How to find and enjoy great hideaways
Gunkhole: A small, quiet, out-of-the-way body of water seldom frequented by the boating fraternity because it is difficult to find or enter, or at least it is perceived to be. (“Cruising the Chesapeake: A Gunkholer’s Guide,” William H. Shellenberger, International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 2001)
Check out the other parts to our Gunkholing series:Explore our picks for 10 great gunkhole getaways:Or introduce yourself to "Mr. Gunkhole."
By Jack Sherwood
Gunkholing is an exploratory boating art that seeks out hideaway coves and creeks in search of solace and serenity. It is the antithesis of marina-hopping, wherein less adventurous cruisers might linger for days, weeks, months, even years. Gunkholers tend to move on to find other gunkholes and keep them secret.
Such places can be found from Maine to Florida and everywhere in between. Some are hidden away among rock ledges and evergreens, swamps and marshes, farmlands and loblolly pines, and amid sand dunes and palm trees.
It is a pursuit shared by powerboaters and sailors alike, and no distinctions are made once inside the gunkhole zone unless one breaks the unwritten laws of privacy and peace. Despite the isolation from others, there is a nautical camaraderie created there, an acceptance that you are there because this is what you were looking for and, since you found it, you are welcomed.
Call it camping on the water at no charge, free to move as the wind and tide directs, not bound and held prisoner by ropes and power lines and close enough to other boats to touch and overhear conversations intended for others.
In a gunkhole, what you see is what you get, not what you may want in the shape of marina services and amenities — like a dockside tiki bar, swimming pool, tennis or golfing.
The gunk part of the term likely refers to the yucky makeup of some bottoms that cling in clumps to a rising anchor, best removed by motoring forward with the gunk end submerged to wash off the residue and keep it off deck. The hole might refer to a narrow entrance in the woods, opening up to a protective hole in the water ideal for anchoring. My cruising territory is Chesapeake Bay, which is abundant with such places, though not all of them remain secret and when word gets around, they become overused and overpopulated and take on the ugly aspects of marina life and what true gunkholers try to avoid: too many people and boats. So one must be prepared to move on and find another place, which often isn’t far away. One legendary gunkhole on the middle Western Shore of the Chesapeake is Meredith Creek, off Whitehall Bay just outside
Annapolis, Md. Those who succeed in entering this unmarked creek automatically become members of the Meredith Creek
Gunkholers Association, and must swear never to reveal the
secrets of navigating this entrance to discover the isolated paradise awaiting beyond.
I am a member and can only disclose that one of the secret marks may or may not be visible on the first pier to starboard, where you must make a hard turn to port and head for a key secondary mark on land that must remain secret.
That first critical mark is difficult to find and isn’t always where it is rumored to be. It must be observed at close range because it has to do with accumulated seagull droppings on the western end of the 28th plank in from the water.
Creek residents allow no informal navigational aids in the form of bamboo poles or simple stakes topped off by red or green paint to mark the shoals. Installing official marks, of course, is totally out of the question. Entering the mouth of the creek at a crawl, most boaters stop and back off at the first bump on the unmarked sandy shoal, never to return unless accompanied by a guide with the secret local knowledge.
Gunkholers are on guard and protective of their favorite hideaways, leery of approaching vessels with anchors partially lowered and someone on the bow pointing the way. Those already settled in and claiming territory may stand on their bow or stern with hands on hips or with arms crossed somewhat defiantly but not waving friendly-like, which would give the wrong signal: to come closer and maybe even (oh my god!) raft-up. So never, ever put out fenders unless you’re expecting or inviting someone. A stranger might get the wrong message.
The correct non-invitational signal would be for the already-anchored gunkholer to declare and stand his ground silently but only briefly, and then disappear behind a porthole to see if the newcomer gets the message. Do not set off warning flares.
An intruder who is a fellow gunkholer should be of no concern, because he prefers to be as far away from you as you are to him. That is the unbroken rule of the true gunkholer: Stay away. But rafting-up is not illegal or objectionable in gunkholes, as long as it is not one of those conspicuous, obnoxious, show-off sunflower raft-ups. They can take interminable hours to assemble and secure, and then participants stage dinghy races, silly piratical costume events and water balloon wars. Not really my cup of tea. There also is the threat of drifting anchors and fouled lines if a squall rolls in and disrupts the assemblage. Shouts of
distress, anger and confusion in the middle of the night will awaken the dead and shatter the peace of the gunkhole.
The smaller and shallower the gunkhole, the better and harder it will be to find and use, my dear. Deep-draft boats typically won’t bother because what’s the point of running aground to enter an area that is of no use? It is a boat with a shoal draft that can barge in for the sheer joy of getting to where others will not, or cannot, go.
In a gunkhole you pretty much know what to expect and what kind of folks you might have for neighbors. If you encounter a problem, just raise anchor and move to another spot. That isn’t the case in amarina, however, where you go through all the trouble of tying up and paying up for the night and perhaps meet people you didn’t want to meet in the first place.
Last summer I planned to settle in for the night on the Miles River at a designated anchorage outside the inner harbor of St. Michaels, Md., when a big old cabin boat with many potted plants and small children anchored next to me. A roaring generator and little people screaming was grounds for an immediate evacuation.
I ran forward, raised my anchor, and let it hang just below the surface. The skipper of the cabin boat shouted, pointing frantically to my partially lowered anchor loaded with muck. I nodded, “I know, I know,” and motored across the river and into Leeds Creek, thankful I made the decision. No sooner did I set my anchor close to shore and in the lee of a woodland when a northerly came blasting through. That evening, I could see masthead lights dueling in the distance in the crowded, exposed anchorage I had left, wondering how many might follow my example and threaten my reverie. To my amazement, none did.
Leeds Creek is a perfect gunkhole with a half-dozen nooks and crannies to slip into for a peaceful night’s sleep with a roaring northerly stirring the treetops. There are lots of birds, and little development on the shores except for large estates with old brick manor houses with tall chimneys and stately gardens.
That next morning I had to pay the piper and bash into that northerly on the way home to Annapolis, but thanks to a night in a friendly gunkhole I was rested. I had a solid night’s sleep with no bouncing and crashing about, and no worries about my anchor or others dragging in the blow.
Thank you, gunkholes.
Check out the other parts to our Gunkholing series:
Explore our picks for 10 great gunkhole getaways:
Or introduce yourself to "Mr. Gunkhole."