As we get older, we pass many milestones: a decade since college graduation, 25-year school reunions, silver anniversaries and half-century birthdays. I have spent 50 years power boating and sailing on Chesapeake Bay. Fifty years! Two-thirds of my lifetime on the waters of the Bay. Fifty years filled with wonderful memories of marvelous, exciting and sometimes awesome weekends and vacations on the water.
I have cruised the entire Bay from Norfolk to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. I’ve often been an Annapolis tourist and for the past 35 years have been a resident of this historic city by the water. I have cruised to Baltimore, Easton, Smith Island, Oxford, Cambridge, Tangier Island, Solomon’s, St. Michaels, Kent Island, Georgetown and Chestertown. On one of these adventures, I met a fellow boater who described the Bay as a place where “one can spend a day, weekend, week or month and never get tired of the same place. Where you can see villages time has not changed in 100 years and large cities where progress is daily.”
My first exposure to the wonders of the Chesapeake was our sea trial aboard a 28-foot Chris Craft. We traveled only a short distance, from Shady Oaks Marina on the West River to Big Island on the Rhode River. It was love at first ride, both for the boat and for the Bay.
As proud new boat owners, our first journey was to a small restaurant in Deale. Our purpose was to watch the Kentucky Derby on TV, but not to travel too far from our homeport. Our next trip was to explore South River around Beard’s Creek. We were duly impressed with the gorgeous river and surrounding areas.
Across the Bay to St. Michaels was a really big expedition for our little craft; we even dared a night crossing to Eastern Bay, where we anchored in a cove for the night. Within the first two months of boating we found our favorite place: a deep-water cove off Church Creek, just off South River. Only two houses were visible from the creek, and this spot was to become the perfect place to bring our guests. It was just enough of a cruise from West River and a great place to anchor and swim. Most often we were the only boat there to enjoy its peacefulness and natural scenery. Of all the lovely places we were to discover after that, Church Creek was to always be a favorite.
Rhode River was our usual short-cruise anchoring place. Behind Flat Island or the much larger Big Island, it was a treat to watch water skiers skimming by or the large yachts trying to anchor. It was a great place to row around in an inflatable and explore the many shorelines and gunk holes.
Good Times on the Bay
Over the years, I have witnessed Fourth of July celebrations and fireworks aboard a boat at Annapolis, St. Michaels, Baltimore Harbor and Patuxent Naval Air Station. I have been thrilled watching the Eastport Yacht Club Parade of Lights from the Annapolis waterfront. My springtime birthday was always celebrated on the boat, usually while getting ready for the summer season. Two birthday celebrations will forever be memorable. With friends aboard a 45-foot ketch one year and 42-foot sloop another, I sipped champagne, ate strawberry trifle and thrilled to the Navy’s Blue Angels overhead. Best birthday parties an adult could have.
Shaw Bay on the Eastern Shore is a good place for club raftups or meeting up with boating friends. Besides enjoying the abundance of wildlife in Shaw Bay’s quiet waters, I have watched a fleet of Naval Academy sailboats anchor for the night and photographed several gorgeous sunsets. It is still a lovely place to anchor at night and a delightful place to catch the sunrise with an early cup of coffee.
To travel south to Charleston, South Carolina, on a month-long cruising vacation, our little boat had to make her way down the Bay from Galesville to Norfolk, Virginia. After the first half day of cruising, Cove Point Light offered a protective and romantic anchorage. As we passed Patuxent Naval Air Station, we enjoyed a private air show as several jets swooped overhead. We marveled at how wide the Bay is at this point, only to be surpassed later by the Norfolk area.
Hard to believe we were still in the Bay. Tankers, freighters and Navy ships were all sharing waterway space with small pleasure craft. Riding in and out of the Navy piers (before being asked to leave the area) we saw an old destroyer, two submarines, an aircraft carrier, two destroyer escorts and several destroyers.
From Calm to Fury
I don’t scare easily on the water. My grandmother, a boat owner in New York, used to say, “enjoy the water, but have respect for what it can do.” I have witnessed what the weather and seas can do on the Chesapeake, and I’ve been aboard a boat in horrible storms. I’ve learned to watch the weather and to be prepared for its coming as best I can.
Three storms stand like giants in my mind. One was the headwinds of a hurricane off the North Carolina coast. Our 28-foot boat was powerless without her engine just north of Norfolk. The wind was so strong the seas were like mountains. The storm was just south of our location, and we were terrified at how we would manage if we could not get towed to safety. We made it to a marina just before the hurricane shifted course and headed northeast.
During the second storm I clearly recall, I was aboard a 120-foot replica of a clipper ship in Baltimore Harbor along with 100 club members. Ending a nice cruise, we had watched lightning for 20 minutes before the storm hit. It is a frightening experience to be out on the water during a fierce thunderstorm. Even more so when you know the mast above you is the tallest object in the harbor. I believe this to be the worst and longest storm I’d ever seen. When our boat was struck by lightning, every heart stopped.
Exactly one week to the day and hour after that storm, I was aboard a 30-foot sailboat returning home after a day of cruising and raftup. The raft was broken as a late afternoon storm rolled through. Anchored in a protected area, we waited out the storm. When the sun broke out, we headed back home but were still in the Bay near the mouth of the Severn River when we got hit again. Bolt after bolt, the lightning appeared to be traveling right up the coastline. Visibility was absolutely zero, the rain was torrential and scores of boats were headed upriver. For the third time in my life I was frightened on a boat in a storm. Respect for the water and what it can do comes with experience on the water.
Changes Big and Small
Fifty years has brought a multitude of changes, some good and some bad. The most startling was the erosion of High Island on the Rhode River. It is underwater, and severe erosion is evident along all the shorelines. Substantial increases in waterfront residences have taken a toll. Pleasure boats have increased threefold.
The raised Patuxent River and South River bridges are great improvements. The nuclear power plant is definitely a change. St. Michaels has evolved from a small village to a nautical tourist town. The Annapolis Harbor and Market Place have been good improvements. Rose Haven is now Herrington Harbour South, with a second Herrington Harbour North at Tracys Landing.
You no longer can tie up at a marina for $3.50 a night. The water is definitely more polluted, but fortunately there is a continuing cleanup effort by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. A long time ago I was thrilled to learn navigation markers were redesigned to hold osprey nests. I remember when seeing an occasional osprey was a rare opportunity. The osprey comeback is remarkable.
Chesapeake Bay has changed a great deal during the past half century. However, it is still a natural wonder and should never be taken for granted. Enjoy all the wonders this marvelous estuary has to offer, but help take care of it for the future generations behind us.
Power-boater and sailor Bobbie Carew is an original docent at Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, member and speaker at Chesapeake Bay Foundation and event manager of Maryland Maritime Heritage Festival.