Bill Brinkley's Delivery
Washington DC to Bivalve, MD
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Trip Report - "Down the Potomac and Across the Chesapeake Bay”
Buzzard Point Marina is "right downtown Washington DC", within a mile of the U. S. Capital. It is located on the Anacostia River, where the Anacostia meets the Potomac River. It is across the Potomac from DCA (Washington Reagan) Airport. The former US Presidential Yacht Sequoia is berthed nearby. The goal was to move the Kim Tam - a 1973 Grampian 26 - down the Potomac River, across the Chesapeake Bay, and to a marina on the Nanticoke River near Bivalve, Maryland. I recruited a sailing buddy to make the trip with me, as he is a veteran racing sailor and has a lot of "big water" experience.
Day One – Thursday
My sailing buddy arrived into DCA Airport about 10:30 AM. We made a supply run and got enough junk food to last four days. We spent a few hours at the marina doing final prep on the boat, and departed the marina at about 2:00 to begin the trip. Motored out of the marina, set sail, and headed west on the Anacostia, then south on the Potomac. The Potomac in downtown DC is an interesting place to sail. Plenty of challenge staying in the channel while dodging all sorts of watercraft, from Sunfish to auditoriums that just happen to float. Also, plenty of large powerboats passing at high rates of speed just to make it interesting and to keep you from getting too settled. Lots of interesting air traffic just to add a bit more distraction.
Passed Alexandria, Virginia and continued south past Fort Washington and Mount Vernon. Stayed on the sails past Fort Belvoir and arrived at the northern end of The Naval Surface Warfare Center (at Indian Head) at 7 PM and almost dark. There was no safe place to anchor, so we tied up to a government dock that was covered with buoys. Very quiet, and as dark as the inside of a cow. Lots of mosquitoes to keep us company, though. Feasted on a sailboat buffet of Vienna Sausages, Fritos, oranges, and Cokes. The end of a pretty good day.
Day Two - Friday
Up at dawn. Very little wind. Ran on the motor with a little assistance by the main sail for about the first half hour or so until the wind picked up. Got both sails up and got some pretty good speed. We got down to the Quantico Marine Base and the rain started. Heavy rain. Fortunately, the wind didn't die down. The rain continued on and off - mostly on - until early afternoon. The rain finally cleared off, and we cruised on pretty much uneventfully the remainder of the day. We pulled into the Aqualand Marina (...by the way - who in their right mind would name a marina "Aqualand"??) near Newburg, Maryland. Filled both gas tanks, and settled in for the evening. As it was the end of the sailing season, there was not much activity there, but we did learn from the attendant that there was a truck stop with a restaurant "about a mile up the road” from the marina.
I guess they must measure things differently in the Newburg area, because that was the longest mile I think I have ever walked. The truck stop / restaurant was not much of either. A pretty ratty place, but when that is all there is, well, that is all there is. Now, I have had some really good meals in some really ratty looking places before, so you can't always base quality on looks. However - in this case, you could certainly base quality on looks. I guess they never heard that truck stop food is supposed to be really, really good.
I ordered a turkey and dressing dinner with green beans. I have never had anything like what they served. Ever. What they brought me was some sort of bread pudding looking stuff that was supposed to be dressing. The green beans were plastic and inedible. But the turkey - well - the turkey took the prize for innovation. They had taken four slices of turkey luncheon meat - not even the good kind - and had rolled them up enchilada style, but with nothing stuffed inside them. These were apparently micro waved, and were lightly covered in some sort of - probably canned - giblet style gravy substitute. Amazingly bad. And I was always told that truck stops had good food….
Made the trek back to the Marina, took a shower in one of the worst showers I have ever seen - and I have seen many of them, and retired to the boat for some sleep. Rained pretty hard though the night, but quit raining before dawn.
Day Three - Saturday
Left "Aqualand" just after daylight. Absolutely no wind. Not even enough to move the tell-tails. Fired up the "iron wind" and followed the crabbers out into the river and headed toward the bay. While I am on the topic of crabbers, here, I should mention that the lower Potomac and a good portion of the bay and the rivers on the other side of the bay are a virtual minefield of crab pot markers. We were able to dodge most of them, but it is a lot like running through a rain storm trying to dodge raindrops. I have absolutely no doubt that we took out a few crab pot markers along the way. A pretty much uneventful cruise for most of the day. Had the main sail up a couple of times to assist the motor, but really not enough wind to make any significant difference. The Potomac starts getting really wide as we near the bay.
By late afternoon we had made it to the Point Lookout area near Ridge, Maryland. We had been on the motor all day. After consulting the chart, the clock, and the gas tanks, we decided that it would be better to stop early than to try to cross the bay today. If we continued on, we would be about the middle of the bay when it got dark, and we didn't want to start across the bay with anything less than full gas tanks. Did a lot of manoeuvring to miss crab pot markers and fish traps, and eventually made our way into the Point Lookout Marina. Stopped at the gas dock, only to learn that it had been damaged during a fire and was definitely closed indefinitely.
Went on down the channel to the marina and asked a passing boater where we could get some fuel. He said we could "...try the place up the creek, as they might have some fuel left..." and he pointed us toward a creek with an unmarked channel. Well - sort of unmarked. Actually, he told us all we had to do was "...watch the marker sticks in the water..." Now it should have been a clue that he was in a smaller power boat with no real concerns about things like "draft", but we needed fuel, so away we went, "watching the sticks" along the way.
The problem was, there was no way to know which side of the sticks we needed to stay on or how far away from them we needed to be. We were lacking a couple of somewhat important pieces of information, at least in my opinion. We ran aground the first time within 200 yards. Wrong side of the stick, I guess. We managed to run aground twice more before turning around and heading back to the marina. We tied up at the end of a dock and began to assess our situation.
There were two or three more marinas a few miles away, but they were back up the Potomac the way we had come, and one was on the other side of the river - and the river at this point is pretty darn wide. We walked through the maze of piers to the office, which was closed. It was the end of the season, after all. So - no gas and no prospect of food, but on the good side, no one there to take our money for a transient berth for the night. And we'll hit the Chesapeake Bay within a half hour in the morning.
We found a guy who was working on an old Navy boat of some kind. Huge thing. Gonna make a trawler out of. He offered to take me in his pickup to go fill the gas tanks for the boat. I gladly accepted. He even helped me carry the tanks to and from his pickup. A genuinely nice guy. He wouldn't let me give him any money for gas or trouble or anything, so I bought him some beer and bought his kids some ice cream.
When I got back to the boat, my sailing buddy pretty much had things secured for the evening. We put the gas tanks back in place. Now, all we needed was some food. I remembered seeing a restaurant sign as we entered the harbour, but it was quite some distance from where we were. We took off in that general direction, looking at boats along the way. Saw a solid steel sailboat. A beautiful thing. We were standing on the pier talking about it, when the owner popped out and invited us aboard for a closer look. Guy said he had built to boat himself. An amazing piece of workmanship.
We bid him adieu and walked to the restaurant that we had seen from the water. Closed, of course, as it was the end of the season. There was a sign in the window directing us to another restaurant a few blocks away that was open year-round. It was a locals kind of place, and it was busy. Had some decent fried crab cakes. Nothing to write home about, but I have absolutely had worse. Walked back to the marina, took showers, and crashed for the night.
Day Four - Sunday
The sound of the crabbers heading out, along with their wakes rocking the boat, woke us up. We motored out of the marina and headed toward the bay. No wind. None. Nada. Zip. Stayed like that most of the day. Not so much as a ripple in the bay. The bay at this point is very wide. There is a period of time where you are out of sight of land. Your best fix for navigation is the American Mariner.
If you take a boat out into the Chesapeake Bay and head for a spot between Maryland’s Lookout Point and Smith Island (GPS coordinates: 38 degrees, 4 minutes north, 76 degrees, 9 minutes west), eventually you will see a ship emerge from the haze, apparently floating at anchor. It looks old and rusted and, as you get closer, the thousands of pockmarks on her hull and superstructure become visible. Get closer still and you will realize that it is not at anchor but actually aground, stuck in the Chesapeake mud.
This rusted old hulk has been there for over four decades, ever since the US Navy sunk it in six meters of water so that naval aviators could shoot at it with their aircraft. The ship is—or rather, was—the American Mariner, her faded name still visible on her stern, and at one time she served an important, if unheralded role in America’s early anti-ballistic missile program. In October 1966 she was taken to that spot in Chesapeake Bay and a Navy Underwater Demolition Team from Norfolk used explosives to punch holes in her side and flood her. She settled gently into the Maryland mud, and has been there ever since.
American Mariner’s new role was to serve as a target ship for pilots from the US Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Maryland. Over the next two decades the ship was attacked by helicopters and aircraft flying out of Pax River, primarily serving as a gunnery target. Occasionally inert missiles and bombs were fired at her and over time her hull became pockmarked. But surprisingly, even after forty years of abuse by weather and weapons, she remains substantially intact. Her role in the space and missile program was never a large one, and the results of her missile defence research work remain largely classified, but she still refuses to fade completely away. The Mariner was surrounded by a variety of fishing vessels when we passed. The most activity we saw on the bay all day, in fact.
Still on the motor, we passed between Smith Island and South Marsh Island, then turned northerly toward Deal Island. Once we had made the turn to the north, we got some wind and went under sail for the first time that day. Passed Chance, Maryland and got a little disoriented. Two rivers meet near there - the Nanticoke and the Wicomico. Our destination was on the Nanticoke, but for some reason we lined up on the Wicomico River and headed toward it. As we got closer, we figured out that something wasn't quite right, so we backtracked and headed up the correct river. For a little while, that is. We hadn't gone very far up the Nanticoke when we went aground. We didn't go aground very badly, though, so, being the perfectionists that we are, we got off of that sand bar and tried again a short while later.
This time we got it right. We went aground hard. Boat lying over on the port side, prop out of the water - the whole deal. And, just to add to how well we did this, it was very close to high tide, so our situation was only going to get worse. With the prop out of the water, the motor was pretty much useless at this point. The sails weren't helping much, either. We dropped the main, leaving the jib in place, hoping that the wind would turn the boat at least a little bit.
We looked around, and about fifty yards away from us there were some little - and I do mean little – white, water birds walking around ankle deep in the water - and did I mention that these birds were small?? We were about as close to the middle of the river as it was possible to be. There were people fishing from boats on both sides of us, but they just watched us. I think they were just bored with fishing and were enjoying the show,
After about an hour of "rock the boat while hanging off the rails with your toenails" and about thirty attempts at tossing out the anchor and pulling on the anchor rope to get the boat to turn, we finally got turned around enough that we could get some use out of the mainsail, too. By this time it had reached high tide, so although we were still stuck in the mud, most of the prop was in the water and both sails were full. We fired up the motor, and with a large plume of water kicked up by the prop we got the boat to move - inch by inch. With both sails full and the motor cranking more RPM than I thought was possible for it, as soon as we broke free of the mud we took off like we had been shot out of a slingshot. This was the highest speed that I have ever obtained from this boat. Almost like a catapult launch off of an aircraft carrier. From zero to WOOOOOHAAAAAAA in about a tenth of a second.
We headed on up the Nanticoke River until we got to the marina outside Bivalve, Maryland, which was our destination. But the adventure doesn't end there. We headed into the channel leading to the marina, and pulled the boat into the berth that would be its new home. My buddy was on the bow getting ready to tie us off to the pier. I was aft near the transom, trying to lasso a piling to tie off to. I was doing well until my cell phone went into the water. I didn't lose my cell phone, however, because it was in my pants when they went in the water. Oh, yeah, I was in my pants, also. Yep - when my buddy tugged on the bow rope to move the boat closer to the pier, the boat moved - and I didn't. I did something between a swan dive and a belly flop into the water right next to the boat. In the middle of October. In Maryland. Yes, you might say the water was a bit chilly. You might say that, but I wouldn't. I'd say the water was damn cold - that's what I'd say.
Getting out of the water was no small feat, either. There were no ladders from the pier to the water (naturally....) and the boat swim ladder was in the closet in the boat. The pier pilings and sea wall were wood, and very, very slimy. I half climbed and was half lifted out of the water by my sailing buddy, who was doing his best not to laugh. I guess if I had been in his shoes, it would have been tough for me to keep a straight face, too.
Anyway - I went back on board and dried off and put on my cleanest dirty clothes for the drive home. My buddy caught a flight back home the next day - Monday. All in all, an interesting adventure. More of a power boat trip than a sailing trip, as we spent a lot of time on the motor. Fortunately, I had two six-gallon tanks on board and was carrying an extra five-gallons of gas 'just in case'.
It isn't a trip I plan on making again any time soon, but there are several inhabited islands in the bay within an easy cruise of the new marina, and the American Mariner isn't all that far of a cruise, either. Sailing the Potomac was fun, but I think sailing the Chesapeake Bay will be a lot more enjoyable.
G26 "Kim Tam"