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Sailing in the Time of Covid: The 2020 "JOST ST MICHAELS"/Chesapeake Reunion and Back to the Boats

Please bear with me. This 2020 memory is long, but in too many ways to count, so was the year!

For the week of July 10-17 2020, I planned to sail the British Virgin Islands with boating friends and sailors from across the country. Yachts had been chartered, itineraries planned and airline reservations made. I saved every email from Joan Jackson, longtime friend and one of our trip organizers, in a file named BVI2020. I looked forward to a week on a Moorings 5000 from which I’d take sunrise and sunset photos and videos from the flybridge. Then came COVID. In March, organizers developed a “wait and see” attitude. In April there was no choice left but to cancel. Instead, we set our sights on July 2021.

With Maryland’s COVID restrictions on outdoor recreation, I was sure the only way I’d see a boat or body of water would be courtesy of Travel Channel reruns. But all was not lost. When outdoor recreation regulations were finally eased, Captain Lemart Presley, owner of Cool Breeze Sailing Charters, came up with an alternative to fill the void for Chesapeake Bay sailors and boaters. Why let the week go to waste? Since we can’t sail the BVI, let’s sail the Chesapeake instead.

For members of local sailing and boating clubs, it was familiar and loved territory. For me, with all of my childhood and more than 20 years of my adult life spent in Queen Anne’s County, the Chesapeake Bay was home.

Joan and I joined the group in St. Michaels. Except for the location, Sunday at Foxy’s (named after the iconic BVI bar) could have been the first day on Tortola at Voyage Yacht Charters in Soper’s Hole or the Moorings in Roadtown. It was the same shared meal, greeting of friends we see only once a year and the obligatory boat-to-boat hop. The next two and a half days were the best of both worlds.

Instead of the BVI’s Jost Van Dyke, “Jost St. Michaels” was a distinctly Chesapeake Bay experience combined with the Caribbean vibe of hot, bright sunny days, jerk chicken and crab cakes, the sounds of country with a whole lot of rhythm and blues, jazz and reggae. The sail from St. Mikes to Kent Island was as much of a nautical good time as a day sail from Cane Garden Bay over to Virgin Gorda and a few hours on Spring Bay Beach or at the Bee Line Bar.

Whenever we sail, I’m always the first one up. My morning ritual is to make coffee and then watch daybreak over the water. A few years ago, at sunrise on Scrub Island, I was out on the deck of our Voyage cat with a hot cup of Cafe Santo Domingo in hand. Two geared-out fishing boats sat docked across from us in the marina. When the sun rose directly behind their fighting chairs, they became the subjects of one of my favorite BVI vacation photos. In July 2020, this time with a cup of Cafe Bustelo close by, a quick cell phone shot of the sunrise behind the masts of nearby sailboats in St. Michaels Harbor became my new early morning favorite. Judging from the comments of Facebook friends, it was a perfect depiction of the beauty of boating life.

Every day of that week on the water was a good day, but if I had to choose a favorite it would have to be Wednesday in the sailing capital city of Annapolis. At first, I hoped we could tie up at the dock and avoid a bumpy water taxi drop-off at Cool Breeze. Instead, the rocking and rolling ride at dusk through the crowded mooring field brought back the memory of a dinghy trip across Cane Garden Bay and back to our boat after a barbeque dinner and dancing at Myetts. Instead of a full Caribbean-style spread, our onboard meal was a tasty carry-out from the menu of Carroll’s Creek across the bridge in Eastport. The lighted State Capitol shone in the distance. Closer by, lights from the harborside buildings reflected on the water. Later that night, we paused our playlist of smooth jazz and R&B for taps heard over the water from the nearby Navy Academy.

No trip to the BVI would be complete without the traditional end of sail farewell. This time it was Captain Bill Reddick’s technical skills that “brought a bunch of old-assed Black Boaters Summit folk together” into a new communications reality. Zoom took the place of Nanny Cay or Leverick Bay. The Saturday evening virtual reunion was like old times over Painkillers, fruit punch, or a Carib beer. Some of us even had a sandy beach as our background. Many BBS alumni hadn’t seen each other since 2017, when Irma tore through the islands, making it a challenge to visit in the two years that followed. For others, it had been longer.

Near the end of the gathering, longtime BBSer Johnny Parham Jr., boatmate and king of the Dark and Stormy, raised his “Ten Thirsty” toast. From all over the country, we lifted our glasses to the late Paul Mixon, the man who was always in motion as the originator, organizer, and cheerleader of Black Boaters Summit. He freely claimed responsibility for a few BBS marriages but was even more responsible for the friendships that were in evidence that night on our tablets, laptops, and cell phone screens. In what might be his most significant accomplishment, Paul was the encouragement to others who might never have stepped onboard a boat, inspiring them to join the ranks of sailors and boaters. Our presence was evidence of his success. Paul’s emails always ended with his signature “see you in the BVI.” That night it was a promise we made to each other.

Here we are, one year later, after a year that could best be described as “Twilight Zone 2020.” Although COVID has by no means disappeared, some semblance of normalcy has returned. Last week on Kent Island, the long-awaited sail and powerboat show took place.

We can’t afford to let down our guard, but we can look forward to more time on the water in summer 2021. Even so, our promise to meet in the BVI will have to wait until 2022. Until then, there will always be the mighty, magnificent Chesapeake Bay.


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