Paying Attention

When I was growing up, I had trouble sitting still in school. I was a precocious little bundle of nervous energy, and I could not keep myself facing forward in class. If ADHD had been a thing then, I’m pretty sure I would have been considered a candidate for Ritalin.

The onset of adulthood—in particular, the middle-aged, slowing down part of adulthood—has somewhat relieved the mild hyperactivity I carried in those years, which is something, I guess.

But when we left our home port in Cambridge, MD last week to embark on our first-ever trip south to Florida, our first day out of port testified that my entrenched attention deficit is still with me.

Caution cuidado attention

Obstacle course

It’s not possible to spend any length of time on the Chesapeake without encountering the watermen who ply the bay every day with their boats, pulling up crabs, oysters, and all sorts of fish up from its depths and shallows. And when the boats are not in evidence, the presence of these men can yet be seen in the thousands of small flags and floats that mark their dredging routes, their fish nets, and their crab pots.

It’s a fully engaged life, one in which many watermen take pride. But it’s not an easy one. And when other boats run carelessly over their floats, snagging and tearing loose the lines that hold them to their traps, it gets a little harder. A submerged trap that has had its float torn loose can no longer be found, making it a dead loss for the waterman who placed it. Any Bay boater, then, who values his neighbor’s livelihood will take pains to avoid steering too close to the floats for that reason. And any Bay boater who doesn’t might value instead the avoidance of the potential complications associated with wrapping a line around a propeller.

So if I had remembered that the course I had charted from the mouth of the Choptank River would bring us directly through seemingly endless fields of the little bobbers, I might have tried a different route. I might also have played around with our travel hours as well. The midday sun in the southern sky having turned the thousand square yards of undulating surface directly in front of our boat into a coruscating mirror, the floats we were least likely to spot were also the ones we were most in danger of hitting.

They're much harder to see in the water.

They’re much harder to see in the water.

We did our best. Pam stood forward at the bow, pointing out the more distant floats as they glided off to port or starboard, and resorting to frantic hand signals when one appeared dead ahead, emerging suddenly from waves of light. And I, on the helm, switched back and forth between steering hard in response to her commands and mentally adjusting our course to account for our weaving and dodging.

No, I didn’t remember this course being strewn with all these floats. But I could have, and I should have, because this was the same course we had traveled two months ago to come to Cambridge in the first place. And it was as strewn then as it is now.

But two months ago, I wasn’t paying attention.

Attractive nuisance

Clearing those floats made for a long and lively morning.

But once they were finally behind us, we fell thankfully into a relaxed afternoon of motoring that brought us down the Bay.

And as we approached the western shore at Cove Point, the point’s charming lighthouse reached out and beckoned to us, practically asking us to take its picture.

Getting out the camera, I started taking snapshots from the helm, impressed both with the play of afternoon light across the structure and with the level of architectural clarity revealed by how close we had gotten to the point.

Cove Point Light. Pretty, but. . .

Cove Point Light. Pretty, but. . .

That’s when it occurred to me to start thinking about, you know, how close we had gotten to the point. And to glance at our depth finder.

Twelve feet, falling within seconds to ten. Then to eight.

And that’s when I throttled down and made the hard turn to port, tensely watching the instruments as I looked for the deeper water I had inadvertently left behind.

In less than a minute, we were back in thirty feet.

Drawing from my extensive grasp of maritime culture, I’ll just point out here that lighthouses were conceived and constructed not for the purpose of drawing boats onto land, but rather for keeping them off it.

So a photo of one, charming as it may be, would constitute a pretty stupid reason for risking a grounding under motor at seven knots. But, again, I wasn’t paying attention.

Room for improvement

Florida is, give or take, a thousand miles in front of us. And we are planning to get there by one of America’s most heavily used recreational routes over water: the Intracoastal Waterway or ICW.

That’s a thousand miles of wide-open sounds alternating with improbably narrow channels, dozens of low bridges that will require us to call in advance to coordinate with their opening schedules, and more boat traffic in tight spaces than we’ve ever seen before.

So I’m going to have to learn to bear down and focus.

And I hope that somewhere within me, there’s room for improvement in my attention span. Because very soon, there will be no room for mistakes.



–Caution cuidado attention: Stéfan, via photopin under a Creative Commons license.
–Floats: Mike Webster.
–Cove Point Light: Mike Webster.
–Salvage: David Krieger, via photopin under a Creative Commons license.

2 thoughts on “Paying Attention

  1. OMD, I can’t believe how much work and how few moments you get to enjoy the scenery! Learning this new way of life is an exceedingly demanding pursuit, or so it seems from my comfortable chair on dry ground…


    • “I imagine it gets easier with experience, like driving a car,” he replied, willfully sidestepping any inconvenient recollection of his one major accident, three fender benders, and half-dozen moving violations in his thirty-five years on the road.


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