Bay Tripper

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A new face on the old Potomac

A new face on the old Potomac

The Potomac River, navigable for 100 miles to Washington, D.C., from its 10-mile-wide mouth, offers the only long-distance river cruise on Chesapeake Bay with a big-city destination. While not all Bay boaters may consider the nation’s capital to be a prize cruising destination, there is no denying the major attractions and amenities available at the Bay’s downtown harbors, including Baltimore and Norfolk, Va.

But the Potomac is special in many ways because its shores and tributaries are rich in glimpses of a historical past. As it closes in on Washington, however, the river also offers a startling look at the future in the 300-acre National Harbor development on the Maryland side of the massive new 12-lane Wilson Bridge.

Along the Potomac’s meandering path through the boonies are enticing little sister rivers, cousinly creeks and coves, and grandfatherly bays along the Virginia and Maryland shores. It is easy to get sidetracked along the way by villages and marinas of varying sizes. High-rise development is rare, and nothing has fallen into a major “resort” category until now, with this new NationalHarbor. The development is so new there’s not even a mention of it in 2008 Chesapeake cruising guides.

Washington, much to its credit, hasn’t evolved into a super city of steel and glass skyscrapers, because structures such as the WashingtonMonument and the Capitol restrict building heights and keep the focus where it should be. But the NationalHarbor community is overwhelming and will provide 7.3 million square feet of offices, hotels, restaurants and shops, along with 2,500 residential units.

The flagship of the development is the 18-story, 1,500-room Gaylord National Resort Hotel and Convention Center. Other hotels include a Westin and a Hampton Inn. The 60-slip National Harbor Marina hosts its first boat show June 5 to 8, featuring vessels of more than 60 feet. The marina is up and running for transient boaters.

The harbor site, with a 1-mile beachfront, overlooks what was once a quiet anchorage known as SmootsBay. The high-priced water view from NationalHarbor isn’t exactly magnificent and tranquil, with the close proximity of The Bridge and the exceedingly busy ReaganNationalAirport. Yet it is certainly a new attraction for boaters. Dinner cruises and water taxis will operate out of the docks, and there will even be helicopter service.

Seven miles below this ongoing construction, first-time cruisers will be treated to a spine-tingling experience when George Washington’s beloved Mount Vernon comes into view on the Virginia shore. Nautical tradition calls for boaters to sound a bell (or horn) as a salute in passing and doff headgear to show respect for the great man who died and was buried there in 1799. Transient boaters visiting Mount Vernon may tie up at the dock, but overnighting is prohibited.

The 45-acre estate is open every day to visitors, and lunch and dinner are served in a Colonial dining room. Large residential tracts have not intruded as much on the shores of the Potomac below Washington as they have on other Bay rivers. In fact, Washington’s “view” from Mount Vernon is “protected” and preserved.

Reading a history of the river can stretch the imagination and conjure up ghostly images of a major tributary once dominated by elegant, overnight packets that plied the river, loading and unloading passengers and cargo at colorful steamboat wharves before a road system was established. Take a minute to pause here for a nostalgic description of this vanished era as recorded by David C. Holly in “Tidewater by Steamboat: A Saga of the Chesapeake”:

“The steamboat era was inescapably romantic. It smacked of plantations, gracious living and a leisurely pace unmeasured by time. It smelled of the salt air of the sea, oyster shells mountains high, masses of seaweed rotting on sandy shores, the fragrance of pine and loam and honeysuckle from the passing forest … the aroma of roasting coffee and old wooden wharves and smoke and the harbor of Baltimore at sailing time. It told of sun-drenched days on the Bay, hampers filled with ham and fried chicken and the makings of a picnic on the beach, of fresh breezes and endless vistas of sun and sky, wooden roller coasters, miniature railroads, and carousels belting out unending organ-grinder tunes, little wavelets splashing on a sandy beach. It spoke of velvet nights under star-studded skies when waves whispered beneath the guard rails, and the lookout man at the bow called out a plaintive ‘all’s well.’ ”

I have sailed the length of the Potomac in small and large sailboats and in Class A sail-training ships arriving in Washington from Baltimore and Norfolk. These were mostly overnight passages with crew, but occasionally I sailed alone, which means overnighting at a seafood restaurant dock after a feast of crabs and clams.

On one memorable occasion in the late ’70s our crew was forced unexpectedly to overnight just above the Potomac RiverBridge — hard aground and heeled to the gunwales in a 54-foot German-built wooden sloop as the tide went out from under us. Some impatient types jumped ship and got a lift to land. The rest of us stayed aboard. We finally managed to get off with a tow and a rising tide, arriving at the WilsonBridge in the middle of the night and stooped by a vertical clearance of 50 feet.

With the tide beginning to ebb again as we tried to reach a D.C. marina in this full-keeler drawing more than 8 feet, I was recruited to personally awaken the bridge tender to raise the draw. In a predawn calm, we gently maneuvered our bow to a steel ladder that reached the water. I climbed it and went aloft to the tender’s perch. The bridge was opened before rush hour, and we tied up at the 306-slip Gangplank Marina in the Washington Channel and soon were aground again.

Unless one is in a hurry to reach Washington, there are ample opportunities to extend the cruise. Both the Virginia and Maryland sides of the Potomac offer many enticing rivers worth exploring (Coan, Yeocomico, Wicomico, to name a few), especially the 8-mile St. Mary’s River, just inside the mouth of the Potomac.

The wonderful St. Mary’s is deep and was apparently the best choice in 1634 for Gov. Leonard Calvert to lead the first settlers here in the Ark and Dove, where they landed on St. Clements Island and planted a cross. There are many diversionary creeks (Carthagena, St. Inigoes, Lucas, Milburn), and the water ends at TippityWichityIsland. Historic St. Mary’s City at Horseshoe Bend is also the site of St. Mary’s College, which has a very successful sailing program.

BretonBay, near St. Clements Bay, was the site of CampCalvert, a summer camp I attended as a boy and sang the camp song: “Oh, we’re from Calvert on the BretonBay, where we laugh and play the live-long day. We’re happy, happy as can be; join the happy crew. You’re not friends of ours if you’re the kind that’s always blue.” My father tried to pack me off to that area to board at CharlotteHallMilitaryAcademy, but I quickly quashed that idea.

Once a few miles beyond the Potomac RiverBridge (Rt. 301), however, prime destinations diminish rapidly, especially on the Maryland side. The highlight stop in Virginia, of course, is Mount Vernon and a bit farther upriver historic Old Town Alexandria.

Above the WilsonBridge, forget about the Maryland side, which is dominated by an Air Force base and a huge, overworked sewage treatment facility. (No swimming in these waters, and the foul AnacostiaRiver should be avoided, although plans are afoot for a recovery.)

A cautionary note about the mouth of the Potomac: This is big water country, and violent storms can often spring up at this 10-mile-wide mouth.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.