There are three of us on this 19-foot sailboat and no one with a hand on the tiller or an eye to the mast. Paul Walker, whose boat we share, is the only one doing any work. With ritualistic care, he has just removed a pint of rum from an old sock that was hidden inside a metal cracker can. With paper cups and a yo ho ho, we raise a toast to another summer of sailing.
Life on the river can be intoxicating when you stay tied to the dock.
Greetings from Buzzard Point, the funkiest shirt-sleeved marina that still serves a Washington river. Nestled on an obscure shore of the Anacostia River, just below the round brick stacks of an old, coal-burning power plant, this riverside marina has kept its boat-strewn informality while many marinas are losing theirs.
"Real boat yards are becoming a thing of the past. They're all being replaced by plastic marinas," said Eddie Cohn, the black-bearded manager of a marina that is home port for 65 boats that float, half a dozen that no longer do, and a pile-driving, crane-topped barge decorated with paintings of dancing mermaids. "We've got a little character left."
Last week, with the weather warm and the breeze becoming balmy, many of the folks who dock their boats at the dozen marinas along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers began testing the waters. Others were content to stand on gently bobbing decks still tied to piers.
"I just came down to look at my boat," said Harry Swift, a 70-year-old retired meteorologist who was kind enough to help his friend Walker celebrate the passing of another winter. "There'll be time enough to sail this summer."
Swift has been renting a berth at Buzzard Point for the last 18 years. He says he likes it there because the people are friendly, the rent is cheap ($30 a month to berth a 19-footer) and the atmosphere is unmistakably salty. The snide comments he and the others who dock there have endured from those who think a marina should be a floating patch of suburbia have only made them more loyal.
"They look down and think we are a stinkhole," said Cohn, pointing toward a glassy, nine-story, federal office building that was built six years ago and still looks odd beside a shore littered with driftwood.
At Buzzard Point you can find old wooden sailboats, new fiberglass runabouts and a few species of boat that challenge all classification. In berth No. 1 is a houseboat called the Becky Jean, which looks like a prehistoric, aluminum motor home and in fact has rubber wheels under it.
"I don't discriminate," said Cohn, who claims he never intended to manage the marina, but was kidnaped while visiting there 18 years ago.
A wooden raft, abandoned by an amphibious flying service that once used the Anacostia as a watery runway, sits in the sand on one side of dock. On the other side is perched the Swan Boat that once carried kiddies around the tidal basin for a fee. The Smithsonian took the Swan and left the rest of the carcass for Cohn and his Buzzard boat yard.
"This marina does have a reputation for being a bit different," concedes Ellie Mae Fiocca, who is wearing what looks like Oriental long underwear and an aviator's cap while mixing a batch of paint to spread on the barge she and her husband own.
Captain John Fiocca is 65, about twice as old as his bride of one month. He is a pile-driving barge operator who wears red suspenders over a white thermal shirt, tells stories with wry enthusiasm and still makes a living on Washington's rivers. He is a much-loved character at Buzzard Point, where he is known to be a soft touch for any boat owner who needs a tool or a tug. He is also well known to the District's Harbor Patrol, who have nicknamed him the "River Pirate."
Fiocca, his wife and a crew of one were working at a slow, civilized pace one day last week. Compared to most of the others in the boat yard, however, they seemed nearly obsessed. There is something about the Point that encourages sitting.
"I've got people docked down here for 10 years who never go anyplace," said Cohn. "I think a lot of them come to get away from their wives. Marinas are always competing with wives. That's why they name boats after women."
Buzzard Point is custom-built for spending time. A garage-sized shed, which overlooks the river, is outfitted with two pinball machines, a soda machine that dispenses cans of beer and a wood-burning stove that blows less smoke than the storytellers who surround it each winter.
"This is sort of like a club," says Walker, who is retired after working at St. Elizabeths Hospital directly across the river for 30 years. When asked on which side of the river he has found the mental conditions to be most healthy, Taylor cocks an eyebrow and gives a well rehearsed reply. "I guess it's about even."