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Bay Tripper - September 2006

Summer cruising by Murphy’s Law

Summer cruising by Murphy’s Law

The first part of my initial cruise of the season, to St. Leonard Creek off the Patuxent River on the Western Shore of Southern Maryland, was divided into two legs to avoid a probable 60-mile grind south under power from Annapolis. I would change directions to avoid anything as dreadful as that.

I departed the city’s Spa Creek harbor June 7 on a 15-mile Bay crossing to the Eastern Shore and Knapps Narrows on Tilghman Island. It was an easy sail with a decent north-northeast breeze. Once through the Narrows I stopped at Buddy Harrison’s Chesapeake House in Dogwood Harbor in the late afternoon. There I finished off a pan-fried, three-crab soft-shell sandwich on plain white bread (nothing fancy here) at the bar. Just me, courtroom television, an old lady feeding a slot machine, and a barmaid on a weekday when the charter fishing center was dead. I got out of there fast.

I originally had planned to anchor in nearby Dun Cove, on Harris Creek, but I decided at the last minute to tie up my Sailmaster 22 at Carl Griebel’s Severn Marine Services near the Choptank River entrance to Knapps Narrows. That would give me a better jump early the next morning on the westbound crossing and thence to St. Leonard Creek, a 32-mile trip. Little did I know of the problems that would await me June 9 during what turned out to be a more or less forced return to that creek.

This lovely, hilly, deep-water tributary has long been a favorite because it also offers the extremely funky Vera’s White Sands Restaurant and Marina. With an osprey nest planted on one of its neglected docks, there was a haunting charm to this faux Polynesia of the Patuxent that time and a recreational fleet had passed by.

Frozen in the 1950s, the legendary establishment owned and operated by Vera Freeman was purchased early this year by a wealthy paving contractor who had become a regular there. Spending $1 million or so, he gutted the interior and rehabbed the docks but managed to keep that ’50s-’60s look. He opened the new Vera’s White Sands Beach Club in late June with a great nautical splash.

That’s what I intended to write about here, but when I arrived June 8 the place was still a construction site, so I left the next day to resume my cruise back on the Eastern Shore. After motoring most of the way across the Bay to get there, by my June 9 departure the winds had turned quite brisk out of the north at about 20 knots. I sailed 2 miles out of the creek and, with the wind at my back, flew down the Patuxent under main alone. So far, so good.

Then, beyond Solomons and around Cove Point just off the liquid natural gas terminal, my 10-year-old 2-stroke 5-hp Mercury overheated, seized up and died; its fifth impeller transplant in as many years had failed.

The northerly had gone too soft and fluky to sail north to nearby Flag Harbor, just a few miles away, in hopes of finding outboard service. And with a strong ebb current running against me, I was being set back and closer to the LNG terminal, where concerns of a terrorist attack caused signs to be posted warning boaters to keep 500 yards off.

Drifting within 100 yards of that sign, I turned to sail back toward Solomons when I heard a warning voice over a loudspeaker to stand clear. I shouted back, “I have no power!” and half-expected a shot across my bow. Maybe it was an automated voice warning. I pleaded for wind of any amount from anywhere just so I could get out of there and into Solomons, where I was sure to find a mechanic. Then up came the sea breeze from the south, and suddenly I was moving beautifully back up the Patuxent.

A morning weather forecast had predicted a front coming through from the Great Lakes late that afternoon, but this southerly would get me back to St. Leonard Creek early. Then the wind suddenly shifted to the north off Solomons’ Sandy Point and I began tacking and tacking. By this time I had decided it was time for a new outboard and had made arrangements over my cell phone with Viking Boat Supplies in Annapolis to buy a 5-hp Honda at its store-closing sale. Also, I was aware that Vera’s chauffeur, Kumar, often drives her to lunch and shopping in Annapolis and that I might hitch a ride with them to pick up my car, load the new 4-stroke, and drive back to the boat at Vera’s.

Rounding the sandy spit at Patience Point, I was on my merry way at around 3:30 p.m. when, halfway between the point and the mouth of St. Leonard Creek, all hell broke loose. The river turned furious, awash with roaring whitecaps marching down on me with building waves and spray. A squall with steady winds of 40 knots was creating a white maelstrom where there was no whiteness.

I was closing on the shallow (5 feet) eastern side of the river, so this was not a time to fool around. I rolled up the jib and fell off the wind, but it was still too much to handle alone. I can pull down the main — I have lazyjacks rigged — from inside the safety of the cabin because a sliding, overlapping main hatch allows me to get close to the luff of the main. The goal is to stay off the deck. I released the mainsheet, and the main flogged wildly as I clawed at the sail slugs to pull it down. At this time, broadside to the wind and not moving, a gust knocked the boat down on her beam ends.

I was still busy with my 4-foot boat hook, but I looked back to see water pouring over the starboard coaming and flooding into the self-bailing cockpit. I watched my cell phone wash overboard, and my favorite hat blew off. With the main down, I tied two lines around the sail and proceeded downwind under jib alone. No time to don a PFD, I should add.

The closest lee was on the other side of the river, behind Half Pone Point at the mouth of Cuckold Creek. With the jib deeply reefed, I headed for that, knowing that once I anchored there I might forget about getting to Vera’s that afternoon.

Halfway there, the front passed and the northwest breeze settled down to 20 knots, still on the nose but manageable for me to sail and tack into it. I pulled the main hatch closed, raised the main, reefed it from the cockpit, rolled out the partially reefed jib, and began beating toward St. Leonard, just two miles ahead.

Every time I tacked I was headed by a wind shift, and after about 3-1/2 hours of tacking and sailing “sideways” in the river with the rail down, I finally was on what I thought was a favorable angle to enter St. Leonard and sail up the creek to Vera’s. But the wind shifted on the nose and to the north when I arrived off Peterson Point. I rolled out the jib, shook out the reef in the main, and began tacking up the creek for two miles.

Finally, at 9 p.m. and after about 50 tacks in the river and creek, I was within 50 yards of the White Sands docks when the wind died. After some five hours of tacking, I had to use the rudder as a paddle to reach the dock. It took a toll on my aching shoulders especially, and I suppose I experienced a degree of fear, although I was confident my classic Sparkman & Stephens full-keel/centerboarder wouldn’t capsize or swamp. There was no panic and no one to shout at. I have sailed and maintained this boat for 22 years and trust her. But with no power, my options were limited.

That evening I popped two 800 mg ibuprofen tablets and retired. I was too exhausted to even furl the mainsail. The next day, June 10, I got my ride to Annapolis, picked up my car and new Honda outboard, and drove back 45 miles to Vera’s and my boat.

At the long dock, I faced another dilemma: I had to lug a 60-pound 4-stroke and two 5-gallon containers of gas from my car to the boat. I also had to remove the old 60-pound Merc from the boat, two 5-gallon containers of oil-mixed 2-stroke gas, and install the new engine.

I borrowed a wheelbarrow from the construction site and began loading up when a middle-aged man and his girlfriend arrived in a pickup truck and offered help. They took over, loaded the lot and wheeled it down the dock to the boat. I carried a bag of ice. The man — he didn’t leave his name — removed the old outboard and installed the new one and started it. I gave him the old Merc.

So I left Vera’s shortly after daybreak June 11, hoping for a hefty breeze from the northwest but getting the same old whitecaps from the north at 20 knots. It made for a motorsail across the Bay to the mouth of the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore and into Oxford, about 35 miles off, where I spent the night. I finally got back to Annapolis — motorsailing from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on 3 gallons of gas — June 13.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.