They say it’s not where you are, but who you’re with. Nobody embodies that more than Donna Armento, whose whole frame of reference I’ve come to call Donnaville.
I apply Donnaville especially to Deltaville, Virginia, where, the first time I met her, I’d anchored and needed to borrow a car. Unfortunately, with an expired license and a destination beyond the marina’s guest car limits, I was low on options. That’s when Donna offered me a ride.
Then, she helped me get into the marina and pull my engineless boat around from spot to spot during hurricane season. She introduced me to her rich friend next door, too, and he offered me free dockage at one of the waterfront places he and his wife owned. When I hauled out to paint the bottom of my boat, she helped me cut off its defunct prop shaft, in the process melting two carbide blades on a reciprocating saw.
Needless to say, we were fast friends, which I welcomed in a place I had seriously mixed feelings about.
Deltaville is a small community on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s popular among cruising sailors who often use it as a stopover where they can work on their boats. It’s also a bedroom community for wealthy Virginians who keep vacation or second homes along the expansive, expensive waterfront.
Before meeting Donna, my only interactions with Deltaville had happened a year earlier while glassing some seacocks with an ex-boyfriend in a boatyard that was as rough as our relationship. It’s safe to say that experience helped color how I felt about the town.
Meanwhile, Donna’s boat was on the hard elsewhere. She had finished repairing the bulwarks and was readying the wooden rig and spars for varnish—all of it by herself in preparation for launch. And this wasn’t just any launch or any boat. After nearly 18 years of being forced to swallow the anchor, she and her boat were finally ready to go again.
Donna’s boat, MacNab, is a gaff-rigged Bristol Channel Cutter that she’s owned solo for 18 years since her husband passed away suddenly while cruising. They were living aboard with their four children, one only a baby at that time. Her husband and love, Alan Shaw, was a tattooed Englishman of many talents and skills, which Donna soaked up along with the ones she’d already gained.
The floating family had traveled from the Sea of Cortez, where they’d started with the boat and visited places like Costa Rica, transited the Panama Canal and stopped in the Guna Yala (San Blas) en route across the Caribbean Sea to the Bahamas, then on to New York, where Donna was from. When Alan died, they were on the Chesapeake, in Deltaville.
Donna has been refitting and rebuilding her boat and is now ready to live aboard and sail full-time again. She is a sailor and traveler at heart but did what she had to do to raise her kids. While in Deltaville, she became an integral part of the community. She started and ran an antique trading bazaar, has been to every annual crab fest (I attended last year’s with her), and drove an iconic van from Mexico named Old Betsy, which stalls and looks about ready to break down.
“No bad days, because every day is an adventure,” is her mantra, finding joy in her work detailing and repairing yachts.
She helped me see the positive in a place that troubled me. The area has high rates of domestic violence, poverty, and inequality that many of the sailors who tie up there don’t see or don’t care to see. But I did see. And Donna had to navigate through it as a single mom of four. Despite it all, she kept the dream and her love for the sea alive.
She helped me learn to respect and love the community’s many attributes, like the maritime museum, sailmaking loft, public library, grocery store, and hardware store—all within walking distance of somewhere you can fix your boat.
Donna is one of the strongest people I know, and her boat is one of the most seaworthy. They are perfect for each other.
I’m not sure whether I’ll ever pass through Donnaville again, because by the time I make it back to town she may have cast off. But then again, Donnaville is a state of mind. I’d been searching for the perfect place to fix my boat. Donna taught me the perfect place starts wherever you are.