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Bay Tripper

Cargo ships, crab pots and buoys

Cargo ships, crab pots and buoys

My final season-ending daysail on Chesapeake Bay was totally unlike a summer day on the water, when hordes of boats buzz around the mouth of the Severn River, heading into and out of the Annapolis harbor and the river.

During the summer, one-design classes from sailing associations, yacht clubs, the NavalAcademy and sailing schools mill about in controlled swarms.

One must run a gauntlet of boats cruising and racing, under power and sail, anchored or drifting or trolling for fish. As they say, a collision can ruin a good day at sea, so why press your rights or luck?

On this last solo daysail of ’05 traffic was down to three sailboats, all visible but too far away for any concern. Five very large cargo ships, however, were quite visible, anchored in the middle of the Bay between the BayBridges and the Thomas Point Lighthouse awaiting word for dockage in the Baltimore harbor. With no boats to dodge, I looked forward to coming close to the sterns of some of those huge ships to check their names and home ports as I sailed close-hauled toward them in a brisk southerly. It provided a bit of a challenge and a diversion on a cold, empty day.

On my first crossing of the Bay from Annapolis toward KentIsland on the Eastern Shore, a 5-mile sprint on a starboard tack, nothing was moving within miles. I rigged a self-steering apparatus and went below to warm up a little and light a cigar. My boat sailed along on her own, heading up and then falling off. Far off was one of several large buoys marking the shipping channel. At least I thought it was far off.

I lingered in the cabin fiddling with this and that, occasionally looking out the forward port and checking around for any surprises. Nothing was moving or in my path except for that channel buoy, but I had lost track of how “fast” (perhaps 5 knots) I was going. Suddenly, a loud, ringing, metallic sound blasted the quiet air, and my Sailmaster 22 shuddered. I immediately thought a fitting had given way and expected the mast to come crashing down. I quickly scrambled out of the cabin and into the cockpit to handle the dismasting and hope for the best.

But nothing happened. All was intact and peaceful, and Erewhon sailed merrily on. I looked around but saw no large floating object nearby, other than the red flasher just off the stern and to starboard. Obviously, I had carelessly hit this marker with a glancing blow. If I had struck it head on I may not have been here to write about the incident. I hove to, backing the jib and letting the mainsheet run to check for damage. I found only some red paint on my dark green hull. (Better I should have hit one of the green buoys, I suppose.)

Chalk this up to another sailing lesson learned on the Bay.

Close call, but I pulled in the main, trimmed the jib, and off we went again toward the KentIsland shore. Coming up on crab pots that signaled the water was shoaling, I looked around for any moving ships nearby as I prepared to tack away from land.

I had learned another lesson once that it was unwise to get too close to shore when a cargo ship was under way and creating a swell. During such an occasion my centerboard that drops through a full keel touched bottom and kicked up a bit. But I just pulled it up and kept going toward the beach. When I came about, the invisible swell had begun making contact with the shoal water, creating a surfing, white-capped, 3-foot roller that slammed me back. If I was any closer to shore, I might have wound up on the beach. Green water cascaded over my boat and almost tossed me overboard.

But this time, no ships were moving, and the port tack went smoothly as we sailed toward Tolly Point on the WesternShore. I have gone through this daysailing routine many, many times, and it always amazes me that it never becomes boring because sailing alone demands attention and the sheer joy of sailing is enough to please me.

Tacking again and sailing back to KentIsland, I was on a perfect heading to encounter the stern of my first ship. This time, I didn’t set up the self-steering rig and remained at the tiller, coming closer and closer to the black-hulled behemoth. Current wasn’t a factor, and if I came too close for safety I could always tack away.

The empty “CMB Italia” out of Panama was high out of the water, with more red bottom paint showing than her black topsides and much of her huge rudder also exposed. I came as close as pinching would allow without slowing my boat, losing headway, and being forced to tack away. I looked around to wave to someone, but only rarely do you see deckhands on these anchored vessels.

I cleared the stern with room to spare and figured out a good sailing angle on my next tack to confront a fully loaded cargo ship a bit farther south. Now back on a port tack, I sailed toward a battered black-hulled ship with no red bottom paint showing. Easing over toward the stern, I read “Nelson,” out of Kingstown, another 800-footer waiting to unload in Baltimore.

There was no one on deck to wave to here either, so I headed on a line toward the final obstacle, the historic Victorian Thomas Point Lighthouse, which was the Chesapeake’s last manned lighthouse. It is there today because of the public outrage over the Coast Guard’s plans to demolish the house and replace it with an inferior light structure. I have used this lighthouse many times over as a visible navigational aid during my 35-plus years of sailing the Bay. Parts of me, in fact, may be deposited in an urn in the riprap there if my sons follow my “final wishes.”

Turning home, I rigged a whisker pole for a downwind, wing-and-wing run back to Annapolis. It was much warmer on this final leg of the season with the wind behind me, so I removed my bulky winter jacket and stripped down to a heavy turtleneck sweater. With a freshly lit cigar, I prepared a tot of black navy rum and sat back to enjoy the ride home, free of looming obstacles. Looking off to starboard, I gave a farewell wave to my two visited ships and sailed toward Tolly Point on the WesternShore.

Rounding that point and heading toward the NavalAcademy, I jibed the mainsail over to starboard and went on a broad reach with the whisker pole still set. Closing on the harbor approach, I dashed to the foredeck to strike the pole and secure it to snaps on the mast. Then it was a series of short tacks into the harbor, rolling up the jib, starting the outboard, and motoring through the Spa Creek drawbridge.

So here I am without a boat to use, having moved my 5-hp outboard to winter storage. I visit Erewhon occasionally to clear snow out of her cockpit, and before long I hope to remove the sails and rig a boom tent. I hope to do some winter sailing in a far-off place with white sand beaches and palm trees, such as Virgin Gorda. Covering BVI Boating Week at The Bitter End Yacht Club sounds especially appealing.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.