For the past week, Robert Suhay has often imagined sailing the Chesapeake Bay, visualizing various tide patterns, weather conditions and landmarks as he tames the vast body of water.
That mental exercise has helped the long-distance sailor keep his confidence high ahead of his attempt at a feat no one has accomplished: Starting today, the 51-year-old from Norfolk, Va., will try to sail the Chesapeake Bay, from Norfolk to Pooles Island near Chestertown and back, alone in a Laser dinghy, a sailboat just under 14 feet long.
The entire trip, Suhay said, will be between 310 and 320 nautical miles and take more than 50 hours. If completed, it would set a world record for the longest distance sailed unassisted in a Laser dinghy.
Though Suhay came up short in his first two attempts, those struggles have helped him prepare for this voyage and the challenges that might lie ahead.
“I'm pretty confident that I worked out most of the bugs,” Suhay said. “So if the weather is favorable and my strength holds out, I'm feeling pretty good about it this time.”
Mexican Olympic sailor Tania Elias Calles is the current record holder, having traveled 300 nautical miles in 2010. When Suhay heard about Calles' feat, he decided he would try it himself. Beating the record isn't Suhay's primary motive, though. Rather, completing the journey would fulfill an aspiration he has had since he started sailing as a 6-year-old.
“Since I've been a kid, I've been fascinated by the epic voyage and the solo voyage,” Suhay said. “I guess that's always been in the back of my mind.”
As a teenager, he looked up to the professional sailors competing in trans-Atlantic races, who would spend weeks sailing across the Atlantic Ocean with no crew. In the past decade, Suhay has devoted more time to sailing. In recent years, the Chesapeake Bay voyage has become his main focus.
In some areas, the bay is as wide as 30 miles, making it easier for sailors to lose their route. Suhay didn't bring a GPS the first time he tried this type of voyage and got lost halfway up the bay. Last year, he successfully made a 170-nautical-mile trip to Annapolis in 31 hours but feared that strong winds would slow him on the way back to Norfolk.
“I didn't think I would have enough water to go back,” Suhay said. “So I winded up just stopping at Annapolis.”
Jon Deutsch, who has sailed with Suhay for three years, was impressed when he heard about Suhay's attempt last year. Deutsch, a secretary for the North American Laser Class Association, has sailed for as long as six hours in the past, but never has tried the duration and distance Suhay again will go for.
“To sail overnight, when there are bigger currents out in [the Chesapeake Bay], possibly bigger waves out in the bay, commercial ship traffic to navigate around,” is daunting, Deutsch said. “Certainly a lot more challenges that he's going to face.”
Suhay plans to depart from the Elizabeth River in Norfolk at 4 a.m. today. Then he will sail under the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and past the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse in Hampton before entering the Chesapeake Bay. After he passes into Maryland, he will sail around Pooles Island and begin his trip back.
“I don't consider my previous trips failures, even though I didn't go the whole way,” Suhay said. “I thought of them more as building blocks.”
Recently, Suhay has taught himself how to reach a meditative state while staying awake by closing his eyes and relaxing his body. If the weather is calm enough during his trip, he'll use that chance to rest.
Keeping his boat on course through various weather conditions is a tough enough physical challenge, Suhay said, but most challenging are the sleepless hours in the open water without a companion. If there comes a moment when his resolve weakens, Suhay will think about the motivational stories he has read in the past. He also carries a little bag of chocolates to snack on to help cheer him up.
But it's those obstacles that push Suhay to continue his voyage, as the thrill of a solo adventure motivates him to make sailing history.
“That's something that draws us all to sailing,” Deutsch said. “That's his adventure.”