Distance is relative: upriver to Washington DC

Family walking by Capitol building

You’re going to Washington DC with your boat? You know that’s going to take days, right? It’s really far away!

We heard this from nearly every individual around Annapolis that we told of our plans to take Totem up the Potomac. From Annapolis, it’s about four days of motoring (if you’re lucky, some sailing).  I’m sure that once upon a time, when our cruising life was contained in long weekends or vacation trips, we would have regarded the time it takes to go south in the Chesapeake Bay, and then north again, as “really far” too.


Our bigger issue is that it’s getting cold, now that we’ve cracked into November.


Diggin’ out the old oversized so you can layer under them foulies cold. It dipped into the 30s overnight in this pic.


When we meet people here at home who are amazed at the distance our family has traveled, I have trouble accepting the recognition. I remember well enough when a few hundred miles WAS “really far.” Kind of like how that first overnight jaunt feels a little scary. You overthink the watch schedule, forget something you shouldn’t, and have just enough jitters enough that nobody really sleeps anyway. You string together a few more daytrips than usual to make tracks. And there’s a point along the way when the rhythm feels natural, and suddenly…going “really far” is not such a big deal.


We anchored for a few nights at St Mary’s, MD, for Niall to tour the college and meet with admissions, and for the rest of us to explore the historic town. Founded by 300-odd settlers in the 1630s, it’s now carefully preserved including re-enactment of 17th century settler life by costumed docents. A replica of the 17th-century trading ship Maryland Dove, one of two ships which made up the first expedition from England to Maryland, awaited.


Maryland Dove had really informed guides to help us understand the vessel in the context of it’s time. Anybody know what this is?


Because it’s standard issue on boats of this era, and something I’d never encountered before, but really, really fascinating. Go ahead, guess here or on our Facebook page post! I’ll add it to the comments….EVENTUALLY. 🙂


How cruising kids boatschool, example #724: spending the day exploring a national historic landmark, having 1:1 conversations with the staff who interpreted of daily life of the early settlers and indigenous  Yaocomaco  who lived here. Their rich information makes the skeleton structures feel real, the archeology sites tangibly important to preserving this slice of the past.


Siobhan and the 17th century seaman reenactment character… shoeless.

The next anchorage was a little bay tucked on the east side of the Potomac, 30ish miles south of DC. Another reason it was well worthwhile to take Totem up here instead of day-tripping in traffic from Annapolis: Mallows Bay is the final resting place for more than 230 ships, mostly of which were built for WWI. The war ended, they were considered useless and scuttled…burned to the waterline and sunk.


It is surreal.

We paddle right past the bones in our dinghy, in water so shallow it threatens the tubes of the RIB.



During WWII, Bethlehem Steel built a salvage operation to wrest scrap from the mostly wooden vessels: that left a mark, too. Today this bow is home to a massive (9′ diameter?) osprey nest.


The beaches around Chesapeake Bay are full of fossilized shark’s teeth. We tried.

12-hunting-for-shark teeth

It’s stops like this that make me grateful we can take time. Whatever semblance of a schedule we have now is driven by a balance between wanting to make the most of the opportunity to spend time in the US capital…and not getting too cold.

The Totem madrasa is in session. Actually, Jamie was giving a civics lesson.

We’re now 100 up the Potomac river. This is further inland than we have ever been on Totem. And there’s a warm weather break, thankfully. So surreal to see the Washington Monument in front of Niall, as he takes the helm when we anchored off DC.


Shirtsleeve weather. Enjoying it while we can!


And although the rest of the southbound fleet has basically left us in the dust, we’re planning to spend a few weeks here. Why? Because we CAN, and because the learning opportunities are outrageous! We are trying to limit ourselves to One Thing Per Day, because otherwise… total overload. And we have the luxury of time…to soak places in without going numb from the input.

Day one was at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History with Dr Christopher Mah. Introduced by a mutual friend a few years ago when we were trying to ID some of the interesting critters spotted underwater, he gave us an unforgettable behind-the-scenes tour. This invertebrate biologist is deeply respected in his field, and I feel tremendously grateful for the perspective he gave us on his work and the NMNH.


Storage areas are like Raiders of the Lost Ark. OH, the treasures within!


…and the treasures just sitting out, dated generations past, named by explorations you would recognize. History in the vaults.


Another day, we gave a presentation in this room at the Department of Homeland Security to a range of senior officials from a variety of disciplines. A lucky opportunity after one attended our marina meet-n-greet presentation near Annapolis a couple of weeks ago. We really enjoy sharing from our experiences, and had fun tuning a few stories for the audience: piracy, working with officials in foreign countries, that time we befriended the families of the secret police tasked with following us in a corner of SE Asia.


Walking the mall with Annapolis friends, checking out the Air & Space museum in DC…


…ahead of visiting the Udvar-Hazy Air & Space museum near Dulles, thanks to friends from near Baltimore. MINDBLOWING. This panorama of the view at entry is just a teeny glimpse into how massive and amazing it is (thank you Scott & Sara!).


Here’s another perspective on the massive scale at Udvar-Hazy: the space shuttle Discovery… that’s Niall, circled in orange, at bottom right.


dsc01623Today’s destination: the capitol. Arranging a tour through our senator… well actually, I think the path/topics are not hugely different from the tour you’d get with the general public. But we had a smart intern, a small group with our family plus 2 others (vs a couple dozen), and WE GOT TO RIDE THE COOL SECRET TROLLEY.

This is just the first five days. We’ve got a bunch more. And DC has what feels like a bottomless supply of experiences, learning, history, unforgettable things to see and do. That question about why we’d go “really far” to be here just needed to be pulled out of the context of weekend/holiday sailing. Being able to go slow is our luxury, and not having a lot of traditional luxury in life, we’re going to revel the sh*t out of this one.


At least two more weeks here. So yeah, we’ll be cold. But when else can we do this again? And how crazy/cool to be in DC for the elections?


Hey, we’re in Huffington Post! Check out the article here, it’s full of pictures from eight years of cruising. 

36 Responses

  1. Great article! on-point and inspiring! A DC-homeschool trip is on our horizon for 2017! A good adventure is ALWAYS worth the trip. xx Team Cortado

    1. It really is. I can understand you’ll want to point directly to the gin-clear waters of the Bahamas, but if you point N for hurricane season next year a stopover in DC is so worthwhile!

  2. Very cool! I visited my sister who lived there quite a few years back and was there for a few days. She showed me all the sites, so much history and information. It’s like drinking water out of a fire hose, you’re only going to get so much! I think it would be awesome to see it by boat too. And what an awesome experience for the kids, gosh the hands on learning they are getting is so rich! I’m a little jealous my childhood didn’t have that haha! Wish you guys a fun time there, stay warm. You aren’t the only ones dreading warm weather, it’s getting chilly here in New Orleans and I don’t like it!


    1. It really is that firehose experience! Keeping it to “one thing per day” helps a lot. Free museums make marina fees easier to manage. Ronnie don’t tell me it’s cold in New Orleans, we dipped into the 30s overnight here recently! EEEEK!

  3. Three weeks are probably a better history and civics education than 4 years of high school and two years of college classes. Great choice and well worth the polypro survival wraps!

    ps I hope the no shoes — no admission rule doesn’t apply in DC!

    1. Well, so far we’ve skirted the “closed toe shoes” dress code for at least one impressive facility (White House!) but it’s cold enough that Siobhan USUALLY wears her shoes outside. Usually.

  4. Oh, I’ve got the itch to see DC now, I’m not even that “far” away – in Pensacola. Meanwhile, I’ve seen a device like you show before on a replica of the Pinta or Nina, somewhere near Huntsville, AL of all places.. It was used to record the direction and speed of the ship from watch to watch, and then later passed to the captain to record all those values in the ships log. Is that right?

  5. Hello Totem, long time lurker, first time poster. Thanks for the insight into your fascinating lifestyle.

    Guessing that the device is used for recording direction and speed over the course of the watch when navigation was by dead reckoning.


  6. Seamen didn’t wear shoes because they had to climb ratline’s and shrouds in order to set sails or to reef in sails. Shoes were dangerous when you’re standing on a rat line a hundred feet off the deck, fisting huge amounts of hemp canvas, keeping it in place with canvas gaskets.Read some Horatio Hornblower to get some perspective on sailing then and now.
    Changing the subject slightly, time and distance means nothing to a company rep that flies from LA to Singapore in 18 hours and spends his or her weekend recovering from jetlag. Whether you spend months sailing to some far off place or flying the same distance in less than a day, the only difference is time. I take that back slightly. The other factors is comfort. Leisurely traveling in a relatively comfortable boat or crammed like a sardine into a seat meant for a midget are two completely different ways of traveling.
    My friend Adam is currently in Singapore and then Vietnam, Laos and Manila before returning home next week. He lives out of one piece of carry-on luggage because checked luggage is too often stolen or lost. He lives with the constant threat of food poisoning or getting mugged by roving gangs.
    I’m dithering. I’ll shut up and let you guys enjoy the Potomac.

  7. Thank you for offering this perspective of visiting DC by boat. I’m dreaming/planning to do my own ICW trip, and this is a detour I will certainly take. The board is a traverse board, and its use was as described correctly by Rolf P. and Andrew. it would be used through a 4 hour watch to record (using the pegs) the course every 1/2 hour (on the wind rose on top), the speed every hour (on the table on bottom). Associated with its use were sand hourglasses to measure 30 minutes, and a knot log, to measure the ship’s speed, shown on the top of the barrel in the photo illustrating example #724 of boatschooling. I wish I had been able to sail away with my kids when we were all younger… Now I’ll be lucky if some of my grandkids could share a sail with me.

  8. The new camera is doing a great job!

    Concerning the old artifact, our guess is that it is a calendar judging by the seven-part day divisions separated by four weekly rows. The top “rose” may be monthly divisions but that doesn’t seem to work by my count unless their calendar differed from ours. Or possibly a record of latitude? The artifact predates longitude fixes so that’s out. Also, why all the additional pegs? Spares?

    The strings threaded through the pegs doubtless were to prevent losing them. Its a dead certainty they shared our modern day frustration in how things get irretrievably lost in a tossing seaway… such as a kayak.

    Stay warm & Cheers!

  9. Great schooling adventure. I hope it warms up a bit for you all.

    Is that a replica of a traverse board, or a real antique? There are still few ways to better track course and speed as visually [and as waterproof…]

    1. Good question. I presume replica, but I don’t really know. It’s good, although being intended for illiterate crew, we have some more…detailed tools at our disposal.

  10. Dude, we were just in DC–Oct 27-Nov 3–that’s our adopted hometown, being there reminded me why I love it so much. Enjoy. Now we’re in LA. Best wishes for your trip south. Michael

  11. I would recommend the postal museum if you have time. It’s very well done, like all the Smithsonian museums, and surprisingly really interesting.

  12. I visited DC as an 8th grader and will never forget it! I hope to go again someday with Ken & our daughter .. as they’ve never been. There is sooo much to see! If you have time, visit the National Cemetery … very moving!

    1. I’ll never forget my trip as a kid, either! We hope to get to Arlington National Cemetery… my grandfather, great-grandfather and great-grandmother are buried there.

  13. I’ve been a silent follower (lurker, I guess) of your blog for about 6 years now. We live on the water on a creek off the Potomac, Mattox Creek, just South of the town of Colonial Beach, and we have a deepwater dock. Its a good anchorage as long as there is no strong East wind. If you stop in Colonial Beach (which has a couple of nice marinas owned by friends of mine) or nearby, you are welcome to use our dock to come ashore and we would be happy to give you a ride if you need to stock up on anything. Enjoy D.C! Glad you enjoyed Udvar-Hazy… its a particular favorite of mine as I am an airline pilot.

  14. You sailed right by my office on your way up the Potomac (I’m on the Virginia side just past the gun range and straight across from the power plant just before the big bridge). It would have been fun to look out across the river and see a family heading upriver. I’m glad you enjoyed the trip – our kids always enjoyed a trip to the Smithsonian – one of the advantages of living just an hour from DC.

    1. Hey, I think we passed you again earlier! Just south of the bridge, we had to stay on the MD side of the river to be out of live fire at the rage. Down closer to the mouth of the Potomac tonight.

  15. Wish I’d checked the blog earlier – would have walked out to the river to wave, not that you could have seen anyone on our side of the river 🙂

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