Late one afternoon recently, three boats sailed to the middle of Lake Ogleton, five miles south of Annapolis on the Chesapeake Bay. The 20 people aboard them tied the boats together for a raft-up.
Then they took out challah and wine.
Mark Kronisch looked over the group. “I want to welcome everyone to our sukkah,” he said.
They call themselves the Sailing Chavurah, and for 15 years they’ve found camaraderie on Maryland and Virginia waterways. Most of the members are Jewish, and through events like this one — a Sukkot celebration on the water, reflecting the precariousness of nature — they express their Jewishness.
Kronisch, 69, from Potomac and one of the group’s founders, is the unofficial religious expert. He led the blessings over wine and challah.
That sits well with Paul Mermelstein. The 66-year-old Ellicott City resident said he wasn’t sure what to expect from a Jewish sailing group before he joined 11 years ago. Would it be uptight on the water?
What he found was the opposite: more hedonism than Chasidism.
“All I hear is Jimmy Buffett music and a lot of noise, and rum was being passed around, and a couple of the guys were wearing coconuts on their chest with grass skirts,” he said. “It was the best spiritual experience I ever had.
“It’s like day camp for adults,” he added. “You’re all together all the time. The actual act of sailing is a lot of fun, but then when we get together for raft-ups or on-shore events, it’s a big party.”
Many of the group’s 60 members live outside Maryland. “People will keep their boats down here, spend a weekend, and then go back up north,” said David Emsellem, 69, of Potomac.
Andrea Landis, 67, drove four hours from her home in Summit, N.J. for the Sukkot event on Oct. 7. One of her favorite chavurah events was a wine tasting on the water a few years ago.
“It was exciting because the weather became bad and we had to break the raft up,” she recalled. “Everybody had tasted many kinds of wine. That was a real hoot until it was time to break up the raft, and then it was too much wine.”
One of the group’s favorite destinations is the Tides Inn, a resort on a cove that lies just off the Rappahannock River in Irvington, Va. Arlene Karpas said the chavurah docks at the hotel marina and spends the day playing croquet. At night members sleep on their boats.
“We try to mix it up,” she said. “We sailed into Baltimore once and walked over to Camden Yards to the Orioles game. So we try to take our enjoyment of sailing and integrate other activities with it.”
The recent gathering was the second to last of this sailing season.
The sun was setting when the group returned to Emsellem’s vacation house for a potluck dinner. Famished, they devoured barbecue chicken, hot dogs and potato salad. Kronisch led Havdalah.
As the group mingled over coffee and dessert, Silver Spring resident Allen Wright, 87, and his daughter, Bev, who lives in Edgewater, remembered their first sail with the chavurah.
“My dad was musing about where to go on a cruise, and he says, ‘I’d really like to go to Queenstown,’ she said, referring to a town on the Eastern Shore where the Chester River empties into the Chesapeake.
The chavurah just happened to be sailing to there. That weekend was also Allen Wright’s father’s yahrzeit.
“Most of the people he didn’t know,” Bev Wright, 65, said, “They conducted a small service as they usually do Saturday night. We said, ‘Wow, look at these people.’ They did a yahrzeit service for somebody they don’t even know, and this is part of their regular routine.”
It’s just what sailors do, group members say. On the water there are no plumbers or electricians. A breakdown on the water means you either need to fix the problem or hope you can make it to port.
Then again, having some many Jews can be an advantage if you’re seeking advice in making repairs, said Fern Silverman, 61, of Philadelphia.
“If you have 20 Jews you have 30 opinions.”