A Spring Sailing Charter on the Chesapeake
On a spring bareboat charter, old friends learn lessons of sailing, science, and camaraderie.
Yet while SERC’s scope is global, Chesapeake Bay is a vital real-world lab with an urgent need for its scientists and their work. The region’s poor ecological health, from a decline in water quality to the loss of marshland, sea grasses, and fisheries, is attributed to nutrient runoff, development, farming, overharvesting, and invasive species, among other factors.
An ongoing and multifaceted blue-crab study that SERC is conducting in conjunction with state and federal agencies and universities has shown that the population of blue crab, the most valuable remaining fishery in the bay, was on the rise again in 2010, after a long and precipitous decline.
Since an aspect of SERC’s mission is education, and the facility is open to the public, we decided to sail La Mia Stella there to learn more about the status of the blue crab and the health of this important cruising ground.
It was the Rhode River anchorage, some 30 miles northwest of La Trappe Creek, that was the overnight destination in our sights when the Fates threw Mac the balloon party on the Choptank River.
For the record, the celebration didn’t stop there: As we coursed through Knapps Narrows en route to SERC, a woman in a trawler we passed spotted the balloons and hailed us with a “Happy Birthday!”
How did she know that’s what the balloons were there for? The Fates were now giving me a case of the creeps. What other parts of our Chesapeake cruise were they in charge of?
Such probing questions were forgotten while the crew fixed lunch, devoured it, and cruised along in the faintest of southwest winds while the captain patiently conducted more installments of 24/7 sailing lessons. From knot-tying refreshers to how to use natural land contours for range markers, the tutorials came at us like baseballs in a batting cage.
And we needed them. To be honest, some people pay a lot of money for such on-the-water custom coaching as this, and to captains whose credentials don’t include the editing of the American Sailing Association’s well-written, expertly produced Sailing Made Easy, the first in a series of revised and updated instructional books.
We even had a copy of the book on board with us, and while Mac taught, I’d peruse the fruits of his labor, grateful for the opportunity to sharpen rusty skills and try new ones.
Soon enough, Mac’s oft-repeated “Everybody’s got to maintain a lookout!” came into play as we searched for a spot to drop the hook, following the instructions I’d gotten from Tina Tennessen, SERC’s public-affairs officer. Her advice and a session poring over the charts led us to pick an overnight anchorage east of Big Island, an isle that in truth is rather small and situated just to the west of even-smaller High Island.
We followed the daymark and La Mia Stella’s chart plotter as much as we could. Then, noticing that the waters ahead appeared more yellow than muddy green, I went forward to the bow and gave the captain the signal to steer left to avoid whatever it was, which turned out to be a vanished High Island, thanks to the bay’s shifting ways.
“Everybody’s got to maintain a lookout!” Mac repeated with a smile, thanking his crew for keeping a watch and saving our classy charter boat from a grounding.
With the anchor smoothly down thanks to the efficiently operating windlass, off we motored toward the marshes in the dinghy, passing duck blinds, those places for hunters to hide from their unsuspecting prey. It looked to me like an upside-down tiki bar, something I’d never seen in my life before this mid-Atlantic sojourn. And we were treated to the sight of a bald eagle partially hidden in the trees before we spotted the SERC docks.
Tina came down to meet us. “The Smithsonian is a huge conglomeration of institutions,” she explained as we walked to the unassuming low-rise campus buildings nestled in the trees. “You may think of history and the arts, but not necessarily science. About half of our scientists study terrestrial ecosystems, and half, aquatic ecosystems. Our scientists research everything from mercury pollution to fisheries and land use. The big issues for the Chesapeake include water-quality and erosion-control research.”
During a session with her colleague, fisheries ecologist Eric G. Johnson, we got down to the nitty-gritty about the bay, particularly the blue-crab population research and tagging projects that are the focus of his work at SERC.
After a quick tour of the wet lab, where experiments are conducted examining the impact of oxygen deficiency on disease rates in oysters, we made our way over to tanks containing juvenile crabs.
Eric picked up a little guy that got a good hold on one of his fingers long enough for me to take a picture; once freed from this painful grip, Eric then plucked a juvenile exoskeleton from the water, telling us that crabs molt about 20 times over the course of a lifetime.
“As a fisheries ecologist,” he told us, “I can say that the blue-crab case appears to be one of the success stories. It’s a complex animal that requires a host of habitats: ocean, sea-grass beds, marshes, woody debris, near-shore shallow water. It’s part of a bigger ecosystem, and up until two years ago, it was in sad shape.
“It was at its lowest level in 45 years, in terms of harvest,” he continued. “Then Maryland and Virginia passed strict regulations limiting the fisheries, geared toward protecting mature females. The result is an over doubling of all populations of females, plus an increase overall. If we can protect females and Mother Nature cooperates, they’ll give us babies.”
A dimension of the ongoing research involves tracking crab migration via tagging. The pink tag, attached to the upper side of the crab with wire, contains a phone number and instructions for the finder listing the details that SERC needs. Rewards range from $5 to $100 for recaptured tags, and every captor is also entered in yearly lottery drawings for $200 cash prizes.