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When Bay winds vanish, it’s time for gunkholing

Preparing to face some hot, light-air cruising during the dog days of August required some adjustments to my regular Chesapeake Bay sailing routine of seeking out and following the wind. This meant accepting the cruel fate of motoring more than absolutely necessary and making it boring, rather than interesting and challenging.

When Bay winds vanish, it’s time for gunkholing

While adapting to this dilemma I detected a positive angle: Remote creeks open up to exploration under power when wind is non-existent. And gunkholing out-of-the-way backwaters sometimes offers navigational challenges, which is what I found while poking around isolated Harris Creek off the Choptank River near Knapps Narrows on Maryland’s middle Eastern Shore.

I often have anchored for the night in protected Dun Cove, just inside the mouth of the 6-mile-long creek, but I’ve never ventured farther, especially when there’s a sailing breeze making up in the morning as I raise the anchor. But early on this occasion, with the water table reading a slick calm and only crabbers out working their trotlines, I decided to head up and into the creek, rather than out of it.

The unwritten rule in these creeks is to stay in the middle since there are enough 1- and 2-foot marked depths to make one cautious. I allow for drawing 3 feet in my full-keel Sailmaster 22C with the centerboard raised and 4 feet with it mostly lowered. This becomes my depth sounder and when — not if — I bump, I raise the board a touch and change course for deeper water. I might add that I have very rarely asked to be towed off.

After leaving Dun Cove, I honored five marks for some 2 miles before leaving the last one (a flashing “HC”) behind near the mouth of Cummings Creek and bearing off a bit to stay on Harris. Here the creek narrows, but in general the depth ranges from 7 to 9 feet and even deeper before branching off into the meandering Northwest and Northeast branches. At this point, however, you are so far up the creek into a no man’s land that you might run out of any cooling breeze and, worse, into mosquitoes. As far as finding facilities for ice, forget about it.

When I anchor for the night, I always look for solitude and try to face southeast, the Bay’s predominant wind direction. There’s no point in tucking so far up into a cove that you find not a whisper of wind. You can rely on being awakened just before dawn by crabbers setting their trotlines. I asked one crabber what I might find up the deeper Northeast branch, but his answer was brief and unintelligible to me because of his heavy local accent. I could see by the chart, however, that a 2-foot bar across the Northwest’s mouth barred entry for me. I don’t think I missed much.

I did a wheelie and returned to Cummings to check out Wittman’s public ramp and landing, which offers depths of 4 and 5 feet. En route to Wittman, I was somewhat startled to find a blaring new intruder to this world in the form of one of those ubiquitous waterfront mega-mansions that look totally out of place among the trees, handsome homes and small cottages.

Years ago, Ray Jones ran a busy seafood operation at this landing, and his old buildings remain. Today, there is only a dock where crabbers offload their catch to waiting trucks for transport to restaurants and packing houses. But there are no facilities here, although outward-bound there is a dock at the village of Sherwood off to starboard on Waterhole Cove as you depart Harris Creek.

There are named (Briary, for one) and unnamed coves that are ideal for anchoring in soft mud and clay, mostly along the western shores of Harris Creek. This is a great area to wait out bad weather before exiting the Choptank and entering the Chesapeake through Knapps Narrows, where you can stop at one of several restaurants and find fuel and other facilities.

Instead of dealing with a very light southerly and motoring north and homeward out in the Bay proper, I opted to sail into a mild southeasterly in the Choptank and into Oxford’s Town Creek. I barely found room to tie up at the very end of the Oxford fuel dock, where I stocked up on gas and block ice and met a kind of barefoot sailing vagabond. This middle-aged fellow, unshaven and somewhat bedraggled, had apparently landed under sail, and the jib and mainsail were only partially lowered and flapping about. I noticed that both of his spreaders were broken and jury-rigged. The dock boy said his outboard wasn’t working and seemed anxious for him to get under way.

As I secured my 2-1/2-gallon auxiliary fuel tank to the port stays and stowed the block ice in coolers below, this oddball cruiser looked on and began telling me how he lost his spreaders in a storm a few days ago in Smith Island. He said he was new to the Chesapeake and had no idea where he was headed next. Munching on a large bag of potato chips, he correctly identified my boat at once as a Sparkman & Stephens-designed cruising Sailmaster built in Holland. I was impressed and would have chatted with him longer — and maybe developed a column out of him — but a 40-foot sloop was waiting to tie up and I had to leave to make room. I bet he’ll be showing up in Annapolis before long; I’ll keep an eye out for him.

That evening, I anchored in La Trappe Creek, about 6 miles up the Choptank from Oxford and halfway to Cambridge. I should point out here a bit of an awkward incongruity that marks the entrance to La Trappe — a large, darkly colored beacon of a canister, flashing green and 21 feet high. This is one huge mark you can’t miss and it looks as if it had been deposited here on a small bed of riprap a century ago. I can only surmise it must be a leftover small lighthouse-shaped beacon from back in the day when Trappe Landing was a busy boatbuilding port.

William H. Shellenberger’s “Cruising the Chesapeake: A Gunkholer’s Guide” calls La Trappe “one of the most beautiful creeks on the Chesapeake Bay.” One of its finest anchorages is centered on a lovely, curving sand spit at Martin Point at the creek’s mouth. Although Martin Point is posted “No Trespassing,” that doesn’t stop boaters in small powerboats from landing at this beautiful beach for cookouts, sunbathing and launching noisy PWC. The rest of Martin Point, with more sandy beach, is “closed to the public as a result of thoughtless boaters who left piles of litter in the past,” Shellenberger adds. I was not at all interested in confirming whether such ignorant behavior persists, so I just scooted beyond this buzzing horde to find a small bight of my own, out of the limelight near Sawmill Cove.

The next day it was August, and the windless conditions called for a full day of motoring home to Annapolis with the mainsail cover on and me sitting under a Sunbrella umbrella rigged in the cockpit with a small cooler of ice underfoot chilling a half-gallon jug of iced tea. Incidentally, by the first weekend of August, the wind was howling at 18 to 20 mph, with boarding 3-foot seas built up from a 100-mile southerly fetch.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

October 2012 issue.