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Father’s Day cruise to Leeds Creek

Remembering family voyages while enjoying the peace of single-handing

Remembering family voyages while enjoying the peace of single-handing

I have fond memories of long-ago

Father’s Day cruises with three sons who were involuntarily pressed into service. They did not exactly share my passion for this sometimes uncomfortable and always unpredictable outdoor activity. Maybe it was because my 32-foot wooden sloop had no engine and paddles were passed out when we got becalmed.

When we would finally arrive at our destination, late as usual, my non-sailing wife would be there awaiting her reward (dinner out) and to cart the boys home, leaving me to bring back the boat alone.

There is something to be said about solo sailing and not having to worry about organizing crew and shuttle services, which take up a lot of time and energy. Soon I began to appreciate the joys of single-handing — which was good, because those press-gang days were fast coming to an end as other sports took preference over my sport.

Going it alone

On this past Father’s Day weekend, with those “boys” now off in the real world and no longer obeying parental commands or wishes, I set off to the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay, a favorite haunt, in search of memories. It made me recall releasing my reluctant crew in St. Michaels, where we would eat steamed crabs in the tight little harbor on the outdoor deck of The Crab Claw.

This time, starting out off Annapolis, I could have used a crew of at least one to steer a true course at the mouth of the Severn River as I stumbled up on the foredeck to set the whisker pole and wing out the jib. Ahead was a downwind run to Bloody Point Light, 11 miles across the Bay. This foredeck dance is now a tricky maneuver for me, but after securing the self-steering rig I dashed forward to set the pole as fast as I could without falling overboard.

Rounding Bloody Point, the 12-knot wind shifted and I had to unhook and secure the pole back to the mast for a long port tack with the rail down, if not under. It was a close reach all the way down Eastern Bay to round Rich Neck and enter the Miles River, where the wind died and it was time to furl the jib and start the outboard. (Those paddling days are over.)

After 27 miles I arrived in St. Michaels and motored around the harbor as an antique boat show was in progress on shore at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. The Crab Claw was packed with Father’s Day celebrants and family. No room anywhere close-in for my small boat or me.

I dropped the hook off Parrott Point in the outer anchorage where the chart indicates 4 feet. Around 6 p.m., after putting things in order, I signaled a passing water taxi only to be informed by the operator that he could not pick me up because it was too shallow.

I told him I did not intend to spend the night, but he insisted I must anchor further out before he’d endanger his vessel. It was a pain, but that’s what I did to get ashore for dinner since I did not tow along my Walker Bay dinghy and had no food on board. (Next time I will do things differently.)

In touristy St. Michaels, I landed across the harbor from The Crab Claw and walked the short distance to the Carpenter Street Saloon, a locals hangout, where I thought I might run into someone I knew. Sure enough, I did. Dinner was a very large burger at the bar.

That done, I sat on the sidewalk bench and smoked a cigar, resting up before the trek back to the water taxi. The sidewalks were filled with tourists and I was glad to be returning to my little pocket cruiser. By 8:15 p.m. a strong northerly was making up in the anchorage that was totally exposed to whatever would come in the night. Also, a large, old, beat-up liveaboard motoryacht had anchored next to me and had come to life with the roaring sound of a generator.

To the quiet side

Fortunately, another world lies just across the river in Leeds Creek. It had been a while since I last anchored there. The key entrance buoy — an almost invisible black can that once marked the end of the long shoal off Fairvew Point — is now a more visible fixed green daymarker. Leaving that wide to port, I entered the little creek — a far more tranquil world and one with mystery and legend lurking therein.

Here, on a Miles River neck, is the concealed estate known as the “Pink Palace/Castle,” properly named Cape Centaur, which is better viewed from its river frontage. It cannot be approached in a keel boat there because the water is only about a foot deep.

But the road entrance and high wall are somewhat visible from the first no-name cove to port after entering the creek. I had planned to anchor there, but another sailboat had beat me to it and there wasn’t much room for two boats, nor any point to crowd since I had escaped a crowd in St. Michaels.

I motored a bit along the northern shore, in the lee of the northerly, and dropped the hook in 12 feet. By this time it was dark, with a crescent moon, and a wonderful display of stars in a cloudless night sky. I lit the oil anchor light and hung it on the foredeck.

Settling back in the dark cockpit on a cushioned seat, I mixed some black Gosling’s rum with o.j. in a tin cup and went for a cigar. The wind was gusty, swinging the boat around, which continuously offered new vistas. But there was little chop. I thought again about that crowd over in the anchorage (I could see the lights on shore) worried about dragging and trying to sleep in all that bouncing around.

Sitting there doing nothing for two hours in absolute peace revived the joys of anchoring in a sheltered creek, as opposed to being locked in at a marina. Around 11 o’clock I inflated my air mattress with a battery-powered pump and bunked in for the night, not worried about wind whistling in the rigging.

I was awakened around 6 a.m. by the silent alarm of a brilliant sun lighting up the cabin. By 7:30, I was raising the anchor, only to be stopped at the top of my 12-foot chain on the rode. The Danforth had dug in securely during the night and I had to motor forward to pull it loose.

View from the water

Leeds Creek is narrow and only 3 miles long, and goes in a straight line, west to east, until it runs out of water at a fixed bridge (6 feet vertical clearance) at Tunis Mills. There are nine wooded, unnamed coves along the way and few houses, except inside the mouth where two large estates dominate the entire southern shore.

The older of these two estates is Fairview, the second one to starboard and one of the great federal manor houses of Talbot county. Built in the early 1800s, its principal elevation faces north across a wide, open lawn. On either side are clusters of large trees and a box garden, thought to be the oldest in the county. An American flag flies from a high pole near the shore, day and night. These grand estates are only visible by water. Motorists see only a private road entrance that reveals nothing.

In the creek I counted three anchored sailboats, a large motoryacht, and a raft-up of three cabin cruisers — all spread wide apart.

I had brought along with me Boyd Gibbons’ “Wye Island,” in which he writes about the eccentric rich couple who built the so-called “Pink Castle.”

This Spanish-style, tile-roofed villa fronts on the Miles River on 275 acres once patrolled by Irish wolfhoundsand armed sentries on horseback. It was built in 1922 as a hideout fortress by Glenn L. Stewart, an heir to a Pittsburgh fortune with a reputation for being an eccentric playboy. His Irish wife was Jacqueline Archer, a dog lover educated in Paris and the godmother of Gloria Vanderbilt, “the poor little rich girl.” She was even richer than her husband.

“The doors were of half-inch steel plate sandwiched between thick slabs of solid oak, and secured by large Fox police locks,” writes Gibbons. “Most of the castle windows were narrow slits about 4 feet high — just enough space to poke through a rifle. The walls were almost 3 feet thick.”

The couple lived opulently, owning mink coats, gold watches, a toy steam locomotive, Tiffany bowls, hundreds of pieces of silver flatware, trunks full of jewelry, diamonds, emeralds, a 1931 Dusenberg convertible, a 1924 Packard and three more cars, and a Steinway grand player piano. A basement accessed through a hidden stairway reportedly contained hordes of cash; bushel baskets and grain sacks full of jewelry; $6,000 in silver dollars and 10- and 20-dollar gold pieces.

After the couple died, the property was owned by Adolph Pretzler, their Austrian bodyguard and manager of their affairs. Today, Pretzler’s widow, Ello, lives alone there.

Homeward bound

After leaving Leeds Creek and rounding the green marker, I motored past Deepwater Point. Ducking spray and glancing over to starboard, I saw the red roof tiles of the Pink Palace and grew curious about it. Maybe next time I’ll bring my dinghy and make a creek landing by water in another attempt to meet Mrs. Pretzler to sort out this bizarre fable.

The motorsail out the Miles River, in the teeth of a northerly gusting to 18, was a rough, wet bash to Rich Neck when I was at last able to fall off the wind. I shut off the engine, rolled out the jib, and went flying on a starboard reach to Bloody Point, where I motorsailed north in a light, fickle headwind back home to Annapolis and the real world.