There's a sailboat down at the Washington Marina that looks like an overgrown kayak, has a plastic seat stuck on where the cockpit should be and a pexiglass dome that would make the top-turret gunner of a World War II B24 nostalgie.
And while it spends most days swinging docilely at anchor, not very long ago this sleek craft - only 26 feet long and seemingly not much wider than a thick needle - was island-hoping from the Bahamas to the Grenadines, and to prove she had ocean-going capability her skipper cruised as far south as South America and as far east as Bermuda.
The boat reflects the maverick spirit of her owner, designer and builder, Travis Taylor, who was brought up in Arlington and decided after three years at the University of Virginia that what he wanted couldn't come from college textbooks. He wandered west, for a while doing duty as a pancake chef in St. Louis. But he discovered a yearning within him that could be satisfied only by travel on water and he decided that the simplest way for a man who didn't have a lot of money was to build a boat with his own hands. He did it.
"It was ugly," recalls Taylor, "and it was supposed to be a sailboat, though I never did get around to putting up a mast." What he did do was call up his father in Arlington to say he was going to row his 16-foot creation down the Mississppi River.
The senior Taylor thought that was such a good idea he invited himself along."He came out to St. Louis," said Taylor, "and we put oars on the thing and headed south. He got off at Natchez, Miss; I kept on alone. Twenty-six days and 1,000 miles out of St. Louis I tied up in New Orleans."
On the strength of his own boat-building efforts, Taylor got work at a shipyard on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain. He ultimately decided to buy one of the 26-foot hulls he had been building and to adapt it to something far headier than the comparative calm of Lake Ponchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico.
About that time he met Mary Catherine Flythe. They spent $2,000 on materials and 1,200 hours in labor putting together the boat that would take them to the faraway places they dreamed off.
What made the cruise that followed possible was what Taylor had done to the boat's original design. While the standard craft that rolled out of the factory had a big cockpit, the cabin was so cramped that Taylor, who is 6-foot-5, would have been tied up like a pretzel every time he tried to get his clothes on.
Taylor installed decking all the way from the bow to the stern and eliminated the cockpit entirely. How could the boat be steered? Simple. When the weather is nice, the skipper sits on the fiberglass chair bolted just ahead of the tiller. And when the weather stinks, he sails it from below. That's what the plexiglass dome is for. It gives Taylor 360-degree vision, and a couple of lines that run from the dome back to the tiller give him control.
Convinced that what they had wrought was good, Taylor and Flythe took off in Novemeber 1973 for the islands. By the time they returned to the States nine month later they had touched at the Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Virgins, the Lesser Antilles and Venezuela.
Ironically, one of the toughest situations in their long trip came at the start. Before they could get the boat out of Lake Ponchartrain and into the Gulf of Mexico, three draw bridges had to be opened - all at night. There were no problems with the first two but right after the boat had gone through the third - a swing bridge - the current and the wind began pushing them back.
"The boat was literally and figuratively powerless," says Taylor. "Pretty soon we hit the bridge. I climbed up the mast and jerked it down everytime it would bang against one of the overhead I-beams. Since the mast height is 36 feet and the bridge clearance was only 18 you can imagine the boat was heeled over pretty far."
The boat was tied up in Washington when Taylor and Flythe first returned to the States, and later in a variety of ports on Long Island Sound. In October, 1975, the itch to go got them again and they headed for Bermuda.
On the way back from that trip they encountered one of the severest tests of the boat's seaworthiness and their own. "We had just eaten some popcorn," recalled Flythe, "when this great black wall of clouds hit us. Boy were we sick . . . after two days the storm ended and we were in good shape and so was the boat."
Though the vessel has proved its soundness in more than 2,000 miles at sea, Taylor admits it has one or two design flaws. Sailing from within can be done only during wet weather or night. Having one's head in the plexiglass dome during clear weather leads to what Taylor calls the "greenhouse" effect. "You get hot and sweaty and in a couple of minutes very seasick."
Problems or not, the sad truth is that the craft that served Flythe and Taylor so well now spends most of its time at watery pasture. Taylor is philosophical about it. "We wanted to see all those distant places and we did and it was great. Now I'm 30 years old and I have to earn a living."
And indeed, Taylor's life at the moment is a far cry from the old days. He does boat preparation work at Backyard Boats in Alexandria, and he and Flythe saild only on weekends.
But they did what most sailors only dream of doing. And though the boat nods comfortably at anchor week after week, it still retains a potential for vibrant life. If it crosses your path one day on a course set for the high seas, doff your hat, dip your colors and give her the salute she deserves.