My solo 12-hour cruising passages on Chesapeake Bay are over, replaced by 8-hour jaunts that are easier on us older, oddball loners, especially those unaccustomed to having crew on board to help with steering. My old 22-foot sailboat with a small cockpit and all kinds of control lines (14 at last count) and a cramped cabin stuffed with stuff are not fit for overnight company anyway. When I was younger, of course, I made exceptions.
The middle and upper Eastern Shore of Maryland and its dozens of charming villages, rivers, creeks, coves and bays are my primary cruising grounds these days. I am no cook, so I pack a little bit of this and that in sealed containers for sandwiches. Sometimes I rig my gimbaled one-burner stove to prepare soup, a Dinty Moore beef stew or coffee. Kind of pathetic, eh?
But over the Independence Day weekend, I had an informal invitation to visit Ruth Noble (Baba) Groom’s Mineral Spring Farm in Claiborne, outside St. Michaels. Every July 4 weekend, an annual bonding event occurs when the first Mrs. Winston Groom hosts the second Mrs. Winston Groom — Anne-Clinton Groom — who had daughter Carolina, 12, in tow for a week of boating, dinner parties and horseback riding. Absent was Winston, an acclaimed writer of Civil War history, who was home in Point Clear, Ala., on deadline for his latest book, “Shiloh.” (He also wrote “Forrest Gump,” from which the award-winning Tom Hanks film was made.)
Winston and I were reporters together at the Washington (D.C.) Star, a newspaper of great renown that folded 30 years ago. He alerted me to this event and requested that I show up and take his wife and daughter for a sailboat ride. Getting into Baba’s 8-foot-deep cove at Hambleton Point off the Miles River is impossible for me because of a 12-inch-deep entry. But Baba found a pier for me next to the small, picturesque Claiborne Public Landing. Crabbers tie their workboats to long poles rammed deep into the mud here in a wooded dead-end cove after offloading their catches at the small dock.
I have been to this lovely 50-acre farm before but never by boat. I knew Baba would host a romantic dinner by candlelight on the veranda, followed by a march to an old tobacco shed with lanterns and flashlights in hand to recite poetry. I knew my choice. When I was a boy I memorized some Rudyard Kipling poems, inspired by my father’s reading them aloud. After a few social drinks, and with a captive audience, my old man would dramatically recite by memory “Gunga Din” and the like. We simply had to listen.
This evening, however, I doubted very much whether I could walk to the shed because of an accident earlier in the day. But when Baba, once a University of Alabama homecoming queen, insists on doing something there is no putting her off. She fetched a walking stick for me, the lovely Anne-Clinton extended an arm, and off I stumbled into the pitch blackness. Incidentally, I selected Kipling’s “The Betrothed,” and I had a good cigar lit with which to accompany this colorful ode of a Victorian Englishman forced to choose between his wife and his cigar. “A woman is only a woman,” he concludes famously at the end, “but a good cigar is a smoke.”
Back to the unfortunate accident that left me hobbled.
I did, indeed, take Anne-Clinton and Carolina sailing, and I was a nervous wreck over it. What unsettled me was the fact that four extra feet would join me in the tiny cockpit, and all I could think about was stepping on toes as I raised the main, rolled out the jib and moved the two women here and there while I grabbed for this line and that. There was little wind, and seas were calm, except when an unexpected wave arrived. Miles River is a very busy weekend waterway, with large powerboats heading to and from nearby St. Michaels. I was standing on the starboard deck fiddling with something when a swell I didn’t see coming threw me off balance.
All I could think about was landing in a heap on mother and daughter, whom I was trying my best to impress. My God, what a clumsy oaf I must have seemed. Fortunately, I landed on the starboard cockpit seat, not the occupied port side. Somehow, my left ankle buckled and twisted under me on the cockpit sole. I waited for the expected question: “Are you all right?”
Sure, I said, just a twisted ankle.
Well, the ankle ballooned, and I limped off the boat to the pier and waited for Baba to pick us up. I jumped into the swimming pool while Anne-Clinton prepared an ice pack for the wounded tar. She delicately wrapped the raised ankle, and I was instructed to settle down on a divan for a short late-afternoon nap. The ankle was throbbing, but it was worth the pain and suffering to be nursed by such a Southern belle. (The diagnosis after X-rays was a hairline stress fracture that required a modest ankle brace for a few weeks.)
Well, after the poetry session these two charming ladies drove me to the Claiborne dock, with Anne-Clinton again leading the way down a dark, wobbly hillside with a supporting arm. It was around midnight when I bunked down, expecting to be roused before dawn when the crabbers started up their workboats. But I heard nothing, and when I awakened all the workboats were gone. I departed around 8 o’clock, facing another windless day on the Chesapeake.
Halfway across the Bay to my home port of Annapolis, Baba called to ask about the ankle. “My dear,” I told her, “I am no longer your responsibility once I leave your property.” She laughed and wished me wind, which finally arrived midafternoon at the mouth of the Severn River and served up two good hours of sailing.
Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.
This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.