This is a land of water. It is inescapable. It is everpresent. It flows, runs, crashes, seeps, tumbles. Asleep, it lies still as glass. Wakened, it rushes wave on wave from the sea, jumping onto the beaches, slapping the face of sand. Escaping, laughing, it slips between and beneath evermore curling whitecaps charging the shore. It creeps in as the tide, then departs clandestinely, leaving mud flats and the gurgling lairs of crabs.
From the beachfront looking east, one imagines the solid continent looming behind, protector and refuge should calamity threaten. It is a false hope. Past the beachfront is more water, in lagoon and bay, river and stream, inlet and rivulet, and marsh, the varied shapes and attitudes a reservoir of latent energy.
It is as if the land lies atop an unfathomed depth, unmeasured, unnumbered, unquantified. But it is not unknown. Those who inhabit this thin, balsa-like, flat sheet of earth understand they float as if on a raft, precariously atop an uncontrollable, surrounding force. The experience that accompanies time reveals the natural joy and sadness inherent in living in this place. Newcomers, only partially aware, do not possess the wisdom of the natives.
This is Hampton Roads. This is where the Atlantic Ocean confronts Chesapeake Bay, where the James, Elizabeth, and Nansemond Rivers join to create a safe, protected, port as deep as a sea.
To the south and slightly west of this port is a lowland marsh, riven by almost invisible threads of creeks and gullies, a vast, sodden mass, at the center of which lies the Great Dismal Swamp. The Peninsula shapes the north side of the port, formed by the York River, a slicing parallel of the James, and although not as wide, wide enough to be discouraging if not impassable.
Here, in 1962, on the banks, on the shores, within the woodlands, and sprawled across the pavements, live nearly two million people. Knowingly or not they survive at the will of the water, for at any moment, Hampton Roads could easily become the next Atlantis.
Malcolm Findlay stands on the shore, thinking this might be home, wondering if it might include Elena.
Scotty had spent the better part of his free time over the winter working on his boat. He replaced rigging and hardware and bought a new suit of sails.
In late March, a freak snowstorm swept in. Its flakes came big and fat and wet, but on unfrozen ground, they didn’t stay long. A good thing. Tidewater towns are ill-prepared for snow removal, and we local drivers are inexperienced and dangerous in conditions of snow and ice.
Sitting at the small table by the window I used as a desk, I watched fast white dots rush in an angle downward toward the bay. I tried to gauge how far away I could distinguish individual snowflakes from the uniform chalk-white background of sky. Maybe twenty feet.
The bay’s surface lay flat and black, a vast, gaping mouth aching to be replenished by the storm. Snow falling atop the water became swallowed in an instant.
As I watched, Scotty called. “Hey, Mal, how about you join me on the water with my refurbished boat?”
“Now? Are you crazy?”
“No, not now. Say next week. The weather’ll be better. I’m ready to go, but I need a crew to help me check out my new baby. I could use your expert opinion in the bargain.”
“Flattery always works. Sure. It’ll be fun.”
Scotty said, “Let’s meet at the club after lunch. We’ll sail the afternoon, and have a drink afterward.”
In the week’s thaw the snow vanished. Just after one on Sunday, I saw the club had overwintered well. The brown grass was neat. No scraps of paper hung tangled in the bushes by the front door, and no twigs or small branches were lying about. The maintenance crew paid attention.
Boats in the yard looked good. During the active summer season, the launching and storing of boats on trailers and dollies and rafts became haphazard. Boats wound up parked willy-nilly wherever a space could be found. A collective desire for order at the end of last fall, unregulated and arising naturally, resulted in the arrangement of vessels, big and little, nestled in neat rows.
My upbeat mood reminded me how seeing Elena affected me the same way. I planned to tell Scotty about her after our sail.
The club wasn’t busy. Few people were obvious, only a couple in the yard tinkering with the hardware on their boat. This early in the season you couldn’t expect much activity. The social atmosphere wouldn’t bloom until May, along with the racing schedule.
I spied Scotty just beyond the boatlift. He had arrived well before me, his boat already lowered onto the water and the mainsail rigged. The jib still sat bagged on the foredeck.
Stopping at an empty trailer, I pulled out my foul weather gear and dragged it on over my jeans and bulky sweater. As I headed toward Scotty, I gloved my hands. Did I dress warmly enough? The cool air chilled with the breeze.
I stepped aboard lightly, grasping a shroud to steady me as I did. Scotty said, “Hiya, sailor.” He couldn’t be overlooked in his yellow slickers and orange vest.
I replied, “Permission to come aboard, captain?”
“I’d say ‘aye,’ but you’ve already arrived.”
We rigged the jib, I hooked up my life jacket, and we were out on the water in no time. Scotty took the boat through its paces, and me through mine, taking the measure of his boat and crew. I shared his curiosity. What can she do? How high can she point into the wind? What’s her optimum heel? What’s the best distribution of crew weight, fore and aft?
I admired Scotty’s methodical, meticulous approach. That’s not how I understand a sailboat. I care about feel. I can sense a happy boat; I can tell when she reaches her best. My method is an advantage in regattas that require crews to move to different boats after each race, as in college, where I excelled. Scotty prepared a list and checked each item one at a time. He reviewed that list every time he sailed. His method of learning everything about his boat, in every condition, was superior for those who campaigned the same vessel over a season’s racing.
Soon we found ourselves off Newport News, near the shipbuilding yard. The first nuclear–powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, had been launched here two years ago. Now, the immense hull of the second, USS America, had begun to take shape. Gantry cranes and piles of material covered the docks on both sides of the ship-in-progress. All was gray and metal and hard. A lone figure pulling a handcart appeared insect-like as he trundled beneath the towering curve of the hull.
Just past the shipyard, we came about smartly, one of our better efforts of the afternoon, and Scotty said, “Let’s let this sucker fly, Mally!”
I hooked up to the trapeze and crouched, then stood on the gunwale. With the wind snatching Scotty’s words and screeching them away the moment he spoke, I could scarcely hear him.
A rogue gust blew across us and spilled the sails. I dropped backwards as the boat lost its heel. Smartly, the breeze filled in, and the straining sails jerked me back up, splashed and soaked.
Crashing each spitting wave, spray from the bow showered me with bucketsful of the bay, wildly thrown. Behind us the foaming wake flatlined, marking our passage. The stays sizzled, vibrating their nervous, tenor tune.
Scotty shouted, “We’re cooking now!”
Leaning out parallel to the water, every crest we shattered doused me. The more the cold water drenched me, the less I cared. I communed with the boat, my only concern, slicing each wave with precision. I scanned the jib for the slightest imperfection, adjusting the sheet in tiny increments, maintaining the sail’s curve. Scotty surveyed the main, even as he kept an eye on our bearing. On the lookout for approaching vessels and obstacles, I spied none on this blustery, spring afternoon.
We scudded across the harbor, our tiny vessel dueling the elements, shattering through the whitecaps while Navy behemoths, unaffected at their berths off Norfolk in the distance, seemed indifferent or bored. Every surface of our boat glistened, alive with rivulets and cascades of water sweeping across and down and off.
After what seemed like ages, Scotty had had enough, and we reached a point where it would be an easy, broad reach back to our berth.
“Ease up!” he hollered. “Falling off. We’re gonna jibe.” The boat aimed away from the wind. “Careful now. Jibe ho!”
Scotty pulled the tiller, allowing the wind to cross our stern. As it did, the mainsail spilled, then the boom jerked across the cockpit and blossomed on the opposite tack. Scotty grasped the traveller, and I held the boom to temper its forceful thrust as it swept from one side to the other.
“Not bad. Not bad,” Scotty said, always evaluating.
We sped back toward the docks. Scotty, with exquisite timing, had me drop the mainsail as we glided in, relying on our jib alone for propulsion. We slowed and slid toward the shore. I released the jib sheet and let it luff as we sidled expertly alongside the floating dock.
After hoisting the boat and stowing sails, we showered and changed. Tired but refreshed, and pleased with ourselves, we headed upstairs to the bar and dining room.
Pushing through the door, Scotty said, “Sally’s coming at six. We thought we’d have dinner. Care to join us?”
The nearly empty bar felt relaxed and unstuffy. One’s first impression might suggest an egalitarian place, until it became known that many of the members owned yachts in excess of fifty feet.
Scotty and I sat at the bar’s corner at the end and ordered martinis. As Scotty reviewed our afternoon sail, critiquing the boat as well as our seamanship, I imagined how I might introduce Elena into our conversation. I began to wish she were with me. Scotty would like her.
The bartender eased over, pointed to our not quite empty glasses, and raised his eyebrows, his way of asking if we wanted another drink.
Scotty said, “You bet.”
As ice rattled around in the shaker, I looked over Scotty’s shoulder to see Sally and a woman who looked to be her sister arriving. The pair were similar in height, and though the new woman was as thin as Sally, she moved differently. Sally strode forcefully, knifing through the atmosphere and anything else before her, while the other woman glided forward, atop, around, or gently through.
Sally motioned to me with a finger to her lips. Reaching us, she put an arm around Scotty and poked him in the side. He turned around in surprise and practically shouted, “Sally!” Recovering, he said, “Welcome. Join us for a drink. We just got here.”
“Then whose glasses are those?” she asked, pointing to the two now drained.
“Must’ve been somebody here before us,” he said.
The bartender arrived with our martinis, and looked at Sally, and the woman standing beside her. Sally said, “Two more of the same,” glancing at her companion for affirmation. Her sister nodded.
As I shifted left, Scotty slid to the stool on his right. The two women claimed our seats, Sally next to Scotty and her sister next to me.
Sally said, “Let me introduce my friend, Nikki. Nikki, this is my husband, Scott, and this is his friend, Mal.”
Primly attired in tan slacks, white polo shirt and yellow cardigan, Sally looked smart. Nikki’s slacks appeared to have been painted onto her long, lean legs. The upturned collar of her vivid Madras blouse sprouted from a navy blue crewneck sweater, accenting the sharp line of her neck and chin. The fullness of her ash-blond hair seemed to have been shaped into waves by the breeze across the bay.
Later, I learned Sally suggested dinner so I could meet Nikki. Sally had planned our entire day. She assumed, rightly, that I would agree to sail with Scotty, then grab a drink with him afterward. Having lured me into the bar, it would be simple to get me to walk into the next room for dinner.
Nikki’s thin frame made her seem taller than she was. She had a tendency to lean forward while speaking. She spoke quickly and briefly, in a staccato fashion, as if to dissuade interruption. On first impression she seemed intense, but as her playful nature became obvious, the notion of intensity vanished.
We took our drinks to a table in the dining room near the windows overlooking the fleet. Scotty sat with his back to the view. Protected by the porch, the room grew dim, though outside remained bright. The wind had stiffened, sweeping every cloud out of sight and setting wire halyards clacking against their aluminum masts. We were cozy in our corner, tucked into an alcove against the glass, the table linen and carpet and window drapes deadening the clink of silverware on china from the other diners.
I sat opposite Scotty, with Nikki on my right, hoping Sally would start the conversation. She did.
“Nikki and I met at the kids’ school. She’s an artist, a painter. The twins were in her class, and told me how much fun they were having, so I wanted to meet her. We hit it off and became friends.”
I asked, “What do you paint?”
“Landscapes, mostly. The odd street,” she said. A wave of her hair crested over an eyebrow as she turned to me. She swept it aside with graceful fingers.
“Oil. Small pieces. They tend to be delicate. Very detailed.”
Scotty said, “No wonder Sally likes you.”
“Why?” Nikki asked.
“She’s all about the details, always detailing the things I need to do and the things I’ve done wrong, and …”
“No, no, no,” Sally said, laughing. “That’s not fair.”
“You’re telling me.”
We had a delightful evening. I liked Nikki and her wit immediately. In a conversational pause I told myself “her smile is delicious.” Instantly I realized I saw Elena’s smile in Nikki’s face. What am I thinking? Am I so fickle I succumb to any engaging woman’s charm? Guilt ran through me like a blade. I became a bit subdued.
After coffee, Sally said, “Nikki came with me, but she lives over your way, Mal. Could you take her home?”
“I could,” I said. “But I don’t think that’s your question.”
“You rat. Will you?”
“Don’t be fighting about me,” Nikki said.
“I’m not fighting,” I said. “I just can’t do whatever Sally asks right away. Of course, I’ll be happy to drive you home. If you’ll let me.”
Nikki said, “I don’t know. I don’t know you. Can I trust you?”
“No. Probably not.”
We left the club, headed to our cars. Scotty walked beside me with an arm around my shoulder. I said, “What a good day.”
He gave me a tug, looked at me slyly, and said, “So far.”
Philip Kennedy-Grant is the former editor of Architecture New Jersey magazine, co-author and editor of AIA New Jersey Guidebook, and a practicing architect and artist.