Steve Earley doesn’t sail like you and me.
Example: One night, he and his 17-foot open boat, Spartina, were anchored in a cove near Crab Point just off the Chesapeake Bay’s Honga River. Spartina is a John Welsford design that Steve built, and she is, in a word, sweet. Because she can maneuver in knee-deep water with her centerboard up, Steve can sail and anchor her in some pretty amazing places that most of us can only see on a chart. A very zoomed-in chart.
Such was this night off the Honga River, when he woke up, feeling the boat moving a little funny. He was sleeping under his boom tent to gain protection from the predicted thunderstorms, which were now on top of him. The boat was dragging into the marsh.
So, he did what he had to do, what he could do. He climbed overboard, and with lightning cracking open the pitch-black night all around and waves smacking his face, he walked Spartina forward and into deeper water. Chesapeake squalls aren’t anything to mess with; when the gusts slammed into the boat, they stopped him cold. Nevertheless, he persevered, until he finally got her deep enough to reset the anchor securely. It’s the only time he’s ever had to use his rope boarding ladder to regain the cockpit.
“I remember walking chest-deep in this water, and there’s lightning all around me, and I’m thinking, ‘Nobody in the world knows I’m out here.’ It was an odd feeling,” Steve says. “But it worked out, and I got a good night’s rest.”
Like I said: Steve Earley doesn’t sail like you and me.
Spartina is named for two things: the grass, Spartina alterniflora, sometimes called smooth or saltmarsh cordgrass, an important native grass in the Chesapeake, and John Casey’s National Book Award-winning novel by the same name, which is about a rather iconoclastic, rough-hewn New England fisherman and his one true boat (highly recommend).
Steve had been a staff photographer at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay, for about 15 years when she came into his life.
“It was a cold, rainy day at work, and I was looking on the Internet and thinking about escape,” he says. The well-known small-boat designer John Welsford had just released a big sister version of his popular camper-cruiser design called the Navigator. This new design, called Pathfinder, was 17 feet 4 inches on deck (2 feet longer than the Navigator), with a sparred length of about 24 feet. A gaff-rigged yawl, her small, nimble mizzen was a key design element: “She can heave to head to wind with the mizzen sheeted hard on with the jib and main sheets flying, will balance and sail well on jib and mizzen only in really awful weather, can be sailed forwards, sideways, or backward and will self steer on most points of sail,” Welsford said in his notes about the plans, which he designed for woodworking novices to build themselves.
Drawing 3 feet with her board down, she had a small foredeck and two raised benches on either side of the cockpit providing piles of storage, and plenty of room on either side of the centerboard trunk on a 7-foot “bunk flat” to lay a mattress for sleeping. With positive flotation, and the ability to sail capably into a head sea and remain fairly dry in even rough conditions, she “seemed like a safe boat, a practical boat, and one that could go,” Steve says.
And damn, she was salty. For someone as attuned to beauty in all of its forms as Steve’s photographer’s eye is, this was no small thing, either.
Though the boat herself came to him on that rainy day at work, the idea of what she represented had been in him much longer. Small boats—and the extraordinary sailing that a determined, intrepid sailor can do with them—captivated Steve. He followed the remarkable open-boat ocean voyages of singlehander Webb Chiles on his 18-foot Drascombe lugger (eventually meeting Chiles in San Diego as he prepared for his sixth circumnavigation), read Small Boats Magazine, and dogeared the pages of classics including The Biggest Boat I Could Afford, by Lee Hughes, and the superb, delightful The Boy, Me, and the Cat, written by Henry Plummer about his 1912-13 East Coast voyage in a catboat with his son.
When he was in Texas in the 1980s, working at the newspaper in Waco, Steve built a pram, and then he and his dad built a 15-foot stitch-and-glue Sam Devlin design called a Nancy’s China. She was a deft sailer, but when his wife, Elizabeth, then a reporter, got a job at The Virginian-Pilot and their two girls started getting busy with school and everything surrounding it, the little boat sat off to the side. Eventually, though, the girls were grown up and suddenly, Steve found he had more time. Then came that rainy day.
“I came across this boat,” he says, “and I just went and built it.”
That is to say, he “just went and built it” over a year and eight months, in his garage, weekends and nights, well into the wee hours after everyone else had hit the sack.
“My wife was very understanding,” he says. “The girls would go out for swim team, and I’d go out in the garage and work till midnight. It was a lot of fun.”
He says the instructions were “maybe 12 sheets of plans and a booklet. I got what they call a Welsford headache.” Lapstrake constructed, the boat is okoume marine plywood planks bent to seven frames, stem, and transom. The birdsmouth spars, which Steve also built, are Douglas fir. The most technical aspect of the build, Steve says, was knowing how to properly use the epoxy that coats the boat outside and in.
He was smart and lucky enough to have his sails built at Dabbler Sails in Wicomico Church, Virginia, by Stuart Hopkins, a rather legendary Bay sailmaker who passed away in 2021. “He built sails for small traditional boats for a couple of decades,” Steve says. “I can’t imagine how many sails he made. He told me once that ‘nobody uses my sails the way you do.’ If I could frame a comment and hang it on the wall, that would be the one.”
He launched Spartina in 2007 and spent the first year daysailing on the Elizabeth River off Norfolk, training for his first voyage, a four-day trip out of Crisfield, Maryland, to Tangier Sound, where he visited Tangier and the Fox islands. “I would go out every weekend, when it was rainy, hot, windy, no wind.” She was remarkable, stable yet quick, comfortable, versatile. And those day-sails, and that first trip, were just the beginning.
Since then, he’s sailed thousands of miles on Spartina, trailering and launching at various ports to explore the East Coast’s less-traveled rivers, marshes, inlets, sounds, bays, and coastal waters. He can make 25 to 40 miles in a day, traveling at 4-5 knots but frequently faster (his top speed so far is 8.3 knots, hit while riding ocean swells rolling up Sapelo Sound in Georgia). A Suzuki 2.5-hp outboard does come in handy if there’s no wind at all. He’s not a purist about sailing, he says; “I’m a purist about having fun.”
Since retiring from the newspaper in 2020, just before the pandemic lockdowns, he’s become his own kind of migratory species. Ideally, in spring he meanders the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds of North Carolina, then the southern Chesapeake. In fall, he heads north in the Bay, making sure to be in St. Michaels around the time of the Small Craft Festival at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, then up to Chestertown, Maryland, for the annual Downrigging Festival. In winter, it’s South Carolina to Florida. And in summer, when possible, Maine (he hopes to do some of the Maine Island Trails this summer).
“It’s not like point to point,” he says. “I might go back and forth. It just depends on the wind and whatever I feel like doing. I always look at the weather and see what my options are.”
His longest trip so far has been 28 days. In 2021 alone he sailed 540 solo nautical miles. His wife is a hiker, and she gets it. They’re comfortable doing their own things independently. These days, he uses a Spot device so Elizabeth and the girls can track him.
“When I started sailing, the technology to communicate wasn’t there. I would print out where I was going on a dot-matrix printer and circle the locations where I thought I’d go. I’d tell my wife, ‘If you don’t hear from me in two weeks, call the Coast Guard.’ Now we have phones, and I can text every night and send pictures, and we can talk, and it’s really nice.”
Steve is a sailor’s sailor. That said, when it comes to life aboard Spartina, he thinks of himself as more like a backpacker on the water. He spends more money at REI than at West Marine, and his best source of technical and practical advice is a good friend who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.
For instance, he says, “I asked him, ‘What do you do when you get cold and wet?’ And he said, ‘Don’t.’ ’’ And then provided the lowdown on the best gear to stay warm and dry, even in a 17-foot open boat.
He organizes his food (and most everything else) into sealable tubs and can keep up to 30 days’ worth onboard under the floor and elsewhere. Most of his dinners are freeze-dried, which he preps on his Jetboil stove, though he also has a nifty frying pan that fits on the stove and comes into play when he catches a nice trout, some blues, or rockfish. His luxury, he says, are fruit cups—there’s no way a backpacker could carry 48 fruit cups, but he can, and does.
Drybags and sealable containers neatly stashed under the forepeak, gunwales, and benches hold extra clothes, a drysuit, sweaters and socks, waterproof gloves, foulies, books, sleeping bag, fishing gear, repair gear, safety and first-aid gear, batteries, camera gear, electronics, radios, and pretty much everything else he could possibly need. A portable toilet is tucked up under the forepeak, and Steve can stay dry and cozy under the beautifully crafted boom tent in even the nastiest weather.
Last year, the start of the Small Craft Festival in St. Michaels was accompanied by a full-blown nor’easter that didn’t give an inch for days. Rather than stay on the wind- and wave-exposed docks, Steve and Spartina hightailed it over to nearby Leeds Creek, where they tucked into a protected cove and waited it out for four days and three nights. That may seem like a long time to live in basically 12 feet of space under a tent, but Steve was good. He listened to sports radio, read books, caught up on his log.
“There’s almost something cleansing about it,” he says. “I won’t say it’s my favorite thing to do, but it’s kind of nice…You have bad days at everything—it’s hot, the current’s against you, no wind. The mindset is critical: How do you get through the day and deal with the weather and keep your spirits up and keep moving forward?”
Steve laughs that although he built Spartina “to get away from people, I have met so many people, all my best and truest friends I’ve met through this boat.”
That said, there’s a peace and comfort that comes with the privilege and challenge of silence and self-containment, and the rewards Steve finds when he is alone with Spartina are unique to those moments, in those places, where only they can go. So open to the elements, so close to the sky and the water, they become a part of those elements themselves, another species of bird dipping and soaring and living on the wind.
“It’s the journey, it’s the people, the things you see, the challenges you have to overcome. It’s the morning light. I really love seeing the orange light on the sails at dawn.”
A year or so ago, he wrote a letter to Spartina’s designer, John Welsford. “I told him what a good job he had done on the boat. I told him it changed my life,” he says. “It’s just been a good boat, solid, comfortable. It’s just right for me. I can’t imagine a boat I’d rather have.”