a funnel cake (fried dough) and frozen custard, and buy a parrot to blow in the breeze. Waddle home.

Wednesday 20th

Pink dogwoods are taking over from the cherry blossoms, and wild wisteria starts to bloom in the woods. The Japanese maples are out; the colour palette is changing from pink to purple.

Tuesday 26th

Launch day. A sparrow flies into the hollow boom just before we go in, while Anthony is putting anti–foul on the bottom of the keel. The bird inspects the quarters thoroughly, pops out and sits at the end of the boom, shrilly telling the world how clever he is, this late in the season, to have found such a very desirable apartment. Any lady sparrow with any sense should abandon her miserable lodgings in a hedge and come and join him right now. And any male sparrow who thinks he can chase him out of this splendid pad had better think again. He’ll fight the lot of them.

The travel lift engine starts up, and he carries right on cheeping. The boat starts to swing round, and he pauses, thoughtful. He keeps on sitting on the end of the boom, unwilling to relinquish his claim to this fabulous location, even though it now increasingly seems to be built on the sparrow equivalent of the San Andreas Fault, right until Tomia goes into the water, and we start our own engine and chug off.

Unpacking and stowing – of course in order to put anything away, you have to take everything else off the cushions which are above the spot where you want to stow things. So you put them down, and the stuff on the cushions is supposed to be quite separate, but when you’ve put the storage wells’ lids back on, and the cushions back, there is always one more thing that should have gone there. And, probably, a few things that weren’t supposed to have gone there which will now be missing and result in exhaustive and condemnatory searchings until they reappear as the by–product of a search for something quite different.

Collapse into bed at 9 – or we would do if we didn’t realise that we haven’t found or unpacked the sheets …

Wednesday 27th

Now we are in the water, we find out that the fridge isn’t working, and there is a leak in the water pump which has drenched the cupboard full of books. I’ve never before seen a book so wet that if you squeeze it water runs out.

Friday 29th

Watch the Royal Wedding with Don and MaryKay, who have recorded it for us. To get us in the mood, we all chomp through fried bacon, fried eggs, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms, fried sausages, baked beans and toast. That’s the British mood we’re getting into with all that nosh, not the “fit into a slinky dress and look stunning” mood, obviously.

To remind us we are in a foreign country:
Listening to the radio on the way over, a woman from Ohio was having a breakfast Royal Wedding party, with all her girl friends in ball gowns, drinking Mimosas [Buck’s Fizz], and serving Toad in the Hole in order to be British. “What’s Toad in the Hole?” the interviewer asked “A slice of toast with a hole cut out in the middle and an egg fried in that” she said, and we, in common with every other Brit listening to the radio, shout “No it’s not!”.

An American journalist is talking to an English girl picnicking in Hyde Park after the wedding, and the girl says something about “how they’re taking advantage of the good weather” and the interviewer says, a bit nonplussed, “but the sun isn’t shining, it’s overcast” and the English girl replies, quite seriously (and I know exactly what she means) “but it isn’t raining, and it’s warm for the time of year”. The journalist finds nothing further to say.

Celia Mason, 04.05.2011 | More from Celia Mason’s blog