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Elisavietta Ritchie's fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, photojournalism, and translations from Russian, French, Malay and Indonesian have appeared in numerous publications including Poetry, American Scholar, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, National Geographic, New York Quarterly, JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, Confrontation, Press, New Letters, Kalliope, Nimrod, Canadian Woman Studies, Ann Arbor Review, Loch Raven Review, Innisfree, Broadkill Review, Beltway Poetry, ArLiJo, Calyx, and many others.
Backyard Terrapin Crossing
Just passing through
By Elisavietta Ritchie
A big mother of a terrapin the size of our cast-iron frying pan lumbers from the swamp beyond the small garage, up the stones and through the poison ivy and, without stretching her long neck for a glance backward over her carapace, heads non-stop across our lawn toward the far woods to lay her eggs. She is my first sighting of this summer, already August, and in recent years all turtles have been scarce. She will dig a hole in the lawn or by the swamp at the edge of the locust trees, maybe two or three holes to confuse us, then pump out eggs like ping pong balls. No foxes seen this year, and, oddly, no raccoon or possum has yet to show. So this year none might dig the eggs, and within a couple of months, while waving off the bald eagles, I can escort the hatchlings to the cove. For a minute I turn away; when I look again, no sign of her.
The Bay Weekly, August 4, 2016
The Dog Who Raised Me
A Chesapeake Bay retriever for a nanny
By Elisavietta Ritchie
Some children are raised by werewolves; at least, certain ones act as if they were. A Chesapeake Bay retriever named Mac was my tutor, guardian, babysitter, governor. Therefore, mostly, I behaved. Chesapeake Bay retrievers are water dogs, but while it was I in the water, in a big galvanized tub in our garden, Mac looked in on me from shore, i.e., the lawn. Mac supervised my swimming, grabbed the back of my mini-bathing suit if I spent too long blowing bubbles under water, or climbed out and headed for the garden gate. Babushka, my Russian grandmother, was surely supervising from the porch, but I remember only Mac. If Babushka were focused on teaching French to a handful of neighboring children, Mac kept me from interrupting them. I soon learned what and where the Chesapeake Bay was and why the ancestors of my big, curly-haired, brown, working dog were named for it, and how the original pups were brought by sailing ship from Labrador specifically to create this breed of intelligent hunting dogs.
The Bay Weekly, August 11, 2016 — the Dog Days Issue
Master Sailor Paid It Forward
Stovy Brown turned two generations windward
By Elisavietta Ritchie
"No student who wanted to join the young sailors has ever been turned down for lack of funds," says Stovy Brown, who has introduced two decades of Southern Maryland youngsters to sailing.
To get kids to the water, Brown founded three groups: the Southern Maryland Sailing Association, Sailing Center Chesapeake and, in 1999, the Southern Maryland Sailing Foundation, to support the other two training programs with funding, boats and equipment.
Brown has spent the better part of his life sailing, ever since his father returned from the Navy in World War II and took young George Stewart Brown onto Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland, preparing him for life as an able-bodied seaman.
Brown's skills on the water have served him well in Chesapeake Bay and abroad. In Japan working for IBM, Brown sailed and raced out of Sagami Bay and Nagoya. In Hong Kong, he sailed in his own small boat and crewed with friends on races across the Pacific. Closer to home, he sailed in Bermuda Ocean Races.
"In the 1972 Bermuda race, the boat suffered electrical failures, engine failures, structural failures — all while we were trying to navigate in 50-knot winds for 36 hours," he recalls. "The nearly fatal trip proved one cannot rely entirely on electronics. Without a radio, you need to know how to navigate with a sextant."
So in 2013, Brown pioneered a weeklong session for STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) students using Calvert Marine Museum's radio-controlled model sailboats.
"Ití's more than playing with toy boats in the harbor," Brown says. "Students learn how to sail, the science and technology involved." This weeklong course continues at the Great Mills Science Technical and Mathematics magnet school.
Beyond learning the difference between halyards and main sheets, tillers and booms, young sailors learn self-reliance, responsibility for oneself and oneís crew and how to keep a boat shipshape.
"Besides mastering a sport you can do all your life and making lifelong friends," Brown says, "you develop skills to use for life."
High Schoolers to Special Olympians
In 1999, Sailing Center Chesapeake began teaching students from Calvert Countyís Patuxent High School, which already offered Naval Junior ROTC courses. The Rausch family of Rausch Funeral Home donated a small day sailor, which sat in a field by the Solomonís bridge. The school debated whether to sell the boat, but students wanted to learn to sail it. To take possession of their craft, Brown and crew had to chase two copperheads from under the hull.
For a decade, high schoolers sailed under Brownís command, practicing after school and competing in weekend regattas against other high school sailors across the region. They sailed two-person FJ sailing dinghies. Designed in the Netherlands in 1955, Flying Juniors hang 100 square feet of mainsail and jib on a 25-foot-high mast. The hull weighs 210 pounds; spinnaker adds 80 square feet of sail.
The Sailing Center Chesapeake outgrew its space in Solomons and moved to St. Mary's County. In 2011, it joined with St. Mary's College to include summer courses in boating safety for middle school students. With an expanded fleet of 18 boats, Sailing Center Chesapeake now sails out of Tall Timbers Marina into both Herring Creek and the Potomac River.
As well as high- and middle-schoolers, Brown's students number Special Olympians.
Just as Brown began recruiting student sailors in Calvert County, he was pulled into Special Olympics sailing. Raleigh, North Carolina, was slated to host the 1999 World Games. But the lake dried up that summer, and sailing was moved to St. Mary's College. When help was needed to run the games, Brown stepped up. And stayed.
Overcoming physical and mental challenges, Special Olympics sailors compete both locally and internationally. For safety, one able-bodied sailor must be aboard with each Special Olympic sailor. The two sailors grow in skill and responsibility, sharing their achievement.
In 2007 Brown was invited to be a Special Olympics sailing judge in Shanghai. In 2011, flying in his students, he judged again at Marathon in Greece near Athens, the port where in 490BC the Greeks drove the Persians back into their ships.
Brown's Own Challenge
Now Brown contends with his own challenges: severe crippling from ALS. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.
His own sailboat — Age of Reason, a 351/2-foot Bristol — remains berthed in Annapolis. He is dependent upon a wheelchair for movement and braces for support. With cramped fingers that can barely hold a pen, he instead dictates onto his computer with the Dragon Naturally Speaking program.
"We are fortunate to live in a place where water has been important since the beginnings of Maryland," Brown says. "And we have helped to expand access to it for a wider variety of individuals."
Dr. Lalita Chulamokha
Back home in Thailand, both my parents were doctors, and I chose to study medicine. Most medical specialties involve one organ. Infectious diseases affect the whole body, to me the most interesting.
After medical school and internship in Thailand, I did my residency at St. Elizabeth Health Center, Ohio, then a fellowship at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia. I returned to work in Thailand, then to Michigan as an infectious disease specialist.
In Philadelphia, I met my Venezuelan husband, a chemist. When he was transferred to Prince Frederick to work with a pharmaceuticals company, Calvert Memorial Hospital hired me.
I treat several infectious diseases. One example: as in Thailand, in hot weather Maryland's briny coastal waters harbor bacteria. Here it is Vibrio vulcanificus. If a swimmer or fisherman enters the water with open sores, the bacteria can cause sometimes fatal cellulitis or sepsis.
My Personal Adventure with Vibrio Vulcanificus
Looking like canned green beans under a microscope, Vibrio vulnificus can infect open sores of swimmers in warm salty water.
On and in, I've swum, fished, crabbed, eeled, sailed, canoed, kayaked and written about the Patuxent River — from both sides — since 1960. When you live with a place for over 60 years, you think you know it.
From the birds that harvest the river — the migratory swans, geese, red-winged blackbirds and songbirds that visit — myriad sea creatures, terrapins, wiggly critters in the muck, ghosts of Patuxent Indians and later lost sailors who all sleep beneath — I love my river.
Microscopic bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, aptly nicknamed the terror of the seas, also lurk in the river. Suddenly they tried to do me in.
In warm coastal waters, including our Bay and the Gulf Coast states, Vibrio infect swimmers who venture in with open sores. Summer after summer, youíd hear about how the bacteria got some unlucky swimmer, waterman or shellfish eater. A few victims die from cellulitis and sepsis.
In 2009, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation noted Vibrio's increased incidence coincident with warmer waters and nutrient pollution.
This summer, it happened to me
I was one of 16 Maryland victims of the flesh-eating bacteria tallied by the end of July 2014. Five of us got it in Calvert County.
The bacteria struck on my June 29 birthday. That afternoon, my doctor daughter and I had a fine kayak paddle downriver, setting out against wind and tide. Back at our splintery dock, jeans and all, I jumped into the briny waters.
Scrambling up our makeshift ladder, I scraped my shins. Cuts are nothing new for me, everyday reminders of vulnerability. Before I had a chance to shower, I hung around in river-wet jeans, granting sufficient points-of entry to Vibrio vulnificus.
Twenty-four hours later, increasing swelling and purpling in my left leg frightened my spouse, a medic on the front lines of the Korean War. "We're heading to the ER right away!"
"Nonsense! I'll be fine!"
But my bruised leg continued swelling, my foot looked as if stuck in a rosy baseball mitt, so to placate him, I acquiesced.
We reached Calvert Hospital's Emergency Center at 8pm. Seems I'd already borne several superficial sores as well as new ones acquired scrambling up the ladder.
Midnight an orderly wheeled me to a hospital room for a week of being jabbed with sharp instruments by otherwise-nice nurses inserting IVs for a half-dozen diverse antibiotics pumped into my veins.
My children gathered with long faces asked about my "final directives."
"A grand party," I answered, "down by the riverside!"
To learn about the beast, I searched Wikipedia. In its magnified photo, the bacteria resemble canned green beans on hospital trays.
After discharge, we made regular return visits to the wound center. At home, I'm supposed to remain a lady of leisure, my slowly healing left leg propped higher than my head. My progeny wait on me. Not my normal lifestyle. But if I walk too much, as today, the ankle swells and turns rosy.
The Christian Science Monitor Historic Archive
On Christmas Memories
The deaf cat, a skinny princess getting on, could not hear her own purrs, nor our learned conversations above her head, at a festive gathering in a lovely house on St. Leonard's Creek beyond Jefferson Patterson Park. Though I demurred, our hosts, Stovy and Anne Brown, pushed the cat (code named Lady Godiva) off her chair so I could sit down. This untoward act of displacement required my offer of lap and a good caressing. For an hour I warmed her elderly feline bones, did not murmur baby talk she could not hear nor mind she left beige hairs on my black slacks. Since my aged white angora Pusscat died, I'm delighted when other people's cats honor me. Siamese she was, this frail kitty.
Siamese too, or rather Thai, the destitute human my father rescued in a long-ago blizzard. Driving in the snowstorm, my father, noticed a slight figure in an odd district of town. He stopped and found a foreign student searching for a flophouse. Over Christmas break, the university dormitory closed, the student had no place to go but the back streets of Chicago. And these were Depression years. Turned out the stranger was a young prince from what is now Thailand. Sent to study in America, his funds had soon run out. My father brought him home to a couch shared with our angora tabby, King Tutankhamen, who warmed him all Christmas week.
My father sometimes sang the Old Russian song of the Caucasus: Each guest is sent to us by God, no matter how torn his shirt. He believed that principle and put it into practice. I, in turn, was thrilled by all the assorted guests around my parents' table, including the Siamese.
I kept that couch for years, for other strangers and cats, and many a Christmas it was occupied by guests of many nationalities and languages. In Greek, I learned, the word for stranger and guest is the same: ksenos or xenos.
Twice Round the World
Did my Russian émigré father, George Leonidovich Artamonoff, tell his guest how during Russia's Civil War he trudged snowy battlefields seeking safe shelter? Or how, escaped from Sebastopol onto an American ship, he reached Ellis Island midwinter — penniless except for the $20 bill lent by a sailor from somewhere in Maryland so he would not appear a destitute refugee? Once the $20 bill gained my father entrance to the United States of America, he returned it to the generous, but almost-as-penniless, sailor.
My father hitchhiked to Washington, where he landed a job at an auto-body repair shop, and at night attended George Washington University. My father was merely related to princes, but because an American admiral befriended him, he received invitations to Christmas dinner on an elegant estate above the Patuxent. That house belonged to journalist and Washington Times-Herald editor, Cissy Patterson, and has since become Jefferson Patterson Park, near where, in 2010, I sat in a borrowed chair petting the Browns' deaf Siamese cat. A scholarship for foreign students sent my father to Yale for electrical engineering. For two winters, he slogged through storms and shoveled coal, tutored calculus and French, and wound all the university's numerous clocks, survival jobs to pay for meals, books and clothes.
An electrical engineering degree in 1923 plus some business instincts and a penchant for new ideas and new languages took him in time via the balmy Philippines to snowy Chicago, where at Christmastime 1939 he first encountered his Thai student-prince.
When my father's job took him to Thailand, the prince, doing well, greeted him warmly. I, beside the icy Patuxent in St. Mary's County, again missed him and envied my parents' Christmas in Thailand.
Another Turn of the Wheel
Christmas of 1982 was incomplete with the absence of my younger son. In Syracuse, New York, Alexander George Ritchie stayed to finish late exams and overdue term papers. By the time he could head home, a blizzard had closed in. All other students departed, the dorm was locked in and out, the heat down to a minimum. Alexander threw his suitcase out the dormitory window, then jumped into the growing snowdrift below. With $20 in his pocket and no friends left in Syracuse, he trudged through the snow to the nearest open door, the veterans' hospital, and phoned us collect.
"Go to their personnel office," I suggested, "and volunteer. Institutions get short-handed on holidays. They'll surely give you a meal and a bed in return for help on the wards."
His next call reported that instant volunteering was against regulations. Nor could he hang around till dawn when flights might resume. "Call back," I said. "We'll think of something."
Finally we located a fellow journalist in Syracuse, Ron Somebody.
"Don't worry," Ron answered. "My wife cooked a huge dinner, but our relatives are snowbound in Omaha. Send your son along."
We phoned the VA hospital. Alexander had disappeared.
Finally he phoned from a corner store near a housing project. An elderly African American had overheard his plight, led him back to his efficiency, served him tea — which was all he had — and offered him an extra mattress on his floor.
"So I'm fine," Alexander insisted to us on the phone. "With my 20 bucks I've bought groceries for my benefactor …"
"Wonderful, but this Ron Somebody expects..."
So Alexander presented the groceries to his first host, and several hours later made it through the storm to his second host's house in the suburbs.
Ron under another name turned out to be a leading television personality in Syracuse, and as Alexander was weighing a career in journalism, conversation that Christmas Eve was lively. By morning, the blizzard abated, flights resumed and — thanks to Ron's loan for the airport taxi — Alexander reached home by Christmas afternoon.
Stock Up for Unexpected Guests
This cold blowy afternoon in late 2011, cars grinding up and skidding down icy hills, inside my warm house I rush to the cupboards: Are they stocked for unexpected visitors in blizzards? This is a lean season.
Yet with local supermarkets vying to offer the best deals in oven-ready turkeys, I won't have to tackle the turkey vultures who hang out in our jungle of sycamore trees, honeysuckle and poison ivy along the winding dirt road.
I've stocked kibbles for the feral feline from the marsh, a shorthaired white kitten, tabby patches asymmetrical, lopsided, witness to generations of untoward trysts in barns up the lane. One skinny waif, nobody will claim her.
Despite spousal disapproval (I don't want to become attached to any more pets), she has willy-nilly adopted me.
But as the Chinese say, Any cat who comes to your door as if following a yellow thread (perhaps only the cat can see) is a blessing, must not be turned away.
Many a yellow thread, too fine for my all-too-human eyes to spot, has evidently led to my door. So I, too, rescue strays in a blizzard.
Publication Information Date Published: 12/22/11 Volume Number: 19 Issue Number: 51
Featured in The Bay Weekly
Maryland's River: On and In the waters of the Patuxent
Old barns dripping with honeysuckle and trumpet vines, owlets in cobwebbed rafters, fishermen's shacks on piers glistening with old fish scales, swallows' nests glued beneath the splintery planks, pilings where ospreys build their messy nests like ornithological games of pick-up-sticks, duck blinds where wild ducks nest …
Abandoned chicken coops where ungainly vulture chicks are curious enough to be friendly while absent parents overfly the landscape scouting for road kill and balancing on barn roofs to dry their armpits like anhingas in Florida …
Why do they draw me? Kinship with what will also collapse, implode, but also with new fledging generations? I am mere photographer, bird-watcher, canoeist, small-boat sailor, crabber and fisher along Patuxent riversides. Reading on the River Donald Shomette's Flotilla, The Patuxent Naval Campaign in the War of 1812. Ralph Eshelman's Maryland's Largest Naval Engagement: The Battles of St. Leonard Creek, 1814, Calvert County Maryland. Carlton Sharp's Those Iconic Weather-Worn Tobacco Barns.
You can canoe 50 miles of the Patuxent, put in at many points between Solomon's Island in Calvert County over 100 miles northward nearly to the Piedmont source of this all-Maryland river. Short walks from beached canoe, kayak, sailboat (or parked car) will reveal sights listed in no guidebook …
You'll paddle or sail over ribcages of British and American ships sunk during the War of 1812 and the Civil War, over generations of fishing, crabbing, clam and oyster boats, the ghosts of canoes fashioned and paddled by centuries of Patuxent Indians and the oyster middens left by those peoples and colonials who set up camp along the shore, and more contemporary feasters.
"People have been eating oysters here for 10,000 years," says Bob Shaw, the garrulous naturalist who once managed the Chancellor's Point Natural History Center near St. Mary's City. The river was healthier then, more generous.
You'll pass fragments of farms, cellar stones, the ghosts of homes burned by the invading British. Other fires were set by Americans taking offense if the landowner were pro-Tory — or not.
Along the shore explore creeks and coves abounding with crabs and fish. Several decades ago, said old-time waterman Bob Hurry, you could walk across the Patuxent on oyster shells. Some winters, ice covered the edges and coves so thickly you could skate across a cove. But the Patuxent can get mighty roiled up in storms, dock-dismantling hurricanes.
Much of the summer, however, the river is docile and except on a few dog days, refreshing.
In May and June, I swim with terrapins whose periscopic snouts thrust through the rind of the sea not only to breathe air but as if to scout the familiar riverbanks, to scramble ashore, dig the earth, deposit a cache of turtle eggs like ping pong balls.
On a few days in May and September, I've bumped into cownose rays in the shallows, swum beneath cormorants skimming the surface. For especially during spring and autumn bird migrations, the Patuxent is a multi-lane flyway.
Jellyfish swim with us, graze us. Medusa season usually extends between July Fourth, when the luminous creatures reach our coves upriver, and Labor Day when time's come to leave. In season, it is wise to swim in pajamas, hospital scrubs, jeans. Or stay afloat, explore onshore.
Find a map of the river at http://www.patuxentwatertrail.org
Judo for Jesus
"You learn through both winning and losing," says 70-year-old Marshall Coffman, who leads a double life.
As the Reverend Dr. Coffman, he is associate pastor of the Christian Fellowship of Calvert County in Owings. As Sensei Coffman, he is head instructor of Budokan Judo Club at Northeast Community Center. Combining roles, he leads the Judo for Jesus ministry.
This summer, Sensei Coffman earned the lofty rank of fifth-degree black belt.
Gaining a first-degree black belt is a high honor coveted by many but achieved by only the most devoted. Rising to the fifth degree — a labor of 23-plus years for Coffman — demands not only technical ability but also sacrifice and devotion. Fewer than seven percent of Judo practitioners wear the red-and-black belt unique to this rank.
As a 21-year-old U.S. Air Force communications technician, Coffman took advantage of his posting 30 miles from Tokyo to study judo with the renowned fifth-degree black belt Takehide Matsunaga. He learned while studying the ancient arts to teach others.
From Japan to the Philippines to Colorado Springs to Andrews Airbase, he gained skill as he taught.
In the Phillipines, he met his wife, Teresita Abellana Gadiana. They have two children, Felipe and Annette. The whole family has studied judo.
By the time Coffman reached the Washington metropolitan area, he was a respected martial arts teacher.
At 35, Coffman "felt the call" of a second, more demanding vocation: he devoted 12 years of night school to studying for the ministry. Studying while working at AT&T left no spare time.
"Judo, I believed, was behind me," he says. "God will sometimes ask you to give up something."
Coffman's health also seemed lost. He suffered a heart attack, the crippling effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam, cancer and triple bypass surgery.
As he recovered, he realized that poor physical health can damage a person's spiritual health. In February 2004, he launched the Judo for Jesus Ministry at the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware.
That summer, the Judo for Jesus Ministry Team traveled nearly 3,000 miles, making gospel presentations in 21 churches with 375 new students professing their faith. The Judo for Jesus Ministry has since seen over 1,000 professions in faith.
"Sometimes," Coffman says, God gives what you gave back to you to use for His glory."
Hours of the Foxes
1. Our first fox comes between red sun and night, his ruff tinged rust with leftover glow. He must know dusk his color, his hour, as for the mice, moles and voles who scurry through tunnels which lace our lawn in subterranean webs. Iíd like to think he may think, (if he thinks so altruistically, and thereís some rule against anthropomorphism in the literature), he does us a favor policing our scruffy yard.
He steps among the tiger lilies, alert for whoever slips past underfoot, even his bottlebrush tail still as a stick. He eavesdropsóSuddenly leaps, digs, bounds, pouncesónabs wind, lands with a look which admits heís just been outfoxed by a mouse or mole or vole—
2. Our twin foxes also real, not images, similes, or stand-ins for any academic ideas. Juveniles, bibs white against their rusty collars, they appear at our sliding garden door each four p.m. as if invited for a formal tea party, clotted cream on berry scones—
We provide only stale kibbles our white angora Pusscat shuns. Through the glass, she studies the visitors, who are aware I too am an observer. Neither Pusscat nor I twitch—
The dish clean, the foxes turn but pause, like ideas completed but stashed away for later examination, expanding upon, or discarding the next afternoon.
I slide the door. Pusscat bounds down the four crumbling brick stairs, chases the invaders across the garden to the woods, then, satisfied, returns. Next day they reappear at four.
Their visits continue and I wonder how to freeze them into static metaphors—But wily, they stay alive until the summerís end—
Shots resound, hunting season open. Although they surely dive into their dens up our dirt lane, they never reappear...Like our thoughts: gone, foxy ideas forgotten—
3. Why No Foxes Now? Rabbits have returned since last disappeared some years ago, so foxes should be sneaking back, gold eyes glimpsed in headlights, flash of tail—
What is the parallel for which this should be metaphor? Notes unheard except inside the composerís skull waiting to grow into a symphony? Painting visualized or imagined plot but no pencil, pen or brush, a stick on sand must doó
My fox is not a metaphor but a critter now unseen patrolling other woods. But where?
The Bay Weekly, 15-21 September 2016.
Kids GET Poetry
Today's students and I have just met. Yet we launch into discussion as I pass around copies of my encounter. We talk about endangered species, the folly of walking alone through a forest, native peoples, whether I should have been terrified — or was the wolf more frightened of me? Even the species of trees, birch and pine.
My story happens to be in free verse. Even students who never thought they'd like poetry are caught up. On the other side of the paper is a rhymed version of the same encounter. The children argue which they prefer.
The children are already scribbling, composing their own poems about their encounters, real and imaginary. Most automatically illustrate their poems, and mine.
The art teacher and I may collaborate with poems on or about paintings. With the music teacher, songs emerge.
Poems emerge from — wherever we can imagine.
My poem "Why I Have Never Written a Baseball Poem" provokes lively sports poems. An Alaskan poet's dramatic poem about whalers versus environmentalists sets off plays in verse about local controversies.
From poetry we stray into nature, the environment, science, history, geography, psychology, time travel, music, art, without much need to explain metaphor, simile, stanzas. Poetry covers the waterfront.
Many visiting artists and poets-in-the-schools programs are sponsored by the Maryland State Arts Council, the counties, libraries and sometimes schools and parent-teacher organizations. All share in supporting artists with a daily honorarium, for some, our major source of income.
An Article for the Bay Weekly by Elisavietta's Grandson!
If You Can't Buy a Boat, You Can Build One
I built a boat in less than a week.
Ten 11- to 14-year-olds at Calvert Marine Museum's boat-building camp spent five days building, gluing, hammering and painting skiff-like canoes this past summer. On the sixth day, we raced.
In our work we were guided by veteran boat builders. We used no power tools; we did the work with claw hammers, lots of Liquid Nails glue and real nails.
The first job was to piece together the plywood skeleton of our boat. That's easier said than done. The stem, which looks like a triangular stake, had to be placed just so with a helper supporting one flimsy side while the other hammered in the nails.
To the skeleton we added walls. First, we put glue on both sides of the canoe, then clamped the plywood walls in place, then hammered, bending lots of nails in the process.
With the walls in place, we nailed the plywood to the outline of the bottom of the canoe. This became the floor. Many more nails went into that job.
Next, we added the beam, a long skinny piece of wood straight down the middle of the bottom of the boat. The beam makes the canoe more aerodynamic so it glides easily through the water. Working from the outside in, we had to nail down the exact spot of the ribs we had built inside the canoe or else you'd have a nail in your foot when you sat in the canoe. We managed on our first try.
For finishing, we used a plane to skin down the sides, rasping away all the excess wood so they'd be a lot smoother. Finally, we each made a single wooden kayak paddle.
Painting our canoes and paddles came next, and it was a lot of work. Since the plywood was so dry, we first had to apply three coats of white primer. We switched between paint rollers and paint brushes to cover every spot of our canoes and paddles.
Then we customized our canoes with elaborate paint jobs. I painted my canoe as a tribute to the General Lee from the TV series The Dukes of Hazard. It wasn't going to be an exact replica, but a close resemblance. I began by marking letters with tape. I painted almost the entire boat a bright orange that shone in the sun. Next, I painted a Confederate flag on the floor of the boat. It stood out against the orange behemoth. Once the paint dried, I removed the tape and named the boat The S.S. General Lee. I would have christened it if I'd had a bottle of champagne.
After all the work was done came the fun, a canoe race of extraordinary proportions on a beach in Solomons. Families were invited to watch eight eager boatwrights go face-to-face to topple the competition.
In-heat races were the most challenging. You are trying to steer your canoe around little crab buoys while three other paddlers are trying to push you aside to make sure they end up winning. Because I didn't go around the outside of the buoys, I was demoted from second place to third.
But I ended up winning first place in partner paddling. In that race the partner is blindfolded and I — the navigator — commanded him in what direction to paddle.
All that in a week's work.