And just like that, the tall ships are gone. Sails are furled; masts are stepped. For three dazzlingly crisp November days, we imagined ourselves back in a time when canvas, wind, and tide ruled the world. We danced to different rhythms then but now we reach for our smart phones and snap another image while yearning for simpler truths. Sorry, friends, that genie is out of the bottle and long gone.
Still, this Downrigging Weekend, coming right on the heels of Halloween and First Friday, was a superb spectacle. There were the tall ships, of course, with their sails billowing, their spider webs of lines weaving precise order out of what appears to be rope havoc, their captain’s cries and canon salutes echoing down the river. This year, there was also endless bluegrass music, plenty of good food and drink, a new marina and a refurbished riverfront restaurant—promising signs of hope and renewal in a friendly little town working hard to stem the modern flood tide pushing hard against its shore.
The weather certainly played its part to perfection. Yes, the temperature dropped thirty degrees in twenty-four hours but the sun and wind that came in on the coattails of the cold front let us see ourselves in clearer light. Details came into sharp focus. Up at our house, we lit the first fire pit of the season and I can’t tell you how many people walking by thanked us for the sweet aroma of woodsmoke wafting down Cannon Street. We bundled up as fall came home in all its autumnal glory; friends gathered on the porch morning, noon, and night—talking, laughing, sipping and eating. It’s a lovely town to visit but it’s oh-so-good to belong here.
Here’s the thing: Downrigging doesn’t just remind us of the way things were; it also helps us to see things the way they are. Today is Election Day in our town and we’ll be voting on our future: financing the new marina, debating the fate of the police department, helping small businesses thrive, improving schools, repairing streets, assessing taxes. The lines of a small town life are as complex and vital as a tall ship’s rigging. What lines do we haul and tighten? Which ones do we slacken? For every give, a get; for every loss, a gain. We tack and tack again, slow but steady progress into the wind.
One by one, they slip away with the tide: Kalmar Nyckel, Virginia, Lady Maryland, Lynx, The Pride of Baltimore, Sigsbee, until only nimble little Sultana is left to undress for winter. Seeing them depart, I admit to something like weary happiness tempered with relief—the same feeling I get when the party’s over and it’s time to clean up and go to bed. I like to replay the events of the weekend in my mind: the faces of friends, the smell of the fire, the ballet of the tall ships on parade. If there’s even a hint of Monday sadness, it passes quickly because I know those ships aren’t gone forever. They’ll be back next year because a lot of good people work hard to keep their dream alive.
I’m grateful; I daresay we all are. Thank you: volunteers, event staff, Sultana, and our tall friends.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com