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Story Slam: Sailing the high seas with Maria Day

Racing to Bermuda, circling the Atlantic, dodging an active volcano, killing cockroaches—all in a sailboat. These were adventures Maria Day shared with her story slam audience last week. The forum, started at Hildreth House several months ago by Council on Aging Program Coordinator Jen Schoenberg, has carried on during the pandemic, going virtual these past three months.

Maria Day. (Courtesy photo)

Maria started her talk with a scenario remindful of one in “The Sound of Music”: her family’s escape in the dead of night from eastern Germany, where Russian troops waited with cannons just over the frozen river. “The black, wood-fired, four-seater sedan was slowly leaving our darkened house in the country on a very cold, snowy, winter night, feeling its way along the road without lights to avoid detection by the ever-present danger of air raids. Inside, huddled together, were seven beings, fleeing for their lives to safer territories in the north.” Maria was 4 years old at the time, with two younger brothers. She said those early years of living through danger may have given her the sense of adventure that has driven so much of her life, including the decision to spend five years with her husband aboard a sailboat, circling the Atlantic.

After two years living as refugees with innkeepers or farmers in the countryside, Maria’s family ended up in Kiel, a port in northern Germany on the Baltic Sea. Maria’s sailing started when she was 10 years old and going to Humanistic Gymnasium, for which she had qualified with an exam. Traditionally, the boys outnumbered the girls, but Maria was used to that, having three younger brothers. She helped her good friend scrape and paint the bottom of his family’s wooden daysailer in the spring, and she got sailing days in exchange. They explored the harbor, busy with navy ships, ferries crossing, and huge ships waiting to enter the Kiel Canal to the North Sea, “steering under sail power and learning how to take advantage of every breath of wind.”

It was 30 years before Maria was once again in a boat. She was sailing in Buzzards Bay when she met her husband Bob, who had grown up boating in Lyme, Connecticut. After marriage, they worked together helping to build a medical service company and had time for sailing only on weekends and an annual two-week vacation. Bob had bought a new boat, named Tashtego, a Lord Nelson 41-foot cutter with an added 7-foot solid wooden bowsprit for more sail area. “A beautiful heavy-weather boat, she needed to be tested for all she could do.”

The first test was the Marion-Bermuda Cruising Yacht race in 1985, a regatta of about 145 boats sailing 645 straight nautical miles. There were six aboard, and Bob and Maria had to learn celestial navigation because a sextant was the only allowable tool for setting a course to Bermuda. The night before the start, they were given the most recent weather reports and maps of wind speeds and had to find the fastest way across the very complicated Gulf Stream with its changing winds and big eddies swirling in different directions.

A stormy test

During one night, stormy weather challenged Tashtego’s seaworthiness with furious gale-force winds of sustained 55 knots, even higher in gusts. Most of the crew, including Maria, was severely seasick, and at some point in the night the decision was made to heave to, meaning that sails were adjusted to slow down the boat, and the helm was lashed to leeward so no steering was required. Then Captain Bob ordered all deck crew, who had been lashed on in the cockpit, to detach and go below, and he followed, closing up the hatch behind to keep the heavy seas from spilling down the gangway. For hours they listened to winds howling and breakers crashing hard against the hull and washing across the deck overhead.

When the storm abated, Bob and Maria took sights to get their position, and they sailed at full speed again with good winds, arriving safely in Bermuda. They learned that many boats had been incapacitated and needed to withdraw from the race, rescued by the Coast Guard or other volunteers. Tashtego had escaped major damage, but the head was clogged, and someone needed to dive below the hull with a plunger. Usually Maria would be that someone because of her size and agility, but another person was found for the job and Maria could hang out in the Georgetown lagoon with other boaters, comparing stories. Bob and Maria participated in that race twice more.

A five-year sojourn

Early retirement allowed Bob and Maria to sail full time. In late summer 1994 they rented out their Concord house and made Tashtego their floating home for more than five years. They sailed first to Maine to get a repair on the stove, and then cruised down to the Caribbean via the Chesapeake in the fall. They spent Thanksgiving in the Virgin Islands on a beach with many other sailors, sharing a festive meal, including a huge American turkey flown in by someone’s girlfriend. That winter they spent leisurely visiting every island in the Caribbean, meeting locals, each with a different culture and particular history to tell. In Montserrat they anchored in the bay of Plymouth, but the volcano was restless, and locals were plagued by sporadic lava flows and ash falls; it erupted that summer.

In early April 1995 Maria flew home for the birth of her first grandchild—there was no way she wanted to miss that—and left Bob with the boat in Bermuda. Two weeks later she rejoined him to start their transatlantic voyage, with one of Maria’s brothers and a younger friend aboard. Thanks to a volunteer giving daily weather reports over the shortwave radio, they were able to avoid a huge storm on their way to the Azores.

Arriving in Horta in June, they were met with a harbor full of boats that had raced from England, forcing Bob and Maria to tie up and make their unsteady way over six other boats in a row, lying along floating docks. After exploring the islands, hiking the volcano, and waiting for the right weather, they headed to Gibraltar and then visited southern Spain by car for a few days, including Seville.

That summer and fall they explored the Mediterranean Sea, along the coast of Spain, into France along the Côte d’Azur, and into Italy, leaving the boat for the winter on the little island of Elba. They flew home to spend Christmas with Maria’s kids and the new baby and returned to Provence, where they rented a charming but primitive stone farmhouse and got to know the craftsmen and shops in the Avignon area. That spring they visited all the islands along the Italian coast and stayed a week in Naples, picking up friends from New York. Then on to Greece, where they once anchored over old ruins and explored by dinghy, finding antique pillars and shards of old wine crocks and delighting in olive trees hundreds of years old, “their gnarly, crooked trunks of character cared for by new generations.”

Homeward bound

They spent time in Turkey and later took two excited young granddaughters into the Adriatic and to Croatia, where they explored a medieval castle and swam under a huge waterfall at the end of a sail up a wide river. They made their way to the mouth of the Rhone River for winter 1998-99, and there they reached an important decision: They would not continue north as planned but turn for home in the spring so as not to miss any more of the grandchildren’s growing up.

Their route took them down the coasts of Spain and West Africa to the Canary Islands, where they saw streams of huge turtles swimming by, heading north. In late November they laid in food for three to four weeks and headed to Barbados with one of Maria’s brothers and his wife as crew. Days later, Maria was horrified to discover cockroaches that must have come aboard with some of those supplies.

The trip across the southern Atlantic was easy, often leisurely, sailing, without too much wind. In fact, they had to motor some days in order to get to Barbados before Christmas for her brother’s flight home. Maria swam around the boat on some days when they were “becalmed so completely that the ocean looked like a vast mirror, showing little things that one would never see otherwise”—a bird resting on a floating stick, a colorful Portuguese man-of-war, a sleeping whale.

In Grenada, Bob and Maria joined over 125 other world sailors, a meetup organized by the British Ocean Cruising Club to celebrate the turn of the century with fireworks, festive dinner ashore, and lots of stories to exchange. Most agreed with Maria that, “If the world were to have come to an end, that would have been the perfect place to ride it out.”

Maria closed by saying that making many friends for life was one of the wonderful benefits of her sailing, no matter where. As a child she had learned to be self-sufficient and to make do with what she had. Life on a boat reinforced these lessons, and they have stood her in good stead in this pandemic. She still sails with her brother in Europe every summer, but, she said, “I also have great adventures every day—I find them in my garden.”

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