Regina Hartfield found a community to share her passion for being on the water through the Universal Sailing Club, the Baltimore-based organization that has sought to create connections, encourage fellowship, and spread knowledge among Black sailors within the Chesapeake Bay region for more than two decades.
To Hartfield, it was a natural fit for a club doing so much to nurture the present and future of Black sailing to take time to honor the past. The Eastern Shore resident organized the first Souls at Sea on-water remembrance and libation ceremony in 2013 to acknowledge the millions of captive Africans who perished during the transatlantic crossing known as the Middle Passage.
“I conceived of Souls at Sea because of the freedom that we have to make choices about being on the water and being in boats and owning boats and sailing around the world wherever we want to go,” Hartfield said. “Our ancestors did not have that choice, did not have that freedom when they were enslaved and traveled here in ships along the Middle Passage.
“There are so many souls who were lost along the way, and this just acknowledges them and lets them know that, ‘On this day at this time with these people that are present, we acknowledge and remember you.’”
For its 10th anniversary, Universal Sailing Club is bringing Souls at Sea to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum for the first time.
On Saturday, Aug. 19 at 1pm, CBMM general admission guests are invited to join the land-based portion of the ceremony, which will be held on campus along Fogg’s Cove adjacent to the Van Lennep Auditorium.
This piece of the annual remembrance ritual features a blessing of the captains and boats and a performance from African drum, dance, and song troupe Xaala Mainama. Representatives from the National African American Quilt Guild will present a special quilt commemorating Souls at Sea’s 10th anniversary, as well. Guests will then send off the vessels as they depart for the on-water ceremony on the Miles River.
This event is funded through CBMM’s Regional Folklife Center under the Maryland Traditions program of the Maryland State Arts Council.
“I think it is incredible that we are able to partner with CBMM on our 10th anniversary,” Hartfield said. “We’re always excited to share this ceremony beyond our club. Any time we’re in a public setting, we embrace anyone who is interested in finding out more and learning exactly what we’re doing. Through this collaboration, we hope for the word to go out even farther than ever before.”
The Universal Sailing Club was founded by Black sailors Marcus Asante and Michael Campbell in 2001, and a few years later, Hartfield joined the group.
With the support of her fellow members, Hartfield planned the first Souls at Sea in 2013, and since that inaugural event in Baltimore, it’s become an annual tradition for the club as a remembrance and libation ceremony modeled on African traditions with a unique Chesapeake flair.
“There are many wonderful commemorations that include libation ceremonies that take place on the land,” Hartfield said. “Ours, I like to think, picks up from there.”
Following the on-land portion of the Souls at Sea ceremony, the club members sail to a pre-determined spot and raft up before the ceremony resumes. There, they come together in prayer to acknowledge both their ancestors and the deities of the water and engage in a traditional libation ceremony, which is a ritual pouring of water as an offering to the lost souls.
The powerful scene is all about acknowledging the estimated two million-plus enslaved Africans who died making the voyage to the Americas over the roughly 350 years of the transatlantic human trade.
“What’s special is whether it’s on-land or on-water, we all are experiencing aspects of the ceremony together,” Hartfield said. “The conversation, the drumming, the dancing, the acknowledgement of ancestors, the blessings – we’re all experiencing that as a group, but each one of us is experiencing it individually and connecting with it in our own special way.”
Over the past decade, Souls at Sea has made stops across the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including visits to Annapolis and Cambridge.
This year, the ceremony comes to CBMM and the Miles River for the first time, bringing with it a rare opportunity to connect with the past.
“I can’t believe that it’s been 10 years,” Hartfield said. “I remember getting to the three-year milestone and thinking that was amazing. Now getting to the 10-year mark is incredible. I am humbled that we are this point, and people are still excited to come out and do this year after year.”