Going Nowhere for the Moment

We have big plans for our four days on the Chesapeake's Eastern Shore. But then something better happens. A feature from our May 2008 issue

May 12, 2008

John and Mom 368

Enjoying the tranquility of our anchorage in Grays Inn Creek, my mother, Anne, and I plan the next day¿s voyage. John Burnham

Before my cruise journal begins, inevitably, there’s the grocery list. The fact that it’s in my dad’s handwriting only makes it more authentic. He’s been keeping cruise journals since his first adventure on Chesapeake Bay: nearly 60 years ago on a catboat he and a friend sailed down from Long Island Sound and finally parked in Norfolk, Virginia. After we drop Mom on Friday morning in Scarsdale, New York, the list takes shape on the New Jersey Turnpike and becomes several bags of groceries at the Acme in Chestertown, Maryland. We’ve arrived at the Eastern Shore in late October for a long sailing weekend aboard a 40-foot SP Cruiser-Island Packet’s new motorsailer-and my journal begins on Saturday:

It was raining when we arrived at the Gratitude Yachting Center, and it rained harder as the evening went on. Both of us are exhausted-an accumulation of working too many hours and staying up too late watching the Red Sox. Dad’s feeling out of sorts. Last night it was his leg bothering him, and today it’s his arm. Maybe our conversation about the problems he’s having with one of the nonprofit groups he serves hasn’t helped. He listed half a dozen projects and institutions he’s working for and said, “I’ve got to cut back.”

The 399-mile drive might’ve been a factor, too. Truth is, it’s OK with me that we’ve arrived too late and too tired to sail anywhere until tomorrow. Still, I had my heart set on having a quiet night in the Wye River, down south near St. Michaels, or in the tranquility of Back Creek, on the western shore, and now those destinations are looking doubtful. As the rain and wind continue on Saturday, I realize we aren’t going anywhere in a hurry. Just to complicate matters, Mom will be on a train down from New York on Sunday morning, and we’ll need to fetch her in Baltimore by taxi or backtrack by car to Wilmington. As the rain and wind continue, I stare at the chart again and consider options. It dawns on me that we should simply stay at the dock for another day.


I drive back into town and buy a bread pan. When I return to the boat, the skies are clear, the wind dying. We begin to second-guess not leaving, until the northwesterly fills in earnest, bringing a mild surge into the marina. I modify James Beard’s recipe for Myrtle Allen brown bread, using brown sugar instead of molasses, and end up with more holes in the bread than I want. But Dad likes it, and it brings a touch of class to the Kraft macaroni and cheese I serve up before we settle down for a good evening read.

What a difference 24 hours makes. I’m reading Sailing in a Spoonful of Water, which revolves, fittingly, around a motorsailer. Dad finishes his book, The Big House, about a family deciding to sell its large, drafty, heavily taxed summerhouse on Buzzards Bay. It sounds like a grand version of the uninsulated cottage our extended family squeezes into on summer weekends on Fishers Island, New York. We talk intermittently. The moon is up, the sky clear.

For my 0615 trip to the showers on Sunday morning, the moon is still up, and I’m buffeted by gusts from the north at 25 knots. The temperature’s dropped into the low 40s F, but when I get back to the boat, I’m greeted by the smell of coffee, and soon we’re in the car, racing toward a beautiful Eastern Shore sunrise.


While we’ve been sleeping it off at the dock in Gratitude, Mom has spent one day in Scarsdale tending to her brother-in-law, who’s recovering from a bad fall, and another day taking minutes at an all-day annual meeting in the city for a nonprofit to which she’s been dedicated for decades. This morning, she got up before we did, and when we pick her up at the Wilmington train station in Delaware, she’s ready to go. Once aboard the SP Cruiser, Mom sets up shop in the corner of the pilothouse deck saloon, pulls out her knitting, and opens The Big House to page one at the same time. It must be time to get under way.

I doubled up the lines for a quick exit and cast off the two stern lines, then Dad flipped off the single bow line as the SP drifted out of the slip with the wind-a little faster than I expected. The bow thruster helped but couldn’t turn the boat quickly enough to the right, so I reversed, and the big prop easily saved me from getting acquainted with the next set of pilings to leeward. A little more bow thruster and we were out on the bay.

As we head downwind toward the mouth of the Chester River, the wind is still gusting over 20. The boat rolls some, so I hand the helm to Dad and unroll the in-mast furling mainsail with the outhaul on the electric winch, which is located on what I call the “back porch.” Using a switch next to the line clutches by the winch, I ease out the mainsheet, which unwinds from the captive-reel winch located belowdecks; this winch was prototyped by Lewmar in late 2006 for the SP.


The boat surges on the waves now, steadier. I unroll the club-footed jib, the outhaul of which leads through an outboard block to starboard and back to the same electric winch. It works fine, and I cut the diesel, but the jib keeps swapping tacks on its Hoyt Jib Boom as we rock back and forth, so I furl it again. I check the speedo, and we’re doing 5.5 to 6 knots, and in the big gusts, up to 7 knots-pretty good for a boat with such a broad back end.
At the mouth of the Chester River, we jibe, and I reset the jib. We reach for a few miles and gradually turn north. When the boat heels in a series of stronger puffs, I reef the main, easing the outhaul as I take up the furling line on the electric winch. Once we’re beating, I roll the sails completely and start up the diesel again. At 2,300 rpm, we do 6.7 knots through the water, but I throttle back to 2,100 rpm, and we’re still clipping along at better than 6 knots.

Entered Grays Inn Creek and followed the Waterway Guide’s sailing directions toward the dock on Spring Point, where we found hundreds of geese parked on the mud flat. Came up the river and anchored in seven feet for lunch. Dad cooked soup, and we ate it with my bread and peanut butter.

I’ve been told Grays Inn Creek should be our destination on the Chester, but I’d like an anchorage that doesn’t channel the north wind. With the powered windlass, the anchor comes up easily, and we motor across the Chester and into the Corsica River, a long and winding tributary. I don’t even consider using the sails; tomorrow, I can fiddle with them, but now I’m on a mission for the perfect anchorage. We pass a small cove packed with hundreds of geese under the Corsica’s weather shore, a few houses, and a boat ramp-and then there’s a marsh, right before the mouth of Emory Creek. The chain clatters over the bow roller, and the engine dies away. To the west a couple of hundred yards lies a 30-foot cruising boat. Below the tall grasses along the bank, a great blue heron stands motionless. Up in the creek, more geese. We’ve arrived.


When I was growing up, a gourmet meal usually involved soup, macaroni, or eggs. The highest accolade for a meal was “It’s as good as Camp Beverly!,” which was where we pitched the family tent on the south coast of England on a raw spring excursion in 1967. I’m sure the scrambled eggs Dad cooked that morning were high quality, but more important may have been the fact that they were by far the warmest event of the weekend. For dinner this night, 40 years later, he’s making the deluxe version, with hash.

We haven’t sailed far, but we’re rapidly covering a lot of territory, traveling well beyond the usual boundaries of grandchildren’s activities, achievements, and aspirations. We’ve already discussed what every member of our extended family is up to, and now we’re on to the stresses of work (even for retirees), how much time Dad still spends at his charter school, which nonprofit endowments are growing or shrinking, what our churches are doing to attract new members, and so on. A few hours later, as the night chill invades the boat, I climb into my snug bunk under the deck saloon, more aware than ever of the extent of our common ground.

Arose at 0630 and discovered low-lying fog on the water. Listened to the birds begin talking in the creek. It was probably 40 degrees out, but so beautiful in the predawn that with four layers on, I stayed out for an hour. The sun climbed up above the trees, the birds talking all the while and the fog changing shape. I took pictures, glad that film is so cheap in the age of digital cameras.

There may be images in my camera, now, but the clearest are printed in my mind. As the sun rises and disperses the fog, our weekend cruise has shifted me to a new place. I’m not coming or going. Not planning or executing a strategy. The day is opening on a new world, ready to be explored.

After breakfast, we motor farther up the Corsica, then dip into neighboring Reed Creek. I keep an eye on the depth sounder, but the SP draws less than four feet, so there’s little to worry about. As often happens, the second day of the northwester is a shadow of the first, and as we set sail across the big bend at the mouth of the Chester, we’re tacking upwind, making slow progress in the fluky breeze. Still, it’s fun to sit at the helm and pick my way from zephyr to zephyr, tweaking the sheets for both main and jib at the touch of a button.

By early afternoon, sails rolled and diesel purring, we’ve passed Gratitude again and find our way up Swan Creek to drop the hook. We’ll return to the dock just before sunset so we can make an early start home tomorrow, but for now I’ll just relax while Mom knits and I read Spoonful of Water. The author’s love affair with the water and his lobster-boat-style motorsailer have me laughing out loud, particularly the chapter containing his description of a typical day “puttering” on the boat when little gets accomplished but the day is rich with surprises. By intention and circumstance, this weekend has been similarly memorable and, at the same time, satisfyingly nonproductive.
So this is Gratitude. For a few days spent alone with my parents on a boat well suited to each of us. I’ll remember the warmth and quiet of this afternoon for a long time. A dog barks. The geese honk. And there’s very little sound otherwise, except the turning of pages and the scribble of pens.

John Burnham is CW’s editor.


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