Firstly – for our subscribers – apologies for the long silence and lag in blog posts! Wifi connectivity is an ongoing challenge for cruisers and we have been in internet no-mans land, despite being in the cradle of civilization. I will try to catch up in the next few days – which may become weeks!
We had visited the Annapolis Boat Show twice in balmy fall conditions, and marveled at the boats sitting serenely at anchor in the surrounding creeks, bright hulls reflecting in the still water. However, due to engine problems on our way south, we skipped the Chesapeake totally, rushing offshore, ahead of Superstorm Sandy, from New Jersey to a safer haven in Hampton. We were anxious to sail the fabled Chesapeake in our own boat, and finally the time had come to do so. The Chesapeake is a 200 mile long body of water with 4000 miles of pretty coastline – winding creeks flowing into tributaries and rivers that empty into the bay, studded with lovely historic towns with a reputation for excellent seafood. This makes it one of the top cruising destinations on the East Coast. But it also has a reputation, like the Great Lakes, of being able to whip up very nasty weather and waves in an instant.
Our first sampling – an anchorage in Mill Creek – lived up to all the glowing gunkholing reports we had read. Protected, pretty and aptly named – we anchored in mill-pond still water (after a blustery ride down the Chesapeake), surrounded by wooded banks and rural scenery. The guide-book said it was ‘the Chesapeake as it used to be’. We loved it.
The next day we saw the Chesapeake live up to its less enchanting reputation as we pulled out of the Greater Wicimoco River. The wind was strong, kicking up 6-9 foot waves, and Tai Chi turned into a bucking bronco. We saw another sailboat turn back. But the weather forecast gave us hope for improving conditions midday and we know our boat can handle rough seas so we ploughed on through wind and waves, with reefed main and stay-sail. Within an hour after lunch, we shook out first one reef then two, pulled out the genoa and then turned on the engine as the wind dropped suddenly to 5 knots. The waves disappeared like magic and we stripped off our foulies, down to T’shirt layers. We motored into Solomons in bright sunshine, back to the mill-pond conditions of the previous evening. What a temper the Chesapeake has!
Solomons is a picturesque island town nestled in the join of the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay in Calvert County Maryland. Early land records show that the island was owned by a number of individuals until 1865 when a tract of eighty acres called “Sandy Island” was sold to Isaac Solomon. After the civil war, Maryland became the world’s leading supplier of oysters, and Solomons became the center for oyster processing and the construction and repair of oystering vessels. Isaac Solomon, a Baltimore businessman, established a cannery and workers housing, advertising his establishment as “Solomon’s Island”. He leased small lots on the island to people for a rent of $9 to $21 annually until 1870, when the community received official recognition and the United States Postal Service opened an office. Like other tidewater places in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Solomons was an isolated, close-knit and self-sufficient community of oystermen and fishermen. The link with the outside world was the twice-weekly steamboat from Baltimore. The arrival of the steamboat was a source of entertainment and great activity for the entire community. Steamboats provided supplies for the inhabitants of the area as well as provisions for the local stores. They also provided the means to make occasional visits to Baltimore to shop and visit friends and relatives at the various stops along the route. Every family in Solomons had its own boat that was used as people use the automobile today. Our kinda town!
We anchored at the end of the bay, near the Holiday Inn, where we paid $2 for dinghy access. It was a short walk to West Marine from there, so we took advantage of that and bought a new genoa sheet as ours are wearing thin… with our luck, we could almost hear the “snap” in our imaginations every time we flew the genoa. We wandered into ‘town’ from there – walking along the Riverwalk Park and past the Calvert Marine Museum and pretty lighthouse. The Drum Point lighthouse, in the museum grounds, is one of the last remaining “screwpile” lighthouses that used to dot the Chesapeake Bay and adjoining rivers. We took a look around the Museum’s Oyster House displays, checked out the Vistors Centre and had a very good lunch at a café. Back at the boat the evening was peaceful – we enjoyed fish from the local seafood store. With free wifi access from the boat, we caught up with family using Skype.
Our next stop was St. Michaels – and this time, on the way there, the Chesapeake had a totally different appearance. It was more like bumper boats at a theme park. A calm weekend day has bought our recreational fishermen by the thousands for a tournament. They all trolled many lines using dragging line separators on port and starboard sides. Other sailboat like us, heading up the Chesapeake, tried valiantly to dodge them all, and there were some interesting (censored) radio exchanges in the process.
St. Micheals is 17 nm up the Miles River, but worth the trip as it is a very pretty place. There was a wine festival in progress, which had brought out even more tourists than their usual high numbers. The balmy weather and sunshine filled up the restaurant patios. We were looking forward to a feast of Maryland Blue Crabs – after all that is what the Chesapeake is noted for. Taking no chances on a weekend, I had made reservations on the way over – at the Crab Claw Restaurant which has a huge patio overlooking the harbour, next to the Maritime Museum. The tiny anchorages inside the harbour were full so we anchored in the larger one just outside the channel in the Miles River. The holding was good and the anchorage fine in the settled weather we had there. We showered, dressed up and went into town in time to browse the museum campus, and the main street of town before dinner. We worked up an appetite so eagerly went back to the Crab Claw Restaurant only to find that they had just run out of crabs! There was an hour and a half wait for more (being delivered apparently) 🙁 We decided to have a drink and an appetizer and wait for the crabs. However, the service was terrible, the picnic table patio noisy and the crab soup cold. Steve does not like complaining so I had provided the ‘necessary’ feedback and we settled our bill minus the soup and went elsewhere.
Eager to make amends and prove that I am not just a witch, I chatted with a friendly local while Steve was in the washroom, who shared his favourite restaurant tips. So, with a new purpose, we headed back along Taylor Street, the main drag, still bustling with revelers and tourist-trap boutiques, to Ada’s, where we had a fantastic meal. The ambience on the back patio, with its wood fireplaces, fairy lights and water feature added to the experience – the food and service were top-notch. It just goes to show the benefit of finding out where the locals go – the tourist traps places, while busy, are often not the best.
We could not access wifi from our anchorage, so went into town again the next day. I filed out income taxes, sitting on a park bench along the waterfront – a novel experience! Meanwhile Steve browsed the excellent maritime museum. We ate lunch at Foxy’s on the waterfront, and then browsed the main street shops, bought some groceries, and sat outside the library (closed on Sundays) where we picked up an excellent strong wifi signal for skyping with family. St Michaels reminds us of Niagara-on-the-lake. It is lovely – many well-kept historic homes with pretty spring gardens, great restaurant and boutiques.
We left the next day in drizzle, and had a bad trip across to Annapolis. The engine quit when we switched to the forward tank, and Steve found the fuel filters full of water and sludge – dirty fuel again. I sailed the boat, thankful for decent wind for sailing despite the cold and rain, while he changed filters and bled the injectors. We got Frankie going again just as we entered Back Creek in Annapolis, where we anchored near Bert Jabin’s Boat Yard. We love Annapolis, and luckily, have seen a little of it on prior Boat Show visits. This trip turned out to be another repairs and chores stop!
The good parts:
- Our frustrating 3 month experience with our failed new Sea Frost fridge is over. Nate, at Horton Marine Services, found and fixed (for good we hope) the issue – which did turn out to be an installation issue, not a compressor component problem.
- We also had time to visit and go out to dinner with Bernie and Kate at Rogue Wave – our wonderful boat brokers (and friends).
- Bernie lent us his Volvo so we were able to get my broken prescription glasses fixed (free) – I had been blind for a few days (unless wearing my prescription sunglasses).
- We were able to restock wine at a great wine merchant too, and provision for our trip to NYC at the Giant supermarket. And there was a lovely patisserie there too – Steve had a bacon maple cupcake!
- Steve tested and diagnosed the problems with our radio, with advice and loan of equipment from John at Merke Marine who was excellent. After frustrating calls with Icom, they eventually agreed to replace our new one, and Steve was able to get it from West Marine, and installed it successfully.
- He filled both propane tanks on the same taxi trip.
The bad part was that all this took the better part of two days – all we had to spare, so we saw nothing of Annapolis other than Back Creek where we anchored. At least it looked pretty in its spring spendour on May Day – tulips and blossoms in gardens at surrounding homes and marinas.
A full day motor-sailing brought us into Chesapeake City late afternoon on Thursday May 2. We passed under the impressive 7 km long Chesapeake Bay Bridge which spans the Chesapeake north of Annapolis. We encountered some interesting traffic on the way – a few huge freighters and a sailboat motoring along with its winter shrink-wrap cover still on – a novel dodger/bimini idea!
The free dock was full and the anchorage in Chesapeake City was crowded but we managed to feel our way deep into the end of the basin. Steve rowed the dinghy to the Chesapeake Inn where he met up with Paul, as arranged. Paul had flown into Philadelphia and taken the mini-bus ground transportation from there. Enjoying some down time at the cottage, he had agreed at the last minute to join us as crew for the ‘outside’ overnight leg from Cape May to New York. Our friend Dave had offered as well but the timing did not work out as we had hoped – we were ready just when his daughter was graduating from college. Disappointing for all of us….but we were lucky to have a last-minute sub-in.
We had a good dinner in the cockpit – it was warm and sunny and pleasant – and caught up on each others news. Planning a 5:30 am departure the next day to complete the C&D canal and transit Delaware Bay to Cape May – a long and daunting trip – we all turned in early after dinner.
Bottom line on the Chesapeake is this: if it is just used as a thoroughfare to get to Norfolk or the ICW, it is not very pleasant – a long, frequently choppy estuary so broad that you cannot possibly admire the scenery on either side when running down the channel, dodging the commercial traffic, navy exercises, crab pots and sports fishermen.
We tasted the better part of the Chesapeake – off the “marine highway” beaten track – the tributaries, creeks and small towns. We watched ospreys building nests and joined other tourists window shopping in cute shops. Enough anyway, for us to succumb to the Chesapeake’s charms.
View our photo journal for the Chesapeake.
View Tai Chi: Journey 2012 in a larger map