Ride 'Em Cowgirl:Sandra Martin and Carol Glover, advised by Mickey Courtney

How I Learned to Take 300 Horses for a Ride on Chesapeake Bay

by Sandra Martin

When you want to learn to sail, you'll soon find that Annapolis is indeed a sailing capital of the world. You can choose from a long list of sailing schools, including ones specially for women, children or handicapped sailors. Whether you choose Chesapeake Bay or follow a Chesapeake Country sailing school to an exotic destination, you can spend from a day to weeks on a boat learning wind, waves and weather, sails, sheets and spinnakers.

When you want to learn to take out a kayak and paddle and roll, you're in luck on Chesapeake Bay, where kayaks are coming to be familiar sights.

But powerboaters? At least as many power as sailboats (and far more powerboats than kayaks) ply the waters of Chesapeake Country. Propelled by the power of hundreds of horses and sitting on top of a reservoir of explosive fuel, powerboaters are the last cowboys on the range.

Many of us figured that if we can drive a car, we can drive a boat. You just turn on the key and go.

We were wrong.

"If you drive a car, you have to know what side of the road to stay on and what traffic lights mean," says Mickey Courtney, an even-tempered master mariner who teaches powerboaters the ways of their boats and the water. "People who buy boats with no training, it's like being on the highway without knowing what you're doing."

Maybe that's why you hear -- heaven forbid your knowledge is any closer to hand than heresy -- far more frequently of how powerboaters have come to grief than have sailboaters.Courtney on boat


Cautionary Tales

From my first days in a powerboat partnership, I've stored away a cautionary collection of such tales and sights.

Adding drama to my very first Coast Guard boating safety class were color slides -- I remember them far better than how, say, to chart a course by compass -- of catastrophic explosions set off by fuel fumes. Every time our tank is filled, my heart reminds me that it takes only a spark -- even a loose bolt of static electricity -- to ignite those seeping, invisible fumes. I recall human bodies flying through the air with smoke and debris, though I may be embellishing the scene.

Newly added to my catastrophic collection is the nearly averted demise of three generations of a single family. You've heard that story: how grandfather, father and daughter had taken a 20-some-foot boat out in wind and driving rain a couple weeks back and, anchoring from the stern, had been swamped and sunk.

Only a couple of providential passings saved those lives. I think of that story as we're rocking at anchor -- and I find myself thinking of it a lot, these prime summer boating days. I guess you can count on He who counts the sparrows counting you -- or you can learn the right way to set an anchor.

Just as cautionary are the catastrophes I've seen first hand. In the eight years we've slipped on Rockhold Creek in Deale, I've seen two powerboats -- one this year -- piled atop the long rock jetty that protects the harbor. There they sat, their bottoms crushed like eggshells but otherwise undamaged, as if getting there had not been so hard -- and at the same time so foolishly easy -- as you knew it had to be. In strange waters, there but for the grace of my chartbook go I.Mickey checking the engine

What's a powerboater to do to be safe rather than sorry?

To avoid trouble once underway, Courtney, at right, says check your engine first.


In Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

I started my powerboating days righteously some years back with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary's course on safe boating skills and seamanship. For those regularly scheduled intensive classes, the Coast Guard Auxiliary actively recruits both sailors and powerboaters. The Powerboat Squadron does the same for powerboaters. For boat operators born after July 1, 1972, a minimum of eight hours boater safety education is now required by law. But you're never too old to learn, advise the Natural Resources Police, who recommend boaters of any age take these classes.

Studying hard in my Coast Guard class, this old dog learned how many dangers awaited me in the deep blue sea and shallow brown Bay:

Proud as I was to pass the tough test concluding my 12-week class, I wondered how my headful of nautical knowledge would translate once in the water, where trial by error can carry a heavy price. When you learn to drive a car, you've got to get out of the classroom and behind the wheel. I hadn't done that. You don't, in even the best of these boating classes.

Some years later, a spell with WomanShip let me try my hands as well as fill my head. I wasn't switching to sail from power, simply tagging along with a friend who, with her husband, had bought a 26-foot Westerly Centaur in prelude to retiring to the water.

"Being able to handle your own boat and guide yourself through the water and wind is such an empowering experience," said Janice DiGirolamo, the wife of already empowered captain Philip Tinsley. Sounded convincing to me; five of us signed up for a three-day weekend with a woman captain who, as the school promises, never yelled.Courtney and Martin

With WomanShip, as well as sails and sheets, I learned how to take a look at an engine and set an anchor. But when I didn't do it everyday, I couldn't remember quite what to do -- except in the galley. As I resumed my life as galleymate, DiGirolamo's other words rang in my ears: "It's so easy to give way to the one who knows the most."

On our boat, that's my husband. He captains it the way I captain my kitchen: with natural authority, expecting immediate obedience and not tolerating much clumsiness. It may be that we're prisoners of conventional gender roles, but that's the way it is.

Then a new boat entered our lives, a used but fine Sea Ray Sundancer. With it returned my empowering determination to handle my own boat. So when my husband went out of town, I turned our boat into a Bay-going classroom.

Courtney and Martin prepare for a day on a Bay-going classroom.


Nobody's Panicking

"Back down! Drop her into idle! Turn in! Now!"

Looming too few feet ahead is the extended prow of a long-nosed, very nice powerboat. But I am not panicking.

The young pump jockey waiting to turn on the gas at Herrington Harbour South may be panicking. I can't be sure because I am not looking at him. If I were he, on top of all that fuel in the middle of all those expensive boats, I'd be at least concerned.

Concerned too is my sister at sea, NBT contributing editor Carol Glover, another powerboating wife seeking the empowerment of guiding her own boat. I hear the scream she has stifled.

But my teacher is not panicking. He thinks I can do this, so I do it, gliding on only my second pass with hardly a bump -- and without clipping that overhanging pulpit -- up to the fueling dock. Calmly, I am killing with one stone two of my most tenacious fears: fueling and docking.

Once we've tied up, I confess that I've never backed down (which is what he called going in reverse) before. Still, my teacher is unruffled.

This calmest of captains is 57-year-old Mickey Courtney. I've chosen him for his cool as well as for his credentials. Editor of the standard chartbook Maryland Cruising Guide (which, with Courtney, last year left Maryland Department of Natural Resources, where it was for 36 years known as Guide for Cruising Maryland Waters), Courtney has enough years on the water to have seen the worst and best of boating. He's spent over 25,000 hours navigating the world's waters.

Since his boyhood on the Magothy River and Cypress Creek, Courtney's nosed about the Bay, poking into just about every corner of the changeable Chesapeake. Any Bay place he's missed by boat, he's covered and re-covered in his day-by-day scrutiny of Chesapeake charts.

What's more, Courtney's an Atlantic veteran. "We left from Brighton, England, into Force 10 conditions," he recalls of a 1988 crossing in a 68-foot DeVries power yacht. "Boaters on Chesapeake Bay would have been in a world of trouble."

Courtney's rescued many a disabled boater on the Bay and off Ocean City, in his 30 years in the Coast Guard Reserve, and he has ticketed many a disastrous boater in 15 years with Natural Resources Police. He's qualified to command 100-ton vessels up to 200 miles off the coast, and he's licensed to tow most anything. Shady Sider Courtney has studied and taught the many skills of finding your way upon the waters, including celestial navigation.

As a teacher, Courtney's just as experienced. "Oh gosh," he says, "I've taught everybody, the experienced to the completely inexperienced. Most recently a very smart lady who bought a boat as if she were experienced but was very intimidated by docking." This is not me.

But all this is why I'm calm, cool and collected ---- despite the 300 horses beneath that throttle.


Easy Does It

If I had backed down or turned away too ambitiously, we could have been in a world of trouble, as others have been before me. Courtney -----whose list of cautionary tales runs circles around mine ---- has seen it happen again and again.

"Somebody not used to doing that kind of thing would have panicked when they saw that pulpit and maybe grabbed the controls and threw it into reverse and with the wheel swung that way, maybe the bow would have swung into it. That's where experience comes into play. The more you do it, the more you realize, 'I don't have to do this in nanoseconds; I've got enough time to think about it before I react.'"

Doing it the easy way, after a quick reverse out of the way, I turned the wheel toward the dock, shifted into neutral, and let momentum and the current carry us gently in.

Doing it the wrong way would have seemed just right. Following my gut reaction, I'd have wrenched the wheel away from the dock and extending pulpit that was too fast approaching.martin tying a knot

As Courtney explained, "it seems like you're following common sense to turn away. But if you do, the stern will swing right into it. Instead, you've got to do something contrary to common sense: turn the wheel toward it and go ahead. Then the stern moves out but the bow doesn't move significantly, and it pivots you in."

That's the point where everybody breathes again. Like the captains of WomanShip, Courtney doesn't yell. Even so, he can't forego an occasional exhalation of relief as we tie up, bow line first.

Martin learns to secure line to a piling with a clove hitch backed up by a half hitch.

One fear is down, but another awaits me. We're not here just for practice.

If we were just practicing, we'd be better off in open water. That's where to go, Courtney advises, to get used to the controls. To practice, I'd steer some figure eights. I'd float a cushion or a Clorox bottle held in place on sinkers and practice coming close to it, back up and down to it and see what the wind does.

But we're here for gas, and on the screen of my mind I see the explosion, the ball of fire, bodies and boat parts flung flaming into the ruptured serenity of Herrington Harbour Marina.

To keep that vision imaginary, we turn on the blower and keep it on throughout fueling. On our Sea Ray, the gas intake is low where the heavy fumes will drop into the water, so we don't close the cabin and hatches as you would on a larger boat with a higher tank intake. Otherwise, filling the 58-gallon tank is pretty much like pumping self-service gas: watch what you're doing, don't top off and keep the nozzle in good contact with the tank rim and channel to avoid a chance spark of static electricity.

Like filling up your car except that in a boat -- even one like this, with an automatic spark extinguisher -- it's a good idea to sniff around in the engine compartment before starting the engine.

That wasn't so bad, I say flipping off the blower switch. Except I'm the one who's got to get us out of here.

But not alone. Over the years, Courtney's developed a great exit move.

"Turn the wheel hard left, cutting toward the dock," he says.

Now that I know the ways of sterns, I know that the lower unit or rudder will kick the stern. In dawning light, I understand that I'm backing out.

"If you kick the stern out, you'll clear the dock," advises Courtney. "Then put it in reverse, straighten the wheel and back straight off."

All you've got to do then is go forward onto your course.

"I showed that to a guy over at Tilghman Island at the oyster house. He thought I was showing off. No, I said, there's nothing to it," Courtney related.

Once again, nice and easy does it.


Finally, Underway

Out of the channel ---- cruising at 1,000 rpms ---- well below the marked speed of six miles per hour ---- I'm reviving my faded knowledge of navigational aides, with page vii of Courtney's Maryland Cruising Guide open on the dash. This channel's so narrow it's pretty hard to make a mistake, but others are sticky as flypaper.

Red right returning doesn't apply on the way out; that nice mnemonic guides you into port, not out. So I'm keeping the square green day markers on starboard, my right, motoring tight between red and green to keep to the dredged channel and heading for Rosehaven #1. It's just outside the one fathom curve; inside is all tinted blue in the chart book to remind you that those waters are shallower than six feet. The numbers are feet at mean lower water. Use a tide table to find the day's highs and lows, so you can adjust with the water.

"You're always vulnerable when you're in the blue," says Courtney, pointing out the litter of wrecks around Herring Bay. You see them in the chart as little footballs, their stitches the bones of the ship. One of them is the Levin J. Marvel, whose sad fate I remember from an early NBT story, and I'm drifting off into a reverie about how many tragedies are buried in the mud of so well-traveled a Bay as Chesapeake.

Drifting, when Courtney reminds me this is no place to drift.

"One of a captain's responsibilities is to keep an effective look-out, which means looking around and not being distracted, which is one of the main causes of collisions," he says, and I see what he means. I'm on a near collision course with a sailboat. Whoops.

"You're on a collision course when you can see a vessel ahead or nearly ahead. When you're meeting head on, the rule is to turn to starboard and pass port to port," says Courtney, still cool as a cucumber.

"That's a one whistle call, meaning you'd give him one short blast on the horn and he'd return the same signal in obscured conditions or at night."

But as I look starboard before pulling wide of the sailboat so we can safely pass port to port, I see a powerboat overtaking. Fast.

What do I do now? I want a simple answer, but we're in a give a woman a fish or teach her to fish situation. Courtney is going to teach me to fish or, in this case, avoid collisions by knowing the rules of the water.

"If this were a situation at night," Courtney continues steadfastly, "he'd have to pick up your sidelight, which is visible from dead ahead to 112.5 degrees, which is your arc of visibility. On the starboard side, where he's coming, your running light is green.

The sailboat's safe, but the other boat's bearing down on us from behind. My palms are sweating, but Courtney, somehow, is calm.

"Here's a good way to use that light to remember what to do. If a boat approaches on your starboard bow, he's going to see a green light, which means to him go ahead, as any green light does. So he's the stand-on vessel, obligated to hold course and speed, while you're the give-way vessel, obligated to change course or speed -- and you've got to do that noticeably -- and let him pass.

"On the other hand, if somebody's approaching on your port bow, he's going to see a red light, which means stop. Then you're the stand-on vessel and they're the give-way vessel and they have to give way to you. Your responsibility then is to hold course and not converge on his course, while he has to give away to you.

"You have to hold course and speed unless it's apparent to you that he's not going to take any action; then you're required to take an action."

This is what I'm thinking is about to happen while Courtney calmly completes the arc of visibility.

"The arc of visibility from port and starboard lights combined is 225 degrees, and your masthead light is 225 degrees and your stern light is 135 degrees, so you've got 360 degrees of possible white light, and then you've got the side lights, the running lights, so you can see the aspect of the vessel."

As he finishes, the big, fast powerboat plows ahead of us and cuts across our bow. His wake comes rolling our way, and we're bobbing like a cork.

"Just hang on as we take the waves," says Courtney. "You don't need to be up on a plane. We can do a nice cruise at 1,500rpm."


Point A to Point B on the Sea

By now, going safe and slow, we've reached Herring Bay #1, a flashing green light from which we can take our bearings. From here, the whole Bay ---- even the wide world beyond it ---- is our oyster.

To go across to Tilghman Island, I'd follow an easterly course of 089 until I came to green #83, in 56 feet of water right at the edge of the shipping channel. On that trip, I take my book from Cornell Maritime Press over in Centreville, How to Avoid Huge Ships.

And, says Courtney, if I'm out there at night, I had better know how to read navigational lights.

"When you know what to look for out there at night, you can pick up a ship's lights instantly and say 'there's one coming down.' But get somebody with limited or no experience on water at night, they don't know what they're looking at or how to interpret it, and they can have these mishaps, like people running under the hulls of barges. The barges can be doing 15 or 20 knots and it doesn't look like they're going anywhere. Or the ship's lights are so high, you don't know they're there. It can be highly dangerous."

Oh my goodness.

To go up to the West River, I'd head off on a course of 039, changing to O33 at #83A, a green can. All this and much more I see on Chart 5 of Maryland Cruising Guide, right there in front of me.

But, I wonder, do I really need to go all the way to the channel markers?

"No," says Courtney, "but you need to know the waters. I know a lot of people operate by local knowledge; they've found all the sandbars just by running aground on them. One Natural Resources Police captain on the Magothy said you could plant corn in the rows his mate had plowed up by running aground. He's the same guy who ran up on Sandy Point jetty about six in the morning, then slithered down the jetty and jammed the lower unit of the outboard into the rocks. If it had been a little faster, it would have been like a James Bond scene; he'd have run right over it.

"People say, how can we be aground with all this water out here, and way far off shore. Well, that happens. Along this whole shoreline, going north from Deale, be very careful. It's easy to run off shore. Especially in winter when you could have a Nor'easterly going, you could be aground a mile or two from shore."

You could be on that treacherous Deale jetty. All you see of it on the chart is a jutting line. To see it, you'd have to be real cautious. You'd have to be able to read the chart -- and you'd have to read it.

"To get to West River," Courtney continues, "I wouldn't go straight up the shoreline from Deale, because there's Long Bar and thin water. I would go almost abreast of Herring Bay #1 and parallel the shoreline about a mile out."


Not Quite Home Free

We've had a safe trip, one for me as full of challenges as Odysseus' and more safely managed. But the biggest of all is waiting for me back home: how do I get this boat back in the slip which, in the wind and current, is like backing into a moving driveway from a shifting street?

Courtney's got stories for every situation, but none of them top his docking stories.

I know that the 11th Commandment is that I've got to back into this slip. Why? I'm expecting to get put down for sure on this one, like the three-year-old who's finally asked why one time too many. I'm in for a surprise.

"Backing in. I think it's some macho thing," says Courtney, preparing to illustrate the point with this story.

"A captain who used to run the Discovery for the Geological Survey, a superb boater, one of the best, tied up at Sandy Point next to my patrol boat. 'I take these scientists out,' he told me. 'I work with this Loran and precision positioning so they can set the current meters and maintain stations and they don't say a word about that. But when I go back and back in the slip, they're all looking at each other, saying oh wow!'"

You mean, I gasp, there's something to be said for heading bow in?

"Some people prefer to have bow in because of privacy," Courtney answers, seriously. "Some places, like up in Spa Creek, They dock bow first because they don't have enough water to put in stern first. But the best reason is that it's easier to back out than back in."

Now, I'm really impressed. But I know my husband won't be. I've got to get this boat in stern first. But Courtney's going to teach me how to use only the force necessary.

"I've seen people just throttle jockey boats," he says. "That's not my style, 'cause I know what happens if your engines dies.

"One of the top-notch boat handlers I know used to back into the police boat next to me at City Dock. He'd round up way out in the harbor and start backing, he'd send this wave up on the transom he was backing so fast. Then at the last minute, he'd gun it ahead and stop short.

"I said to him, 'Jimmy, one of these days you're going to go ahead and the engine is going to die and you're going to be parked up there at an expired parking meter and get a ticket.'

"Well, it happened."

Thinking of Jimmy's fate, tearing his boat up and nearly sinking it in the slip with all those people watching, I know throttle-jockeying is not for me. I'm real glad that, once more, we're going to take it easy.

"When you're approaching a close-quarters situation like slipping in a marina, one of the things I do myself is put the boat in neutral, maybe back down a little bit and kill all the wake in the water to watch what the wind and current is doing. Sometimes in the confines of a marina, you see something, maybe a current, entirely different, and you want to know which way the boat is going to move. Work with things like that rather than against it," says Courtney.

And somehow, nice and slowly, with considerable advancing and retreating, we slip right in.

A Good Book for Safe Boaters

Tying a round turn & bowline hitch, from Toward Safer Boating.

hitch illustrationThe next time I take my 300 horses out for a ride on Chesapeake, I won't have Mickey Courtney to tell me what to do. So I've added a new quick-glance reference book to my on-board library. Written by Courtney's fellow captain James K. Battye, of Stevensville, Toward Safer Boating is a quick, readable compendium that answered all my big questions clearly and quickly.

On fueling, for example, along with instructions on safeguarding the environment and avoiding fuel spills, Capt. Battye advises boaters to "put the nozzle into the fuel tank fill. Not the water fill and not the rod holder."

In 48 slick, page magazine style pages, it reminded me of what I'd learned - and forgotten - from my U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary class. In addition, it contains information for small boaters, including sections on river running, personal watercraft and boardsailing and tips for hunters and fishers.

I like Capt. Battye's plain language. Consider this, from the section on boating at night explaining the navigational lights of vessels being towed: "if it is a barge being towed and you try to cross its bows, you will probably die."

Scattered throughout the book are tips in the same plain language.

It's also full of charts and illustrations so make the point at a glance. A couple of important knots -- among them the round turn and buntline hitch I'm practicing -- are fully illustrated so they can be tried and tried again.

I won't throw away my thicker, well-thumbed Coast Guard guide to Safe Boating and Seamanship, but I'm putting Captain Battye's book next to it. As Courtney says, "It's right on the point to what you need to know for the absolute basics and a little more."

Order your copy from Capt. Battye at 410/643-7250 jim-battye@juno.com.

Where to Learn from a Pro






Andrea Nolan and Mike Sevario's Amphibious Horizons, for either guided trips to local and exotic destinations or weekend instruction at Quiet Waters Park, where their kayaks are for rent every day but Tuesdays: 888/I-Luv-Sun www.amphibioushorizons.com

Denise and Lance Craven's Island Creek Outfitters offers on-water demonstrations of canoes and kayaks, both available for rent or sale at their Patuxent River B&B: 301/812-1842 islcrkoutfitters@chesapeake.net

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VolumeVI Number 30
July 30 -- August 5, 1998
New Bay Times

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