Life is an adventure every day, even in the bonus years, if you make it one

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday November 11, 2018

Unabridged from my weekly Bonus Years column the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday, November 9, 2018

Most of us came face-to-face with a geography course somewhere along the way. For me, it happened in middle school. That’s when I learned there are many island nations.

It’s not just the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan. In fact, by some estimates, nearly one-fourth of the UN’s nearly 200 nations are island nations.

But how many have ever considered the eastern US – from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic seaboard – as an island? Well, it is – if you use the definition found in my dictionary, which says an island is “a piece of land surrounded by water.”

The water surrounding the eastern third of the US includes a series of connected rivers, lakes, bays, oceans and canals. Circumnavigation of the eastern US island is called “The Great Loop.”

The Great Loop waterway is 5,000 to 7,500 miles long, depending on what connected waterways you choose.

To put that in perspective, even the shortest Great Loop route is 2,000-plus miles longer than the Amazon or Nile Rivers – and 3,000-miles longer than the Danube, one of Europe’s longest and most beautiful rivers.

People who take their boats around the Great Loop – typically in a counter-clockwise direction – are affectionately called “Loopers.” At any given time, there may be as many as 300 Loopers somewhere along the Great Loop. Most Looper boats are in the range of 30-40 feet – though I recently read a story about a Looper who completed the circuit in a 14-foot inflatable vessel called a “rigid inflatable bottom” boat, or RIB.

However, the Great Loop is not about boats. It’s about people – and just last week I met an interesting Looper right here in Annapolis by the name of Stacey Sass.

Sass retired as a long-time art teacher in Anne Arundel County Public Schools. She now lives in the Murray Hill section of Annapolis with George Sass, her husband of 31 years with whom she navigated the Great Loop in Sawdust, their 1968 Down East-style motor yacht.

While “doing the Loop” is more often found on a family’s retirement bucket list, George and Stacey decided they would do it while their 12-year-old son, James, then in the sixth grade, could participate, making the trip a memorable family affair.

Sass explained, “It was then or never. Children age 8 or under are generally considered too young for long voyages. Once they get to be age 14 or so, they have their own friends and routines and may not want to go. So, grades 5-8 are the narrow window that most parents try to hit if they want to make it a family experience. I’m happy we did.”

So, George put his advertising business on hold while Stacey and James took a one-year leave of absence from school to begin what would be a 6,000-mile trip around the Great Loop, leaving Annapolis on July 1, 2002. They headed north to the Delaware River and out into the Atlantic before turning left up the Hudson River at New York City to continue their journey through the Canadian and American inland rivers, lakes, canals and other waterways – including two months in the Bahamas – before returning home to Annapolis on July 1, 2003.

According to Sass, “It was an adventure every day and great experience in every way – including mixing business, education and pleasure with family time. Before our departure, George was hired as a freelancer by several publications to create a photo-journalism record of our journey. Of course, I always had my sketchbook at hand. The boundless beauty created endless possibilities for both of us – and a wonderful educational experience for our son whom I home-schooled daily during our journey.”

She added, “There was also the adventure of not knowing what each day would bring – and the excitement of meeting new people every day, people from all walks of life and from all parts of America.”

Sass continued, “But it was also challenging. Space was at a premium. After packing my limit of three T-shirts and two pairs of shorts, I quickly learned what you could do without.”

Sass, born in Huntington, Long Island, is a 1980 graduate from Skidmore College with a degree in art education and a Master’s in Fine Art at Maryland Institute College of Art.

“After several tax cuts eliminated arts programs in the Boston area school where I was working, I packed up my 1969 Chevy and moved to Washington, D.C. to get a new start. I landed a job teaching art at a private school plus a waitress job to make ends meet. Three years and several part-time jobs later, I was hired to teach at Old Mill High School where I remained for 17 years.”

After returning from their Great Loop adventure, Stacey Sass returned to teaching, this time at Broadneck high school, where she served as chair of the art department and taught 2-Dimensional Design and AP Studio Portfolio classes. George also shifted to spending full time as a marine industry photojournalist.

After “retiring” in 2014 after 30 years, Stacey Sass tip-toed out the back door but then quietly re-entered the side door – continuing to teach and volunteer in the Annapolis art community.

She now teaches watercolors at Anne Arundel Community College and at Kent Island Federation of Art (with George, who is teaching photography) even as she devotes more time to her new passion for painting in the “plein air” art movement.

Plein air art is rooted in impressionism and today involves artists taking their easels out into the elements to paint their visual experience.

In fact, Sass’s plein air art includes painting water-and-boating scenes created while perched in the open cockpit of her 17-foot Whaler. Indeed, several of her inviting watercolors are on exhibition at the Galleries at Quiet Waters, and one was featured in the Life Section of last week’s The Sunday Capital.

After listening to her story, I said, “You’ve had what appears to be a remarkably smooth transition to your ‘retirement.’”

Sass responded, “The day I retired from Broadneck, I got in my car and turned on the radio. The first thing I heard was ‘Free Bird,’ the ballad by the Lynyrd Skynyrd, Southern rock band, always one of my favorites. When I heard the lyrics ‘For I must be traveling on now / Cause there’s too many places I’ve still got to see…/ Cause I’m free as a bird now / And this bird you cannot change,’ I knew it was a positive sign.”

Though she and her husband have downsized their boat to a small catamaran – and for “traveling on” now have a 14-foot travel trailer for cross-country camping trips – Sass is still fully engaged in the Annapolis and Maryland regional arts scene, including vice president of the Annapolis Watercolor Club. She is still experimenting with new styles and can never get enough time at her easel.

Though now “free as a bird,” Sass remains the teacher she has always been.

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