Still Pond is a gorge carved out of the radiant sandstone tree-lined cliffs just outside of the shipping channels connecting Havre De Grace, Baltimore and ports north, south and east through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. It is a small placid sanctuary found before navigators round the low shoreline of Howell Point Light, and where entering the Sassafras River takes a route past a once-booming steamship wharf. Onwards there is a secluded stony beach where to the North the sunset is reflected in shades of blood orange from the ever-eroding cliff sides of Grove Neck.
“Can we swim?” Eleanor impatiently asked as we left Hart-Miller Island to our stern and began to enter the broad freshwater rivers that build the Northern Chesapeake Bay. The landscape morphed from low marshlands into tree-lined hills, and long green undulated ridges stood guard over passageways to small tributaries and creeks. Shades of green gave depth and distance to the dozens of lesser peninsulas which were doted by lighthouses or range lights that jetted out from the shoreline ahead.
“Yes, when we stop for the night,” I said as I kept a bearing on a series of red and green channel markers ahead. Eleanor heard me say the same words the night before, but with a detour to see a friend, we never made it to the Sassafras River and consequently never swam. “The water here is too dirty,” Alison and I told Eleanor as she stood on deck, full of envy as she watched others swim and jump off of rafts in the anchorage to our west. We were in waters too close to Baltimore: pollution, trash, chemicals, and sewage. Although a safer bet, Eleanor was hot and disappointed.
I checked my watch. Our speed was low as we traveled under the forward sail only, and we made slow progress. It was a conservative sail plan strategy as the wind gusted and we cut through the growing waves that funneled north into the ever tighter landscape of the Elk River. It was getting late. Storms were forecasted for the evening, and the Sassafras was still a few hours away. We slightly changed course and vectored towards Still Pond so the girl could swim.
Inside the pond, we anchored exposed to the West where the storms would arrive from later that night. The constricted but coveted cove we planned on anchoring in was already full with two boats that took the lengths of available swing room. A smarter sailor would have continued on, but Eleanor had already arrived in the cockpit dressed in her swimsuit. The better anchorage for inbound weather from the West was still over three hours away, so I looked at Alison and shrugged. “I trust our ground tackle,” I said and then went forward as she took the helm. We set for storm conditions, expecting the worst with high winds and the specter of three miles of fetch if circumstances changed. Once the anchor was snug and over 150 feet of chain laid out in 15 feet of water, Eleanor could finally swim.
As forecasted, the storms came from the West heralded by sheets of lighting that cracked between black and purple thunderheads. To our North, vast and brilliant jets of blindingly white lightning superheated massive towers that left their tops smoldering with a faint red glow. I stood in the cockpit and watched the wind reverse us over the anchor; it reset instantly. Below, we set the drag alarm and drifted into a fitful sleep under the thick heat and whirling fans in the closed cabin.
The next morning, “Take her up to 50% power!” I yelled from the bow back to Alison. She reached for the throttle and gently moved it forward. It was early, just after the sun peaked over the easterly tree-lined ridge. A few other sailboats that slinked into the cove that night, looking for some solace from the weather, bobbed peacefully in the tranquil waters that were tinted brown from runoff. Their anchor lights still beamed through the impossibly humid air. The engine was at 50% power, and Caprica slowly moved forward then to a stop as the bow pulled down under the weight of our anchor. Suddenly she released, and a quick whirl of the windlass brought our workhorse anchor to the deck. The entire plow, roll bar, and shank were coated in thick mud.
“The anchor was 100% buried,” I yelled back to the cockpit. Alison smiled and shot a quick thumbs up.
Below, Eleanor dressed and arrived on deck still in a sleepy haze. She sprawled out on the cockpit cushion in the shade of the overhead canopy.
We were underway early, and we finally pushed past the Sassafras River; a destination that I had hoped to reach on our first day out. As we slid by on the quiet morning, I took a moment to stare off at the color of a hazy dawn momentarily etched on the river banks. I turned my attention back to the channel markers and saw our speed increase as the swirl of current grabbed the keel. The tide on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (C & D) was fierce for displacement hulls that used diesel engines as an auxiliary and it was critical that we timed our passage correctly. A tugboat rounded the bend outside of its lane then ahead I saw a survey vessel taking up most of the canal. We threaded around the survey vessel and hammered through the tug’s rolling wake with an ugly bashing.
Ahead, the graceful arc of the Augustine Herman Highway Bridge rose over the landscape; a bridge that was built by the army corps of engineers to replace a lifting railway when the C & D was widened. I watched the current swirl around us – a current that pulled logs and piles of seagrass in erratic pathways through minor whirlpools. Occasionally an eddy grabbed the rudder or keel and tugged our 20,000-pound boat, all the while we accelerated. I watched a large log emerge next to us then miraculously disappear. Later it surfaced again just beyond a series of powerboats that stood off of a fuel pier. The tree trunk sized log was driven into the discolored and weathered support piling for the highway bridge and then it launched into the air (which reminded me of a porpoise at Sea World).
A few red pilings represented the fuel dock along several hundred feet of pier segmented by the high hulking bridge pylon. We watched the current with quiet resignation as it tore roiling through the pier. Two powerboats loaded with high-performance outboard engines maneuvered past the bridge pier and against the fuel dock leaving us a small space to sneak into between them and a powerful eddy. I turned Caprica towards the fuel dock, and in an instant, she was ripped sideways under the bridge. We knew it would happen and had planned on it so we used the current to some advantage. We powered forward and slowly edged the bow over until we were flush against the dock. Alison tied the lines, and then we waited patiently for the boat behind us to take on 250 gallons of fuel. His fuel bill likely cost more than our entire two-month trip.
We planned to shoot down the remainder of the canal and into the Delaware Bay where there was a beautiful weather window waiting for us. A smooth passage with a southerly breeze on our quarter would take us into the North Atlantic then up towards Cape Cod, but then we heard the fuel dock attendant say, “They will have an inflatable obstacle course and a bounce house. Fireworks too!” He pointed across the canal to Chesapeake City just a few hundred yards away and their basin. “You’ll have a great view from in there.” His smile was genuine.
The forecast called for afternoon thunderstorms, some even severe. I looked at my watch and considered that Eleanor would be on Caprica for several days. She’s four, vibrant, excited, and exuberant. “Let’s go,” I said to Alison. She smiled, knowing that the transition from a time-sensitive driven schedule to a “take it as we go” approach was complete.
We both relaxed a little as Caprica pulled away from the dock and was swept dramatically down the canal. I powered forward, and we slid into the narrow gap that gave us entrance to a small empty basin. We motored by the town dock where a lone powerboat rested, past the Army Corps of Engineers facility and beyond the docks of the Chesapeake Inn marina, restaurant and Tiki Bar whose piers were bristling with speed boats of every description. Towards the back of the basin, we made a tight circle and dropped the hook, knowing that there could be crowded conditions later but also big storms with a reversing current. We were confident that we would be safe here.
After an hour on anchor watch, we dropped the dink and meandered to a familiar shore where we found an assortment of small shops that occupied an array of historic homes. Among our favorites was a small coffee shop that delivered air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, amazing beverages, and dynamite sandwiches. We came to know a few of the frequent patrons and enjoyed the owner’s company and felt better for it. We enjoyed the same friendly experience in the gift shops that lined Bohemia Avenue, including a toy shop that provided countless crafty activities for Eleanor and a boutique that kindly outfitted Eleanor with a new bow and a compact of lavender lotion – all in a perfect purple drawstring bag.
During the tide change, an assortment of battle fatigued, heavy cruising vessels arrived and departed from the small basin at Chesapeake City. Some displayed worn sails, tired equipment and salty captains whereas others still had the fresh factory coat of wax precisely applied to gleaming gel coat. It was a conflagration of social classes, experiences, attitudes, and nationalities.
We threaded the dinghy between a pile of docked jet skis, ski boats, and power boats into the basin where we saw a shirtless sun worn man paddling between boats with a child’s blow-up beach raft. He hovered near a red-hulled sailboat with a proud bow. The boat was from Philadelphia and had a smattering of pockmarked scars crossing the hull. Her gel coat had long since been worn away and was replaced by a faded and patched paint job. An array of laundry hung from the lifelines, and we later learned that the owners were fresh from a few years sailing in the islands.
The man in the child’s raft followed us towards Caprica.
“Do you know anything about diesel engines?” he yelled. The man wore a pair of board shorts that perfectly matched his sunburn. Despite the deep lines of fatigue etched under his eyes, he greeted me with a smile. I could have said no and been done with it, but there is a code of etiquette that exists in a close anchorage.
He pointed to an aged cream hull anchored a few boat lengths from us. The lines were worn, and no sails were visible even though the rig had a modern furler forward. A grey Lowe’s tarp hung slack over the boom. The man was from New York, had driven down and purchased the sailboat from a small neglected marina a few miles down the canal. “I’ll have her home in a few days,” he said, grinning. “I plan on sailing most of the way,” the man said, unconsciously nodding.
“You know about the currents in the Delaware, right? The wind will be from the south, and you’re going to have huge square waves coming at you. Have you looked at the weather for offshore? There’s a series of low-pressure systems moving through the region, and I’m betting on severe storms. You should probably delay.” I spoke with some command and with concern.
He was on a deadline, and the motor was overheating. We verbally went through the system step by step until we decided the culprit was the mixing elbow – an apparatus that once exploded on my old Hunter 35.5. “You need to find a marina or at least a local post office that you can mail parts to yourself,” I advised.
He smiled and rowed away, thanking me for my time. The next morning he was underway towards the Delaware. That evening after a line of severe weather moved through the area, my VHF picked up a report of a submerged vessel. I shook my head, knowing very well it could have been him.
A large catamaran eased into the basin followed by a few smaller cruising boats. The anchorage grew tighter, crowded, and we carried on conversations from out cockpits over the water with each other. Friendly waves ignited conversations about destinations and weather. As the various captains rowed to shore, they’d swing by in their dinghies to chat. A cruising couple with a dog that perpetually smiled arrived at our stern. Eleanor promptly invited the dog aboard. We talked and we learned that they were on their way to Panama. By the time they motored towards their stout little ship, we had a new connection with a couple that we felt a keen sense of similarity with. We also had an invitation to stay at their new home in Panama; which will have an in ground pool facing the ocean, the husband insisted.
The cruising captains and crews sat in their cockpits and waited for the summer swelter of the day to abate in the hot, stagnant air. We retreated to shore for ice cream and another meandering tour of the town.
By the following morning, boats arrived and boats left. New faces with new and old boats alike filled the basin. Friendly waves were exchanged with smiles and conversations about destinations, weather, and repairs ensued. A small Island Packet (IP) arrived with a partner boat. As the IP swung smartly on her keel to drop anchor, I saw the hailing port and immediately recognized the boat. They were from Belfast, Maine, and we’d sat moored next to her on a previous trip. As the evening progressed, we had a chance to chat and formally meet each other. “Small world,” we both remarked.
By the morning, the Belfast crowd was gone, and a pristine modern Catalina 35 occupied their spot. “Why is that man in his underwear?” Eleanor pointed, her face painted with consternation. The owner was tanned, physically fit, and stood in the gleaming cockpit in a Speedo. I was instantly transported back to my childhood when, for a time, my father insisted on walking around on hot summer days at the beach wearing a Speedo. My father is physically fit and ridiculously strong, but we share a similar physique, and a Speedo is not something that either of us should own. I explained the concept of the Speedo to Eleanor. She frowned and asked – demanded “WHY?”
As the afternoon progressed and the tempo of the local Tiki bar intensified, the basin filled with speed boats. Orange, yellow, white, checkered, T-topped convertibles, young, old, new and used boats were everything from a young man’s wild go fast Miami Vice dream to the back yard built hotrod, but they all had one thing in common: noise. Like an Apache helicopter on a strafing run, these machines with their revving engines were sleekly beautiful but absolutely destructive to any level of self-enlightenment, chi or spiritual balance.
I said a silent prayer and within moments watched a green and yellow, then miraculously red series of blobs form on the weather radar. “The Gods are good!” I said to Alison.
“Storm?” she said with a smile.
“Storm,” I replied as we prepped the cockpit for an inbound severed cell. Our area was painted in multiple watch boxes and warnings on the radar.
The day darkened, and from the cover of the tree-lined swamp to our stern, a massive thunderstorm loomed.
We watched from our cockpit and for the safety of Caprica as open pontoon boats, ski boats, and a corvette style white boat appeared in the basin. They causally tossed some type of an anchor overboard and promptly ejected themselves from their boats onto a Carolina skiff that served as a water taxi.
“There’s a storm coming, and they are leaving their boats,” I said exacerbated.
The small white go fast boat pulled within half a boat length of us and tossed out an anchor.
“If my boat swings, she’s going to eat yours,” I yelled to the driver and then pointed to the inbound weather.
The driver smiled. “Hey, keep an eye on her, and I’ll tip you later!” He yelled across the water, half laughing. Within minutes, he was inbound to the Tiki Bar in the water taxi.
The wind arrived sudden, terrible, and fantastic all at once. Caprica swung on her chain into the weather, which pummeled us. Thunder cracked and rain ripped across the basin as it slapped our hatches, hull, and dodger. The white powerboat slid towards an expensive trawler as the Tiki Bar water taxi raced towards it. The driver of the powerboat fell into the cockpit, and within a second the engines blasted to life. A teenager hunched into the wind and shielded his eyes while lifting the small anchor. The boat passed near us, and the boy looked away from the pelting rain, to me. “DO I JUST LET IT ALL OUT?” he yelled over the maelstrom. I realized the boy was asking about the anchor rope.
“Yes!” I yelled back from my dry cockpit as I maneuvered Caprica’s steering wheel to keep her bow into the gusting, shifting wind.
Behind us, the beautiful and expensive trawler began to drag towards an Army Corps of Engineers vessel. From his dry and air-conditioned cockpit, the owner engaged the motors and coolly slid next to us.
“Look!” Someone yelled.
Next to us, the large beautiful catamaran had lost its holding and drifted into the shoreline. Its rudders raked the rock-lined shore until the bulk of the boat slammed into a series of pilings at the head of a dock. My heart sank, and I immediately thought about my little prayer earlier. “Who answered?” I asked myself.
The storm passed, the air was fresh, most of the powerboats vanished, and the Tiki Bar party slowed. A dinghy ignored the no wake zone and rocketed past the anchored boats straight towards the stricken catamaran. I motored over in our own dinghy and offered assistance.
Casual and calm considering the circumstances, the owner met me on the bow. I was immediately impressed with his demeanor. Most people melt under those types of conditions. This guy knew exactly what to do and went about the procedures as if there was a quick how-to checklist reference guide he followed. We tied a line from my dingy stern to a pontoon and used the little engine to pull the catamaran sideways off of the dock a few feet. Seconds later, he engaged his engines and moved into the basin. I freed myself and returned to Caprica. We watched the catamaran struggle to maneuver and realized that the rudders were damaged. The owner dropped his anchor, donned swim gear and disappeared under the stern as his partner stood at the helm keeping watch.
I remarked to Alison that there were no raised voices on the catamaran, just chill.
Later, we boarded the cat and toured the yacht. The owner explained that the rudder cables had snapped and that they would be towed to a nearby marina the next day. Through our conversation, the owner was upbeat and found numerous silver linings in the ordeal. He was definitely one cool cat.
In the morning, I watched the catamaran get towed out of the basin, past the Army Corps of Engineers facility and into the C & D canal. I said a different prayer that day.
We met the couple on the Catalina and enjoyed breakfast with them at the fantastic local coffee shop. Most boat people can find something in common, and typically conversations rotate around food, travels, weather, and repairs. The Catalina crew are from Australia and purchased their boat in Tom’s River, NJ. They were on their way down to the Chesapeake for some upgrades and repairs and we spent our time talking electrical systems. When we parted ways, Alison and I realized that we were lucky to break bread with such an interesting and unique couple. Hopefully, one day, our paths will cross again. Possibly even at the Republic of G Dock.
On our way back to Caprica, the heat of the day was growing more intense, and I grumbled that we had been stuck in Chesapeake City for so long. “By this date, we’re usually in Maine,” I said and pointed the tiller towards our little floating island. Then I thought about the people we met, the stories we heard, and the few that we had come to be acquainted with. The town was beautiful, friendly, and welcoming. It was the longest I’d ever stayed in Chesapeake City, and I’d come to find the town to be more than a cruising crossroads; it was a destination.
A solid offshore cruiser arrived behind us with a retired couple fresh from the Bahamas on their way to Maine. Our conversation began with the friendly wave, but as our boats drifted closer, we enjoyed learning about where they’d been and where they are going. We met them briefly in town and learned their story. Sold the house, cars, everything and bought a boat. As his story began, so did the smile.
The following sun-filled morning, I was up early, and we prepped the boat to move. We waited for a large powerboat that was hovering over our anchor to get underway, and Caprica was off to the races. The Chesapeake City town dock is coveted real-estate with hookups for water and electricity and it’s free. We needed the dock space simply to fill the forward water tank before we moved down the Delaware Bay. Our next opportunity to fill tanks would be in Cape Cod, and that could still be two weeks out. I was feeling stressed and and I built contingency plans as we maneuvered towards the dock. A powerboat slid into a slip where we wanted to park, and suddenly docking became technical with the pull of the C & D current. Magically, Caprica glided into place with little effort, and Alison was quick to fasten dock lines.
It was already hot and humid with rain expected. I furiously retrieved our electric cords from a deep aft locker, and within half an hour, Caprica was frosty inside. We had glorious air-conditioning, and the outside world was shut out. We were again to ourselves with the whirling fans, humming pumps, and gentle fatigue caused by Caprica’s gentle rocking combined with a background of white noise. We closed hatches, drew shades, and retreated into our self-imposed prison. I entered our dark forward berth and contemplated our time in Chesapeake City: the experiences and the people we met.
“If we had air-conditioning, we never would have been outside seeing the town or chatting with other sailors,” I said as Alison quietly read.
She looked up and smiled, “I know.”
I changed out of my sweat soaked clothes and moved outside into the cockpit just as a heavy two-masted cruising boat moved towards the dock. The powerboat ahead of us had disappeared while I was down below in the cold dark cabin. Already, the boats in the basin had changed. More moved in and more moved out. New faces, new boats, and different flags.
I completely missed this, I thought, realizing that our own comfort was also our own isolation.
“Do you want me to take a line?” I asked the cruising couple who moved towards the dock. I was immediately struck by their deep tans.
“Sure,” the guy behind the wheel yelled in a British accent. His wife expertly tossed the coil of line towards me. I stood holding the line reluctant to pull the stern towards the dock, worried that it would throw off the boat’s approach. The current snagged the bow of the heavy cruiser and pulled it towards the basin.
“Tie off the stern quickly and move forward. She can throw you the line,” I thought.
She jumped off the boat towards the dock in a perfect Wonder Woman battle attack pose holding the bow line like the magic lasso. The scene was slow motion movie magic but missing a soundtrack. It was evident she was going to make the jump with room to spare. I stood quietly and gawked as she landed with a dancer’s precision and pulled the bow of the twin-masted cruiser into the dock.
I measured myself against their technique, relaxed demeanor, and wondered how we stood the test in tight, stress-filled situations. Over dinner with this couple, we chatted, shared political views, ideas, hopes, laughed at stories, and Alison and I learned from their wisdom. Again, we reflected later at the benefits we received by staying in Chespeake City so long.
This morning we watched our friends’ boat glide off of the dock and we tried to follow suit but were instead pinned by an eddy flowing opposite from the current and the wind against the pier. A powerboat began moving towards the opening at our bow, and I knew we’d never leave the dock if the hulking custom built yacht parked in front of us. To our stern, another power boat sat tied and tethered by an umbilical of electrical lines. The final option was to use max power in reverse, crank the wheel hard over and hope that the rudder dug in enough that I was able to pull the boat off the dock and thread us between the powerboats.
I spun Caprica off of the dock and made a hard U-turn into the basin where a series of cruising boats were anchored and were being pulled gently against the current. A few sailors watched from their cockpits, and one stood, smiled and waved. He yelled, “Where you headed?”
“Cape Cod!” I responded. Like the others before us and those to come, we turned out of the anchorage and headed east on the canal towards Delaware Bay; all of us headed towards new places, new experiences and new friends.