I was standing in the dark on a grim concrete dock just below DC’s baseball stadium when my nerves began to tingle. It was a chilly morning in October, 2011, and I was about to set off on a four-week boat trip, one of a crew of four. Despite having lived my whole life on the East Coast and having traveled everywhere from Cape Breton Island to Charleston, I hadn’t spent much time on the water. Nor did I have much outdoors experience, nor much teaching experience, nor any environmental science. I barely even knew how the vessel functioned, let alone how to handle it. That chilly October day, the water looked menacing, and the post-industrial landscape surrounding the dock didn’t help: vast empty lots and a half-demolished concrete factory across the street from the looming stadium. I had to take a second to remind myself that this was, at least in theory, right where I wanted to be.
When I first began working at Living Classrooms, at the end of August 2011, I was mildly apprehensive about getting to work. I had wanted to take a gap year, and I had decided to spend part of it working as an environmental educator on a repurposed fishing boat on the Chesapeake Bay. But I took the job without a real understanding of all it would entail, mostly because it was the first offer I got. The trip didn’t exactly start off well: I hadn’t adjusted my body clock to the sunrise-sunset schedule that comes with sailing, and I started to fall asleep at the wheel after only a few hours because I’d woken up at 4 a.m. Not a way to impress the captain. The next morning, I overslept, and by the time I got up we’d already pulled away from dock. I dreaded taking a long trip, full of failures and embarrassments. What could I offer? Success on this trip wasn’t just a matter of teaching kids about plankton; it was also a matter of meshing with the others and doing my part in a successful crew. I’d been on three or four prior day trips, and had spent some time acclimatizing myself to the boat, but I was fairly sure that I’d be mostly dead weight. I certainly wasn’t fitting in. Upon discovering that I don’t swear, smoke, or drink, one of the other crew members asked me, “So what do you do?”
200 or 250 years ago, if you wanted to go anywhere long-distance, you had to know what you were doing on the water. The most efficient method of travel for long distances was to get yourself to the nearest river, get on a ship, and make your way to the port nearest to your destination. If you had any cargo to move, you’d ship it by boat. Mechanization brought canals, but water was still the fastest way to move people and things until the spread of railroads in the second half of the nineteenth century.
With the roads and highways of the modern United States, you can find a quick, straight path between almost any two points. From planes you mostly see clouds, and even in the periods around takeoff and landing you are robbed of the immersion that you get from traveling on rivers and lakes. You get a perspective that is beautiful in its own way, but one whose distinctiveness and depth are hard to find. Convenience has changed not just the speeds at which we travel around the country but also the routes we take and the ways we take in our surroundings.
When steering, I tried taking in every detail, relevant or not: other boats, the path of the channel, the trees on the riverbanks, the birds. When not on duty, I stayed on deck. I paid attention when docking to each detail of the procedures; I learned the loops of the bowline knot; I pored over our guide to the fish of the East Coast to familiarize myself with the ecosystem. I immersed myself in the context of the work, trying to establish the right perspective and interest. By the end, I’d begun to develop my own instincts, and looked forward to each chore. By understanding my role and the importance of everything we did, I could lock into and enjoy every task. I even enjoyed the drudgery of scrubbing down every inch of the deck and picking off bits of aquatic vegetation after each trip. I loved steering and net fishing, in particular, and I loved feeling like I was part of this little world of watermen.
The slow pace of a 24-hour trip between two cities separated by only 120 miles might seem like it would be frustrating. But as much as I enjoy watching the scenery pass by in a car, I find it whips by so fast that individual details barely resolve themselves. On the river, the languid pace imbues each detail with importance, immersing you in your surroundings. Trees don’t blur together—each retains its distinctive character. You get a chance to observe houses as a reflection of their owners. The hours pass by smoothly and slowly; sitting and watching become pleasures in themselves. On the water, I never once felt an urge to rush.
I managed to survive and thrive in my own little way, and eventually we found ourselves chugging—that’s actually the right word for it—westward up the James River, from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to Richmond, Virginia. Sailing up the James, through the heart of colonial Virginia, was a rather odd and lovely experience, an immersion in American symbolism. Going inland, we passed: the Newport News naval base, with ships in dry dock; abandoned ships from the US reserve merchant fleet, looming forbiddingly over the river like haunted, derelict mansions; Jamestown and Williamsburg, recreated colonial facsimiles; and Jimmy Dean’s house, complete with the logo of his sausage company planted in flowers on the river bank. Dotted along the river, too, were a number of non-derelict colonial mansions with massive grounds. I strongly suspected that the owners of these houses had gone to the University of Virginia or the College of William and Mary; they had that sort of provincial and aristocratic feel. We were often followed by seagulls, their calls occasionally rising above the roar of the huge engine. Right as we sailed past Jamestown, a bald eagle flew between us and the settlement. As we got closer to Richmond, the salty smell of the bay disappeared, replaced by the smell of tobacco.
By the time we sailed back from Richmond to Washington, four weeks later, I felt far more comfortable. I spent the night shift with the captain, steering the boat through darkness while he navigated. A full moon lit up the sky, while green and red buoys flashed periodically, guiding us up the bay towards the mouth of the Potomac. Voices occasionally crackled across the radio. I felt like a part of the landscape. I felt like I belonged in this place, on the water, at midnight.
On the second day of our trip, we headed down the open water of the Chesapeake Bay and found ourselves in Hampton, Virginia, located in the southeastern part of the state near Virginia Beach, Newport News, and Norfolk. We were there to network—testing the waters, almost literally, for school trips and educational services that Living Classrooms might offer in the area. Our contact got fired while we were there, wiping out the usefulness of everything we’d done. So I spent three largely aimless days wandering, getting acclimatized, and generally acquiring the “Hampton Experience.” Hampton is likely the least attractive and least societally useful of the southeastern Virginia cities. Euphemistically, it is in need of redevelopment. For a town of 100,000 people, it seems like absolutely nothing happens. There are no flagship industries, no local attractions, and very few things to do in general. I’m pretty sure everyone would just rather be in Virginia Beach. As far as we, and most people, were concerned, it was mostly bars and diners, accompanied by the odd fish processing plant. There’s basically nothing but an “Experience” for a tourist board to promote.
Or rather, you’d think there wouldn’t be. The strange thing is that I have very distinct memories of Hampton. This is because of my relationship with it as a port, viewed from the water. When you step outside the confines of land, the city suddenly seems like so much more, even as nothing changes; it fills with stories. It’s a place of rest, and adventure, and great interest. We went to fishing supply shops and were able to chat with the owners on a familiar and equal footing. We met a man who wanted to talk with us about oyster dredging. We went out onto the bay and caught pufferfish and crabs in the wind, rain, and spray. We learned from a bartender about the local obsession with cornhole. We passed hours in a dive bar trying to get a small iron ring on a rope onto a wall-mounted hook, and afterwards installed a similar setup on our boat.
Driving through or visiting by car, you would only think, Why stay in Hampton when we could be elsewhere? But I can remember many of the people we met, the bars we went to, the chores we did. Even the streets are more distinct and memorable in my mind: I came to understand an otherwise forgettable city’s full context, its existence in three dimensions, by coming at it from the water.
On the weekends, we drove back and forth between Richmond and DC. An utterly forgettable experience: just another set of highways. I’ve been on those roads a number of times, and I know that Civil War battlefields are all around—Bull Run, Harpers Ferry, I’ve probably been to all of them—but there’s nothing to see from the road itself. The contrast between boating and this was pretty sharp. Around each bend in the river comes a different vista: an industrial plant; an oxbow lake shielded by layers of trees; the open ocean. The modern American road tends to be a throughput device, a connector between two places. Each turn seems to reveal more of the same. But the water—the water is a place unto itself. There’s a charming lack of direction to working on a river: you’re simply “on the water.” It has a character, an immediacy, a sense of location. Few people nowadays bother to try to emulate Kerouac’s life “on the road.” The regulated sprawl of the interstate system cuts us off from that life, renders it distant. On the water, you can recover the feeling.
Rivers are not, and cannot be, homogeneous in the way that roads often are. Each has its own quirks. Pick another river, and you’ll get a different experience. The roads of the Eastern Seaboard tend to run together, hidden from the surroundings by retaining walls and trees. The rivers insist on maintaining distinct identities. Some, like the James, wind and twist, hugging you close with their muddy waters and intimate banks. Others, like the Potomac, let you drift in their expanse, careless of where you go. And beyond being places unto themselves, the rivers, lakes, and oceans of America change and enhance our perception of the surrounding land. More than half the surface of the Earth is covered in water; we miss a lot if we don’t think about how all the banks and coasts appear from each side.
I didn’t really understand all this at the time. I was too wrapped up in living on the boat from day to day, running program after program, cleaning, taking care of chores, and waiting for dinner. Coming to college, though, has encouraged me to rethink what I actually drew out of this job. Whenever I mention that I took a gap year, the inevitable question comes up: “Oh, what did you do?” Then I start to explain that, among other things, I worked as an environmental educator on a converted fishing boat. And I reflect, and the story changes a little bit each time I tell it.
I’ve gradually come to realize how valuable this trip was in documenting an entirely different perspective on life. It’s not just about the skills that I picked up (many of which are rusty and unused) or the work experience. It’s about understanding a vital part of American identity and history. The river alters the way our surroundings appear, and we come to appreciate what makes a bay, a shoreline, even a city distinct—just as the person is unique, so too is the place. But sometimes it takes a river to see it.
Alec Downie is from Washington, DC. He has forgotten most of what he learned on his boat trips, as with many other things he does, but he still loves the water. Send him an email at email@example.com.