The last summer for the Spider
The last summer for the Spider
Within sight of the mouth of the Severn River, where I do a lot of daysailing, are two historic lighthouses and one forlorn ugly-duckling navigational structure inelegantly termed the “Spider.” I have become familiar with these watermarks during my years of recreational pursuit of pleasure out of Annapolis, and they have long been my guiding lights, so to speak.
The queenly Thomas Point Light, off the Western Shore of Chesapeake Bay, is a hexagonal, cottage-style structure and was the last manned lighthouse on the Bay. Erected in 1875 and standing 43 feet off the water, it is now a protected, privately maintained national treasure recently opened to the public for tours.
The far less regal Bloody Point Light off the southern end of KentIsland lies across the Bay on the Eastern Shore. A weather-battered iron caisson tower 54 feet tall, it was first lighted and occupied in 1882 and stands at a slight tilt in 8 feet of water near a ledge that drops off to 111 feet. It’s dull brown in color and was being power-washed by a crew in a barge when I last passed it close by, in June.
The lesser Spider, which doesn’t qualify as a historic Bay symbol, marks a shoal off Greenbury Point at the mouth of the Severn. It also isn’t as beloved and respected, except by the seabirds that gather there by the dozens. But I have a sentimental attachment with this gangly platform — which has no architectural merits or character whatsoever and dates to 1934 — and was startled in early June to come across a Coast Guard crew dismantling its skeletal tower.
Looking into this matter, I learned that the removal of the tower, which often housed nesting ospreys, was a harbinger to the planned dismantling of the iron platform this fall. So this is the last summer for the Spider, “a familiar and somewhat quirky but beloved landmark,” as Bay sailor and Spinsheet magazine editor Dave Gendell puts it.
In recent years, this once-flashing three-second light was darkened and replaced by two dolphin-style navigation aids nearby. When I first began sailing out of Annapolis in the late 1960s, the Spider was the mark pointed out to me — as in, “head for the spider.” I always honored it and often came close enough to scatter skittish cormorants drying outstretched black wings.
But as the years went on, contrary winds sometimes forced me inside the Spider and across a marked 5-foot depth. On one of those occasions, warned by a crewmember that we were about to enter skinny water on a lee shore in high wind, I bragged, “I know these waters well.” At that moment we ran aground and were stuck for a while.
Another time, inside the Spider and on my bouncy foredeck preparing to drop and stow a whisker pole, I was unaware of a large cabin cruiser barreling down at speed. When my boat rolled in a 3-foot surfing wake that hit on the beam, I flipped over the lifeline and into the drink. The pole, which lives secured to the mast, wasn’t lost, but my hat and sunglasses were. I swam to a telescoping boat ladder fixed to the transom and climbed back aboard. My boat wallowed patiently while awaiting my awkward recovery.
A tragic incident at the Spider occurred in the early 1970s when Jim Welsh, a newspaperman friend and novice sailor, had a fatal heart attack after he ran aground. He was alone and had apparently jumped overboard to try and push his boat off when he was stricken.
History also records George Washington himself running aground off Greenbury Point, which, of course, at that time was unmarked. “Thence, with much exertion and difficulty we got off,” he wrote in his diary. He was sailing on federal business to Annapolis, then the seat of our fledgling government, from Philadelphia by way of Rock Hall, an Eastern Shore village across the Bay.
But no sooner did they get off Greenbury when a gale ensued, with squalls, lightning, and “tremendous thunder,” he wrote. Just outside the Annapolis harbor, they ran aground again off Horn Point, and “finding all efforts in vain and not knowing where we were, we remained, not knowing what might happen, ’til morning.” He spent the night in a cramped bunk and was offloaded by another vessel in daylight.
Sailors still go aground inside this Horn Point marker, which always hosts a family of nesting migrating ospreys in-season. I have a whistle handy in my cockpit to warn sailors about to hit. They look around when they hear it and sometimes spot me waving them back just before they bump.
I have become rather daring when going inside these marks because, as I said, I think I know these waters well. Conveniently, I have a centerboard inside my boat’s full keel that acts as a depth sounder and warns when I touch bottom. It has been a while since I have run aground, but it’s bound to happen, especially once there is no Spider, which serves as a frame of reference for me. (I have no GPS.)
By 1848 the first Greenbury Point Lighthouse was erected, well more than a half-century after Washington complained about running aground repeatedly there.
The lighthouse was deemed ineffective on land, and in 1889 Congress appropriated $25,000 for a cottage-style, hexagonal wooden structure on seven screwpiles, similar to the one off Thomas Point Shoal. It was lit in November 1892 with a fourth-order Fresnel lens.
During the winter of 1918 the lighthouse was badly damaged by ice floes, a seasonal hazard that damaged and destroyed other Bay lighthouses. By 1934, after the deteriorated structure reached a point of collapse, the Spider arrived as an automated light.
After the unlit spider’s upper torso was dismembered this summer, it was carted off to a trash heap in Baltimore. The Spider will lose its legs this autumn, and there will be nothing left of it. I, for one, will miss it. I often wonder if any vessel ever crashed into it, a rather frequent happening at the fixed mark off Horn Point, which also is peppered with bullet holes. Granted, the Spider was hard to miss, but some boaters must have found it accidentally over the years, although the scars are not evident.
Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.