The Dismal Swamp Canal is tops. After a dose of enchanting motoring through cypress swamps and and the tannin-tinged corridor resplendent with birds, we came to Elizabeth City, the Harbor of Hospitality.
We read about other people sensing a feeling of ‘former glory’ for this small, but well-established, downtown area but all we could see was hopeful re-emergence. They’ve built themselves a boring stripmall sort of a thing complete with fast food restaurants that’s only a 5 minute drive from the beautiful brick buildings you find in the original hub of Elizabeth City.
Cruisers know this place for lots of reasons, but my favorite story is the one about the Rose Buddies, Fred Fearing and Joe Kramer. The free town docks had just been built in 1983 thanks to donations, and these two long-time residents decided spontaneously one Sunday to welcome all the boaters who happened to be at the docks. Joe clipped 17 roses from his garden and Fred brought wine and cheese, and the 17 boats on the dock were hosted by the two men who would be known as the Rose Buddies, and the kind gesture became tradition.
When Joe died, his rose bushes were transplanted to the park at the docks. Fred continued the tradition until his death, bringing to the docks more than snacks and wine, but also bringing stories about the Dismal Swamp Canal and about local history. Now local businesses keep the legend of hospitality alive, and the Museum of the Albermarle takes care of the history part.
It’s a bit after the season for all that, so we didn’t get to experience the Rose Buddies this time around. There was only one cruiser at the docks while we were there, an old salt who offered us his mooring anytime we’d like it in Stockton Harbor- his boat said he was from Bucksport and he lives in Bangor. From this far away that all means he’s from where we’re from.
We met Maja and her little dog Jetty. Maja told us, when we gave our usual spiel about where we’re from because most people don’t know where Brooklin is, that she took art classes on Deer Isle at Haystack in the 60s. I ached for home a bit when she described working hard in the studios tucked into the rocky campus rich with pointed pines and then going to beaches for clambakes and bonfires with classmates and locals. Not much has changed.
Then Maja told us the story about how she had been a city lady for a long time, but one day read that there was a boat for sale for $2000.
“I thought surely that must have been the down payment,” she said. But no, that was the cost of the boat. After seeing a home movie of the 40′ wooden racing sloop under sail, she fell in love with the way it moved. Maja had never sailed before. She went to the bank and told them she needed a loan for some dental work, and that it’d be $2000.
“Your teeth look fine,” said the banker.
“It’s my gums,” said Maja. They gave her the money.
It was her intention to take the boat down the ICW and to see where it took her. After a few terrible missteps that I suspect were rookie moves, like getting caught in terrible storms and running aground (the sloop drew 7′), one last big storm convinced her to go live in Louisville with her sister and leave the boat behind in the Chesapeake. She became a yoga instructor there, the only one in the town and a big part of bringing a healthful practice to Louisville. She said that if the boat hadn’t made her question what was next, she would have never decided to pursue yoga so passionately.
One thing that really struck me about her story was when she needed to repair a bunch of the boat’s canvas, somewhere in Delaware Bay. She went ashore, and a man there said he understood her situation, and should she ever need to borrow his truck to get into town, he’d give her the keys. Being from New York City, she was thinking, “What’s this guy up to?” She admitted that after a time, cruising was just like that. People didn’t have anything up their sleeves but the keys to a much needed truck or a nice shower ashore.
Taking the opportunity to pay it forward, Maja left us a big care package of beautiful pantry stuff one day, and later gave me a ride to the health food store and to the Post Office. I think, beside enjoying the town there, meeting her was perhaps my favorite part of Elizabeth City.