Sailing with Dog in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

Sailing with dog may be the most exciting boat ride of my life. On a sultry summer day, my daughter Claire, her husband Ben and I decide to take their dog sailing on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Their flat-coat retriever is skeptical of this concept. Claire’s dog flattens her belly on the dock, pushes her front and back legs hard, and stiffens her entire body. But I love the experience of seeing Charm City through the eyes of their dog.

The object of her fear is the dark waters of the Baltimore Harbor on this hot August morning. My daughter’s one-year-old dog does not want to get into the yellow sailboat. The only way we are going out sailing with Pearson (more familiarly know as Pear or Perry) is to pick her up and deposit her in the boat. Claire lifts her 80-pound black dog (who is wearing her red safety jacket) and hands her to her husband Ben. The dog’s panic abates as soon as Ben places her on the floor of the boat. Perry slinks to a corner.

Claire and I then gingerly step down into the sailboat. The boat’s name is Boudicca (named after the glorious rebel queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe who fought the invading Romans in AD 60 or 61) but Ben always describes her as “she.” Sometimes we get confused whether he is referring to the boat or the dog because the descriptive terms apply equally well: “there you go girl” or “careful girl.”

It is close quarters with three humans and a large dog but cozy. They rent a slip for their boat in historic Fells Point, established in 1763. This 18th-century seaport in Baltimore features a harbor filled with sailboats (in fact apartments boasts of “rent with slips”) plus cobblestone streets, waterfront bars, and dog-friendly restaurants. This maritime town boasts over 161 buildings on the National Register. Claire and Ben can walk to their boat after work for a sunset sail.

After Ben prepares the boat to sail, he uses his oars to guide it out of the slip and past the row of fellow sailboats. There is no battery (yet) purchased for the sailboat so manual labor is required. Claire takes the till (which is the lever used to steer the boat). With Ben’s instruction, she gently moves it left so we don’t bump another boat. The tiller must be moved in the direction opposite of which the bow of the boat is to move—which is frankly confusing especially if someone is yelling directions. Perry watches earnestly from her perch on the floor of the boat.

I feel this strange excitement bubbling up as the boat begins to glide into the open waters. We are surrounded by the harbor condos and apartments situated at Fells Harbor. We can see people boarding boats at the dock. On the horizon sit the monolith corporate structure including the BlueCross CareFirst building. Residents have been fighting for a 40-to-45-foot height limitation in this historic district to avoid its “Manhattanization.” They don’t want to see the harbor walled off.

Ben stops to untie the ropes which secure the headsail. We have to lower our heads whenever the sail is moved from the left to right side to avoid being hit in the head by the boom. Hence “here comes the boom.” It is remarkable when the first puff of wind pushes the little sailboat forward.

“We’re sailing Perry!”

Captain Ben & First Mate Perry

She is no longer the scared dog who tried to glue herself to the dock. Standing up she looks over the side of the boat, distracted by anything floating in the water. Claire wears a leash around her waist that is also attached to Perry’s jacket. If the dog jumps into the water, Claire will also take a bath. But Perry only wants to walk back and forth in the boat or look around.

Ben tells us the wind is not strong so we may not sail far. But even just bobbing in the harbor while he unfurls the second (head) sail to let it up is fun. Sailing with dog succeeds.

While it is already muggy at 11:30 am, the breeze cools just like a fan. Claire and I can’t stop taking photos of Perry who is clearly mesmerized by this odd new world. It is so strange how she is not scared of the water now that she is sailing in a boat yet she was terrorized by the fear of falling in the water when she stood on the dock. The flat-coated retriever breed usually likes being on a boat. But this dog is clearly not convinced she is a “water dog.” Sailing with dog will clearly not be a regular pursuit.

We wait for the wind to lift the sail and lead us toward the Domino sign. The harbor is filled with other boaters—the single kayaker swiftly moves past us. Next, we see the tour sailboat with its odd brown sails (so dissident in the land of white sails). Nearby the occasional powerboat causes rippling waves. Ben tells us the rules for which sea vessel takes precedent on the waters (and it is not big boat vs. small boat).

We frequently transition the headsail with Ben warning us to mind the boom. I am fascinated by how quickly the sailboat can change its direction in the harbor so the wind can chase it. I feel that our sailboat is a gull who glides effortlessly across the sky.

I am reminded of a favorite poet—Emily Dickinson—who writes about the way of the water and how time on the sea will always remind you of unexplored worlds ahead.

“As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea—
And that—a further—and the Three
But a presumption be—
Of Periods of Seas—
Unvisited of Shores—
Themselves the Verge of Seas to be—
Eternity—is Those—” (Emily Dickinson)

As the sun rises higher in the sky, we decide to head back to the dock. Lack of wind frequently stops our path and we float desolately in the harbor. But our dog is our distraction.

We place the captain’s hat on her head and she mugs for the camera. I’d suggest you Google the topic of sailing with dog, because this can be a complex operation.

“The sun is calm this morning. The tide is full, the sun lies fair.”

Matthew Arnold

Apologies to Matthew Arnold who wrote the poem “Dover Beach” for paraphrasing a perfect morning sailing in the Baltimore Harbor.

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