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Exploring a harbor for beauty, adventure

I’m at the edge of the Chesapeake, where the Poquoson channel intersects with the York River, on the western shore of the Bay, a few hours sail above Hampton Roads. Caper II, my 31-foot 1985 Hunter sloop, is close hauled against strong southeasterlies blowing a good 15 to 20 knots, with swells that had built up to 4 feet, with some larger cresting rollers.

I’m at the edge of the Chesapeake, where the Poquoson channel intersects with the York River, on the western shore of the Bay, a few hours sail above Hampton Roads. Caper II, my 31-foot 1985 Hunter sloop, is close hauled against strong southeasterlies blowing a good 15 to 20 knots, with swells that had built up to 4 feet, with some larger cresting rollers. There’s a lot of good sailing at hand, only I’m compromised in several ways.

The day I departed from the Seaford Yacht Club (SYC) in Yorktown, Va., Caper II was not functioning under the best conditions. Early on, as I motored out the Back Creek channel behind GoodwinIsland, I realized my prop was partially fouled because I wasn’t getting the full RPMs from my diesel. As I motorsailed to the York River channel, my roller reefing jammed, so I could only get out 40 percent of the jenny. And finally, for the first time ever, I lost my good “floating” winch handle overboard. I rather not explain where I had placed it before it popped over the side into the Bay on the first deep heel. Thankfully, I have an old metal backup handle.

So for a few minutes I’m in a bit of a quandary, as I weigh my options, whether to continue the cruise or make some modifications on my plans. I can back off from the roughness of the Bay and run with the wind into one of the four rivers in Mobjack or, given my boat’s condition, call it a day and return to the dock. These decision points are tough and I’m supposed to show good sense as a responsible husband and father. Choices get a bit tougher when you’re sailing single-handed.

Since I’ve been cruising many sections of the Bay over the last 10 years, I’ve been particularly bugged by the lack of easily accessible safe harbors between the York and Rappahannock rivers. When I’m sailing that area, running north or south, I know I must have ample time to reach an off-the-bay harbor when bad weather threatens. It’s a good 25-mile run between the safe harbors on those two rivers, or reaching one of the rivers deep inside MobjackBay.

New ‘hole’ to haunt

For me, “Hole in the Wall,” just below Gwynn’s Island, is not a plausible option because of uncertain depths and a difficult switch-back channel. If I had an engine failure, or needed to find protection from a fast-moving gale, say in the area around Wolf Trap lighthouse, I’d still have a good 12 to 15 miles in either a northern or southern course to find safe harbor up MobjackBay or behind Gywnn’s Island.

Right there, almost adjacent Wolf Trap Light, is HornHarbor. I’ve often eyed it, either by chart or visually, because it lies just a few miles north of New Point Comfort, a seemingly potential “emergency” port. Yet, the chart depths make you wonder whether the Horn Harbor (HH) channel is realistically navigable for a sailboat.

More recently, I had heard from another member of the Seaford Yacht Club that navigating HornHarbor channel was doable in a sailboat with a 5- to 6-foot draft. I decided to bite the bullet and find out for myself.

Since I’ve had enough time to weigh my motor and sail problems, Caper II is now moving well with both jenny and mainsail reefed, on a line that will just enable me to clear the stake at the eastern end of Swash shoal. When I turn that corner, I’ve got a comfortable reach and will be clipping along at 6-plus knots. It really looks like this is the day to explore HornHarbor, something I’ve wanted to do for the last couple years. So I say to Caper II, “Hey baby, let’s go for it.”

Feeling my way

In 40 minutes, I’ve passed New Point Comfort, on a good line to hit the “HH” mark that identifies the entrance to HornHarbor channel, so my questions have been answered. I can clear the prop when I get to HornHarbor and just make do with the shortened jenny.

However, before I get started into the channel, after stowing my sails and making toward the “R-2” mark, I’m hailed by a 30-foot Gemini Cat coming up on my stern. I wave him past, but he shakes me off and says he’s never been in this channel before. I tell him that’s true for me, too, but the discussion ends abruptlywhen he explains he has just run aground up near “Hole in the Wall” and that he is still getting used to his new boat just picked up in Deltaville.

So, laboring at about 4 knots with very bumpy and sloppy wave action, I maintain a course down the middle of the channel, where there’s plenty of depth with an incoming tide (consistent 6- to 7-foot depths).

Like the Back River cruise I took the previous month, the chart makes the channel look very narrow. But when you’re actually there navigating such narrow channels, there’s usually plenty of room. That was the case with the HornHarbor channel, with one exception.

As you approach “R-8,” give it wide berth because the shoal to starboard pushes into the channel. I quickly had to steer to port to miss the 4-foot depths. Otherwise, the rest was a clean run to the last mark, “G-19,” at the marina located on the starboard side. For my anchorage, I found a quiet, sheltered basin just beyond the marina in 5 to 6 feet of water (I draw 4 feet).

The gratifying reward

It was a beautiful evening — a clear, starlit night, with two-thirds moon, and a magnificent deep magenta sunrise the next morning. The Gemini cat had anchored quite close by. (I had to pull my anchor line in a bit in the middle of the night as our two boats closed in on each other at low tide.) The crew was a British couple on their first cruise down the ICW, with plans to end up in the British Virgins the following spring, and then make a “fleet crossing” to the Mediterranean in early summer before hurricane season.

After enough sailing, they expect to move to a retirement home in Greece. I thought to myself: that’s a really nice dream being lived out. No matter, I still have enough sailing to do in the Chesapeake to keep me busy the rest of my life.

Since I was feeling especially energized by having overcome the odds the day before, I enjoyed inflating my dinghy, attaching the outboard (after being dormant the last four to five months, she started without a complaint), and taking an exploratory cruise around the entire Horn Harbor area, as the early morning mists were lifting off the water. The harbor is a beautiful, but narrow, safe haven of about two miles length, running northwest from Mill Point and Potato Neck. After going to the far, very rural northwest end of HornHarbor, another half-mile or so, you’ve almost cut across the whole lower part of MathewsCounty to within a half-mile of the East River off MobjackBay.

When I returned from this excursion, I went under the boat with my goggles and fins to scrape the prop and brush down the bottom. When I found myself standing in about 4 feet of water on one side, I hopped aboard, pulled the anchor, and headed out to the Bay.

For the return trip, the southeasterlies had settled down to a comfortable 10 to 12 knots, but I needed to make one long tack out into the Bay in order to clear the “R-2” mark on the east side of New Point Comfort.

Then I had a nice reach over to Swash Channel and, with a little motor sailing, found a sailable line toward Back Creek, as the winds faded a bit around noontime. I was back at SYC by 2 p.m., modeling once again my typical 24-hour turnaround cruise to wonderful nearby destinations. The round-trip was about 40 nautical miles, not far to go for the pleasures of discovering a new hideaway cove and an evening beneath a brilliant, star-filled sky.

David Benedict is a retired human resources executive living in Williamsburg, Va., who writes occasional articles for Soundings.