Volume XI, Issue 21 ~ May 22-28, 2003

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Back to The Water | You Don’t Have to Own a Boat to Get on the Water

You Don’t Have to Own a Boat to Get on the Water
Sea-ing the Sights of Charm City
Story and photos by Michael R. Kelley

Living on the water’s edge certainly makes you think about boats a lot. Since we’ve moved to our Bayside house, my wife Robin and I have resisted the urge to buy ourselves a boat. Still, the water lures us.

We’ve taken sailing lessons from the Chesapeake Sailing School and Charters. Before rockfish season keeps the fishing captains busy, we joined a boat load of partygoers who’d chartered a couple of boats to enjoy a buffet supper at Harrison’s on Tilghman Island, some bluegrass music and a charity raffle. We’ve visited lighthouses with Capt. Buddy Norris and his Lighthouse Legacy Charters on his 26-foot diesel inboard, Amanda Nicole.

I’ve told you about all that before. But I haven’t told you about our day-on-the Bay cruise up the Patapsco River to Charm City.

We mostly think of Chesapeake Country as a peaceful place, away from so many of the urban pressures. It’s easy to envision small fishing villages, marinas bristling with sailboat masts, coves, creeks and little, out-of-the-way places. Even the older residential communities have charming names like Bay Ridge, Breezy Point, Fairhaven, Rose Haven and White Sands. Bay Country is all that and more, because it also includes the City by the Bay at the mouth of the Patapsco River.

I’m not one for public cruises on tour boats, but Watermark Cruises’ monthly cruise from Annapolis to Charm City looked different. Full, the boat would hold 101. “If it’s not too crowded it might be fun,” said my wife, Robin.

“We’ve got plenty of room,” the cheerful reservations clerk told me on the Monday before the cruise date. I booked two tickets.

So Long Country
The Annapolitan II pulled out of City Dock in Annapolis sharply at 9:30am and headed out past the sailboats moored in Spa Creek, the Naval Academy practice fields and the mouth of the Severn River into the Bay. Including Robin and me, there were some 30 people on board.

As we made our way into the Bay, we could see the small figure of Thomas Point Light to the south. To the north loomed the Bay’s 50-year-old engineering marvel, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I had crossed the Bay on the ferry that ran before they built the bridge, and I have crossed the bridge innumerable times during its half-century year life, but I had never before traveled under it by boat.

As you approach the Bay Bridge by water, there is a point where the dual spans appear to be vertically stacked, one span on top of the other, instead of side by side. The sounds of the traffic far above on the bridge eerily contrast with the beauty of the bridge and the calming effect of floating on the Bay.

The bridge is a perfect symbol of where we were heading — not the bucolic Eastern Shore villages of Rock Hall or St. Michaels, not the famous Western Shore village at Solomons, but Charm City itself — Baltimore and its gleaming Inner Harbor.

There’s Norfolk at the south of the Bay and Baltimore in the north — two port cities, two industrial anchors in Bay Country that aren’t country at all, but modern cities. Both are emerging from years of neglect and blight with new urban centers that include modern skyscrapers and classy downtown shopping and dining destinations.

At the helm of Annapolitan II was Captain Mickey Courtney, a man with many years on the Bay and many stories to go with them. Throughout our trip, as we passed points of interest, he would draw our attention to them over the public address system. He allowed me to join him in the open pilothouse from time to time to ask questions about the boat and our trip.

Holding a steady 17-knot speed, we went by the Sandy Point Lighthouse. Looking more like a house than a tower, the cylindrical, cast-iron caisson is painted red with a white top. Sandy Point Light was first lit in 1883 and automated in 1963, 11 years after the Bay Bridge opened for business.

Almost as soon as we had passed Sandy Point Light, we were at the mouth of the Magothy River. Not far north of the Magothy — and even on this hazy day in full sight of Sandy Point Light and the Bay Bridge — we encountered Baltimore Light, the first of the Baltimore harbor beacons.

Located off the southern tip of Gibson Island, Baltimore Light is the biggest wooden caisson light ever built. Planned in the late 1890s and built between 1904 and 1908, Baltimore Light has a story all of its own. The job of sinking the giant caisson through Bay waters and more than 50 feet of soft mud to the solid ground below was so daunting that the original contractor and crew quit. Another company and crew finally finished a couple of years later.

We’re City Bound
There were no big ships at all in the Bay’s shipping lane this Wednesday morning, but the captain kept Annapolitan II away from it anyway. “It’s 45 foot deep,” Courtney said of the shipping channel. “That depth and the choppy seas this morning will slow us down a couple of knots.”

The shipping lane, clearly marked by its green and red buoys every few hundred yards, seemed surprisingly narrow. “It’s plenty wide enough for the ships to pass in the night,” the Captain joked.

We could see the smoke and the yellowish haze over Sparrows Point long before we reached Sevenfoot Knoll Light at the mouth of the Patapsco River. This simple modern light tower in the water, with no charm but great functionality, replaced an unusual, round cast-iron screw-pile type lighthouse first lighted in 1858. The original lighthouse is unique as the only screw-pile design on the Bay with a round iron-sided cottage. It was moved in 1988 to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

We passed Fort Carroll at the mouth of the Patapsco and then crossed under the Francis Scott Key Bridge that takes motorists across the harbor from Glen Burnie to Dundalk. Not far past the bridge are Fort McHenry and the ventilation towers on either side of the harbor marking the Fort McHenry Harbor Tunnel.

Capt. Mickey Courtney, at the helm of Annapolitan II, is a man with many years on the Bay and as many stories.
Continuing into the Harbor, at the mandatory six knots an hour, we could make out the skyscrapers of downtown Baltimore and the Inner Harbor through the haze as we slowly passed row after row of commercial docks with their cranes sitting idle in the noontime heat. Inner Harbor is the right name, for it lies all the way up the river, past the steel mills, warehouses, freight docks, factories and forts.

Along the way we passed the two buildings of the National Aquarium at Baltimore, connected by a walkway, and Baltimore’s World Trade Center. Here, too, is the Baltimore Maritime Museum, which offers tours of the reconstructed Sevenfoot Knoll Lighthouse, the Lightship Chesapeake, the Coast Guard Cutter Taney and the U.S. Submarine Torsk. To reach our dock, Capt. Courtney navigated among water taxis to Fells Point and Fort McHenry and paddleboats shaped like little dinosaurs close by the USS Constellation.

By 12:15, we docked near the Light Street Pavilion, with two hours leave for lunch and the sights of the Inner Harbor ahead of us. The Inner Harbor is funky and touristy, but that’s largely balanced by the fact that it’s located in a sophisticated downtown setting. Baltimore is a real city — grimy and industrial but beautiful, even a little classy in some ways.

Full Circle
Returning to Annapolis we retraced our course, passing over the Fort McKinley Harbor Tunnel and under the Key Bridge, gradually overtaking a lone, dark-blue tugboat, Gulf of Mexico, pulling an empty black barge. It was one of the very few workboats we’d seen on this trip and I wondered where it was headed. The captain tried to raise the tug on the radio but there was no answer.

“It’s hours and hours of sheer boredom, and moments of real terror,” Courtney said about life on board a tugboat. With the Inner Harbor in the distance behind us, we easily overtook the tug and its empty barge. Then out in the Bay near Sevenfoot Knoll Light we turned south towards the Bay Bridge, which we could clearly see from the entrance to Baltimore Harbor.

Distance is transformed on the water. Almost directly across the Bay from where we were turning, we could see the mouth of the Chester River. The captain pointed out the water tower to the left marking the little town of Rock Hall. Only 17 nautical miles from Annapolis, it’s a mighty long way by car.

“From over there near Rock Hall,” Capt. Courtney said pointing toward the water tower, “You can see three bridges, Key Bridge, the Bay Bridge and Kent Narrows’ Bridge”

As we continued back down the Bay towards Annapolis, Courtney told me that Annapolitan II was built for a different kind of visibility. A glass bottom boat, she was built in the Florida Keys for viewing the coral reefs.

“It came to Annapolis practically new about 30 years ago from when the Florida tour operator’s business foundered,” the captain said. “Of course the bottom’s been painted over many times since then,” he added.

For a moment I had thought he might let me look through the glass bottom at the Bay beneath us. Sensing that, he added, “Used to be you could see clear down to the bottom of this Bay, but no longer. A glass bottom boat won’t do you any good on the Bay today.”

We got back to Annapolis about 5:30, motoring past a flotilla of sailboats gathered at the mouth of the Severn River to prepare for the Wednesday-night races.

Ships Passing …
Returning to North Beach by car, we recognized another advantage of travel by water as, at almost 6pm, we jolted back to rush-hour reality. We finally got back to our house around 6:45. I puttered around a bit and then took a restful shower. There was nice breeze off the Bay, and Robin and I went out on the upstairs porch to enjoy the end of this perfect day.

It was 7:20, and out on the Bay I was amazed to see what looked like Gulf of Mexico — the tugboat and barge we had passed almost four hours before at the mouth of the Patapsco River on our way out of Baltimore harbor and back to Annapolis.

He’d let out his tow chain so that the empty barge was farther behind than it had been in the harbor area, but he was unmistakable in the evening sun.

I got out the telescope to double check. Sure enough, I could make out the name. It was Gulf of Mexico chugging south down the Bay pulling its empty barge. Like the tortoise in the fable, it had continued steadily on its way, as we cruised back to Annapolis, shopped in town and endured our rush-hour drive.
Now, he had unknowingly followed us home.

Just like every other boat, Annapolitan II returns to the water Memorial Day weekend. She sails to Baltimore on Fridays from June thru September. Other day tours visit Rock Hall and St. Michaels starting May 24: 410/268-7601 x 103 • www.watermarkcruises.com.

About the Author:
Recent North Beach resident Michael R. Kelley teaches English literature and telecommunications at George Mason University.


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Last updated May 22, 2003 @ 1:43am