|Captain Michael Poulton commands the Principessa on the Chesapeake Bay near West River in August.
I teach in the international business & management department. Keeping up with current business developments, ethical conundrums we witness nearly daily and the creation of new global-marketing strategies is challenging and invigorating enough. Little did I know what a rewarding and sometimes overwhelming learning experience it would be to fulfill a lifelong dream—being the best sailor I could be.
I have been sailing boats for more than 20 years. Growing up in Utah did not present many opportunities to sail (you don’t need a boat to sail on the Great Salt Lake; you just lie on the water and hold a towel up against the wind), so it was only when I was transferred midbusiness career to Chicago that the “call of the sea” got the best of me.
I bought a sailboat in partnership with my first sailing mentor, Joe Simpson, a retired Navy commander. I learned to sail and race our boat—a 37-foot wooden sloop built in 1954—and especially how to varnish, sand and varnish again. Sure, I learned about the wind and waves, the physics of sails and hulls, racing tactics and, thanks to Joe, how to handle just about any emergency that came along—eight-foot waves, 50-mile-an-hour winds in infamous Great Lakes squalls, exploding spinnaker poles, and lost spreaders that keep the mast upright. Mostly though, I learned the art of command and the responsibility for the safety of my crew that comes along with it—great lessons for business and life.
Several years ago, I couldn’t stand it anymore and bought a cruising sailboat to explore the Chesapeake Bay. With the new boat, I have learned new sets of skills. I have become an epoxy artist, teak carpenter and oiler, diesel mechanic, electrician, plumber, deck painter and canvas seamster. And I have become an accomplished radar operator, electronic and dead-reckoning navigator, radioman, meteorologist and acceptable maritime galley cook.
I also have learned the meaning of the word “sustainability.” Boats are closed systems. Energy comes from batteries that are charged by the engine and topped off by the solar panel I installed. Every amp I can generate is precious, so lights are kept to a minimum and sailing, radio and navigation instruments are used only for safety at sea. I only have 90 gallons of water, and every drop is used judiciously. The wind in the sails moves you, and that’s the joy of sailing, but it is illegal to sail into a harbor if you have an engine, and diesel fuel gets more expensive every year.
These are all things I didn’t have to worry about on my old wooden sloop with no engine, galley, head or radio—just sails, lots of wood and canvas and a bucket to bail out seepage that always finds its way through the planks of wooden boats. Yet, all the skills I have learned on the new boat are necessary to keep me and my passengers safe and alive on the Chesapeake and elsewhere.
Last summer I decided to become an even better sailor and started down the path to become a U.S. Coast Guard U.S. Merchant Marine officer. I had to face a whole new set of things to learn—first aid, CPR, fire control, crew safety, lots of maritime law, intensive navigation and chart work, marlinspike practice (scores of the kinds of knots used on vessels, from the universal bowline to the exotic True Lovers Knot), intensive meteorology, and endless quizzes on the 120-page Rules of Navigation one has to memorize, including interpreting where other vessels are at night based just on the configuration of the lights you can see (trust me, it is really dark on the water at 2 a.m.). Two weeks of preparation for eight hours a day and an eight-hour exam later, I passed the 100-ton captain’s exam. Then after proving that I have sailed more than 380 days at sea, including a 1,200-mile trip from St. Thomas to Key West, don’t take drugs and am in generally good health, the Coast Guard issued me a license. I am finally a captain.
But it isn’t enough to know how to handle a boat on the water. You also should learn something about the medium you are traveling on. I have come to love the Chesapeake and the beauty of its myriad inlets, rivers and secluded spots. I anticipate seeing ospreys that are making a miraculous comeback (I have even learned to forgive the occasional splat on my deck) and their chicks looking up from scraggly nests on the buoys I pass, the trees on the shoreline that glow like orange and yellow light bulbs in the fall, crabbers put-putting along early in the morning with chicken necks on long strings hoping to snag a blue crab or two, the magnificence and fury of a sudden squall, the peace and glory of sunsets and sunrises, the splash of rising fish at sundown and the gentle rocking of the boat that lulls me to sleep.
I have learned to admire the blue crab and the incredible journey of these minute creatures riding the outbound tides all the way down the Chesapeake and out to sea under the Norfolk Bridge, only to ride the inbound tide from far out at sea as adults to return to where they were born.
Yet, as I sail along, I am embarrassed by the cloudiness of the water and the junk people throw overboard. I am bothered by the invasion of jellyfish that float by in groups so large that they look like an invasion of spaceships. I hate big power boats that create four-foot wakes that will eventually destroy the shoreline of my home port, West River. I am dismayed by speedboats hitting 60 miles an hour that must terrify anything below the surface. The more I learn, the more I am frustrated by the deterioration of this national treasure. And the problem is bigger than the Chesapeake.
On an 1,800-mile sail I made this summer from St. Martin in the Caribbean to Norfolk, Va., plastic bottles, bags and other indestructible flotsam drifted by even 250 miles from shore. This is a disgrace and demands our protest. We all have to learn—and do—everything we can to protect our most precious resource, water.
I still have a lot to learn—and luckily that is something that mysteriously happens every time I untie from my mooring and aim for the mouth of the West River.