The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Consecration of the new Bishop of Maryland

This event took place over about three hours at the Washington National Cathedral on Saturday morning. The building is a very beautiful High Gothic cathedral. In best American entrepreneurship, it was built – i.e., completed -in just 83 years (Those Europeans! Some of their cathedrals are still not finished!) Since the Baltimore Cathedral is too small, it was decided to use the National Cathedral about 40 miles away. It seats about 3,000. or It’s the sixth largest cathedral in the world and the second largest in the U.S.A. after St. John the Divine in Upper Manhattan.

This allowed for a maximum attendance from the thirty-six parishes in the Diocese of Maryland. It also permitted the seating of a 300-voice choir in the nave and a brass-and-tympani ensemble. Six of us from the family sang. It was an exhausting day with everybody up in the early summer dawn and in the car by 0630 for the drive to D.C. By 0800 we were all seated in the choir stalls for the pre-game warm-up (i.e., rehearsal). All this was after a lot of rehearsing regionally over the past few weeks and then last Wednesday at the National Cathedral itself.

The new bishop of Maryland, Eugene Sutton, has been a canon at the National Cathedral for the last eight years and his wife, a church musician, is employed at St. Alban’s Episcopal School right next door. He was brought up as a Baptist and only became an Episcopalian as an adult. He is now one of several black bishops in the American wing of the Anglican ‘communion’. He is a muscular liberal and an advocate of ‘liberation theology’ in an American setting, i.e., and taking the gospel message to the poor and downtrodden. He spent the day after his consecration, for example, at an inner-city soup kitchen in Baltimore.

This is interesting given that nearly all Episcopal parishes are middle-class and white, and that there were relatively few black faces visible in the choir (I focussed on the choir because, of the identifiable groups taking part in the consecration service, I am guessing that the choir was perhaps most representative of parish demographics). But Bishop Sutton was elected bishop overwhelmingly in the grassroots, quite democratic process used in the Episcopal Church to elect bishops, a mixture of clergy and laity. This tells me that the middle-class, white adherents of the Episcopal Church are as a whole quite liberal, eager for improvements in race relations and desirous of doing something to make an end to poverty. Perhaps it is the same wave that is carrying Barack Obama towards the White House.

I was brought up a Baptist too. Any high-profile public event in the Baptist church would have been at most a Billy Graham-type revival meeting. Liturgy and ceremony were not central and were hardly even present, even though, in my youth and before the general cultural move to informality and the infusion of Southern Baptist manners into northern churches, Baptist services were still quite formal. Too much liturgy and ceremony was seen as popish. In the weeks while we were still just rehearsing the anthems, I was struck at how much the music was patterned on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, including Hubert Parry’s grandiose anthem, I Was Glad When They Said on to Me, a hymn sung to the tune of Jerusalem (also Parry's), the Widor Toccata as an organ postlude, etc. etc. It made me very apprehensive that the whole would turn into one big spectacle - indeed be only a spectacle.

But the ‘vibes’, to use an expression from an earlier age, were in my opinion all positive. There was certainly a lot of formality. But Americans can imbue even formality with a certain zing of informality that is very refreshing. It was a quite joyous event, in fact, despite all the pomp. The sermon, by the retired Chief Chaplain of the U.S. Navy and now Chaplain to the U.S. Senate, was all a big hit.

If you want to see what I mean, watch the video at And if you really want to get a view of some key participants (i.e., Kathleen, my daughter Antonia next to her and yours truly a row behind), go to about 00.24.18 or 02.27.06. You can spot my son William (dark hair with a blond streak over the forehead) at 02.10.39 or 02.23.38. Jim Blackwell is a row ahead of him and somewhat to the William’s left.). The service lasted nearly three hours.

Catonsville, Maryland, Monday, June 30, 2008

St. Mark’s-on-the-Hill

This past weekend has been a culmination of sorts for us in terms of music. Kathleen has been the interim music director at St. Mark’s-on-the-Hill Episcopal Church in Pikesville, Maryland, like Catonsville, a suburb of Baltimore. ( It is a beautiful old stone church with a very good pipe organ. The congregation is very multi-culti; in addition to “home-grown Americans” (I use this term because I am not sure if I mislead when I say “native Americans”; maybe I should say “native-born Americans”), probably a good half of the 80-100 worshippers in the congregation of a Sunday morning are from either West Africa (Nigeria, Liberia) or the Caribbean. This has been a wonderful mix of people whom we have come to cherish. (The mix of Anglican traditions was never more obviously or interestingly on display as at a double funeral at the church a few weeks ago. The deceased were a father and a daughter who by chance had passed away of illness in the same week. The family was from St. Thomas in the British West Indies.)

Kathleen has repeatedly said how she has loved being the church musician at St. Mark’s. The choir had dwindled over the years to next to nothing. With a new rector however, the super Reverend Adrian Dawson, the parish seems to be getting a new lease on life. It was going to take a while to find a permanent musician and they needed a temp. This fit perfectly with our own plans; we are in Maryland for the summer, will be travelling to Ontario in July for a family wedding and reunion and will be returning to Ecuador in September to take up our cruising life again. Yesterday was Kathleen’s last Sunday.

A permanent organist and choirmaster has been recruited and we hope he has a much enjoyment working in this parish as Kathleen. Of course, his task will be somewhat more difficult since, unless he can bring as many family members to church as Kathleen has done, his choir is going to be starting small. Yesterday for example, of the dozen singers present, seven were provided by the Blackwells (Kathleen’s parents, her sister and her niece) and the Birds (me and two of my children; Kathleen was the organist and conductor). Judging by the number of pre-schoolers in the church, I reckon there is the makings of a good children’s choir there in about three or four years. This is thinking long-term, of course, but they do eventually grow up to be adult singers.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, Wednesday, 04 June 2008

I think we experienced more ‘weather’ in four days on Chesapeake Bay than we have in over six years of cruising down the Pacific Coast from British Columbia and Alaska to Ecuador and Panamá.

Kathleen’s younger brother, John, was bringing his 39-foot Pearson sailboat up the Intra Coastal Waterway from Florida. Aboard for the trip were his parents as well as his girlfriend, Katie. They arrived at the ‘Eastern Shore’ south of Salisbury, MD, last Monday. The plan was for Kathleen and me along with our three kids, Andrew, Antonia and William, to take their place aboard S/V Naima for the remaining four days up to Annapolis and Baltimore.

The night before leaving we had had a severe thunderstorm with heavy rain and more was promised for the day of departure. But, as we put out, the sky was simply sunny and hazy. Since there was so little wind we were forced to motor or motorsail. We had already selected a sheltered spot to head for in case storms came up.

Sure enough, by late afternoon, the skies all around us were looking very dark. Far away to the NW we saw black line squalls moving east accompanied by lots of thunder and lightening. We had the anchor down in ten feet of water by about 1800 (everything seems to be about ten feet deep in the Chesapeake except for the main ship channels, which appear to be in excess of thirty feet deep). We also took a playful swim off the swim deck astern to cool down from the heat and humidity of the afternoon, and had an evening meal.

About dark however, we were being surrounded by low, dark clouds. Soon, large drops of rain were spattering on the sunroof over the centre cockpit. Since it was already 2100 and we were all tired from a day in the sunshine, we turned in. We had hardly closed the hatches and fallen into bed when the boat was hit by an extra-strong gust of wind that heeled us over sharply at anchor. It came at us from the open end of the bay where we had thought to find shelter. After this first storm ambassador a mighty shaft of lightening streaked low across the boat followed by repeated and deafening cracks of thunder. Our hair seemed to be standing on end from the electrical charge. Everyone was silently wondering if the anchor was going to hold as the boat leaned to starboard.

For an hour we were alternately entertained and frightened by lightening, thunder and heavy rain. At one point the lightening was continuous for minutes at a time like a fluorescent bulb flickering. The waters of the little bay were whipped up into whitecaps though only a foot or so high. Eventually the wind declined in velocity. But the lightening and thunder continued.

We talked amongst ourselves about what to do if the boat was hit and sank. In this wind it would have been nearly impossible to get into the trailing dinghy and hope not to be capsized ourselves. I comforted myself by saying that, in eight or ten feet of water, we could probably still sit in the cockpit if the boat was sitting on the sandy bottom.

Once it was clear that the anchor was going to hold however, and after the first shock of wind and electricity had passed, we began to become more sanguine about our situation and the noise. Eventually we even fell asleep even with the remnants of the storm still showing off above us.

The next morning, the skies were blue again. We pulled up the anchor and started off again towards Baltimore.

Chesapeake, MD, Saturday, June 07, 2008

Waking up at dawn for an early start to our last leg from Annapolis to Riviera Beach, we find the creek and docks covered in a clammy fog. But visibility seems to be a couple of hundred yards and we put out in good hope.

Coming out of the Severn River onto Chesapeake Bay the fog is even thicker. Around us in the distance we hear but cannot see motorboats. A speedboat race is scheduled for today and the engine noises sound like P51 Mustangs revving up. We are apprehensive about negotiating under the Bay Bridge in the main shipping channel without good visibility. Eventually, we decide to move over a bit towards the shore and drop the anchor in about 12 feet of water. Most of the crew returns to bed while one or two keep watch with the fog horn at hand.

We wait from about 0730 until early afternoon. Various boats appear at speed and either leave us awash in their wakes. One sailboat helpfully asks us if we are all right and just waiting out the fog. Other boats approach us warily out of the pea soup. Thinking obviously that we had some better idea of where we are than they, we are asked for directions. After telling one motorboat that the ‘R3’ entrance buoy is SW at 1.5 Nm, he putters off to the SE and disappears into the fog again. Two sports fishermen come by and reappear two hours later. “Very thick out there,” they report. “Only one fish. Which way to the entrance?”

About 1330 the sky becomes a bit bluer above us and visibility seems to be improving. Off we go.

The Bay Bridge gives the appearance of rising on legs out of cloud. We realize that there have been a lot of boats out there the whole time in the bad visibility. Perhaps they have radar.

Motoring up the Chesapeake in weak following winds, we steer from one no-longer-manned lighthouse after the other. Weather forecasters have been sending out a “Heat Alert”; the fog has kept us cool so far. But as the afternoon progresses and the sun slopes to the west we are exposed to direct sun rays and begin to burn. The thought of a cold beer at the and of the voyage creeps in.

By mid-afternoon the anchor is down in a rural-looking cove near Riviera Beach and we are in the car heading for Kathleen’s parents’ house in Catonsville for a much-anticipated hot shower and a meal.

Chesapeake Bay, MD, Friday, 06 June 2008

By yesterday evening we had arrived in Annapolis. The last time we saw a collection of boats numbering in the thousands and thousands was out in Ling Beach, California. Every inch of shoreline was taken up by dock space and the traffic on the narrow creeks was busy.

John had a tip from his cruising guide that we could anchor for free in one of the creeks feeding the Severn River. As we motored in, we spotted several yachts at anchor. A lady was cleaning her boat from the dinghy and confirmed that we could squeeze in there too and not have to expect a visit from the wharfinger, harbour police, sheriff or Coasties.

Whereas nearly everywhere else we have visited makes it difficult to land a dinghy without finding somebody with an outstretched palm waiting to be greased, Annapolis leaves the beaches at the end of each street free and provide stainless steel ladders to get up to ground level after tying up your dinghy. We spent a fun afternoon on a walking tour of a small part of Annapolis, this wonderful eighteenth-century brick town ending with sore feet for us swabbies and a big ice cream cone along the old harbour.

You could definitely spend a few days visiting this town.
Chesapeake Bay, Thursday, 05 June 2008

It is crabbing season in this huge shallow bay; hundreds if not thousands of crabpots, each with a small colourful buoy, have been baited and set. Maryland’s famous soft-shell crabs. All around us as we move are the typical Chesapeake crabbing boats at their business.

Steering through the fields of buoys requires attention. Even so, with our drop keel and eight feet of draught, we manage to pick up fourteen (14!!) crabpots that we are unable to shake. Our speed is reduced to about 1½ knots. It takes an hour to free ourselves after we drop anchor.



Somerset County, MD, Monday, 02 June 2008

We plan to meet Kathleen’s brother at a cousin’s house along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He is bringing his sailboat up from Florida. The Blackwells have family who live in an old house they have been renovating along the water. We drive down on Sunday afternoon to await the arrival of the boat and enjoy the company of John and Dana and their children.

The whole landscape is low and flat. It was originally cleared to plant tobacco for the North Atlantic trade. In mid-19th Century wheat and other corn was planted for export. Maryland was officially a free state during slavery. But black slaves outnumbered white freemen when Harriet Tubmann lived in nearby Cambridge. Some people say the Eastern Shore is really still The Confederacy.

The northern half of ‘The Shore’ has seen a lot of ‘development’ following the construction of the Bay Bridge near Annapolis. The southern portion however, remains rural. “Watermen’ trap the famous soft-shell clams.