|Cruising the Chesapeake
by Jim McGee
A cloudless sky is colored with the warm pastel glow that precedes sunrise. The water in our quiet little cove is calm; disturbed only by the occasional fish feeding near the surface and only the softest breeze ruffles the lines running up our mast. Around the edge of the cove egrets stalk the shoreline on stilted legs, hawks cruise above the trees and black ducks sweep low across the water, their wing tips sending out ripples on the surface. It's morning on the Chesapeake Bay.
When I came on deck with my coffee two sharp-eyed mallards burst from the tree line and flew directly to our sailboat where they plopped into the water and proceeded to beg for scraps like a couple of puppies (their efforts were rewarded with some coffee cake). From the cockpit of our boat I watch the rhythms of the birds. The 80-400mm VR lens and Fuji Press 400 combine for some sharp images at 400mm handheld. But even so I'm at the edge of the envelope for acceptable images on the gently swaying boat. I've got a couple of hours to enjoy the stillness of the morning before the boats anchored around us begin coming to life, my shipmates will roll out of their bunks, and we'll begin our final day of sailing on this trip.
We've chartered our 35 foot Hunter 356 sailboat out of Havre De Grace at the north end of the Chesapeake Bay. On any given weekend the parade of sails stretching to the horizon confirm that the Chesapeake is one of the most popular sailing locations in this hemisphere. The bay's wide deep waters provide plenty of room for sailing and the coast is dotted with marinas, coves, and towns providing an unmatched variety of destinations.
Weather in the spring can be a bit dicey. A cold stiff wind was blowing and temperatures were in the low 40's when we arrived at the boat on Monday night to stow our gear. Over rum and ribs on shore that evening speculated that we'd have a cold choppy first morning and we weren't disappointed. But the boat was sweet and with the wind at our back she made 6 knots for most of the morning.
Arriving in Annapolis in the afternoon we were looking at an imposing Navy vessel in the bay when the roar of a low flying fighter grabbed our attention as it streaked in along the shoreline. Suddenly there was another fighter heading straight towards it and we all had that horrible feeling that we were about to witness a mid-air collision. At the last moment both pilots stood their planes vertically on their wing tips and streaked past, seemingly inches apart, firing off smoke trails as they pulled up and away. It was graduation week at the Naval Academy and the Blue Angels were practicing for the ceremony the following day. Sailing toward Annapolis we watched them swoop and dive and twist. I'd never seen them perform before and though we were too far out for pictures they were truly amazing to watch.
Annapolis Harbor is picturesque, but sailing in on a busy day is not for the faint of heart. Powerboats, sail boats and military craft are sailing in every direction and our captain, Paul Mirenda, looked as though his head was mounted on a swivel as he checked and rechecked traffic around us. We lucked out and were able to get a slip at the city dock, but within hours of our arrival there wasn't a slip to be found.
Annapolis is a beautiful town. The harbor is lined with restaurants and shops and if you're not sleeping aboard you can find cozy bed and breakfasts in the quiet neighborhoods just off the docks or and easy walk over the bridge into Eastport. We had lucked out arriving during graduation week (we hadn't planned it). The city was turned out with American flags and the midshipmen in their dress whites were out enjoying the day and some time off from studies. Annapolis is made for strolling and exploring. The sharp cold of the morning had given way to a gorgeous sunny afternoon with temperatures in the 60's. So with camera in-hand, I joined the tourists for a stroll. It's a shame we were only staying one night here. There are so many shops and restaurants to explore. I made a mental note to return when I had more time.
For those of you who haven't been aboard a modern sailboat you'd be amazed at the accommodations. Today's boats are well laid out and surprisingly comfortable. Sleeping arrangements are roomy and private (or at least as private as you can get on a boat). There's plenty of storage space, heat and air conditioning, the galley lets you turn out real meals and there's even a TV and a DVD player to amuse yourself. Best of all there's a great sound system built-in so you can listen to your favorite Jimmy Buffett tunes while sailing or motoring.
The next morning we had a choice of getting up at the crack of dawn and heading across the bay for St. Michaels or of cooking a big breakfast and lazing around Annapolis before doing a mellow sail up to Baltimore. We opted for a big breakfast and a mellow sail.
Sailing into Baltimore harbor is an entirely different experience than sailing into Annapolis. Baltimore is an industrial port. You sail among huge barges, container ships, car carriers, and tankers past large industrial complexes as you make way into the harbor. But you're far from alone. Twin-masted sailing charters loaded with tourists and every kind of pleasure boat imaginable are all part of the mix. Where the cruise into Annapolis was pleasant for its beauty, the cruise into Baltimore is fascinating for its diversity.
Our captain was familiar with the harbor so we cruised to a local spot where we were able to tie up at a dockside restaurant for some early afternoon munchies and cocktails with a view of the water and our own sailboat tied up at the dock.
Further on we sailed into Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Once a run down industrial section of the city, the Inner Harbor is now a jewel in the center of Baltimore attracting tourists from around the world. The marina is clean and reasonably priced. Water taxis shuttle folks between the aquarium, historic ship museums, nightclubs, restaurants, and historic Fort McHenery.
But it wasn't always so peaceful here. During the war of 1812 Baltimore's shipwrights built the famous Baltimore Clippers that savaged British shipping along the East coast, in the Caribbean, and even in the English Channel. These fast agile ships were such a humiliating problem for the British Navy that they set out to destroy the "pirates den" in Baltimore. The British blockaded the harbor and shelled Fort McHenery. After a nightlong naval artillery barrage, Francis Scott Key looked up at the American flag still waving defiantly in the dawn light and penned the Star Spangled Banner.
There would be no such excitement for us as we set out the next morning for another lazy day of sailing. Since we'd cut out St. Michaels we could easily cover the ground to the cove where we planned to lay up for the night; so we had plenty of time to enjoy sailing and good breeze out on the bay filled our sails.
We passed old lighthouses and buoys that are home to Osprey. Ducks and egrets crisscrossed the bay and around us there was an endless procession of other sailboats. With the weather now into the 70's we were sailing in shorts and windbreakers instead of fleece jackets. The nice weather had a lot of folks playing hooky from work and getting in some early season sailing. Cruising along with no motor, just the sound of the wind and water, it's obvious why so many are addicted to sailing.
Which brings me back to the morning in our quiet cove. A big breakfast set the tone for another lazy sailing day but the wind was less than cooperative. In the light breeze we motor sailed back toward Harve de Grace. For those who are non-sailors motor sailing is when you use both sails and your motor to make way.
Exiting the cove I watched an adult osprey catch a fish and bring it back to a surprisingly large chick in its nest atop a buoy. Averaging only two and a half to three knots heading back, we cooked snacks to finish up our food and watched the world drift by. Sailboats searched for the breeze and groups of pleasure boats beached on secluded islands for picnics and barbecues. Jimmy Buffett and Bob Marley drifted from our speakers providing a soundtrack for the day.
At the end of the trip I had gotten good shots, had good times, and had managed to get in some relaxation time. Now if I could just get more assignments like thatů
Special thanks to Captain Paul Mirenda