The Grand Upper Chesapeake Bay Sailing Adventure


Day One – I Snag a Crucial Line / Jellyfish Joe’s Tiki Bar Extravaganza

Day Two – Rocked by Five Foot Swells / Cynthia Turns Green

Day Three – Exploding Watermelon / Weather Blows In / We Hide Out in Turner’s Creek 

Day Four – A Day of Leisure on Beautiful Turner’s Creek

Day Five – We Outrun a Storm / The Bohemia River

Day Six – A Close Encounter With a Cargo Ship on the C & D Canal / Chesapeake City

Day Seven – My Hand Gets Smashed / Lost Couple on Pontoon Boat / Worley Creek

Day Eight (Saturday/Last Day) – Dodging Ships in the Channel / Main Sail Comes Unhooked


 

It started with a break-up. “Whaddya think about taking a week and sailing the Bay?” I asked Patricia. She’d bought a new (to her) 32-foot Island Packet sailboat in the spring and the night before that question I’d gotten, The Call. 

Cynthia’s Story

Boyfriend and I met online six months earlier. He was the result of careful planning on my part; I’d watched a Ted video about online dating and crafted my profile carefully. We clicked right away. On Date #3, he shucked a bucket of oysters for me, lining them up on his white granite kitchen sink countertop as he told me life stories and kept my champaign glass full. He expected nothing from me and sent me home with a kiss to decide whether I wanted a Date #4. Whoa!

Yeah, it didn’t last, but at least he didn’t ‘ghost’ or text. He explained over the phone that he was in a crucial stage of divorce and had to repair damage to the family, in particular the pre-teen daughter still living at home. In Maryland, you have to be separated for a year before divorce proceedings can begin and then it could take a year or more for the divorce to go through. He assured me he was ready to date. Turns out, not so much.

Patricia leapt at the offer.

The next day, The Ex apologized and suggested we meet that weekend to talk. We had an awesome romantic weekend in Washington, DC, based out of the historic Willard Hotel — the same one where the term “lobbyist” came to fruition during President Lincoln’s administration.

At the same time, Patricia was setting the trip into motion. Her brother and his wife now wanted to caravan with us in their new Benatau sailboat. I decided not to back out just because I had a boyfriend, thinking “that’s what other women do.” And besides, I might be traveling the world next summer with Former Ex; Carpe that Diem this summer.

However, things didn’t quite go back to the way they were with Former Ex and in mid-July I got The Discussion. This time, he did it in person. Over a dozen jumbo crabs and beer on my shabby-sheek patio surrounded by dwarf conifers and shaded by a huge maple, we cracked crabs and talked.

The issues were the same. However, we’d both realized that you can’t short-circuit the process. Human emotions gots to run their course and I didn’t much like being sidelined during the process. As break-ups go, it was a good one. Sometime life throws you a curve ball and you get smacked by it. I’m not the type to charge home plate; I woman-up and take my base.

At least the timing was good. The sailing trip was two weeks away. Runaway! Sometimes, it’s okay.

But frankly, these days, the idea of sweating for a week on a sailboat with no air conditioning in the hottest part of summer with the lowest likelihood of wind of the year doesn’t bring out the the same thrill of adventure it used to. My Carpe abandoned me.

I’ve backpacked the Rockies (check). Canoed the Boundary Waters (check). Shot rapids by canoe in Wisconsin (check). Whitewater-rafted Class V rapids in West Virginia (check). Parachuted over Delaware (check). Bicycled across Iowa (check). Raced sailboats that passed inches from each other at high speeds (check). Oh, the bucket list goes on. Hot, sweaty and exhausted used to be empowering.

Now, it just seems sweaty. Even so, Patricia and I are going through with it. Carpe Carp.

*****

Patricia’s Story

Patricia lived the love story women read summer romance books about. Here’re the crib notes: She came across Carl and lightening struck. They persevered through a number of hardships to be together. Among the many things they did as an active couple was sail. Two years after buying their dream boat, he got cancer and died.

That boat sat for several years until she was ready to try sailing again.

Patricia had been the crew. Carl was captain. Now, she was captain and had to learn all the things she’d never really paid attention to. She had to go out and find her own crew. We met at a Spinsheet magazine ‘crew listing party’ in Annapolis. Most of us were wearing I’m-an-outdoors-person clothing. Patricia was dressed for cocktail hour and wearing heels, teetering across grass at a backyard beer party.

I thought she was a happy divorcee looking for her next man and decided I needed to hear this story. I offered to bring a bottle of wine if she brought me on as crew. “Do you prefer white or red?” I asked.

Turns out, Carl, a lawyer, fell for a 1960s free-spirit, beautiful, working girl with a raucous sense of humor. And Patricia settled into the country club set north of Baltimore. She hadn’t a clue of what the Annapolis sailing scene was like.

Patricia was 68. I was 52. That was two years ago.

*****

Our Adventure

Day One (Saturday) – I Snag a Crucial Line / Jellyfish Joe’s Tiki Bar Extravaganza

First thing to know — it was hot. Friggin’ hot. We spend the morning cleaning and provisioning the boat. Patricia had installed a new main sail and a number of smaller items, so the boat was a disorganized mess. We went to the store for last minute items that we had discovered missing when unloading. Between the two of us, we brought eight bottles of wine, two handles of vodka, a small bottle of high-end tequila for shots, a bottle of boutique tequila for margaritas and a regular-sized bottle of Jamesons for Irish coffees. We needed to pick up water and ice.

We returned from the store several bags heavier and more than $100 lighter.

Then, it was time to get the dingy off the rack next to the marina parking lot. We carry the little, but heavy, dingy motor from the boat down the docks to the dingy. I find out the dingy has oars! I volunteer to row us back to the boat.

Patricia sat on the edge of the dingy with the motor carefully clutched while I rowed. Turns out rowing isn’t as easy as I remembered. My arms didn’t pull at the same strength. My knees were constantly in the way. And every once in a while I missed the water completely and oared through air.

We finally pushed the sailboat out of the slip at about 1pm. Seemed like va-CAY-tion hadn’t really started; we’d been working for hours. I was looking forward to an easy, relaxing sail.

Sailing’s boring, right?

The wind picked up when we got out of Bodkin Creek into the Chesapeake Bay and we put up the sails. The brand new main sail was now slightly bigger and stiff, but came out of the furling much easier. The little middle sail flew out in a cute puff, and the genoa (the front sail) came ripping out. But I manage to gain control and pull it back into position.

Meanwhile, Patricia is rockin’ the helm, enjoying the extreme tilt and speed.

Patricia sailing Sante on the Chesapeake Bay
Patricia sailing Sante in heavy wind & swells of 4-5 feet.

The Bay has shipping channels, highways for the huge cargo ships to follow to Baltimore’s harbor or to the East Coast, down the bay to Norfolk, Virginia, and out into the ocean for travel to all points of the world. This is one thing Patricia doesn’t mess with. Sailboats have gotten crushed when trying to trying to outrun a cargo ship.When we got across the Bay to the western-shore shipping channel, we see a ship coming our way.

Several sailboats near us decide to shoot the channel and zip in front of the ship. We decide to hold back, zigzagging to avoid crossing. That means I’m heaving lines at each turn. Within ten minutes that ship went from a toy-size in the distance to a mammoth vessel in front of us. It’s so hard to tell how fast they’re going and they can’t stop for a boat in front of them.

The other sailboats had made it across. We bob a bit in the ship’s wake then set course across the Bay again. This time, when we go to tack, the genoa’s line gets tangled. It’s not budging. I crawl on my hands and knees to the front of the boat; trying to keep my head down so I don’t  get caught in the snapping sails.

The line is tangled in the anchor gear on the nose of the boat. When we turned, I didn’t pull in the genoa line quickly enough and the flapping lines had snared. I have to reel in the sail, untangle the line, return to the back of the boat, unfurl it and then quickly pull the sail into place. We git’er done and I’m exhausted.

As cocktail hour sets in, we round the point where we’re going to spend the night, Fairlee Creek. Patricia’s brother and wife, Leda, are already there and waiting for us. Patricia turns to me and says, “Wait ’til you see this.”

Fairlee Creek
Entrance to Fairlee Creek off the Chesapeake Bay

We point the boat into what looks like a narrow creek, barely wide enough for two boats to pass. There are sandy beaches on both sides of the amazingly narrow pass. On the left side, people are bobbing in the water by a huge sign warning “No Swimming, Strong Currents.” We’re passing within 20 feet of the people, but the channel is too narrow to do otherwise.

Once we get through, the water opens into a huge, round cove. Big-ass power boats are lined side-by-side along the right side curve with more power boats filling in the middle. On the left side, there’s a party going on at Jellyfish Joe’s tiki bar, two bars under thatched roofs (no walls, not even roll-up plastic), a band/dance area under a wedding tent, a food truck and, down the path a bit, is the portable restroom trailer. Jellyfish Joe’s is a totally portable pub set up on a sandbar.

Jellyfish Joe's tiki bar
Swimmers by Jellyfish Joe’s tiki bar on Fairlee Creek near Chestertown
Jellyfish Joe's tiki bar
Jellyfish Joe’s tiki bar at Great Oak Landing Marina in Chestertown, MD

Richard is on the far edge of the powerboat party crowd. There are maybe five other sailboats among the more than hundred power boats. Most were gone when the bar shut down and evening set in.

We pull up to Richard’s boat, Viva Vida. That’s Portuguese for “To Life,” the drinking cheer in Brazil. Richard’s wife is Brazilian. Patricia’s boat is named “Sante” the drinking toast in French. She just likes the French language.

Right after tying up, I change into a swimsuit, mix us margaritas and Patricia and I plop into the water on noodles, were we stay until sunset.

We shower in our swimsuits on the back of Patricia’s boat, soaping up with bio-degradable soap that I picked up in a camping store. It can also be used to clean pots or launder clothes. We rinse off with a hose, but because water is in short supply on sailboats, we use just enough to get the soap off. Unless we’re at a marina, that’s going to be how it’s done this week. I do a good rinse on my bottom back side, realizing too late that I just gave the power boaters a full moon.

Dinner is on Viva Vida. Richard and Leda are grilling shrimp and cooking up pasta in the galley, perfectly happy being close. Patricia and I bring over our grocery store peeled shrimp in the plastic clamshell case and salads. There’s no energy left to prepare a serious dinner. The four of us dine on the back of Richard’s boat lit with battery-powered candles, overlooking the moonlit cove.

*****

Day Two (Sunday) – Rocked by Five Foot Swells / Cynthia Turns Green

Everyone has a slow morning. Up about 8am, have breakfast and head out of the protective cove. The wind picked up slightly in the cove, promising a nice day of sailing. We squeeze through the narrows and find we are going to get a wild day of sailing. The Chesapeake Bay was churning up four to five foot swells that peaked regularly with white caps.

We’re following Richard who scoots in front of a wicked looking black ship in the shipping channel. We lag behind. Patricia has been warned by a captain of one of those ships, “if you see it, don’t go in front of it.” They travel faster than you think. We jibe, we tack. That ship still isn’t here. The winds are whacking us here and there. Finally, the ship is close enough to see — it’s a barge being pulled by a tugboat. We could have cross the channel five times before that caught up with us. But now we’re stuck with the original plan

Tug in Chesapeake Bay shipping channel
Tug & ship going by in the shipping channel. Notice the size of the sailboat in comparison.

Finally, it goes by. Off we go to catch up with Richard. We go full sail. Until now, we were going with two out of three sails because of the extreme winds. Patricia steers the boat into the wind I put up the biggest sail — the main. All the way up.

The wind grabs us. And we rock into the waves. Things go crashing down below. I look down into the galley and the trash drawer is sliding in-and-out. We forgot to lock it down. While Patricia holds us steady, I rush down to close it. I check the head (bathroom) and the wood tissue box had whacked the water faucet. Hot water was pouring into the sink. I turned it off and started closing hatches before any waves washed in. I got most of them closed before the heat and sway of the cabin started making me nauseous.

When I came above, plates crashed across the galley. They’re sturdy plastic and not a worry. I got above just in time to avoid total sea sickness, but Patricia noted I looked a little green. “Drink water and keep watch on the horizon,” I’d been told helps with seasickness. It worked.

Oceanis 35 at the mouth of the Sassafras River
Richard’s boat, Viva Vida, a 35 foot Beneteau Oceanis at the mouth of the Sassafras River as it joins the Chesapeake Bay. He turned around to see where we are. His main is only partially out due to the extreme wind.

A little while later, we turned out of the Bay and into the Sassafras River, and left the waves behind. But we were next to a national refuge. This is an area of the Bay that the state has designated a safety zone for crabs and oysters. Watermen are not allowed in the zone. But just outside the boundary is a land-mine of crab pots. Hook a crab-pot line and you can ruin a propeller.

Patricia needed a break and I took over the helm. I decided to go into the protected area and away from the crap-pot zone. However, being closer to shore cut the wind and slowed us down. We were loosing Richard as he continued at an extreme tilt that we couldn’t quite achieve.

Patricia turned the motor on and we “motored sailed.” My instructions: don’t tell Richard we had to do that. Sibling rivalry never ends.

The Sassafras River is, I’m told by long-time residents, what the Chesapeake Bay used to be 50 years ago. It’s a meandering river lined with dirt cliffs and forest. There’s a rare farm or house. When people say there’s no waterfront property left, its not true. There may be no waterfront property near a major town, but there’s plenty up north on the Chesapeake Bay in farm country. And it’s beautiful.

The Sassafras River ends for most boat traffic at Georgetown (Maryland). There’s no downtown; it’s mainly a huge cluster of marinas next to a bridge too low for boats to pass under unless the drawbridge is up. And that takes a while.

We end up in Georgetown Yacht Basin. This is a step-back-in-time to the era of Mad Men, with turquoise-colored tin-roofed boat slips. Covered slips are rare these days. But amazingly, the marina has taken ‘ownership’ of it’s retro-look and is proud of their torquiest and tin. Facilities are clean, modernized and the staff is extremely helpful.

Georgetown Yacht Basin in Georgetown, MD
Georgetown Yacht Basin marina in Georgetown, Maryland. We’re so close to the East Coast that most of the boats are from New Jersey or New York.

And that turns out to be a blessing, because Patricia and her brother rarely use marinas. It was extremely stressful to pull into an unknown slip. Richard got a bit hung up when backing in. We decide to go in nose first. It’s relatively smooth, but we need to sit and chill with a cocktail to ease out the stress.

That night, I talk the group into walking up a hill to the Kitty Knight House for cocktails. Kitty talked the British out of burning the house down during the War of 1812. It’s now a B&B and restaurant.

At first, Leda was hesitant. She got full-blown seasickness on the way over and was in no mood to leave the boat. After a rest she agreed to go. The view from the hilltop deck of the sun setting behind the marinas was gorgeous.

Sun sets over the Georgetown, MD, marinas on the Sassafras River. Taken from Kitty Kelly restaurant deck on a hill overlooking the river.
Sun sets over the Georgetown, MD, marinas on the Sassafras River. Taken from Kitty Kelly restaurant deck on a hill overlooking the river.

We then got the water taxi to another marina restaurant, The Grainery, for dinner. The taxi that fetched us was run by the same girl who was manning the docking station when we arrived. But on Sundays the taxi stops running at 8pm. It was 7:45pm. She assured us it was an easy walk back and gave us detailed directions. I gave her a good tip since she hooked us up with an agreeable plan.

Only two tables were filled at that time of night on a Sunday, us and the people who’d pulled into the marina next to us. It was an excellent dinner followed by a fun walk back across the moonlit bridge, lighted river walkway and down the dock.

We put up the bug screens and went to bed.

*****

Day Three (Monday) – Exploding Watermelon, Weather Blows In / We Hide Out in Turner’s Creek 

A late start, 9am — Patricia had been up in the middle of the night because a thunderstorm blew through. I heard a boom, saw Patricia on deck through my porthole, then rolled over and went back to sleep. She had it handled.

As a result though, Patricia really wanted a slow morning to ease into breakfast after a leisurely coffee on the boat deck. She explained this to us. Several times. But it wasn’t meant to be.

Patricia noticed the cabin’s cushions were wet on the starboard side. The first thought: water seeped in from the thunderstorm. Not good. But even worse — a watermelon had exploded.

She had tucked two beautiful little watermelons in the compartment behind the back-cushion. One of them had literally exploded. The compartment had to be emptied. Watermelon had splashed throughout the compartment and soaked the wood along with four cushions. I carried the cushions outside one-by-one to spray them off with the water hose while Patricia wiped out the compartment which ran along half of that side of the boat.

Luckily, we live in the Google age where conversations of strange happenings can be solved, or you’ll spend the day on the subject. We discovered that watermelons often explode in hot temps if they’re starting to go bad. You can tell only by cutting them open. But according to the Internet, refrigerated watermelons lose flavor. We tossed the other, unexploded watermelon just to be on the safe side. Not a good food for storing on a sailboat apparently.

After a morning of chores, and a stop in the marina shop — everyone wanted to see if there were worthy souvenirs (I needed long-fingered sailing gloves), but two-thirds through the summer, the shop was a bit shopped out — we hit the water trail again.

Returning down the Sassafras River, we noticed things not seen when we arrived: fields of cattails, an occasional pound net, and miles of shoreline with no homes aside from an occasional historic Queen Anne or colonial home from the days of the War of 1812.

Sassafras River
Cattails tucked away on the on the Sassafras River

“Weather” had been threatening through the day. Clouds that turn dark and look angry are “weather.” Leda wanted to get anchored before it hit us. The dock master at Georgetown Yacht Basin said it often goes north. Dark clouds kept hovering and sprinkles started. Apparently it stayed south this time. I go below to close hatches and the teak-trimmed screen over the bathroom hatch flops down. I catch it, but hear a quiet “plunk.”

A little metal washer from the screen fell into the toilet. ARGH!

Chesapeake Bay weather
The is “weather,” when dark clouds coming blowing in over the Bay and you can see the rain off in the distance.

Toilets on boats are called “heads.” They don’t flush. You do your business. Pump business out. Add water. Pump again. Repeat until bowl is clean. Many boats pump bay water through the system, but that’s what causes that ‘special’ boat smell. We used a plastic liter bottle filled with tap water and a shot of sanitizing, blue boat freshener. Patricia’s brother uses the shower sprayer. Either way, there’s usually a bit o’backwash at the very, narrow bottom of the bowl. That’s where the washer fell.

Patricia had gone into great detail a while back over irresponsible crew who break things and how she had to search for a washer once before. I was in a mild panic to get it back. I’m one of the responsible ones for gawd’s sake.

The hole was too small for my hand. My fingers don’t reach. I grab a spoon. It doesn’t work.

Patricia yells, “Cynthia! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

Rain was still coming in other hatches. I totally forgot. Patricia tells me to leave it; she’ll handle it later.

When we raft up, she gets a grabby tool with a folding claw at the end and snags it in a moment. Meanwhile, the spoon is still in the bathroom sink and I have to explain that I grabbed one of her good dinner spoons despite plastic spoons in a nearby cup.

“WHY??!!” Patricia wants to know.

Uh, panic.

Patricia bags the spoon in a ziplock and says in mild frustration that she’ll sterilize it in the morning when she makes her coffee. I now know how dogs feel when they hang their heads with tails down; I’m bad crew. I internally vow not to “do stupid stuff” again.

I’m soon wagging again though. That evening we pull into Turner’s Creek, a little spigot of water flowing into the Sassafras River. We go upstream less than a mile before it turns into fields of blooming Lotus. And that’s where it ends for us. Beyond those flowers are spring green farm fields and hunter green forest. It’s been a lush year for the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland is looking a lot like Ireland these days.

Lotus field on Turner's Creek
A sail boat anchored at the edge of a lotus field on Turner’s Creek.

There’s no wind. The water becomes like ripply glass. The only sound is of nature as the clouds start to break up. The storm party never got going and they left for the night.

Sunset on Turner's Creek
Sunset on Turner’s Creek. The dark clouds that were threatening all day had just started to disperse.

The moon has lit up the deck canvas cover in a romantic envelope. Although Patricia and I are each hoping for romances eventually, we feel the possibilities more keenly that night. My iPhone camera can’t do it justice. We chop together an awesome salad and pop a bottle of wine. All toast to “This don’t suck!”

Later, we slide into hot berths, with no reprieve in sight for the night. Hopefully the battery-powered fans will do the trick and allow us some sleep.

******

Day Four (Tuesday) – A Day of Leisure on Beautiful Turner’s Creek

My computer died.

I’d bought a battery-charging pack and all sorts of connections so I could recharge phones, wifi card and any other needed portable electronics. And, just in case, I brought the computer cord that plugs into the wall. Being an experienced reporter, I knew to plan for technical contingencies.

Not being an experienced sailor, I forgot that I couldn’t plug-in anything while the boat is away from a marina. The boat battery is needed to run lights, pumps and important things like starting the engine.

I had no way to connect the laptop to the battery pack and had to fall back on the old school method of pen and notebook. The battery pack was needed for phones. Richard has a brand new boat with a brand new radio but he doesn’t turn it on. The only way to connect with the folks on the other boat is by cell phone.

The dead computer completely changed my vacation however. I put all thoughts writing out of my head for the day and just played.

We began with a leisurely breakfast of scrambled egg whites and lox. Breakfast was the only cooking we did. Patricia handled the propane-fueled stovetop and I’d clean up.

Patricia started each morning with hot coffee. I’m not normally a coffee drinker, but I’d brought all the ingredients for Irish Coffee and decided this morning to give it a go. That started a daily ritual for the rest of the trip. However, I found that I didn’t enjoy coffee first thing in the morning and certainly not hot. For me, it became an after-breakfast treat chilled by cold cream. The Irish version, of course.

Turner's Creek, Maryland
Boats rafted up in Turner’s Creek. Viva Vida (a Beneteau) is white & Sante (an Island Packet) is blue. One side of the creek is lined with homes. The other side is a county park.

As soon as morning chores were done, we jumped into the waters of Turner’s Creek and spent the next couple hours floating about. It felt wonderful after a dead calm, muggy night. Battery-powered fans had provided the only breeze.

I’d brought two blow-up water chairs and we hooked those chairs to a plastic line to keep the current from sweeping us into the Bay. Leda chose to use a pool noodle. Richard tinkered on the boat.

The water was filtered by the Lotus plants and was refreshingly clear. We didn’t have to worry about jelly fish and there was no salt-water sticky feeling. We all agree to spend the day and another night on the creek. Winds were predicted to be “light and variable” anyway.

Just as the morning was starting to roll away, Richard and Leda decide to explore the nearby park, so we bring the dingy around. Earlier in the morning Richard had taken the dingy on a row around the cove, so it just needed the engine attached.

But Richard decided he’d rather swim to shore. So off they went, Richard swimming and towing Leda still sitting on her noodle. At that moment — laughing and swimming off just for the adventure — those two married 60-somethings looked like a couple in their 20’s, still early in the dating process.

Turner's Creek Park, Maryland
Richard & Leda swimming toward Turner’s Creek Park (in the background).

Patricia and I lagged behind. This was Patricia’s first chance to use her spiffy new electric outboard motor. It comes in three parts and, being a thoroughly self-sufficient woman, she’d studied the manual before the trip. The three sections went together quickly. Click, click, click. But then, how to lower it in the water and start it? Manual memory went a little fuzzy at that point. We stared at it for a bit and figured it out. Off we went with a quiet electrical “brrrrrr” just as Richard and Leda landed.

Turner’s Creek Park is a county park around what was once an Chesapeake Bay outpost. It consists of the Lathim House, built in the early 1700’s and used as a general store. Then, there’s The Granary, which stored regional crops going in and out of the Bay. Both were closed. It was a quick walk around. A group of teenage summer-camp kids had tents set up at the park pavilion, but they were out kayaking, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

The Granery at Turner's Creek, Maryland
The Granery at Turner’s Creek landing with a working waterman’s boat docked next to it

After studying the watermen boats for a bit, Richard wanted a beer and a sandwich. We ferried him and Leda back to their boat in the dingy, then decided to “brrrrr” our way past the shore homes to the end of the creek about a quarter of a mile up stream.

The creek ends — or more properly, starts — in water-fields of lotus, blooming with huge white flowers on top of green stilts shooting up from floating leaves in the shape of foot-wide discs. Rising behind the lotus are rolling hills of farm fields overseen by a single barn. The hay had been recently cut making it look like the remaining stalks had a comb run over them.

Lotus in Turner's Creek
One of the lotus fields in Turner’s Creek

While we were distracted by the view, we go through a patch of seagrass and the propellor snags, then stops. Electric motors don’t sputter to a stop. They just give a little “whrrrr” and go silent. Patricia pulls handfuls of long, thick grass from the blades. We decide to row the rest of the way. Patricia handles the oars this time. And this 70-year old woman opened a can of rowing whoop-ass on me. I have to admit that she is much better than I was at rowing. We went straight to the lotus.

I’ve become the photographer and Patricia, the director, who is trying to row us into proper position for the perfect flower near a dead tree that had fallen into the water years ago. That nasty tree was totally weather stripped of leaves and bark. Spiky dead branches were sticking out every which way. And I’m supposed to use that to frame the picture. All without breaking lotus and while the current is pushing me toward the gnarly branches.

Of course, Patricia may have a different memory of this, but in my mind it was big, evil-looking and possibly bug-filled.

Turner's Creek, Maryland
The fallen tree at the edge of the lotus field. Don’t judge me! It was badass at the time.
Blooming lotus in Turner's Creek, Maryland
The “art” photo of blooming lotus in Turner’s Creek. Notice: no framing branches. If I’d had my glasses with me, I would have known to focus on the flower & not the pod.

Back on the sailboat, we snack on veggie chips and hummus and plop back into the water. The tide had turned, causing gentle waves that went from bathwater warm and outdoor-pool cool. The tide is also pushing us speedily away from the boats. But we’re tethered and create a game of reeling ourselves in and letting go. There is no better way to spend a hot day with no breeze.

We watched eagles scoop fish out of the water. An osprey repeatedly dove down and caught a fish only to release it. It was like watching an airplane pilot practice touch-and-go landings. A blue heron flew by clutching a small snake. That’s about when a snake just like the one in the heron’s grasp goes swimming by us. That snake didn’t want to be near us any more than we wanted it close; we all kept our distance.

An amazing thing happens when the sun lowers just so. It hits a certain place in the sky and you just know it’s Happy Hour! I reel in and make a plate of brie, sharp cheddar and brown rice crackers, then reach in the ice locker for the nearest bottle of wine. A Sancerre! Perfect for such an evening.

I cross over to the Benateau and announce Happy Hour is underway tonight on Viva Vida. Everyone reels in; even Richard who had jumped into the creek with a big cannon-ball splash. By time I had returned outside with the cheese plate, he and Leda were cuddling in the water.

When everyone is back on the boat and has a drink in hand, we make a big toast — “This… Don’t…. Suck!” CLINK!

Turner's Creek, Maryland, sunset
Richard grilling dinner on the back of his boat.

 

After dinner, we settle onto the cushions on the back of our separate boats, but because the boats were tied snuggly together, only the boats’ railings separated us.

I pop open another bottle of wine — a red this time — and Patricia gets us singing 1960s folk songs. When you’re floating in the middle of a wide creek in moon light with only crickets and frogs providing the background music, that doesn’t seem so weird.

******

Day Five (Wednesday) – We Outrun a Storm / The Bohemia River

Poor Leda. She was covered in red spots in the morning. She was attacked by mosquitos during the calm, serene, warm night. The Beneteau has air conditioning, but only when docked at a marina with an electrical outlet. It doesn’t have a generator to keep the “air” on while anchored. And with no breeze, the skeeters could go wherever they wanted. And they wanted Leda.

Being from the Midwest where these kind of nights are standard, I had made sure the Island Packet’s screens were on every porthole and vent. Patricia asked Richard, “Where are your screens?” Richard said he didn’t have any. Then paused a moment in thought. It’s a new boat and came with screens, he realized, that were stored — somewhere.

Leda jumped in the water for relief. It was short lived. We had to pack up and head out.

A day of playing in the water meant a lot of stuff had to be deflated, stored, folded and packed. We didn’t leave until after 10am.

The forecast was calling for five to ten mile-per-hour winds. Much better than yesterday’s “light and variable.” We can sail in five, but not very fast.

Winds barely reached five and never went above that and we were headed straight into the wind. Power-boaters love that, but it totally sucks on a sailboat. You may think that sailing into light winds is a good thing; not so. In order to sail into the wind, the boat has to criss-cross in front of the wind at a 45 degree angle. In light winds, that’s a lot of zigzagging.

Cynthia & Patricia on Santé
Cynthia & Patricia on Santé
Trying to fill the sails with wind
Trying to fill the sails with wind

Richard’s boat is lighter and could point more directly into the wind than we could. Island Packets are wider and have more wood, so it’s a heavy, porky boat. They’re awesome in strong winds and open ocean, but Richard’s Beneteau quickly outpaced us on the light wind and they were soon a dot on the horizon.

We criss-crossed the Bay a couple times trying to move up wind, but didn’t make much progress. Even though Richard finally gave up and furled his sails to motor the rest of the way. Patricia wasn’t about to stop trying to sail. Sibling rivalry doesn’t end as you grow older apparently.

Richard came back and lapped us. On the second circle around our boat he yelled out that they were going to head up because they wanted to go swimming.

Richard swings by to let us know they're motoring ahead to go swimming
Richard swings by to let us know they’re motoring ahead to go swimming

We ate turkey wraps for lunch and bobbed around for a while in the warm sun. There was a slight breeze, making it was hot, but not uncomfortable under the “parchment”-colored cover (called a Bimini). Waves lapped against the boat in rhythm while we took in the scenery. This was a different part of the Bay than we were used to. Narrower, and because we could easily see both shores, it seemed fuller and more green.

When bobbing along at two knots, there’s nothing much else to do on a sailboat than ‘chill-lax’ with the thought, “nothing is going to kill me today.” On a windy day, that thought does go through your head, “if anything goes wrong, I could be seriously hurt, or die.” Ironically that is part of the thrill. However, not today. And that was a nice feeling.

At about 2pm, we see a storm coming up the Sassafras River. Turns out we haven’t moved much beyond the river we just left. We didn’t notice so much because we were sailing across the Bay and back, a couple times. Boats are popping out of the mouth of the Sassafras like water-bugs scurrying away from a fish. We decide to run the hell away too.

We furl the sails, turn on the engine and start hightailing it north. That safe feeling was temporary.

In the meantime, Richard calls on the phone to tell us they’re anchored and swimming just past the turn-off onto the Elk River near a bunch of sailboats. But we see one of the strangest sites that either of us has ever encountered on the Chesapeake Bay and we completely miss Viva Vida, sailing right by her.

On the opposite shore, the nearly sold dark green forest opened to show a hillside filled with little white buildings. It looked like a Maryland version of a Mediterranean village where all the tightly-packed houses on the hillside dipping toward the water are painted white. But these looked like mobil homes with roofs built over them, or weird modular houses from a 1960’s cubist architect. There were hundreds of them packed together on the hillside. We passed the binoculars back and forth trying to figure out what it was.

Buttonwood Beach RV Resort, a “condo”-property for recreational vehicles
Buttonwood Beach RV Resort, a “condo”-property for recreational vehicles

Turns out it was Buttonwood Beach RV Resort, a “condo”-property for recreational vehicles. Those who buy into it get a 99-year lease. So over time, those RV and mobile summer beach residences have been added onto and became year-round homes.

We hear thunder and Patricia pulls into a cove surrounded by mansions with groomed lawns. Richard and Leda join us. We’re on the Bohemia River, a pretty little river off of the Elk. We anchored separately in case a storm blew threw.

A little while later, a catamaran joins us in the protected cove. Now there are three sailboats in a row swinging gently around their anchors.

The dark clouds boom on by but never came to where we are, so we pull out the noodles and go for a swim. I had purchased a black two piece swimsuit for the trip. I don’t normally wear bikinis, preferring to keep the excess covered with a heavy-duty tankini. But today I don’t care about the 15 pounds I added since the break-up (started after the first break-up). Ain’t no paparazzi chasing me. Such a freeing feeling after a hot day.

By this time cocktail hour has rolled over us and I go below to make martinis. The ice is in dry-bags in the ice locker where we keep the food. I reach into a “drink-ice” bag, the bags with cubes, and it’s all water. Without thinking, I dumped the water into the sink and reach in for another drink-ice bag. I immediately realize my mistake: never, ever dump out clean water on a sailboat. You’re surrounded by water, but you can’t use that brackish water for cleaning or toilet flushing. This might be a problem. But that’s in the future, right now I need to make cocktails.

dirty martinis
Dirty martinis on Santé

We drank our not-so-cold dirty martinis using the limited cubes remaining and watched Wednesday night sailboat races from the yacht club across the river. As the sun set, Patricia, who has never been in such a race, watched intently through the binoculars, doing a play-by-play as boats cut each other off and moved into the lead.

“Oh, the blue-bottomed one stole the wind of the other guy!”

“We have a situation! That boat is cutting over…”

Who needs TV?

Wednesday night sailboat races on the Bohemia River. The catamaran in the front is the "committee boat" (aka the race referee)
Wednesday night sailboat races on the Bohemia River. The catamaran in the front is the “committee boat” (aka the race referee)

******

Day Six (Thursday) – A Close Encounter With a Cargo Ship on the C & D Canal / Chesapeake City

Ice and water are running low, but we’re heading to Chesapeake City and a marina for the night so we should be able to resupply. We cook our remaining eggs and finish the lox because food is on the edge of going bad. Our block of dry ice gradually turned into gas and floated off, and the remaining blocks of regular ice are getting small. Richard wants to get going because another storm is predicted around 2pm.

After we clean-up and stow everything, I go to the front of the boat to bring up the anchor. I use my foot to push a button and the anchor chain clanks up and into the hold. On Patricia’s old boat, we had to haul it up by cranking, which got us wet and muddy. Patricia is at the helm to keep the boat into the wind and from going over the chain. The chain gets stuck! The winch whirs around without grabbing. Patricia has to leave the helm and crawl into the locker which is in the cabin below me. The boat is swinging wherever it wants to go and Patricia is yelling from underneath as I try to convince her it’s an issue with the chain going into the hold and not with the winch up where I am.

She coaxes the chain down and the anchor finally comes up, covered in black, stinking mud which I have to spray off with a hose (that draws water from the bay) and, of course, get myself splashed with foul-smelling mud in the process. I have to spray myself off while on the bow of the boat as Patricia motors us out of the cove. The spray is sporadic at best and I’m bouncing all over.

No sails that day. We’re headed up the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, a 14-mile man-made water highway that connects the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware Bay. It’s a busy shipping channel that carries 40 percent of all the ships going to and from the Port of Baltimore.

When you enter a river or harbor by water, markers show the channel where you need to keep the boat. Green stays to your left and red is on the right. As we got deeper into the canal, it got narrower. The markers all turned red. Both sides were red. And just on the other side of the markers was land. There’s no room for error on that canal.

As we near the bridge that crosses into Chesapeake City, a huge cargo ship rounds a bend on the other side of the bridge. It keeps getting bigger, and bigger. It was huge. There seemed to be no room for both us AND that ship on the canal. There was no place for us to pull out of the way. On top of that, Richard is ahead of us heading under the bridge at the same time that ship was going through.

Cargo ship on C&D Canal
Cargo ship coming toward the Chesapeake City bridge on the C&D Canal. Richard’s boat is going toward it.

Now, mentally, we know that two of those ships are able to pass each other in the canal as well as under the bridge, but that ship is looking so ginormous that you think there is no way that can happen.

Patricia starts yelling at Richard, who of course is too far away to hear us. She tries to call, but he doesn’t pick up. She then resorted to the oldest sailor’s trick in the book — cursing loudly.

Richard goes by just fine. The ship comes past us and a crew-member six stories above waives to us just like any other boat would do. I started laughing. It was like the thrill I used to get when the train engineer or caboose conductor waived as us when I was a kid. So normal, yet so surreal.

Cargo ship on C&D Canal
Richard’s boat slips by under the Chesapeake City bridge next to the cargo ship just fine
cargo ship on the C&D canal
The cargo ship on the C & D Canal. As it went by us, a crew member on the top of the ship was waiving at us.

And there, just ahead, is Chesapeake City beaconing to us like the Emerald City in the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie. When you’re running low on water and ice, and haven’t showered in two days, it really does seem like that. Marina ahoy!

Chesapeake City, Maryland
Chesapeake City, Maryland, the “Emerald City” of the Bay after sailing for days without showers

Richard slips into a boat slip at the Chesapeake Inn and we dock next to him. As soon as we’re tied in, I jump ship and head for the marina office to buy ice. Two big bags of it. Back on the boat, all the ice bags are full of water. Only the very bottom of the locker was cool. All the food on top had to be tossed out. We dumped anything that seemed questionable. Luckily, Patricia had stored all our veggies, which was most of what we brought, in an insulated bag and that kept everything crisp. Meats were also at the bottom.

The marina didn’t sell much other other than ice, t-shirts and sun screen. Boaters are supposed to buy food at the Chesapeake Inn apparently. So that’s what we did. Worry about it later, let’s get a drink and some lunch. We got a table on the restaurant’s deck next to the water. I really, really wanted a shower and was worried that I was reeking from the mud and the sun. But Leda convinced me that it can wait and we ordered.

The food turned out to be good and a couple orange crushes later, I was in fine shape. Richard swore to us that going under the bridge next to the ship was no big deal.

The waitress said there was no grocery store nearby. I asked if there was a taxi or Uber. Crickets! After lunch, Richard and Leda go on a search for a convenience store. Patricia and I go walking through the little downtown a block or so away.

Chesapeake City Chesapeake City Chesapeake City Chesapeake City Chesapeake City Chesapeake City
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The C&D Canal from the Chesapeake City waterfront. This is the lawn by Bayard House.

Chesapeake City, it turns out, is just a village. And nearly all the buildings are from the turn of the century when the town was a bustling shipping port. Now, Baltimore is the big port for the ships and Chesapeake City is a tourist destination for boaters. It is one cool little tourist spot. We made it up and nearly down the business districts’ boutiques and antique stores when that 2pm storm came rumbling up at about 3pm.

We dashed back to the boat just in time to close all the hatches before a deluge of rain was let loose. As soon as it lightened up, we dashed to the tiki bar and waited out the rain. A drenched Richard and Leda eventually join us. They never found the store that someone had told them about and got caught in the storm. They took shelter under the bridge, but still got soaked.

When the storm passed, I finally got my shower. And I was able to do a little laundry in the bathroom sink. Feeling fresh, revived, and wearing a dress, I talk Patricia into going to the Umbrella Bar in town. Can’t waste a fresh dress!

Patricia & Cynthia after sailing
Patricia (left) & Cynthia (right) cleaned up a bit after a day of sailing

This Umbrella Bar is just what the name says — a big outdoor bar under a huge umbrella. It’s on the lawn of the historic Bayard House, the oldest of the historic buildings in town and overlooking the canal. That’s where we met “Mark”.

Bayard House has an older, chill crowd. A place where you get a wine list with decent wines and the bartender chats you up as he crushes a fresh mojito.

Umbrella bar at Bayard House
Umbrella bar at the Bayard House in Chesapeake City, on the C & D Canal
A mojito at the Bayard House umbrella bar
View of the C&D Canal from the Umbrella Bar on the lawn of the Bayard House in Chesapeake City

An all-American-boy grown older sets his bright yellow backpack on the stool next to Patricia. He smiles at us and introduces himself. He’d surveyed the crowd and decided he was going to hang a bit with us that evening.

He had brown floppy hair, was youngish but with a experience-learned reserve. He had a slight handicap so he walked carefully and talked a bit slow. But he talked a lot. We never expected what he told us.

He was a helicopter pilot in the Army and because that, and rugby, and lacrosse, he had taken so many hits to the head that it’s now impairing his speaking and coordination a bit. He retired at 47 and was living on the nearby Bohemia River. We learned about his personal life and what he planned for the future. He had a good sense of humor about his situation and we strangers became good friends for the duration of our short rendezvous.

He was also a recovering alcoholic who drank one Guinness and had a cab waiting for him at the pre-arranged time of 7:30pm. This, apparently, was a routine. The bartenders obviously knew the drill and helped make sure he signed the tab properly.

We decided to head back at the same time and asked for our check. The bartender responded, “It’s taken care of.” The man with the bright smile and equally bright yellow backpack had paid our bill.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever see him again. But that brief conversation in the umbrella bar overlooking the canal was a summer moment that is now frozen in Twitter-replay mode in my mind as one of the coolest meetings I’ve ever had.

Back at the Chesapeake Inn we ended the evening with a fine dinner on the busy but not overly crowded outside deck. The evening dried out and cooled off for one of the best nights yet for sleeping on a boat.

******

Day Seven (Friday) – My Hand Gets Smashed / Lost Couple on Pontoon Boat / Worley Creek

Richard wants to go into town for breakfast. A luxury when sailboating. The Chesapeake Inn staff direct us to the Bohemia Cafe, a little place just off the main drag with one waitress and two bearded, tatted young guys on the grill. But they whipped out a stellar small-town breakfast. It’s also a bakery so I loaded up on take out. The eclairs (that we ate later) were amazing.

Back at the marina, neither sailboat had a hose and the marina had none to loan, so we couldn’t fill up our water tanks. We divvied up the remaining bottled water. There was enough to last another day or so if we used it carefully. At least we had ice.

Richard helps us push out of our slip and Patricia manages a perfect pivot in the middle of the water lane between the two marina docks. As we’re passing by Richard’s boat, Patricia yells that the boat isn’t responding. We’re suddenly being pushed sideways toward Richard’s still-docked boat. The anchor on his bow looks like a battering ram aimed at the side of our boat. I dash over to fend it off. I’m pushing against the anchor as hard as I can, but it’s not enough. My hand hand gets smashed between Richard’s anchor and the rock-solid metal stays that hold Patricia’s mast in place.

A very loud “FUUUUCK!” bursts out of my mouth.

By this time, Richard has leaped onto his boat and run to the bow. He was pushing, I was pushing. The stay, a metal rope the width of a clothes line, is pressed against the back of my hand while the palm of my hand is seemingly glued to the anchor’s fluke, the wide curved section that sinks into the mud. If I didn’t get my hand out soon it was going to break. I yanked hard and out came my hand with a thwap as the boats embraced. When the stay hit the anchor it caused a vibration sound like a fiddle chord. That’s how tightly strung those stays are.

I didn’t have time to do anything about my hand. I certainly couldn’t push anymore, so I brace myself again the cabin of the boat and push against the anchor with my legs. That worked. Richard guided the boats past each other as I pushed with my legs, then slide my butt down the cabin and push again. When the stays were safely free, we yell “CLEAR!” to Patricia and she gunned the engine to get us out of there.

Once in the canal, we were safe from the wild current and waited for Richard to come out, which he did easily.

Amazingly, there was little damage to the boats, but my hand didn’t fare as well.

I gingerly pulled off my leather sailing glove. There was no blood but the back of my hand was a dark purple. I could move all my fingers. If it wasn’t for the leather glove, my hand would have been a bloody mess. As it was, my hand was numb and hurt like hell. Patricia gave me Arnicare Cream and I bagged some ice to put on it. After a couple hours, the swelling as well as the bruise were gone. Feeling came back; the back a couple of my fingers are still numb but are slowly recovering.

We motored back out of the canal and I took the helm while Patricia pulled lines.

Back in Elk River, the sails fill out — kinda. We do two nearly complete circles as Patricia tells me over and over to give the main sail more wind, while I’m saying, “there IS no wind” no matter how much I turn the boat. We weren’t mad at each other so much as frustrated. I chalk it up to residual stress blowing off.

We ended up enjoying a chill day with cool breezes and low humidity. We were coming across more and more boats doing the same thing.

waterman's boat skipjack sailboat sailboat bow sailboat deck Sassafras River entrance
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Bow of Patricia's Island Packet. It has a gangplank-like snout that holds the anchor and allows for a bigger front (genoa) sail

As we were motoring along back into the Chesapeake Bay, a middle-aged, portly couple on a small pontoon boat come puttering toward us. They yell out. Patricia cuts the motor back so we can hear them.

“Which way is St. Michael’s?” they yell.

We’re dumbstruck. Patricia asks again. Sure enough, they’re heading to St. Michael’s. They explained that they’re from New Jersey and had just crossed through the C & D canal. They were going south to the historic little town on the the Miles River for the weekend.

They’d gotten turned around in the Bay were heading back to the canal. The northern Chesapeake Bay looks like a really wide river with a bunch of openings coming into it. The opening to the rest of the Bay looks pretty much like the opening to the Elk River or the Susquehanna River if you’re not familiar with it. We didn’t see an open map on their boat.

I told them to turn around and go straight. They cheerfully shouted out a thank you and went merrily on their way. That was about an 80 nautical mile trip they were on from this point. On that type of power boat they had at least a four-hour ride ahead of them, assuming they found the Miles River. In comparison, it’s a two day trip under sail. They seemed happy-go-lucky type excited about seeing St. Michaels. Why try to bring them down? Patricia shouted a ‘good luck’ at them and they disappeared into the distance.

Richard and Leda had to get back home but Patricia wanted to show me Worley Creek, so we parted ways with Viva Vida.

We anchor the boat in a cove going into the creek in a spot guaranteed to give us a good sunset, like getting a primo spot at the drive-in theater. We watch a flock of bald eagles on a nearby small beach and wonder what sound bird sound we keep hearing. Kind of a chirping, musical bird sound, unlike we’d heard before. But all we can see are eagles soaring about and several white dots in the trees. They blended into the tree so well it was like they became invisible and we could only see their white heads bobbing about. I cast about on the internet and learned those were eagle sounds!

When the sun lowers, we wash off and enjoy cheese, crackers and wine. Neither of us felt like making anything. As the sun went down, the blue moon rose, casting a bright white stripe on the water below. The moon was white, but it really did cast everything else under a blue shadow.

Sunset in Worley Creek
Sun setting on one side of the boat while anchored in Worley Creek…
Blue Moon on Worley Creek
,,.On the other side of the boat, a “blue moon” was coming up.

 

The moonlight is beautiful but lends itself retrospection as our immediate world draws inward while the daylight gently fades out; Patricia tells me more about her husband, Carl, and their life together that ended abruptly with him getting lung cancer and dying. I won’t mention the stories here. Those are her’s to tell.

Patricia reflecting on her late husband Carl
Patricia remembering her late husband Carl

We toasted to Carl and thanked him for keeping us safe. It felt right.

******

Day Eight (Saturday/Last Day) – Dodging Ships in the Channel / Main Sail Comes Unhooked

I’m tired!

This was the only night I didn’t get a good rest. The wind picked up overnight and waves spanked the boat all night long, so rather than a gentle head-up/feet- up roll, I was being rolled side-to-side roll. There’d be a few average waves when several big ones that would toss me onto my face or back. It was like trying to sleep in a bounce castle full of highly active 11 year olds jumping in unison.

I see Patricia on deck checking the anchor in the wee hours. This is the time of night when visions of the anchor giving way and the boat smashing into shore go through your mind. Then, she checked to make sure the dingy was tied in place as well as the floats we were too lazy to bring aboard and deflate.

She also wanted to make sure our neighbors are staying put. Imagine a large sailboat popping it’s anchor and blowing toward you. Getting our deeply wedged anchor out of the muddy bottom in time would be highly sketchy and very scary.

About an hour later, I felt the need to also check to see if we’re holding place. The Blue Moon has the entire cover lit up. It’s beautiful, but I have to hold on to the boat so I don’t fall overboard. I think about pulling the floats out of the water but then they’d likely just blow off the boat. Securing them would be difficult. I figure I’d rather go find them in the morning.

I’m back out at dawn to check again. Everything is holding fast. A quick glance at the brightening sky, “Oh that’s nice,” then back inside to attempt more sleep.

Other boats are up early and most motor into the protective Worley Creek. The day before, the creek was unusually shallow — might have been an extremely low tide due to the full moon — and those boats could have been waiting for deeper water to get to their marinas. Only two of maybe ten boats that anchored around us are left. After a lovely calm evening and a helter-skelter night, I have to pack up our toys. The moon has brought in a super high tide and the beach that we were going to search for drift wood is now gone. It’s been submerged. We decide to head on home.

After a lackluster breakfast, we head back out and put up all the sails. Winds weren’t that bad on the Bay. Seems the moon, more than winds, was causing those bouncing waves.

The main was a bit of a problem child. It’s the type that rolls into the mast and it wasn’t coming out smoothly. I pulled it out as far as I could. Eventually the rest popped out on it’s own. Nice! I hoping, really hoping, for an easy ride. And it was. Patricia had us on a course that was going to take us very close to the opening of the creek were she keeps her boat. We skim safely through the first shipping channel.

Cargo ship in a Chesapeake Bay shipping channel
Cargo ship in a Chesapeake Bay shipping channel

The sun is warm. The temps are moderate. The humidity is low. I can barely stay awake it was so nice. After several hours, we reach the other side of the Bay without tacking. Oh, happy day!

Then, Patricia says, “are those ships?”

We’ve come up to the other shipping channel and there are ships coming towards us from both directions. One has just come from under the Bay Bridge and may turn for the Eastern Shore channel. We can’t tell yet. The other is definitely crossing in front of us.

Shit! that means I have to tack. But maybe, just maybe, we have to deal with just one ship. We stall about and let the one pass. Can’t tell yet what the other is doing. We’re getting close. Patricia decides to ram us across and gets a determined look on her face that I’ve never seen before. Then, another glance over, and — “F***K!” — that ship is turning our direction. She veers off. We have to wait.

Another cargo ship in the western shipping channel
Another cargo ship in the western shipping channel

This time, rather than tack, Patricia tells me to take down the sail. A hard chore, but better than than tacking several times, then taking down the sail. First, she wants me to check to see if it’s all the way out. It kinda looks bunched up a bit up top still. I’m pleading to pay it no mind. Patricia insists we do it right. And right she is.

But when I crank the line, the bottom of the sail pops out of the hook holding it in the furling. That huge sail is now flapping all over with loud snaps as the sail’s tail snakes all over the top of the cabin.

I yells at Patricia to make sure that boom is secure and catapult myself up to the mast. The boom holds the bottom of the main sail. It’s called a boom because when that huge bars swings, “BOOM!” I go flying into the water. It happened to a guy in our sailing club. Someone else took the helm so he could adjust. That someone else did something else and he found himself in the water while his boat cruised on by. I don’t want to go swimming this way.

I try pulling the sail into place by taking the corner with the loop in both hands and pulling down; basically dangling myself from the sail. But my hand is still numb. I call down that it’s a two person job to hook it. Patricia puts the boat on auto-pilot on a very slow motor — luckily, no one is near us — and comes up to help. I pull. She tries to hook it. We can’t do it.

Patricia goes down into the cabin to get something to rig it with. I notice that the lines in the sail are very much like her previous Island Packet, where we lowered the sail down and folded it into a pack laying the length of the boom, rather than roll it sideways into the mast. Why can’t we just lower it?

However, there are two green lines of the exact same color going into the mast at two different points, and the previous owners didn’t label them. These lines do two different things. If we pick the wrong one, we could be really screwed.

I swear it was just like in the movies. We’re yelling at each other over the loudly flapping main sail arguing over which one to loosen. And we had to do it quickly, there was a ship coming. I wasn’t going to do anything until the captain agrees. Finally, Patricia gives into my guess. I’m going with the line that was in the exact same place as the older boat. Not a sure thing, but I thought it was the best guess.

I slowly undo the very, very taunt line, and carefully, oh so carefully, loosen it on the mast winch. The sail seems to be a flapping roar next to me and I’m having to take a hand from the safe hold I had on the mast and use both hands to lower the sail. My legs were like springs, bouncing with the boat’s rocking.

The main sail lowered just a scooch.

That was all I needed to hook it back into place. I yelled at Patricia to bring me the winch handle so I can crank the sail back, tightly into place. That spry 70-year-old woman did just that. I crank, lash it off, scurry back to safety and crank that main into the mast quicker than I’ve ever done.

Meanwhile, the ship had caught up and passed us safely. We never mastered the ability to judge cargo ships. I sank onto the bench and flopped for the rest of the ride.

Another cargo ship passes by
This time a barge and a tugboat pass by

 

On the way in Patricia was determined to have crabs and a beer before this “vaca” was over. We head to the crab house near the headwaters of her creek. The ride through Bodkin Creek was the prettiest that I’ve ever seen it. The water was smooth and glistening, the lowering sun cast a yellow glow on the houses.

We pull up to Pleasure Cove Marina, where a very helpful cute, young, summer-job guy tosses us a line. He fills our fuel, pumps our poop, cheerfully rinses out the waste tank with water and gives it another pump out. I gave that boy a good tip. He offers to let us hang out a bit down the dock a bit while we go up to the restaurant for dinner.

Meanwhile, a man from the sailboat we’re tying-up next two is trying to talk us into drinks on his boat. He’s already at least one sheet-to-the-wind. I didn’t want to hang around for two sheets. He runs off and comes back with a beautiful Dark-and-Stormy. Yellow on the bottom and dark rum on the top. He insists Patricia try it. Being polite she pretends to take a sip. But we’re both of the same school: women don’t take drinks from strange men. And he was really strange.

We tap-dance out of that situation and head up the hill where Patricia pours it out behind a bush. Hopefully, no one the wiser. We’ll never know.

On top, we sit in air conditioning while Patricia enjoys a half-dozen medium crabs (the only size left) while I went with a crab cake, the easier choice. And we both smoothed out the Old Bay spice with beers. Ah… exhale… relax.

Time to take the boat back to the slip. The sun was sinking toward the horizon and all the power boaters were waiving to us as if they knew we were returning from a long trip (actually, it was just the end of a great day on the water and everyone was happy).

Hammock Island Marina in the Bodkin Creek
Ahhhhh. Hammock Island Marina, home of Island Packet “Santé”. No wind and the sun is shining down on her slip showing us the way, while diamonds sparkle on the water we’re about to cross.

I’m feeling blessed because there’s no wind as we pull between the first two pilings. Patricia has the boat perfectly straight. I grab the port side lines off the first piling and run back to cinch them into place. Patricia does the other side, while I run to the front of the boat to grab the front lines which are hooked on the piling by the bow. The port line wasn’t there!

While we were gone, a new neighbor took the slip next to us. In the process, the hook had been yanked of out the piling and was dangling. Our black line was under his thicker white line and wrapped around the piling. Patricia is yelling at me to secure the front before the anchor on the snout of her boat hits something. But the new neighbor had secured our line around the piling with a half-hitch!

I let loose. We couldn’t even get back into the slip without a hitch, for gawd’s sake? I finally let my emotions go. I cussed. I swore. Loudly. Yes, like a sailor. That is no friggin’ metaphor either.

I got the line free before the boat hit anything. We secure everything. And, I go home. I needed a shower and a good sleep. But I live only 20 minutes away while Patricia lives an hour away. She stayed on the boat, watched fireworks over the water–rockets set off by a neighbor that were combined with heat lightening–and was gently rocked to sleep.

We met in the morning for breakfast at “Cookie’s” diner in Pasadena, Maryland, where we sat at the counter and watched Cookie, an amazingly tall, well-aged grandmotherly woman dressed in Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, full make-up, manicured red nails and diamond stud earrings work the grill and yell out orders to nearby staff for white or wheat toast and more potatoes. She scrambled eggs on the grill with a fork and she’d tap a large metal spatula against the grill edge a couple times after flipping something, making a breakfast-bell sound. She was amazing. Food was awesome.

We then spent several hours emptying and cleaning the boat.

On the way back to the boat, I’d stopped at a hardware store and bought a three-inch, galvanized screw. I made sure that piling hook never, ever — EVER — comes out again.

******

Epilogue – Lessons Learned

I believe I can say that both Patricia and I increased our confidence. Adventure does that. I’m still not a great sailor, but I know that I can figure it out and handle emergencies. And Patricia defies those who think “senior citizens,” or women, can’t captain a sailboat with energy and style. A member of our sailing club suggested that a man pilot Santé in an upcoming fundraising sailboat race. Patricia and I both had the same thought, “Seriously?!!” Followed by, “Yeah.. no!”

There were no great personal revelations or life changing moments that make best-selling books. I wasn’t really searching. Just looking forward to short escapism, a reprieve from ‘real life’. Years of dating have taught me I can survive the end of relationships. Some endings just plain suck and there’s no getting around it. However, running off with friends who like to chase adventure like I do, and who drink to good times, bad times and the beauty of life, sure help the sucky-part sail by.

Cynthia Reuter

Cynthia is a former radio reporter, turned TV producer, who started covering local politics in Missouri, then state politics, then national politics in Washington, DC. Writing about the Chesapeake Bay region is a breath of fresh-air.

cynthia-reuter has 13 posts and counting.See all posts by cynthia-reuter

One thought on “The Grand Upper Chesapeake Bay Sailing Adventure

  • August 3, 2015 at 10:30 pm
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    Excelent! I like the way you write, congratulations

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