Canadian adventurers call on Port of Baltimore

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For more than 300 years, the Port of Baltimore has offered hospitality and safe harbor to sailors from all around the world.  Today, huge cargo ships and cruise liners navigate the same waters that once saw the canvas sails of frigates and Baltimore clippers.  The harbor is also home to a veritable fleet of pleasure craft; a mix of party platforms and runabouts for enthusiastic anglers.

Last week, a modern steel sailing yacht aptly named the Cloud Chaser made its way into Baltimore and docked at the Broadway pier just steps from the USS Constellation and the Pride of Baltimore II.  On board were a small band of Canadian adventurers who have made their way down the coast en route to the balmy breezes of the British Virgin Islands.

The Cloud Chaser docked in Fells Point at the Broadway Pier. (Anthony C. Hayes)
The Cloud Chaser docked in Fells Point at the Broadway Pier. (Anthony C. Hayes)

The Cloud Chaser is owned and operated by Gerald V. Stoddard, a retiree from Kingston, Ontario.

Stoddard set out at the end of last summer with a meandering voyage in mind.  Along the way, he was joined by John Davison, another retiree, from Belleville, Ontario.  Jim Stevenson presently rounds out the intrepid crew, but Stoddard is hoping to bring on another crew member before plotting a course out across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Cloud Chaser was built by Hike Metal Products Ltd. in Wheatley, Ontario.  Hike is primarily known for constructing commercial ships, particularly Coast Guard vessels, so building a customized sailing yacht was something of a diversion.  Still, the firm has a stellar reputation, and knowledgeable seamen nod approvingly when they learn the ketch was built by Hike.

Captain Stoddard is proud of his vessel and invited the Baltimore Post-Examiner aboard for a tour.  Working our way below deck, Davison said the ship was originally conceived with a Great Lakes charter business in mind.  However Stoddard found the cost of licensing and insuring such an operation simply prohibitive, so the captain turned his sights to the open sea and the possibilities of countless ports of call.

Creature comforts aboard the Cloud Chaser include a wood-burning stove (Anthony C. Hayes)
Creature comforts aboard the Cloud Chaser include a wood-burning stove. (Anthony C. Hayes)

Taking an extended voyage sounds daunting but the Cloud Chaser features all of the comforts of home.  One surprise was finding a wood-burning stove.  A spacious captain’s cabin is nestled in the stern and there are quarters for four able-bodied sailors.   The galley has an oven and 4-burner stove; perfect for serving meals at a captain’s table that will easily seat eight.  A reverse osmosis water filtration system is capable of purifying 20 gallons of sea water an hour, and there are basin and bathing facilities on board.  There is even a central vacuum cleaner.

Safety features on the ship include the requisite dingy, 2 inflatable rafts and an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPRIB) which can be activated in case of a crisis to send a distress signal to the Coast Guard.  There is an annual fee to register an EPRIB, but Davison says it is well worth the cost since – once activated – the Coast Guard can locate a mariner in trouble to within 50 meters of the beacon signal.

Crew member John Davison stands by the navigators desk (Anthony C. Hayes
Crew member John Davison stands by the navigators desk.  (Anthony C. Hayes)

The seventy foot hull is carried along by the sails on two towering masts.  A 471 cubic inch Detroit diesel engine also propels the vessel.  Four large batteries are teamed to a nine kilowatt generator to provide plenty of power for life aboard the ship.

Thus far, this voyage has taken the Cloud Chaser from Kingston, Ontario to Montreal; up the Saint Lawrence River to Saquenay and onto New Foundland.  Stoddard said the crew spent a month exploring the fiords of New Foundland, where they took in breathtaking vistas as well as seeing frolicsome dolphins and beluga whales.  In port, they found an interesting economic dynamic in New Foundland.

“The government would rather buy up small villages and resettle the people than go to the expense of building roads to remote places and provide services to the inhabitants.”

Stoddard noted that in some cases, the government is paying people $250,000 to resettle in fully serviced towns maybe thirty miles away, but allowing them to re-acquire their old homes in the remote villages for a fraction of the government’s purchase price.  The net result is people who have been roughing it all of their lives now have new dwellings plus “summer homes” at the taxpayers expense.

While in New Foundland, the Cloud Chaser also paid a call on the island of Saint-Pierre – famous in American history because gangsters such as Al Capone used the island as a base to ship nearly 30,000 cases of liquor a month to the United States during Prohibition.

From Saint-Pierre, the Cloud Chaser dropped anchor in Halifax, Nova Scotia before heading down the coast to New York City.  Stoddard said a call along the New Jersey shore (near Manasquan) was eye-opening, given the damage still evident from Hurricane Sandy.

“I remember seeing that area in years past; the kids playing in the sand and girls lying on the beach.  It’s amazing to see the devastation there now; miles of houses all boarded up.”

The hurricane-scarred Jersey shoreline was just one of the potentially hazardous bodies of water the Cloud Chaser will traverse on this trip.

Captain Gerald V. Stoddard demonstrates the ships computerized navigational system (Anthony C. Hayes)
Captain Gerald V. Stoddard demonstrates the ship’s computerized navigational system.  (Anthony C. Hayes)

Navigating waters as diverse as the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the Hudson River requires not only steady seamanship but also reliable charts.  One of the most appreciated features of the ship is the array of electronic control devices at the helm.  Gone are the days of searching the heavens with a sextant to find your position.  With a touch of a button, the navigator knows the ship’s exact location, the depth of the water and the presence of moving objects both above and below the waves.  Even better, the ship can be piloted with the aid of an automatic helm.

“It’s like your right arm.  You don’t have to stand outside at the wheel in the cold and the rain to pilot this ship” Davison said.

Of course, such 21st century luxuries as an auto-helm aren’t cheap.  Navigational computer software is tied to the U.S. satellite system and the chips are specific to contained geographical areas.  Chips which cover  the eastern seaboard for example run around $300.  Add that to the Great Lakes chip and one for the Atlantic Ocean east of Puerto Rico, and Stoddard is looking at close to a thousand dollars in software alone.  Plus there is maintenance of the ship (Stoddard was trying to locate repair parts from local vendors while I was on board) and of course, provisions in the way of food and adult libations.

“They used to say ‘BOAT’ means, ‘Bring Out Another Thousand’, but now it’s more like ‘BOATT – Bring Out Another Ten Thousand’” Stoddard said.

Once the ship is ready and another crew member has been found, the Cloud Chaser will sail down the Chesapeake Bay and out into the Atlantic.  If Google maps are to be believed, by the time they reach the British Virgin Islands, Stoddard and his ship will have traveled more than 3800 nautical miles.

I didn’t ask Stoddard or Davison where the crew will go once they reach the Virgin Islands.  A warm beach in December seems like destination enough to me.

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