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Flying the Flag

Confederacy rears its head in Devon


One flag stands out among the hundreds that fly from the yachts moored below our balcony. The broad, deep estuary of the River Dart at Dartmouth, Devon, near my English home, is a destination for vessels of many nations, and amid the red ensigns of British boats, the vertical and horizontal tricolors of France and Holland, and the red, yellow and black stripes of Germany and Belgium, the bright red and blue "stars and bars" of the American Confederacy flies boldly in the breeze.

This lone yacht, with the appropriate name Rebel emblazoned on its stern, is moored alongside Teddy Bear, Puffin, D'Artagnan, Moonraker, Carmen, and many other vessels named for their owners' personal peccadillos. One can only wonder what son or daughter of the Confederacy has retraced the route of the Mayflower that departed this harbor in 1620.

Rebel is an attractive, single-masted sailboat sporting the requisite gallery of radars, sonars and wireless aerials for seagoing journeys. Apart from its flag, so incongruous in this lush Devon seascape, this expensive craft blends in with its neighbors.

The waterborne wealth on display across the estuary boggles the mind. Weekend sailors from London take their boating holidays in Dartmouth, swanning about in powerboats and sailboats that are the maritime equivalent of the SUVs they drive through tiny British streets. While some boat owners know the ropes, and several yachts moored beneath me have sailed across the English Channel to berth in Dartmouth for the day, it's clear the majority of pseudo-sailors are still looking for the brake pedal.

There is no helmsman's test or licensure required before getting behind the wheels of these beautiful craft. The skipper of a local ferryboat complains bitterly about the dangerous incompetence of "weekend warriors," and the harbormaster has a full-time job heading off marine traffic jams as yachts jostle for mooring berths in the moonlight, and head out to sea in a rush on the morning tide.

Having been brought up around boats as a child, and sailed regularly in small craft in English coastal waters, I appreciate the beauty of the boats moored in the marina, but I feel angry at the casual way some luxury vessels are handled with no sense of seamanship. What is the point of owning a beautiful boat if you treat it like a car? I suspect the answer lies in the mere fact of ownership -- having a luxury yacht is a necessary accoutrement for the successful businessman.

The London jetsetters come to Dartmouth because it's beautiful, and a safe anchorage in all weathers year round. Houses in the town and its neighbor Kingswear, across the river, rise up steep slopes in parallel rows, clinging to the hillsides and accessed by narrow lanes -- several thankfully impassable to the immigrant SUVs. Whites and creams, pastel pinks, blues and greens predominate in the freshly painted stucco facades. You won't find fake Styrofoam "stucco" here -- the dreaded "Dryvit" material of choice in many new Charlotte buildings. In Charlotte, most buildings are disposable while our local pub in Dartmouth was built in 1320. Many other buildings in town date from the 14th and 15th centuries, and even the humble fishermen's cottages -- now bijoux residences for the rich -- have lasted more than a hundred years.

The topography is severe; no Charlotte builder could imagine working on these slopes, but in Devon it's normal. The wooded hills and fields beyond the towns are sacrosanct landscape, preserved in the community's growth management plan as areas of "outstanding natural beauty," so any land in town is seized upon for building, despite its difficulties.

In Tuscany, in Italy, such verdant slopes between tight rows of buildings would be terraced for vineyards or olive groves, but here in England's green and pleasant land these inclines are roamed by cows and sheep, the fields interspersed with community gardens where only fit and vigorous people scramble to grow their fruit and vegetables.

The spectacle of British and European visitors at play supports a vibrant tourist economy, but most locals now live by serving others rather than from the sea like their forefathers. House prices soar, and residents are priced out of their traditional homes, moving to new "affordable housing" built beyond the ridge in an adjacent valley. It's a common problem, but not one much pondered by the pampered yachtsmen here on holiday.

Amid the contradictions and paradoxes of European post-industrial society, the presence of a Rebel emblem from the American South adds one more query to the mix. Why is this symbol -- of slavery and racism to some, of heritage and valor to others -- flying over the peaceful waters of an historic Devonshire harbor?

We'll never know. In the early morning light, the flag was gone. Rebel had slipped her moorings before dawn and sailed for the open sea, destination unknown, flying the flag so dear to many Charlotteans, so despised by others.

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