Volume 13, Issue 40 ~ October 6 - 12, 2005
Wind over Water
by Al McKegg

Twenty years ago my wife and I were part of a group riding a workboat to Smith Island, courtesy of the Nature Conservancy, which owns Smith, Parramore, Hog and many of the other islands that line Virginia’s Eastern Shore south of Chincoteague. The boat’s captain had been a working waterman all his adult life. My guess was he’d been on the water 30 years.

He was utterly competent handling that big boat in shallow water, unmarked channels and swift currents. I’d bought a sailboat the year before, so I was anxious to learn from him. I confessed to some nervousness at being a novice captain, and I asked if his experience made him confident he could handle the challenges of the water.

He said, “Cap’n, I’ll never know everthin’ I need to know ’bout the water. I larn somethin’ new ever’ time I go out.”

At the Edge of the Atlantic
It was blowing from the southeast, 15 knots right in our teeth, the morning Janet and I headed our little sloop out of Quinby harbor to overnight at one of those Virginia islands. We motored the six miles to Parramore Island and tucked in behind the sand spit at its south end. With marsh to the north and the spit curling from east to southwest, the anchorage is well protected, even though Quinby Inlet — and the rest of the Atlantic — is right across the spit, 200 feet away.

It was high tide, three feet of water when we anchored and waded ashore. We walked on the beach in bare feet, watching the birds and the heavy breakers rolling in. We kept the walk short, not wanting to be stranded by the outgoing tide, but when we returned to the boat, the water depth hadn’t changed. I figured I’d read the tide table wrong, or maybe looked at numbers for the wrong inlet.

The wind had churned the water murky, so I didn’t even try fishing. We heated up a can of something and checked the weather on the VHF while we ate. It said wind still from the southeast, building to 30 knots or more during the night.

No matter. We were snug behind the sand spit. The waves could pound and roar on its other side; we’d be fine. We watched a sunset of red and gold and dark clouds in the west, and tucked into sleeping bags to read.

The wind built as the radio had predicted, and so did the waves smashing against the spit. The rigging sang. Even under bare poles, the boat rocked.

Around 10 o’clock, I climbed out of the cabin. A full moon showed small silvery clouds dashing across the sky. Occasionally, the wind carried spray from the breaking waves to my face.

I checked our anchors. Both were secure, but the water depth had increased to six feet. How could this be? Where was low tide? I checked and rechecked the tide tables. No doubt about it, they said it should be low tide at Quinby Inlet now.

High Tide, Hard Waves
Wind’s power over water is astounding. Hurricane Isabel’s wind did little direct damage in Maryland, but it drove the Chesapeake Bay up into Baltimore Harbor and some of the surrounding rivers so mightily that neighborhoods that hadn’t flooded in living memory went underwater.

That September night, years before Isabel’s lesson, the same thing, augmented by the full moon, was happening in Virginia’s coastal bays. Blowing steadily from the southeast for three days, the wind drove ocean water into the bays and marshes and kept it from leaving through the inlets. For the first time in my experience, high tide wasn’t followed by low but by higher.

The tide tables showed high tide at five in the morning. With six feet of water now, at what should be low tide, how much water would be under the boat then? And more to the point, how wide would our sheltering sand spit be? Would the combination of super-high tide and pounding waves breach it?

Sleep was out of the question. We decided to move away from the inlet, to some place that put more than a narrow strip of sand between us and the Atlantic. We motored north by moonlight, looking for channels that lead through the marsh to a more sheltered anchorage in Parramore Island’s lee.

The channels were gone; the marsh was submerged. Water covered everything but the islands themselves. Only the tips of the tallest grass showed where marsh lay hidden. With no depth sounder, we could only guess at channels. Marsh grass shrouded the propeller twice, stopping us dead. Both times I went into the water and unwrapped the prop.

Half an hour of this erratic progress brought us to a good anchorage, with Revel Island to the west and, to the east, a quarter-mile width of Parramore Island between us and the ocean. We put out two anchors and tested their set. In the bright silver light, I could see across Parramore Island to the cresting tops of the breakers. They hit the shore like thunder. Spume and spray flew high in the air, veiling the beach and filling the air with salt mist. My lips were salty and my glasses clouded with salt.

A small dark object approached the boat, trailing a vee of sparkling silver ripples. As it reached the starboard side, we realized it was a mouse searching desperately for dry land. He scrabbled furiously against the side of the boat as the wind pushed him toward the stern. Janet put on a glove and reached down, but a gust swung the boat away from the tiny swimmer and swept him astern into the darkness.

We watched nature’s show of power for an hour or so, checked the lines and gradually grew confident that our little boat would not be swept away or crushed this night. We went below and slept.

In the morning, the water was still high, but the wind had slacked. Breakers pounded Parramore through the day. When we left for the mainland two days later, the marsh had reemerged.

Ever’ time I go out I learn somethin’ new, sometimes more than others.

Al McKegg of West Friendship writes Down to Earth, a column on environmental issues for The View newspapers of Howard County, and now and again offers his stories to Bay Weekly. He last wrote on cicadas and youth in “There Is a Season,” July 22, 2004 (Vol. 12, No.30).

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