Not...Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 34
August 23-29, 2001
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Best Laid Plans:
A Sailor’s Yarn
by Bob Bockting

The boat stopped. We’d run aground? We didn’t want to believe it, but there we sat. That halt was so smooth: No bump, no jolt. Didn’t know we’d stopped until the scenery ceased moving. Probably a soft mud shoal lay under our keel.

We’d thought that our course lay right down the middle of the channel, such as it was. The creek stretched wide and shallow. What the heck? This little sailboat drew only four feet, and heading out we were pointed just to the right of the red triangle marker, deep enough, we’d thought - until right now.

“Put her in reverse,” Eugene (my crew) wisely suggested. He went forward and stood by the mast to rock the boat, hoping to break us loose from the suction of the mud, if that, in fact, was what the bottom was made of. I reversed the engine and gunned it a little. Nothing happened. I gunned it a bit more. Same result. I idled the motor.

We quietly contemplated our predicament. Our watches read not quite 10am. We had well over 30 miles to go before dark. We had been underway less than half an hour and had covered about two of those miles. Not a great beginning, we told ourselves. Then, for causes unknown, all that changed.

We felt the boat begin, almost imperceptibly, to swing to starboard. We held our breath. Yes, it swung a little more. I shifted the motor to slow forward. The boat began to move a little. Slowly at first. Then, as I advanced the throttle cautiously, she moved ahead to pass close by the marker and on toward the wide Patuxent River.

A Lot on Luck
What had happened? Scarcely a puff of wind, and anyway we didn’t have sails up. Could have been a tidal current. We didn’t spend time pondering. Maybe just dumb luck. I quoted my personal version of Bobby Burns’ line: “The best-laid plans of mice and men depend a lot on luck.” This of course, I admit, abdicates a lot of personal responsibility for things that “aft gang aglee.”

The high bridge crossing the Patuxent, from Solomons to Town Point, loomed off to port, then fell astern as we headed down river toward Plum Point and Chesapeake Bay.

Outside Town Creek, the river lay a deep, reflecting blue, mirroring the wooded shores in the near distance. The hushed swish of our boat’s bow wave made soft accompaniment to the steady drone of our outboard auxiliary. Our little yacht glided toward the river’s wide mouth. Channel markers showed up in the distance, neared, passed and dropped astern. We relaxed and savored the sharply clear sights, sounds and smells of early morning on the river.

The chart book quotes 30 nautical miles from Solomons to Herring Bay. That’s from marker to marker. The entire distance from our start at a dock on Town Creek to my slip at Sherman’s Marina on Rockhold Creek off Herring Bay, I figured as a bit over 36 nautical miles. This equated to a sail of perhaps eight to nine hours - if the wind remained favorable.

The problem we faced stemmed from our wanting to make the trip in one day. That would make for a long day, counting travel times to and from our homes and shuttling back to pick up the car left at the starting point. This backing and forthing was needed this trip since friends we’d usually call on for transport were, just then, unavailable.

Eugene and I had sailed this stretch twice before. Both times, we’d spent the previous night aboard the boat and thus got an early start. On this occasion, we elected not to.

The Right Boat
I’d just bought the boat and had not provisioned her nor tested her cook stove and had not put aboard galley stuff or sleeping bags.

I’d taken a long time to decide on this boat. Price was important, of course, as was age and condition.

There exist at least two different schools of thought in the philosophy of boat buying. One says, “Buy the largest boat that you can afford.” The other says, “Buy the smallest that will suit your needs.”

I followed the second. I wanted to push my boat with an outboard auxiliary. A larger boat would complicate my life. What I sought boiled down to a 25-foot cruising sailboat - not brand new, because of price and some recent style changes that I didn’t prefer. Late model, because of some improvements that I did prefer. Now we had to bring her home.

Success in this one-day venture would depend on the weather - specifically the wind. We’d do our part. We met at the marina at seven, breakfasted across the creek at Happy Harbor and reached the boat at Solomons by 0900. We were loaded and off by 0930. So far, we’d made our schedule. Winds were predicted as about 10 knots from south to southwest, waves one foot. Couldn’t ask for better. If those winds held.

The Right Wind
On our other trips, we’d been less lucky with the weather. On that first trip - with my first little boat, sold last summer to look for a larger one, the one we now were hoping to bring home - the fair breeze that favored us north from Point Lookout died at the mouth of the Patuxent. We powered the next many hours on a mirror placid calm, all the way to Herring Bay.

The next time, in Eugene’s sailboat, we pounded the whole trip, under power and directly into a brisk north wind and four to five-foot seas. A cold, wet, rough ride. This, our third trip, we drew a charm.

We set a course about two miles off the Bay’s Western Shore. With a southwest wind, we could expect to get the full benefit of the moderate breeze with little wave action to slow us. On our heading, the south wind followed us for the first hour, allowing us to try out a sail called a ‘drifter,’ which is a light foresail attached only at its head, tack and clew. It came with my new boat, is used when sailing generally downwind and behaves not unlike a spinnaker, billowing out in front, catching a big gob of air and hauling the boat along with delightful enthusiasm.

We took this sail in and raised the conventional jib as we rounded Little Cove Point to take a more northerly heading. We stood up the Bay on that broad reach for the rest of our trip. Thanks to that 10- to 15-knot wind, we arrived at my boat slip well before seven and well before dark.

Eugene accused me of earning it all by a virtuous life, and of course, I made no effort to deny his veracity

Bill Burton is recuperating from surgery to repair tears in his rotator cuff. He will return when his writing arm is unstrapped.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly