Lost Stories of the Chesapeake: The Bay Takes a Life
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Chesapeake Bay is the lifeblood of a region and a muse for many writers who live along its shores. It’s been the venue for adventure and the source of many stories, true stories and fiction alike. At New Bay Books, we hope to recall some of those stories and we welcome seeing them. Here’s one that I wrote for our family’s newspaper, New Bay Times, in 1993..
At noon, Chokri Drissi felt the wind whipping the pine lashed to the roof of his Mazda sedan. Again he tried to reach Philippe Voss on the car phone.
Chokri, from Tunisia, where Islam is the state religion, had never decorated a Christmas tree. Later he would surprise Philippe, a Frenchman, back at Chesapeake Harbour in Annapolis, where both lived. The two neighbors had become close friends; they were fellow deracines — people uprooted from their homelands and cultures.
Once more, the answering machine.
At the same time, Natalie Ambrose, Philippe’s girlfriend, felt the mighty Bay Bridge heave in a gust of wind. She gazed to the south, where Philippe would be about now in a kayak paddling to the Eastern Shore. From high up she could see the scudding whitecaps grow frothier and nearer to one another.
With Philippe on both their minds, Chokri and Natalie watched the day turn darker, the sky angry. Neither truly knew how ferocious the Bay had become.
December 5, 1992, had worn a different face at 9 am when Philippe, 41, an impetuous, fun-loving fellow, had embarked from Bembe Beach for his crossing to St. Michaels. The 20-mile paddle in his kayak, a red, fiberglass Aquaterra Chinook, would take roughly five hours.
Afterward, in the flush of another of his solo kayaking triumphs, Philippe and Natalie would lunch in the trendy village. Then they would head back across the Bay for an early holiday season gathering at Chokri’s.
Six months before, on a fetching June morning, Philippe had made his first Chesapeake crossing. At daybreak, he had awakened Drissi, ever susceptible to his friend's schemes. For such an occasion, Philippe had a second kayak, another Chinook.
“It was beautiful,” Drissi recalled of that calm, felicitous day. “For Philippe, the bay was a little paradise.”
Philippe had arrived from France in 1990 with the wherewithal to acquire a translation business that had clients around the world. He was a sportsman from the north of France, a well-conditioned runner and tennis player. He drank nonalcoholic beer.
In Maryland, a balky knee had begun to slow him. More and more, Philippe came to rely on kayaking for exercise and the Chesapeake for exhilaration. He would head out anytime, delighting in awakening others to the joys of bay kayaking.
“He was spontaneous,” said Jerry Feldman, a lawyer in Annapolis and a friend. “He would take off and run, then he would go sailing. And when he got back, he’d go out in the kayak.”
Philippe would show up at Sam’s, a waterfront club, and everybody knew where he’d been by his dripping splash skirt. He paddled on and remained at the hub of a circle of friends who loved him for his infectious vitality.
On a bet with a female friend in New York, Philippe had paddled kayak cross the Hudson River in howling weather. He wrote about the thrill of surviving the journey. He crossed the Chesapeake more frequently and talked of starting a kayak club for his many friends.
He may never have read about the perils of paddling the Chesapeake, where squalls and Nor’easters would blow up in minutes. He didn’t handle English effortlessly.
Philippe surely knew of wetsuits and drysuits and the precautions veteran bay paddlers advise. But friends doubt that he could abide layering himself in another skin. He seemed imbued like others in his homeland with a Rousseauian embrace of freedom, coupled with a distrust of convention.
‘Radical, Messed-up Day’
At 2 pm, Ron Neely glimpsed a red streak in the whitecaps as he huddled on the Eastern Shore, warming his hands. Since mid-morning, he’d been in and out of the water, windsurfing. Like Philippe, he and pals choose tempestuous days lo test their skills.
Even close to shore with his small rigging, a 3.7 meter sail and 8.6-foot glass board, conditions were brutal.
“The waves were so radical and messed up that you couldn’t power yourself up and let it rip,” Neely said.
Neely, 48, knows wild weather. He raced Hobie Cats off Ocean City and sailed big boats in Chesapeake storms. He estimates that on Dec. 5, it blew 40 knots and gusted even stronger. It came from the northwest, shifting west northwest, which would be blowing at Philippe’s stern.
“Waves were monstrous. The wind started cranking and just kept coming,” Neely said.
The splash of red grew larger on the horizon. Neely thought it might be a sailboard and at any moment, a windsurfing friend might pop up. He decided to take a look, walking 250 feet along a jetty and then 100 yards in shallow water. The wind pushed the red shape to his feet.
He turned over a red kayak, an Aquaterra Chinook, empty except for the water that poured out. A shock cord held a lifejacket to the bow. Neely saw no sign that it had been used.
At 4:55 pm, Kathy Ames, another of Philippe’s friends, talked to a Coast Guard officer. She called Chokri, who was nearly finished trimming his first Christmas tree.
“Can you come to my place?” she asked. “Right away.”
A tortuous wait had begun.
Rapture can blind even those skilled in the ways of Chesapeake Bay to danger, cloud their thinking and impede preparation for meeting natures heedless side.
The Capital newspaper in Annapolis had carried ominous warnings: northwest winds increasing to 30-35 knots; waves building to 3-5 feet; scattered snow showers. It was winter.
Philippe would probably not have read the paper. Perhaps he was testing himself. Or maybe he was tricked by the illusion of a friendly Chesapeake. Paddling off Bembe Beach, protected from the building gale, he wouldn’t have sensed what awaited him.
Three years before, another kayaker, Robert Spellman, 38, a Baltimore nurse, wouldn’t have know the fury of the wind that would capture him on the Big Annamessex River when he put in at Janes Island State Park near Tangier Sound. As with Philippe, the wind was at his back.
Spellman's body was found two days later partly buried in the sand of an island. He wore a life jacked over his flannel shirt and wool sweater, but no wetsuit or drysuit.
Hypothermia — plunging body temperature — is often thought to be the killer in cold water. In truth, the first danger and often the real killer is cold shock. An involuntary gasp is the body’s initial reaction. Lungs fill with water, stealing control over breathing. Strength disappears swiftly and panic sets in. Experts say you’re lucky if you have 15 or 20 minutes.
“What we’re talking about here is buying time to get back in the boat,” said Moulton Avery, an expert on cold shock. “If you capsize and can’t get back in the darn boat, your ass is in the water."
Until it floats up on a beach.
Just after noon on Saturday, Jan. 4, four weeks after Philippe Voss had departed the Western Shore, beach-walkers found his body about a mile south of Kentmorr Marina, in Maryland’s Queen Anne’s County. It was near where his kayak had been found, suggesting that he might have nearly reached Eastern Shore.
The autopsy showed that he had drowned. Protected only by a windbreaker, he may have become cold and numb and fallen out of his vessel, friends believe.
“His ability to paddle or to reason was probably impaired,” said Ron Casterline, operator of the Annapolis Kayaking School.
His fate still troubles his friends. Why would Philippe venture out on such a day? It was suggested that a death wish lay behind his adventuresome ways; a rumor had it that he’s grown unhappy so far from home.
Not so, friend Chokri says. Late into his last night alive, Philippe was as cheerful as ever and full of schemes, Drissi recalls. He'd talked about the two going into business, opening a couscous restaurant. Maybe they’d start a French language newspaper, call it the French Can-Can. They laughed because both knew that once upon a time, can-can in French was a common phrase for scandal.
Two of Philippe’s sisters and a brother-in-law arrived from France and worked with the French embassy to arrange return of the body. Philippe went home in a cargo plane. His Roman Catholic funeral took place in Versailles.
Drissi took responsibility for Philippe’s kayaks and donated them to the Department of Natural Resources, praised by Philippe’s friends for their aid in the tragedy.
At Drissi's condo, Philippe’s chocolate Lab, Quilla, greets visitors. Philippe’s photos adorn the mantel and his red Honda is parked outside.
All the speculation about the drowned kayaker’s motivations are less troublesome to Drissi now that the season of Philippe’s death has passed into spring. He recalls Philippe by paraphrasing poet Archibald MacLeish’s grieving words at the death of a friend: “He lived and loved hard in life, so reckless at times, and it was part of his great charm.”