The Eastern Shore
in Robert de Gast's Wake
by Kristen L. Greenaway
Having finally decided on the topic for my Duke University Master’s thesis—exploring the concept of “place” in relation to the Eastern Shore—I discovered Robert de Gast’s book Western Wind Eastern Shore: A Sailing Cruise around the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. Published in 1975, de Gast records a twenty-four-day circumnavigation he made in 1973 of the Eastern Shore—the famed Delmarva peninsula—in his twenty-two-foot keel-centerboard sloop, Slick Ca’m. I had discovered de Gast’s books and photographs through my work as president of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, in St. Michaels, Maryland. His black-and-white photographs from the Chesapeake region reside in the permanent collection of the museum; and our exhibition featuring his work, Robert de Gast's Chesapeake, will open May 12, 2017.
Sadly, in late 2015, we discovered that de Gast was dying of cancer, lying in a hospice in Annapolis. He agreed that he would meet with us. Pete Lesher, chief curator for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, traveled to spend time with de Gast, to record in his words his recollections of each of the eighty photographs he had taken that were being included in the exhibition. We wanted the exhibition labels and accompanying catalogue to reflect his memories of that place, landscape, and time.
We were just in time as de Gast died about a month later, in early January 2016. His obituaries were poignant, and readily paid homage to his writing and photography.
In August 2016, I decided that to truly explore sense of place as de Gast had with Western Wind Eastern Shore, I needed to follow his 659-mile voyage around Delmarva peninsula. But I had only ten or so days for the voyage, not de Gast’s twenty-four, and by sailing—my preferred mode of transport—I wouldn’t be able to complete the voyage in time. I needed a fast boat, which also had to have the shallow draft Slick Ca’m had. In their classic book Cruises: Mainly in the Bay of the Chesapeake (1956), Robert and George Barrie, Jr. give sound advice: “To thoroughly explore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, one should have a vessel of no more than three feet draught—that is, if one wishes to look into every nook and cranny, to investigate places never seen and for that matter never imagined by the great majority of yachtsmen.” I had just a week to find such a boat, trying to fit within my own work schedule and that of my nine-year-old son’s, Andrew, who was due back at school in just a few weeks. I wanted to take him with me, and he readily wanted to share in the adventure.
I asked around my staff: do you know of anyone with a twenty-two foot or so runabout, with fast outboard, that I could borrow for ten days or so? I wasn’t getting anywhere.
I had lunch with a dear friend we had made since we’d moved to St. Michaels in mid-July 2014. She had a twenty-two-foot Grady White Seafarer, with a 225hp outboard, called Ariel. It would be perfect; super-fast, ninety-gallon fuel tanks, a good sized cockpit, and a small for’ad cabin with a double bunk.
KG: "Libby, could I please borrow your boat?"
I told her why.
L: "On one condition."
KG: "Name it."
L: "That you take me with you. It’s been on my bucket list for years."
KG: "You’re on!"
Later, my wife Lori would growl at me for only giving Libby a week’s notice. I assured her that if I had given Libby more, she wouldn’t have come. Libby later confirmed that I had been absolutely correct.
Andrew and I spent the day packing the day before we planned to cast off, very excited that we were leaving the next morning. We bought twelve five-liter bottles of water, as well as packs of instant porridge, marmalade, Marmite, and a few other snacks. Even if Libby didn’t want to sleep on the boat each evening, we planned to, and make our own breakfasts and lunches. We each packed a small canvas bag of clothes, fleece blankets for sleeping, and charts. Then we headed to Higgins Yacht Yard where Libby’s boat is slipped to load up. Once on the boat with the first load, it was easier to remember what we’d left at home—the two canoe paddles I’d promised Libby I’d bring as back up in case the outboard died, as well as three spare five-gallon fuel containers—one full of petrol. We headed home to collect them, and returned to the boat.
Once the drinking water was aboard and packed away under the cockpit seat hatches, it didn’t look as though we had enough. Andrew and I headed into town to the local grocery, and bought another ten five-liter bottles. Surely 110 liters of water would be enough to see us through! [In eight days we would end up drinking only two containers—ten liters—but we were prepared!]
That evening, Libby texted that a Small Craft Advisory had just been issued:
L: "Craft Advisory: Winds… 18 to 33 knots. Perhaps we’d better postpone leaving until Monday morning."
KG: "Let’s wait until later this evening and check weather again."
L: "Standing by!"
L: "I just went to the dock & talked to 2 watermen. They said it would be risky tomorrow. I think weather Monday is supposed to be beautiful for a while. If forecast changes overnight we can reevaluate. Now I think we should wait. Sorry."
KG: "No need to apologize! Monday it is."
I had another beer and sat down to watch a movie with Andrew. I was officially on holiday.
I’d posted on Instagram a photo of Andrew lying on Ariel’s foredeck; “mhergan” responded:
mhergan: "That’s a great trip! Enjoy! We did it in 8 days in a 17’ Boston Whaler."
KG: "Did you go inside south of Ocean City?"
mhergan: "We attempted to go inside on our way north from Cape Charles but it was too shallow following channel. Had to follow the crab pots for deep water. Headed outside at first inlet. Electronic Garmin charts not even close to accurate of inlets. I believe Channel Marks have been pulled in a notice to Mariners I read. Went inside at Chincoteague to Ocean City with no problems. Canal Fenwick to Indian River very shallow."
The next day, as forecast, was a very stiff southerly, and by noon was pouring with rain. We’d made the smart decision to wait twenty-four hours.
If readers of this personal essay are familiar with de Gast's book, Western Wind Eastern Shore, or perhaps his other two more well known photography books, The Oystermen of the Chesapeake (1970), and The Lighthouses of the Chesapeake (1973), I hope you may find some familiarity with the writing style, design of these pages, and the use of photographs—black and white, de Gast's primary photographic technique—as well as their placement and sizing. De Gast outlines his premise in the preface to Western Wind Eastern Shore:
The book is not a cruising guide, although it might be helpful to sailors contemplating a similar journey; nor is it a history or description of the Eastern Shore . . . Rather, it is an eclectic collection of remembered sights and sounds that focuses mainly on the edge of the Shore—the sailing route . . . The photographs became quick sketches, instant visual impressions—snapshots, if you will. I made all the photographs from the cockpit of my little sloop, usually while under way, with my foot on the tiller and my hand on the camera. Some of the photographs reproduced here are intentionally small to help convey my feeling about the Eastern Shore's environment. The Shore is distinguished by a quiet, insinuating beauty, rather than by grandiose and over-whelming scenery . . . Nor did I choose the photographs to illustrate the text. They are intended to combine with the text, to give the reader my impressions of some of the land- and seascapes I encountered that seemed to me to convey the essence of the edge of the Shore.
The First Day:
St. Michaels to Chesapeake City
“It was nine in the morning, and a blustery day… The sky was blue, the wind out of the northwest... I cast off my lines.” With these words Robert de Gast set off in 1973. We did exactly the same, under the exact conditions, but from our home port of St. Michaels, on the Miles River of the Eastern Shore.
We were fairly sheltered leaving the Miles, but as we passed between Tilghman Point to port and Bennett Point a’ starboard, the fifteen-knot northerly hit us head on, kicking up a short, sharp two-to-three foot chop. I powered down from twenty knots to a drier speed. Coming into Prospect Bay, Kent Island Bridge could be seen in the distance, denoting Kent Island Narrows. The Narrows is a narrow stretch of water separating Kent Island from the Eastern Shore. Full tidal flow can reach four knots. We slowed down running through the channel to a no-wake speed, keeping to starboard to leave room for the much bigger power boats bearing down on us. The noise of traffic thundered overhead. Past the bridge, the well-marked channel bears a hard right, and then hard left, as an even narrower channel leads out into the Chester River. Our destination this evening was Chesapeake City, on the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. It took de Gast four days to reach Chesapeake City—we were going to do it in one.
With the stiff northerly and now even rougher three-foot chop, it was slow going as we pounded our way north—with spray flying, it was a wet ride. Libby suggested Rock Hall for lunch. I had packed a week’s worth of bread, jams and marmalade for lunches, but Libby was having nothing of it.
A couple of miles off Eastern Neck we passed a pound net, the oldest type of net used by watermen. Wooden stakes are pushed into the bottom of the Bay, spaced apart in a line that runs across the tide. Nets are strung between the stakes and along the bottom of the river, making a fish trap. From a distance, birds were perched atop nearly every stake. I said aloud that I was sure they were American eagles; sure enough—ten or more of them.
Way back in the distance behind us was the Bay Bridge, properly known as the Governor William Preston Lane, Jr., Memorial Bridge. No wonder everyone calls it just “the Bay Bridge,” or, on the Eastern Shore, just "the Bridge." The first bridge opened in 1952, and was a long awaited link with the Eastern Shore. Nearly overnight the ferries that brought holiday makers from Annapolis and Baltimore to the Eastern Shore went out of business. In 1973, a second parallel span opened, as the first could barely cope with the millions of cars trying to cross each year.
Near noon we powered down and dawdled into Rock Hall Harbor. Founded in 1707, the town is promoted locally as “The Pearl of the Chesapeake.” I couldn’t see why; it looked very quiet. I was pleased to see a familiar buyboat, P. E. Pruitt, tied up to a pier, looking in great shape, with an unfamiliar more worked looking one, Ellen Marie, just a few boats up.
We tied up to a jetty in front of The Harbor Shack. There were a few staff milling around in the restaurant, but no one else eating. Kat came to take our order. She’d lived in Rock Hall since 2007. Then, she couldn’t find a house to buy; now, every house is for sale. All the shops on Main Street are pretty much closed. This restaurant used to be open year-round; now, it’s closed for three months in the winter.
Back on the water, heading north again, and still very rough and windy, we passed Tolchester and Fairlee Creek. A few miles north is Worton Creek, where de Gast pulled in to anchor on his second night. We followed his route in. Sitting at anchor, in the rain, de Gast read from Cruises: Mainly in the Bay of the Chesapeake (1956), and Robert and George Barrie’s description of Worton Creek, as it appeared to them in the 1880s: “Worton Creek is one of the snuggest anchorages imaginable. Seven feet can be carried up the creek to where it is completely landlocked. The wind can blow from any direction and one does not get a breath of it… the banks are very high, and on the top of them are high trees. It would be a grand place to lie on a winter’s night with a hard northwester blowing. One could sit peacefully near the cabin stove with no fear of dragging.” When de Gast visited in 1973, the place hadn’t changed a bit from when the Barrie's had, with more than three hundred boats at their marina moorings. In 2016, it still really hadn’t changed, the beauty of the hidden anchorage snaking its way around the point, and a few hundred sloops docked at the marina, with states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland stenciled on their transoms. The tree line was luscious, with no pines to break the view.
Turning about we headed out past the one red and two green channel markers, and clear of the shore pushed the throttle up. As soon as we rounded the northern point I brought the throttle back down as we continued slamming into the chop. It was going to be slow going with the strong nor-easterly.
We turned to starboard to make our way up the wide mouth of the Sassafras River. De Gast had spent the night off the Sassafras on his third day, right up in “the placid lagoon” of Turner Creek. We weren’t to make it—the chop was right on the nose, making very slow progress, and we wanted to be in Chesapeake City before dark. I headed us back out into the Chesapeake Bay, spray still flying, hanging tightly on. I found I could brace better standing at the wheel, rather than sitting on the helm’s chair. Sitting behind me in the cockpit, Andrew was loving it.
South of Rock Hall heading north, gone are the flats of the lower Eastern Shore, all the way down to Cape Charles. Rolling hills and some cliffs bank the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay this far north. I realized I hadn’t seen elevation of this sort in some time.
We weren’t the only ones out on the Bay. A number of sloops were sailing down the Bay, further out in the main channel, all sail up and flying with their wind astern. They were glorious sights.
Within an hour we passed Turkey Point and entered the protection of the Elk River. Our passage immediately calmed with the protection of Elk Neck State Park to port and Cecil County hills to starboard. To our right was a trailer park fanning up a hill, with acres of prefab homes in strict parallel lines to each other, tightly packed. They had an amazing view across the Elk River to the state park. The houses reminded me of a deserted Turkish town I had explored decades ago on a two-week sailing cruise along the Turkish coastline. From a distance my view looked eerily like the same abandoned, white-weathered worn ruins from World War II I had seen then.
A half-hour later we entered the near flat calm—though still windy—instantly narrow, Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, more well known as the C&D Canal, or just C&D to the locals. Joseph Rothrock’s words from Vacation Cruising in Chesapeake and Delaware Bays (1884) came to mind: “Who does not dread the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, if he has any regard for his own vessel?” But I was excited—I’d always wanted to travel the canal.
The C&D runs fourteen miles long, is 450 feet wide, and thirty-five feet deep across Maryland and Delaware, and connects the Chesapeake Bay—and Port of Baltimore—to the Delaware River. It’s a marvel of engineering, and hard to believe it opened in 1829 as a canal ten feet deep and thirty-six feet wide with four locks—each only twenty-two feet wide—to navigate. Over the next century, the canal was twice widened and deepened to accommodate the increased shipping volume. Finally, in the early 1960s, it was built to its current dimensions—the locks had been removed in 1919, courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt.
De Gast was disappointed that he couldn’t sail up the canal—he had a twenty-knot easterly behind him—having to revert to his outboard. He quotes from The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 33, paragraph 207.100, sub section (s), which states very clearly: “Sailboats. Transiting the canal by vessels under sail will not be permitted.” (The regulations are now found in 33 CFR 162.4 15.f.) He was tempted to sail anyway, but knew there were security cameras monitoring the canal.
Immediately in view is the Chesapeake City Bridge. I had driven over it just the week before to visit with board members of the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, on the edge of the Susquehanna Flats. It was still one lane only, with the same traffic backed up I’d experienced, as the side railings were being sand blasted and repainted.
Across the canal from Chesapeake City, against a strong tide, we pulled into a dock to refuel, pumping in thirty-five gallons. Topped up for the next day, we motored across to Chesapeake City. It had taken de Gast four days to reach this point, and he’d experienced as rough weather as we had. We pulled into the same small anchorage basin on the Eastern Shore side of the canal as he had, and tied up to the free city dock. With bags in hand, we walked the hundred feet or so to our lodgings, the Old Wharf Cottage, built in 1849 by Herbert S. Bean, right on the bank of the canal.
At dinner, I quizzed our wait staff Megan about working in Chesapeake City. She’d worked five summers at the restaurant, and had noticed an increase in clientele, both via car and water. I wondered whether we were in Maryland or Delaware—she put me right that we were still in Maryland, but Delaware was a five-minute drive to the east, where she lived. She had a boyfriend in the Air Force stationed in Germany, and was planning to do her Masters via University of Phoenix online. She thought she may move to Germany.
We’d promised Andrew ice cream for desert, but town was closed. At the restaurant who managed our lodgings, the owner went away and brought back three heaped bowls of the best, creamiest ice cream ever, from a local dairy, free of charge. As de Gast experienced in the same town, “He wouldn’t accept payment. It was typical of the self-effacing helpfulness I was later to experience many times on my journey.” Some things don’t change.
Waiting to fall asleep that night, Andrew snoring softly beside me, I felt just like de Gast: “I now had the feeling—finally—that I was actually going around the Eastern Shore. Tomorrow I would be in the Delaware River.”
The Second Day:
Chesapeake City to Lewes
It’s 0307 hours and I’ve been awake for the last two-and-a-half hours watching enormous ships going past my window. I shake Andrew up to watch Navig8 Adventurine glide past; it’s flagged in the Marshall Islands, an oil/chemical tanker with a draught of 8.5 meters, 184 meters long and a beam of 27 meters, built in 2015, having left the Port of Baltimore yesterday at 17:14:00. Like me, he is astonished at the size of the ship. The view completely fills our glassed sliding doors.
Earlier, while Andrew slept, a car carrier, Sebring Express, from Panama, had slipped past; 180 meters long with a beam of 30 meters. Mercury Ace went past forty-seven minutes prior to that, and also blocked the windows at 199.97 meters long, 32.26 meters wide and enormously high. De Gast didn’t have the smart phone app, Marine Traffic.
Navig8 Adventurine is the last ship shown on the app to be coming through for the next few hours. We try to go back to sleep.
Six hours later, we’re back on the water. For breakfast we wandered up the road to the Bohemia Café. Morgan Lindsay serves us, with a lovely smile. She’s lived in Chesapeake City all her life, and went to the school just up the road with 99 other children. Nothing much has changed, she says: poorer folks are leaving, being pushed out by the wealthier folks moving in; and homes are in foreclosure. She’s a sophomore at the University of Delaware, hoping to earn enough hours to go to physician assistant school.
It took us an hour to complete the rest of the canal, with only one other boat passing us. We go slowly, not sure if we’re allowed to kick up a wash or not. But that gives us time to enjoy the most wonderful morning—utter blue skies and not a breath of wind—the water is glassy. Andrew loves this speed as only then will I allow him to sit up at the bow. We spend the hour bridge spotting. There are six in total, plus one natural gas pipeline.
We emerge from the canal at ten, the exact same time de Gast does. We’re on the Delaware River, and just as de Gast experienced, there’s not a “hint of a breeze.” Steam from the waterfront Salem Nuclear Power Plant plumes straight up—standing in New Jersey, and built in 1977; de Gast may have seen its construction cranes. The only relief from the heat is the welcome breeze we make as we rip along at twenty-six knots.
“Dozens of tankers and freighters made their way up and down the river. [We] stayed outside the shipping lane, skirting the low and marshy western shores.” As a cruising ground the Delaware is universally disliked. The Cruising Guide minces no words: “…there is one body of water on which there is complete agreement; we haven’t heard one dissenting voice—[yachtsmen] all dislike it with varying degrees of eloquence according to their gifts of self-expression. We are speaking of Delaware Bay.” De Gast agrees that “this body of water does not offer pleasant sailing, but some of its fringes are strikingly beautiful, particularly the area around Smyrna River.”
As we follow these fringes, in about eight feet in water, I have to concentrate to dodge the crab pot buoys that are thickly spread about a mile offshore. There are thousands of them, mile after mile. With the boat’s very stiff wheel, it’s tiring work, and there’s no way I can keep a straight course. We then lose the navigation detail on the GPS, and have to use my spare hand-held Garmin and charts to find the entrance to the Smyrna River. The landscape is so uniform it takes a keen eye to see any break in the fringed shore line.
By mid-afternoon de Gast reached the mouth of the Smyrna River. We get there at eleven, having clocked thirty miles. A crabbing boat—a deadrise—speeds past our bow and vanishes into the marshes. We’ve found the entrance. We follow him at a great clip the three miles up the windy river. After a half-mile or so I’m not as brave to go that fast, so cut the revs down a notch to a calmer speed. “One more bend around the corner” we reach the bridge that stops forward progress, and where de Gast runs out of fuel for his outboard. He sputters to a stop, right at the “disintegrating dock, dilapidated shed, and the rusty remains of a small marine railway.” In 1973, it hadn’t changed in the thirty-four years since Joe Richards visited in July 1940, in his friendship sloop, Princess. Seeking shelter from a harrowing gale on the Delaware, I can intensely feel Richards’ sense of relief: “To be transported so suddenly from the hammering violence of the Delaware to this silence and this beauty made me wonder for a moment if I was alive. To find this deep river, to be folded in the silence of this tall grass, to move without sound or wind or without grounding through the majesty of these towering, golden-green reeds when the mind is tired and the body starved for sleep is an accident. As I held to the mast and saw the peaceful pastures, the motionless low hills, the quiet farmland between the thinning blades of the reeds, I knew I was dead or crazy.”
In 2016, it still hasn’t changed much. The dock has been replaced, but abandoned boats litter the shore, slowly consumed by weeds and vines. Two men on the deadrise we followed are unloading crabs and reluctant to wave in return. De Gast stayed the night at anchor, “in the most deserted and most desolate area in Delaware.” We turn and wind our way back to the Delaware, on a southerly course for Roosevelt Inlet, at Lewes. De Gast would also spend the night there.
Hungry for lunch, I stopped the boat two hundred feet off the marshes to make sandwiches. We were immediately attacked by very large green back flies, with very mean bites. Thankfully they are slow enough to be able to smack them—many soon littered the cockpit floor. I picked up speed and we ate on the run. Once again we were dodging hundreds and hundreds of crab pots.
I was intrigued by the contrast between the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, and the coast we were now following down the Delaware. The Bay offers a myriad of choices of long rivers and inlets to explore—the entire Chesapeake Bay shoreline is four thousand miles! Yet this coastline is mostly shoreline, hidden by marsh grass.
Before ending our day at Lewes (pronounced Lewis), Libby directed us to Mispillion. Flanking the entrance to the Mispillion River, the town is renowned for its bird watching. A red roofed building right on the water front is devoted to the story of the species that migrate through or live year-round. It was not hard to notice that Mispillion will be hit hard by climate change. A digger was working to erect a rock barrier between the town and the Delaware. A road we passed looked suspiciously the same level as the Mispillion River. We were impressed with the constant toing and froing of four very fast ships from the Delaware Supply Company. They were carrying supplies and crew to oil tankers anchored a few miles offshore, in the Big Stone Anchorage.
At three-thirty we tied up at the Lewes Yacht Club, first refueling. We’d used 17.7 gallons since leaving Chesapeake City. Unable to find anywhere to leave the boat for the night, Libby called an old friend, who happened to be head of the yacht club’s foundation, who helped make a berth appear. Another old friend picked us up by car and delivered us to our hotel. Andrew's and my room was a massive two-room suite.
We had been very keen to sleep on the boat for the trip, but Libby had flatly stated before we left that she was too old for that. She needed her own room, with her own bathroom. And she wanted us to have that too. We showered, dressed, and drove back to the yacht club for dinner. With the friends who had helped us, we were the only people there, sitting atop the balcony deck overlooking the entrance to Lewes we’d just passed through a few hours earlier. It was a stunning, still evening as the sun dipped.
I was very tired.
The Third Day:
Lewes to Wachapreague
We left shortly after nine, heading south down the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal. At nine miles long, the canal opened in 1913 as part of the inland waterway to Chincoteague, protecting small vessels from the dreaded cape at Henlopen, "a mercurial stretch of sand hills," as described by Elinor DeWire in Lighthouses of the Mid-Atlantic Coast (2011). The sand bars of the Hen and Chicken Shoals off Henlopen have caught many a boat, encouraging Cape Henlopen Light to be completed in 1767. Threatened by sand dune erosion for most if its career, the light finally succumbed in 1926.
It was another stunning day—blue skies with not a cloud in sight, nor a breath of wind. We crept along at a very slow speed, the canal only fifty feet wide, and, according to the chart, six feet deep.
Andrew sat up at the bow, exclaiming at the occasional crab or eel that passed under our hull. The tide was way down. I don’t think I ever did see six feet on the depth sounder. And just like de Gast, we ran aground a few times, at less than two feet. A number of times I had to raise the outboard as we slowly puttered along. Traffic has never been heavy on the canal, and today proved no different. Two boats passed us from the south—anxious to clear as close as possible in the narrow width of the canal—and one a short way behind us. The canal is bordered by marshes, occasional stands of trees, and further south a few houses, until it emerges into Rehoboth Bay.
I picked up speed as we followed the green buoys marking the channel down Rehoboth Bay to Bluff Point. The markers split at the point; I made the error of heading east, and at a fair clip immediately ran aground. Backing us off, I turned us around. Everyone else was going through Massey Ditch, and so did we, into Indian River Bay. Circling around a sand bar to the east, the bridge over Indian River Inlet gleamed in the sunlight. I was grateful we were under power, as the churn of the sweeping tide through the inlet would have stopped us in our tracks, and the eddies spin the boat. It was a rocking ride out to the North Atlantic Ocean. The Ocean…
Defying all odds, the Atlantic was flat calm, giving us a fast sixteen-mile ride south, alongside a “lonely, unbroken stretch of sand” to Ocean City. For the moment, gone were the more interesting marshes and creeks; ". . . the miles-long stretches of high-rise buildings seemed oddly out of place on the otherwise low and tranquil Eastern Shore.” Instead of crab pots, we had to dodge speed boats parasailing. Bottlenose dolphins escorted us.
Ocean City Inlet was a surprising hive of activity. Boats of all sizes were speeding every which way. I had to keep my eyes open and concentrate. The inlet was only formed after The Great Hurricane of 1933, separating the "mainland" from Assateague Island. But it wasn't sea water that forced the cut—pent up flood waters in the coastal bays, from days of rain, burst through a low spot on Ocean City island just south of Ocean City's boardwalk. Ocean City Inlet was born, and the now far easier ocean access changed the face of Ocean City's commercial fishing industry, and created a recreation one.
We found our way to Micky Fins Bar & Grill Restaurant. We refueled at the dock, and found a berth to tie up for lunch. Here we were to pick up Captain Rick Kellem, an old friend of Libby’s who owns and operates Broadwater Eco Tours out of Wachapreague. Libby was nervous of us heading south without someone who knew those waters like the back of their hands, and had chartered Captain Rick to act as our guide. I was now handing over the helm, and I wasn’t overly happy about it.
We sat down for lunch, and Rick asked me directly what was the purpose of our trip. I explained how we were following Robert de Gast’s voyage as he’d written about in Western Wind Eastern Shore. Rick laughed. “I knew Robert very well when he lived in Wachapreague. I helped him build his house.” I immediately fell in love with Rick, and he was near the best thing to happen to us on our voyage. He stayed on board with us for three days through to Crisfield. He knew every single little place I wanted to visit, every story tied to the landscape, every hidden sand bar, every bird or fish. He was an all-round fabulous chap, and I’m very proud that he’s now a good personal friend. Andrew also loved him. Too, I could now write my log as we traveled (though it made my hand writing hard to read at times), and not have to try and remember everything when tired late at night. I gladly handed the helm over!
We left Ocean City Inlet at two-thirty, heading south a few miles off shore to follow the thirty-seven miles of Assateague Island, the first of the narrow barrier islands leading down to Cape Charles. Looking back, as did de Gast, I was “struck by the contrast between Ocean City behind me, looking like Lower Manhattan, and Assateague Island ahead, deserted and barren on the other side of the inlet.”
The Atlantic was still flat calm, with just a light ocean swell. The Delaware River had been a dark brown; the ocean now a vivid blue. A few sunbathers dotted the sandy shore. Dolphins raced beside us. I could see Menhaden schooling below the surface as we sped on. Just as I dropped my head to fiddle with something on my life jacket, Andrew and Rick cried aloud as a manta ray leaped from the water slightly ahead of us. I missed it. Months later, I still think about missing that manta ray.
When de Gast left Ocean City, he sailed inland behind Assateague down the wide waters of Chincoteague Bay. Rick had advised us against following this route, wary of only three or four feet of water— often less—and poor channel marking. It was still that depth when de Gast sailed, but with a centerboard, he had little to worry about.
At the southern tip of Assateague, we headed inside Chincoteague Inlet. Our destination was Greenbackville, where de Gast tied up on his ninth night. To reach the town, we had to head back north, winding our way up Chincoteague Channel, past Chincoteague town. Under the bridge, we followed the markers up the lower end of Chincoteague Bay. De Gast wrote that “dilapidated… Greenbackville had seen its best years long ago. Wrecks were strewn all over the edge of the tiny harbor . . . This was a ghost town . . . The place gave me the creeps.” Nothing much had changed. The wrecks were gone, but it was still dilapidated. New docks had been built up the head of the very small (upside down) L-shaped harbor, but we only saw one person—two fewer than de Gast.
Back we sped to Chincoteague. De Gast spent his tenth night here, tucked just inside Chincoteague Channel. We headed once more out Chincoteague Inlet, passing the odd shaped buildings of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. There have been over 16,000 launches from the rocket testing range at Wallops since its founding in 1945.
A bit of an easterly picked up. After Wallops Island we passed Assawoman Island, the Metompkin Islands, and then Cedar Island. At six-thirty we ran into Wachapreague Inlet, wary of the sand banks and their surf. The remains of the steel wreck of the clamming boat Sea Pearl is a poignant reminder of the dangers.
It took us fifteen minutes at speed to snake our way through the narrow channels leading to Wachapreague. Marsh grasses spread as far as the eye could see. In the evening light snowy egrets walked the muddy water’s edge, taking advantage of the low tide. A long-legged willet was also digging in the mud, along with oyster catchers, tri-colored herons, and a small green heron. Enhancing its subdued beauty, a soft purple and pink haze colored the sky. At seven we tied up at Wachapreague’s docks. A low tide made it tricky trying to find a safe place to drop Libby and our gear off. Piles of crab pots were littered around. Tiny crabs scuttled around the muddy banks. There was a very quiet air about the small town. We carried our bags across the road to a cinder brick hotel that had seen better days, but was quite comfortable. “Tomorrow [we] would round Cape Charles and begin the meandering journey back up the Chesapeake Bay.”
The Fourth Day:
Wachapreague to Onancock Creek
We’d run the boat fast yesterday. It took 44.83 gallons of fuel to fill the tank at Wachapreague’s fuel dock. Libby joined us and we slipped out from the dock shortly before nine. Once again, another beautiful day promised.
De Gast visited Wachapreague on his twelfth day. He wandered the town for a bit, and then motored in winds gusting thirty miles for an “agonizingly long” time to Horseshoe Lead, just inside Parramore Island. He visited with four guardsmen stationed at the Coast Guard station on the island. In Horseshoe Lead he hunkered down for the night with all 150 feet of anchor line out, weathering rain and hail. “The wind, sometimes up to forty-five knots… whipped the water around us into a froth.” The storm lifted after two hours. He poured himself a glass of whiskey to celebrate emerging unscathed.
On our own way to Horseshoe Lead, Rick excitedly pointed out a loon. We stopped, and watched, and listened. It was the first loon Rick had seen of the season, and he firmly believed that this early sighting portended an early autumn and winter. As we neared, it gave out a nervous tremolo sound. We backed off. Rick explained that loons are the closest relation to the albatross.
We passed the Coast Guard station, newly built in 1995. De Gast’s station had burned to the ground in 1989. We cut the engine and drifted for a bit in Horseshoe Lead. I gazed at Parramore Island’s old maritime forest. The forest had been struck by lightning multiple times, said Rick. Once lighted it can burn for a month or more as the fire gets down into the trees’ roots.
We headed back out Wachapreague Inlet into the Atlantic, going off a couple of miles to skirt Parramore Banks. Off Hog Island bottlenose dolphins cavorted with great leaps, showing off to us and their females. Further offshore, Rick noticed three ships fishing for menhaden, each with their own Cessna airplane circling ahead, spotting for schools of fish. We sped out to them, and drifted for over an hour watching the intricate workings of the industry. From one of the mother ships, Smugglers Point, two aluminum work boats circled with a net, coming into each other ever closer, trapping the fish. The men on the boats worked feverishly, barking orders out to each other, pulling here, yanking there. It looked like back breaking work. Once the net had been hauled in as close as possible, they waited for the mother ship to slowly come over and lay alongside. A long wide hose was dropped into the pooled net, and the fish were all sucked up into the ship’s hold. It was mesmerizing, and reminded me of the bustle of men in Moby Dick, working closely together, each performing their own role as they squeezed the “milk and sperm of human kindness.”
We waved the crew farewell, and once more headed south. Speeding past Hog Island and then Cobb Island we entered Sand Shoal Inlet, into Cobb Bay. Gone now on our voyage was the nearly two days we had experiencing the ocean swell of the Atlantic. We tucked ourselves into the southern tip of Cobb Island, running the bow of the boat on to the sand bank at the head of the still bay. Knowing that we’d be swimming today, we threw off our clothes over our swim gear and dove in. It was glorious, and a welcome treat.
Finally, we were going to have the chance to follow the V. I. P., the Virginia Inside Passage, that de Gast motored inside from Chincoteague to Cape Charles. Following the markers, we sped west along Sand Shoal Channel, the long stretch of Elkins Marsh to our right; a lone brick chimney on Elkins Marsh the only reminder of the glorious past of the Elkins Club Lodge, washed away many years ago.
We headed for the little town of Oyster, where de Gast spent his thirteenth night. Motoring through the narrow entrance we entered the tiny harbor. The large clam boats de Gast had anchored near were nowhere to be seen. I doubt they dock here anymore. The town seemed empty, though there was a small fisheries operation of some sort on the eastern side of the harbor. Rick pointed out the two or three houses that had been moved from Cedar Island to Oyster. The rest of the houses on Cedar Island had been abandoned to the elements, the last house slipping into the sea in 2014. We turned and slowly motored out.
Turning south into The Thorofare, we sped down Mockhorn Channel, following the nicely spaced markers. Marker 232 was the first outside Oyster; when we reached marker 267, the last one on the V. I. P., we would be back on the Chesapeake Bay. Water levels ranged from three feet to thirteen, and once even thirty. Rick pointed out two World War II towers in the distance on Smith Island. To keep an eye out for enemy shipping, the towers used to have lights atop them. But since these lights made them easy targets, the enemy ships would bomb them. Thus a lone lit pole was erected just south of the towers, and the ships targeted those instead. Far to the east on Cape Charles stood Smith Island Lighthouse, one of the most aesthetic looking structures to be seen in such a remote place.
“Through the Thorofare we went, then down Magothy Bay, to the entrance of Smith Island Bay. With the Lighthouse on Smith Island (not to be confused with Smith Island in the Chesapeake, north of Tangier Island) in view [we] turned at marker 262 and headed southeast for the dredged cut through Cape Charles.”
And there we had our first view of the Chesapeake Bridge. We all let out a “woo hoo!” as we rounded our most southern point, crossing under the eastern span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, saluting marker 267. (Perhaps mistakenly, de Gast notes marker 268 being the last one on the Virginia Inside Passage; according to our chart, there is no marker 268.)
“I watched the bridge-tunnel, a strange sight to me after the quiet sail down the coast, fade into the distance behind me. Soon I was passing the old Kiptopeke Ferry Terminal, built in 1950, seven and a half miles south of Cape Charles City. A long steel pier had been built here, and nine World War II surplus concrete ships had been sunk to protect the terminal from the waters of the Bay. The whole scene looked so unattractive that I decided to keep on for Cape Charles . . .”
We could see the ferro-cement hulls of the World War II McCloskey ships from a mile or so away. Unlike de Gast, I thought they were fascinating. They were among two dozen built by McCloskey and Co. in Tampa to haul commodities—sugar, coffee, sulphur—from Caribbean and South American ports. Home now to many a pelican and black back gull, they form two separate break waters of ships grounded end-to-end. We cruised around them, peering through open hulls; iron rebar rusted where cement had eroded away, from years of wave action. The ferry service had ceased in 1964, with the opening of the bridge-tunnel. The ships now protected not Kiptopeke’s ferry terminal, but public fishing wharf.
We headed north to Cape Charles—the town whose name is derived from the Cape Charles we'd motored around ten miles south—arriving at two-thirty for a late lunch at Cape Charles Harbor Bar. Back on the water, we had a terrific fast run north. A following sea and stern wind helped push us along. Rick gave Andrew a lesson at the wheel on keeping a straight compass course. It was a magical afternoon.
“At four I entered Onancock Creek.” We arrived at five-thirty. It was de Gast’s fifteenth day. One of the earliest magazine articles about the Eastern Shore (in Scribner’s, March 1872) had this to say about Onancock: “The gem of the Eastern Shore is the harbor of Onancock, a loop or skein of salt coves widening up betwixt straits of green mounds and golden bluffs, and terminating at an exquisite landing, where several creeks pour into the estates of Virginia planters.”
We motored slowly up to the wharf, having failed to reach the dock master via VHF channel 16. De Gast noted that the landing was “not so exquisite a hundred years later;” we thought it was delightful. Ruth, Onancock’s harbor master waved us in. She’d not turned her VHF back to channel 16 after chatting with another boat on channel 68. We explained that we were looking for fuel and a place to dock the boat for the night. Nothing was too much trouble. She was employed as a seasonal, and had started her harbor master position in April. She was hoping to stay on. The local mayor wanted to have a word with her, and she hoped that it would be good news. We wished her luck. Onancock deserved her. We refueled; 55.24 gallons from 117 miles, with a running time of just over seven hours. It had been a long day, and we were tired. We secured the boat and waited only a few minutes for our ride; Gary picked us up at the dock. We threw gear bags in the back of the car, booked ourselves in at the Charlotte Hotel & Restaurant for the night, had quick showers, and met downstairs for dinner. Andrew was looking for some “me time.” He happily had pizza up in our room, camped out with a mattress on the floor, with a TV and Cartoon Network.
While I was getting ready for dinner, he asked me if it was fun being a parent?
The Fifth Day:
Onancock Creek to Tangier
We were downstairs a bit after seven. Libby, Andrew and I walked part of the town, very pretty, with lots of galleries, a sure sign of gentrification, yet no one around. We found Rick and had a quick snack in the local bakery while waiting for our hotel’s breakfast to open at eight. Rick pointed out that the bakery was locally famous; there was already a crowd of four or five people waiting for it to open. One was a local real estate agent with a gravelly smoker’s voice, who told us how it used to be in Onancock; “Everybody’s gotta be someplace.” Commerce used to be very busy. Every tide, twice a day, washed new artifacts in along the shoreline, first contact peoples and later. We mentioned we were from St. Michaels: “Then you’re slumming it.”
Gary drove us back to the wharf in a Mini Cooper, much to Andrew’s delight. Two young chaps were sitting on a boat moored beside us. They were the ferry service to Tangier Island. Rick asked them what the weather had been like when they’d run over earlier in the morning. One of them wobbled his hand to a show a bit lumpy.
We left shortly after nine. Onancock Creek is truly a beautiful setting. Three sloops were anchored around the point; no one stirred aboard.
The seven- to eight-mile trip to Tangier was just fine—a little lumpy on the stern quarter, with a light sou’esterly. Ever since arriving on the Eastern Shore, I have always wanted to visit Tangier Island, and this was it. We weren’t going to stay long—just enough time for Libby to get a feel for the place. Andrew and I were going to drop Libby and Rick off in Crisfield, and then just the two of us return to Tangier for the night. The four of us piled into an eight-seater golf cart for a quick tour of the island. Sue charged us $5 a person, plus tip to help with her children’s education. She was very interesting, but delivered her stories in a deadpan tourist guide voice, which was such a contrast when interrupted with a question and then answering in her normal voice. I gave an internal smile when she said that Tangier had been “discovered” by Captain John Smith.
We headed back to the mainland to Crisfield, the town's high rises just in sight nor’east across Tangier Sound. The wind dropped right out, leaving a clear brilliantly blue day. It was hot. After a lunch of excellent cream of crab soup at the Water’s Edge Café, we heaved Libby and Rick’s gear off the boat and into the boot of her car service. Rick would be dropped off first in Ocean City, where he’d left his car, and Libby would head back home to Claiborne, a few miles south of St. Michaels. She needed a rest. Hopefully, we’d pick her up a few days later further up the Eastern Shore. We sadly waved goodbye, and they were gone.
It felt great to have sole responsibility, and I was touched that Libby had the confidence in me. Andrew and I put our life jackets back on, threw off the lines and we motored out of Somers Cove on to the Little Annemessex River, leaving Crisfield behind us. De Gast stayed in Crisfield in his eighteenth night. He had planned to spend the night just north of the town, in Daugherty Creek, but attacked by swarms of mosquitoes, he was forced back to the safety of Somers Cove.
We retraced our steps to Tangier Island, clear in the distance. Tangier Sound was now glassy. There was no wind whatsoever, and it was very hot. I cut the engine a mile or so from Tangier so we could dangle our legs over the side to cool off a bit. Andrew wasn’t brave enough to skinny dip.
Making the run into the entrance of Tangier was again a delight. Crab shanties on stilts line the “main street” into town, some falling apart, many still being worked, where watermen store their crabbing supplies, and monitor crabs as they shed their hard shells to become soft-shell. Piles of colorful crab pots were stacked atop jetties. A buyboat was tied up, looking as though it was being worked on. We tied up at the piles Rick had earlier recommended, and then retied again to make sure I had lines on the right piles.
It was a hot, slow walk up the narrow lanes to Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House Bed & Breakfast—“featured on The Today Show”—built in 1939 and open late April to mid-October. De Gast didn’t stay the night on Tangier, but he visited Chesapeake House: “At Chesapeake House, the only hotel on the island, I was given permission to take a shower. It cost a dollar, which seemed a reasonable price to pay for so rare a pleasure.” As soon as we stepped into our upstairs room, I was happy that we were paying much, much more than a dollar, for the air conditioning alone. We looked into the mirror together. Both of our faces were bright red. I took a photo from the mirror’s reflection to make the point. It was damnably hot.
We would have eaten in the B&B’s dining room, but their last seating was at five, and it was now five-thirty. I too had enjoyed the rare pleasure of a shower. We walked down the narrow street back to the dock and found a restaurant still open. Three local couples and a solo tourist were dining. We couldn’t help but overhear their conversation; lunch numbers had been slow today, the kids were heading back to school, and the season’s slowly winding down, though I hate to admit it. On asking where we were from, our server laughed. She and her husband had honeymooned in St. Michaels. She rattled off the names of all the local restaurants they’d enjoyed—Ava’s was the best, for its pizza; Gina’s; Blackthorn Irish Pub—they’d had a great time. And they had loved the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum—I smiled to myself. There she had fallen once again in love with her newly married husband when he had released to the Miles River a soft shell crab from the museum’s eel net, before the shell would harden and the poor creature wouldn’t be able to escape.
Andrew had been begging ever since we’d arrived back on Tangier, could we please rent our own golf cart and explore the island? (And have an ice cream.) So we did, for an hour, to return by seven. We drove over narrow wooden bridges spanning marshes and tidal creeks; up and down every narrow lane—it’s a bit hard to call them streets—multiple times, driving past the same folks multiple times, especially two older women with lovely smiles that broadened each time—the many times—we passed each other.
The recycling center on the northwestern corner of the island had the best sunset in town. Ignoring the piles of abandoned washing machines, dryers, bikes, scooters, golf carts and other sundry junk—accompanied by the slight stench of rubbish—and mosquitoes—we watched the most stunning setting sky of our voyage.
Religious motifs are numerous. At the southern end a large cross stands amidst the marsh grass, with “Christ is Life” engraved on it, perfectly reflected in the creek in the still of the evening. It’s also a dry island—one can’t find a drink anywhere—at least I couldn’t.
Later that evening I lay on my bed and worked on my log, jotting down our memories of Tangier Island: cats—hundreds of them—each porch we passed seemed to have seven or eight or more lazily basking in the heat. Only women mow the lawns; and the lawn mowers, once finished with, sit wherever the last bit was mowed. Children on bikes everywhere, or riding small electric scooters, or golf carts. Golf carts, everywhere, are the preferred mode of transport. De Gast noticed bicycles and motorbikes—we only saw one motorbike, and for adults the golf cart has replaced the bicycle. I hardly saw any young men, unless they were out crabbing?
I’m now dozing and I wake to find my pen running slowly down the page. Andrew is fast asleep in the bed beside me. He looks gorgeous. This is when it’s fun being a parent. I turn out the light.
The Sixth Day:
Tangier Island to Smith Island
Just after seven we walked across “the road” to the other half of the B&B, which houses additional bedrooms upstairs, and the kitchen and dining room downstairs. Already seated family style was Ron Herring and his wife. They’d arrived at the dock yesterday in their boat the same time we had; as well as the chap who had been eating dinner alone in the same restaurant we were in last night. I was impressed with how much scrambled eggs and bacon they could all consume, and while talking. The single chap left and came back to show me a small watercolor he’d recently painted of the Small Boat Shed at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
We packed our bags and left them downstairs in the lounge. I wanted to walk the two-mile sandy point at the southern end of the island. Andrew reluctantly tagged along. It was blowing hard, a twenty-knot easterly churning up Tangier Sound. We were grateful for the wind as they helped keep the green back flies off, but biting whenever they could. Lots of small blue crabs swam off the shore of the beach. The most southern tip was packed with pelicans and black back gulls. The remains of a steel wreck lay just off the beach inside Cod Harbor. It looked as though it could have been a dredge.
We walked back to our B&B against the wind, collected our bags, and walked the half-mile or so back to the boat. The stiff breeze pinning the boat in, I was rather proud of myself for using a spring line to back ourselves out from the piles with no drama.
It was a wet but fun ride the ten miles to Smith Island in a now fifteen knot easterly. Smith Island lies in Maryland waters, and Tangier in Virginia—we’d again crossed another state line, the sixth and last on our voyage. Like Tangier, Smith Island is not just one island, but a series of small islands or marshes, some connected, many not. Up the eastern side of the island we navigated Big Thorofare, sweeping our way for another mile into Ewell, one of three small inhabited locations, the others being Rhodes Point and Tylerton. We first tied up at the larger of the docks, in front of the Bayside Inn. Inside, I asked Melanie where we could dock overnight, and find a bed. She made three calls to find Michelle, who for $200 could rent us the last place on Smith available, a small fully furnished house. It was still far too hot to sleep on the boat. Andrew looked beseechingly at me. She’d be around to pick us up, after we’d had lunch. I moved the boat to Captain Steven’s dock, as recommended by Rick. If he wasn’t around, you could leave one dollar per foot of boat in the honesty jar. John picked us up in a golf cart, and in a few minutes dropped us off at a very smart two-bedroom house, with bikes. We biked around town—usual street size rather than the alley ways of Tangier. It seemed much more open than Tangier—larger property sections—and even though golf carts were popular, there were more cars.
Andrew cried hot and headed home. I set off the couple of miles south to Rhodes Point. At the end of the empty road, at Marsh Marina, two chaps with very strong Tangier accents were waiting for the owner of the yard to arrive by boat from Tylerton. They’d just arrived via skiff from Tangier to have the boat pulled out for repairs via the only travel lift around. We had a good chat—each enjoying the other’s accent. Six deadrise boats sat chocked on the hardstand. Sweeps of marsh grass marked the lagoons of Shanks Creek and West Creek, and their soft yellows and greens swayed as the easterly played over them. As Tom Horton notes, “A marsh-clad island is a place alive.” It was alive, and very peaceful. And there were green back flies enjoying it with me.
I biked back to find Andrew in a bit of a tizz. He couldn’t find me and had searched everywhere. He’d even thrown a Frisbee up in the air to see if I’d see it.
I had a shower, and not being able to keep my eyes open, asked Andrew to wake me shortly before five for dinner. The Bayside Inn Carryout & Ice Cream Shop closed at four for dinner, so we biked back to the Bayside Restaurant, which closed much later, at five. The place was packed with locals on a Saturday evening. The kitchen was busy. While we waited for our order, I chatted again with Melanie. She’d lived on Smith Island all her life—thirty-five years—never feeling the need to move. Her father had died, and her mother recently survived septicemia. Living in a mortgage-free house, she worked forty-six plus hours a week—today was going to be eleven—and had no interest in marrying or having children.
We finished a great home-cooked meal with a slice of world famous, eight layer, Smith Island Cake for dessert; indeed, the State Dessert of Maryland. After all the families had finished their dinner, I heard a burst of applause. Melanie said that they always ask the chef to come out and be thanked. It felt like a great community. Though also a dry island.
Nathan, just a few years older than Andrew, visited our table and asked if it was our first time on Smith. Andrew took Nathan to show him the boat. I saw them bike off together. Melanie said not to worry, they'll be perfectly safe, the entire island would be on the look out. Nathan returned later with his souped-up golf cart, and they were again gone. Back at the house, in the pitch dark, Andrew popped in soon after eight to check in, and was gone again until after nine, returning with Nathan. I kicked Nathan out near ten, trying to keep my eyes open.
The Seventh Day: 131 Miles
Smith Island to Cambridge
I was up at six-fifty, courtesy of music from Andrew’s tablet. We made instant porridge for breakfast, and walked with our gear the short distance to the dock; stowed our gear away, donned life jackets, slipped our lines, and were off. A nor’easterly kicked up a bit of chop, but quickly died down. Speeding north up Tangier Sound, we passed Deal Island to starboard, and Bloodsworth Island to port. Around Haines Point we headed up the Wicomico River, to find Webster Cove. De Gast had stayed the night there on his nineteenth day. Though clearly marked on the chart, our Webster Cove did not in any way resemble the description given by de Gast. I’m now wondering whether he meant Wicomico Creek, a little further up.
We sped back out the Wicomico River, heading east to Hooper Strait, between Bloodsworth Island to the south and Fishing Bay and Bishops Head Marsh to the north. We were now in large open expanses of dark water, and without easy land in sight spent careful time with charts, GPS (once again working) and compass to ensure we were on the right heading. On his twentieth day, de Gast had turned north-west and sailed up the Honga River. According to my charts the only access out at the top of the river was marked as two feet or less. I didn’t want to risk it. At the Bayside Restaurant the night before I had asked a couple of the older locals whether they knew this part of the Bay, and could they recommend either going up the Honga or staying outside west of Hooper Islands. With their lyrical Smith Island accents they laughed that it had been years since they’d been up thataway, and we should probably stay west. So we did.
I was regularly flicking my eyes over the fuel gauge. We’d last filled the tanks in Onancock, some miles back, and I hadn’t refilled at Tangier or Smith. I would have to find a fuel dock fairly soon.
We sped north past Taylors Island, and then James Island. At the mouth of the Little Choptank River, we cut the engines and drifted. I made sandwiches, and tried to phone Slaughter Marina, on Slaughter Creek, to see if their fuel dock would be open on a Sunday afternoon. After three calls I finally reached the dock master. I could come on in, but there was a watermen's boat docking contest going on and the fuel dock wouldn’t be open until four. It was just before noon. We decided to follow de Gast’s lead on his twenty-first day—not just by eking out his fuel—but by exploring the creeks fanning off the Little Choptank. I judged we could do that, and have just enough fuel to return to Slaughter Creek. We spent part of the afternoon “aimlessly [motoring] the many creeks. Some I entered, some I sailed past: Slaughter, Fishing, Church, Gray, Beckwith, Phillips, Hudson, Brooks, Lee, Parsons, all within a few miles of each other.” Up Beckwith, on a small island in the middle of the creek, was a house and square barn. The barn was painted white on the bottom half, and red on the top. Solomons Cove was tiny and secluded, Fishing Creek winded for some miles. The exploration was delightful. Except for that fuel gauge.
Down to one bar on the gauge I turned us around and headed back to Slaughter Creek. The watermen’s boat docking competition was in full swing. We tied up outside the crowded piles and wandered over to watch the fun. It was almost miserably hot. We waited three long hours.
One of the competitors was Barney Kastel and his son Ryan, who had brought their boat down from St. Michaels. I knew Barney well. He was pleased to see me, and I a familiar face. Once the competition was over at four, I maneuvered the boat into the only space Barney could help find, and filled our tanks, watermen holding mugs of beer, in good spirits, standing around. The pump ran for some time—76.8 gallons—we’d been cutting it fine.
We headed back out with the watermen, they heading home to work the next day, south to Deal Island or Tangier, or north like us to Cambridge or St. Michaels. They left us in their noisy wake. We had a great run past Hills Point Neck, Trippe Bay, and around the point into the Choptank River. I was not ready for the vast water of the Choptank. It took another twelve miles to reach Cambridge, with faster boats passing us at the end of their weekend.
Curling around Hambrooks Bar, the familiar bridge into Cambridge lay ahead. At six-thirty we slowly motored into the yacht basin, too late to contact the dock master. We tied up at one of the many open berths, and I reckoned I could square us away with the dock master the next morning. Hungry, Andrew and I walked ten minutes up the stone paved road to a gastro pub, whose barman mixed one of the best Cosmopolitans ever, and served an excellent meal. I even let Andrew have a soft drink.
We walked back hand-in-hand in the dark. Emptying the cabin of all our gear into the cockpit, we laid out our fleece blankets, and fell fast asleep.
The Eighth Day:
Cambridge to St. Michaels
The first crabbing boat leaving the basin woke me at three-thirty; the second at four-thirty. After seven we chatted with the young chap across from us on a house boat. He and his wife had sold their house and most of their belongings, bought the boat and were living full time in the basin. He had just dropped his wife off at work, and was taking the day off himself. He pointed to a large blue heron, balancing on a line just across from us. The heron welcomes him every morning. Two smaller green necked herons perched on a line just beside us. It was a glorious morning. No mosquitoes, no green backed flies. Our new friend gave us the combination for the toilets, which we gladly used. Back at the boat, he told us that during the night someone had stolen the baited crab lines belonging to the waterman with the deadrise tied up closest to the entrance of our dock. I went and had a chat with him. He was waiting for family to bring him another set, but each set took three hours to bait.
I visited the dock master’s office, in the replica screw-pile lighthouse at the entrance to the yacht basin, and paid our dues. He knew just what boat we were off.
My wife dropped Libby off around ten. It’s only a twenty-six-mile drive from St. Michaels to Cambridge, and Libby very much wanted to complete the voyage with us.
De Gast spent his twenty-first night in Sawmill Cove, up La Trappe Creek, off the Choptank just north of Cambridge. It was our first visit for the morning. We too motored in as far as we could, not quite wanting to touch bottom as de Gast did. It was completely secluded and very still.
We turned around, out the Choptank, around Bachelor Point into the Tred Avon River. Past the masts of boats anchored and in marinas, and 1700 to 1800’s homes of Oxford, “sitting on the shore with its feet in the water,” we motored another four to five miles up to Easton (only a nine-mile drive from our home). De Gast got nearly as far as Easton, and like us, headed back out the Tred Avon.
He sailed over to Dun Cove, up Harris Creek, for the night, tucked away in the secure cove, just north of Knapps Narrows. We poked our heads in Dun Cove. Back south again, we motored the few miles to Knapps Narrows, which separates Tilghman Island from the mainland. The Narrows is about nine thousand feet long, and only seventy-five feet wide. Its depth is now a problem, at five feet or less, sometimes just two at the western end, with the necessary dredging being somehow delayed by the Army Corps of Engineers: the locals are not happy. The bridge is regarded as the busiest drawbridge in the US; it opens approximately 12,000 times a year, more often than most East Coast bridges.
The bridge is personally dear to me. The original, constructed in 1935, was moved in 1995 to mark the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
Safely through the Narrows into Eastern Bay, we were on our last few miles home. Up Eastern Bay in almost flat calm conditions, we ran for Tilghman Point. Around that we were back on the Miles River, and too soon slowly motoring back into St. Michaels Harbor, past the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Some of my boatyard staff were working on our skipjack, Rosie Parks. “You made it back then,” they said with a wave.
Robert de Gast's
- The First Day: Chesapeake Bay to Emery Creek
- The Second Day: Emory Creek to Worton Creek
- The Third Day: Worton Creek to Turner Creek
- The Fourth Day: Turner Creek to Chesapeake & Delaware Canal
- The Fifth Day: Chesapeake & Delaware Canal to Smyrna River
- The Sixth Day: Smyrna River to Roosevelt Inlet
- The Seventh Day: Roosevelt Inlet to Indian River Inlet
- The Eighth Day: Indian River Inlet to Ocean City Inlet
- The Ninth Day: Ocean City Inlet to Greenbackville Harbor
- The Tenth Day: Greenbackville Harbor to Chincoteague Channel
- The Eleventh Day: Chincoteague Channel to Folly Creek
- The Twelfth Day: Folly Creek to Horseshoe Lead
- The Thirteenth Day: Horseshoe Lead to Oyster Harbor
- The Fourteenth Day: Oyster Harbor to Kings Creek
- The Fifteenth Day: Kings Creek to Onancock Creek
- The Sixteenth Day: Onancock to Creek to Pocomoke River
- The Seventeenth Day: Pocomoke River
- The Eighteenth Day: Pocomoke River to Somers Cove
- The Nineteenth Day: Somers Cove to Webster Cove
- The Twentieth Day: Webster Cove to Honga River
- The Twenty-first Day: Honga River to Sawmill Cove
- The Twenty-second Day: Sawmill Cove to Dun Cove
- The Twenty-third Day: Dun Cove to Wye River
- The Twenty-fourth Day: Wye River to Chesapeake Bay