The sky cleared. The wind picked up. A weather station announced small craft advisories. Below Sandy Point where the Potomac widens, formidable white caps rose. Our boat seemed smaller as the seas got bigger. We ran directly before the wind plunging along wing on wing, the main sail out to one side and the jib out to the other.
Planning this trip, we'd hoped for a good wind. Just now, we'd have settled for a bit less.
There was a bit of Huck Finn behind this. For some years before we retired, we had discussed a trip down the Potomac. Sometimes it was to be in canoes, camping with tents; sometimes with a larger boat we could sleep aboard. It turned out to be the larger boat, my new sailboat, with my friends helping me bring her home.
It was then three years since my heart attack. That unscheduled event and subsequent by-pass surgery, a complicated recovery and a three-month return to work delayed my retirement. It took the next two and a half years to find, decide on and buy the boat.
To me, acquiring a sailboat is in a class with getting married, entering college or starting a vegetable garden. The plan was to board my new boat as soon as it was mine and sail her away. The day before the sale, a slip turned up at Deale, home port for my friends' boats.
"One hundred and forty miles away, down the river and up the Bay." I muttered that little ditty, contemplating the trip and the problems I was buying into.
At Occoquan Bay on the Potomac River south of Washington, a cold, nasty rain made loading a sloppy, slippery procedure. With our retracted keel dragging mud, we inched our way out of the shallow dockage.
On open water, the skies cleared. The winds gusted. The boat swerved so violently we worried about damage to the mast and rigging, perhaps a capsize. We started the engine and, during a momentary lull, turned into the wind to lower the sails.
Since I'd bought this boat the day before and my crew were introduced to her this morning, we enjoyed near-complete unfamiliarity with her.
Gene, our man on the foredeck, staunchly worked to keep the butt end of the main boom from parting company with the mast. Neither John, the other crew member, nor I could render more than shouts of encouragement, since we were engaged in steering, restarting the engine and keeping the boom, the sail and ourselves from going overboard.
During the ensuing relative calm, the ship handled well, with only a mild, predictable lurch each time a large wave rolled under her. We relaxed a little, rejoicing that the waves went under, not over, our stern. I like to steer when things are going well and kept the tiller. The crew spotted navigation markers and tried to rattle the skipper by gazing astern and remarking on the height of the waves overtaking us. "We'd better put on life jackets," someone would remark gravely.
At 1600 hours, we rounded Maryland Point. On an easterly heading, in the partial shelter of the tree-lined Maryland shore, it was safe again to raise the sails, which added a knot to our speed. By evening, we hoped to reach the Route 301 Bridge. That nearly two-mile-long structure came in sight as we rounded Mathias Point.
We were pleased, but not elated, to have made just over 30 miles. The specter was still with us of having to put in and phone for assistance somewhere short of our goal.
Next day, August 29, we crawled out of our sleeping bags at 0600. John's ship's log entry says "clear sky, cool, breeze: 10 knots from the north." We dawdled over a ham-and-egg breakfast, sipping coffee and readying ourselves for our sortie into the lower Potomac.
We felt more confident this morning. The motor ran smoothly, and its fuel consumption would permit us to reach each day's goal with some to spare. The leak we had discovered early on did not prove serious. We pumped and sponged at intervals. The wind was so fair we cut the motor at 0930 and proceeded under sail. At noon, we came abreast of Cobb Island and the mouth of the Wicomico River, entering from the Maryland shore.
The Potomac is nearly five miles wide here, a stretch called Kettle Bottom Shoals. It's not a river but a stretched-out bay, a drowned river valley, I mused. In a few thousand years, when glaciers suck up the oceans and lower the sea level, this and most of Chesapeake Bay will be dry land.
We combined lunch with watching the Maryland shore for St. Clement's Island and the large cross that commemorates the landing of Lord Baltimore's party in 1634. About mid-afternoon, we passed close to the Virginia shore by Ragged Point. Here, the river makes a wide swing to the south-east, and our course took us again toward Maryland, St. George Island and the broad mouth of the St. Mary's River. Another couple of hours would bring us close inside Point Lookout, our goal for the night.
Our chart showed a shallow, open indentation in the Maryland shore. The forecast called for a wind shift to the east. We needed a sheltered anchorage for the night, so we doused the sails and headed in. A small, dredged channel led into lovely, lagoon-like Lake Conoy. Not deep, according to our sketchy chart, but with a gas dock. It's my dogmatic belief that a sailboat's best asset is an engine and plenty of fuel.
We watched the sunset, congratulating ourselves on the day's progress. Our little ship swung to the incoming tidal current that softly gurgled under the stern. A half dozen ospreys headed home, silhouetted against the sky. We lounged in the cockpit, sipping cocktails, until the pungent smell of knockwurst and sauerkraut simmering in the galley sneaked in.
It was still dark when we were awakened by lights and sounds of fishermen launching their boats for an early start. When we finally poked our heads out of the cabin, the sun's rim was showing, silhouetting the tree trunks on the eastern shore of the lake. Clear sky, with high clouds. The ospreys were on their way to work.
After sloshing most of the clinging, gray mud from the anchor, we motored into the Potomac, heading for Point Lookout. With the wind brisk out of the east, we plowed into some impressive seas. I throttled back and turned to quarter the waves. Along here, the Bay looks like the ocean. Spray swept the cockpit now and then, but the boat took it all beautifully.
At last we rounded the point and headed north up the Bay. The seas subsided as we passed Point-No-Point lighthouse. We raised sails and increased power as the day became clear, windy and bright, the sea and sky lovely shades of blue with a few tiny clouds for emphasis.
If we hadn't been in a hurry, we'd have strayed inshore, into bays and inlets. Instead, we churned along, keeping a direct course and assessing our progress against the passing hours. At 1300 we passed Cedar Point and the Patuxent River. An hour later, at Cove Point, we steered east in a wide swing around a large, offshore tanker. Our engine had proven its reliability. Lucky thing, because soon the breeze died altogether.
At about 1500, we drew past the big nuclear power plant at Calvert Cliffs. A couple of hours later, scanning the horizon with binoculars, we spotted the Sharps Island lighthouse way off to starboard. We had somehow passed Plum Point and angled farther offshore than intended but - if what we were seeing ahead turned out to be Holland Point - we were okay. We might reach our slip with a fragment of daylight left.
Gene passed the tiller to me. I maneuvered to fall in behind charter boats converging on the markers at the channel entrance. Lights winked on along the shore. I was glad to be part of this.
"Bob, it's a little late to ask," Gene said, "but does your cardiologist approve of your sailing?"
"Sure. I told him about buying the boat and all. He said, 'good'. He doesn't believe that once you've had a heart attack or by-pass surgery, you're supposed to play dead the rest of your life."
This story was originally published in Chesapeake Bay Magazine in 1989. Of the original crew, only skipper Bob Bockting remains to tell the tale.