A Spring Sailing Charter on the Chesapeake

On a spring bareboat charter, old friends learn lessons of sailing, science, and camaraderie.

La Trappe Creek

On a spring bareboat charter, old friends learn lessons of sailing, science, and camaraderie.Elaine Lembo

A faint yet perceptible strain of emotional distress arose in the main saloon of La Mia Stella, the well-appointed Jeanneau 42 DS we'd taken out for a few days last May to explore Chesapeake Bay.

“I’d meant to bring one of those little birthday candles,” sighed crewmate Melissa Dobson. She looked at me with melancholic blue eyes before drifting up the companionway stairs.

“But I forgot,” she added, pausing mid-climb. “Anyway, Mac doesn’t like a big fuss over his birthday.”

On deck, her husband and my longtime CW colleague, Jeremy McGeary, was all business. The night before, over dinner, we'd agreed to shove off from the idyllic La Trappe Creek anchorage we'd had to ourselves—save for the crabber and the radio chatter he brought with him before dawn—no later than, in Mac's words, "0830, pronto."

We’d already come to learn that when the captain, a veteran voyager, issued orders to crewmembers Dobson and Lembo, he meant them. Birthday—any birthday, much less a 62nd birthday—be damned.

So while we hustled into our deck chores, Melissa and I let thoughts of cakes, candles, ribbons, and champagne flutter away in the lightest of eastern-bay breezes. The water was glassy and the air was hot, though scents of mountain laurel and honeysuckle lent that quintessential freshness that trumpets spring.
With each inhalation, I wavered between daydreaming and marveling at the beauty of vast Chesapeake Bay. This was my first time sailing here, and the first time I'd chartered with Annapolis Bay Charters, situated at Port Annapolis Marina on Back Creek. I was already bowled over by the scenery on land and in the water: verdant, marshy grasslands set against low-lying forest, classic-plastic production models mingling freely among crabbers and varnished one-off gems nudged along by yards of canvas. This place was a sailor's pigout!

But just after we made our way into the Choptank River and I was starting to fantasize about snapping up some real-estate brochures for the flight back home to Newport, Rhode Island, Captain Mac brought me back—pronto—to the here and now.

“Here we go!” he blurted, darting out from one of the twin helms and grabbing a pair of binoculars from the cockpit table. What he spied, as we headed on our course northwest toward Knapps Narrows, off the north tip of Tilghman Island, was a tall gong buoy of some sort, but it was undulating and bore the colors of M&Ms.

“Huh?” I muttered as I peered at the strange thing. “What is that?”

None of us knew. So Mac revved up the iron jib and we headed right for it, whatever it was.

“Oh my god, Mackie, they’re balloons!” Melissa exclaimed.

So they were—a bright, tall, bountiful cluster of balloons the color of the rainbow, right there, tethered only to the surface of the water by strands of intertwined ribbons, undoubtedly planted there by the Fates.

Thanks to the boat hook and to multiple practice sessions of crew-overboard drills in sailing lessons some years earlier, Melissa in no time hauled the plastic bouquet aboard, reclaiming the thwarted birthday celebration while saving the lives of dozens of birds and fish in one fell swoop.

As she made her way back to the cockpit from the foredeck, the two of us broke out in song: “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!”

Blue-Crab Comeback
From my days spent in Washington, D.C., when I hear the word "Smithsonian," I think of history, museums, and the National Mall.

Little did I realize, before embarking on this trip, that the vaunted institution also includes one of the leading active scientific research stations in the world. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is situated on more than 2,600 acres along 14 miles of undeveloped shoreline—about 50 percent of the entire waterfront—of the Rhode River. The Rhode River is also a sub-estuary of Chesapeake Bay, which is the largest estuary and watershed in the United States.
Since 1964, SERC and its team of 100 scientists in 16 laboratories, under the direction of 21 primary researchers, have conducted some of the longest-running research, analysis, and data collection about ecosystems in coastal zones. SERC also houses a large invasive-species lab that includes the National Ballast Water Information Clearinghouse, where data about fouling organisms that hitch rides in the hulls of ships clearing in to U.S. ports is analyzed.

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.

“These type of studies don’t work without the cooperation of the watermen,” Eric said, showing us tagging systems used to track an array of data about the animals. “We involve them in the research; they have great boats and gear. We get up at 4 a.m. and go out with them. We rely on them to recover crabs with external tags, and so far, 14,000 tagged crabs have been recaptured. The historic distrust between scientists and the watermen is what we’re trying to dispel. Fishermen are our friends, not our enemies. They need fish, too.”

London Town
Feeling much more informed about our surroundings, we spent the rest of the day savoring the Rhode River anchorage: the osprey that circled above, the brackish waters, the soothing languor inspired by the low-lying waterfront skyline. We swam off the stern of the boat, enjoying warm and cool pockets of water that, while certainly not gin clear, was refreshing and far less salty than in the tropics.

That comparison reminded me that we were on charter and that, as all charters do, this partial-week one, having started on a Wednesday and scheduled to end early on a Sunday morning, was going to be over soon and we’d better keep on exploring so I wouldn’t feel cheated on my maiden voyage through the Chesapeake. Where to go next?

We mulled it over, but not too hurriedly, pulling out the charts and guides. We were pleasantly distracted when a sailor from Freestyle, a nearby Hylas 49 in this increasingly populated anchorage, rowed over in his beautiful varnished Penobscot 14 dinghy to say hello.

Michael Hughes and his crew, including Babe, his 5-year-old Brittany spaniel, had just embarked on a nine-day cruise. Technically, it wasn’t a shakedown sail, but this was only the second time he’d had a chance to take the Hylas out, as he’d bought her the previous November, and the first matter of business then was to put her up for the winter in Annapolis.

“We’re headed to Solomons, the St. Marys River, the Rappahannock, maybe Mobjack Bay,” he said. “This is our first night.” After more chatting, and our plentiful and vocal admiration for the Arch Davis-designed dinghy that Michael plans to have rigged for sail, he bid us farewell and left us to it.

Freestyle's itinerary was southward, Captain Mac pointed out to me, and we needed to head north, to make sure we'd be in our slip at Back Creek by 0900 on Sunday.

“What’s this place on the South River called London Town?” I asked. “Is it some ersatz condo community?”

Mac wasn’t sure, but he thought it carried some historic significance. Back to the guides we dove, soon learning that London Town was Maryland’s most important transatlantic tobacco port in the 1600s and a major ferry town connecting the western Chesapeake Bay trade network. For some years, it’s been the focus of archeological digs to reconstruct the once bustling historic village. The 23-acre park in London Town includes the William Brown House, a National Historic Landmark, ornamental and woodland gardens and trails, a visitors center, a museum, and a horticultural complex.

After listening to the local weather report and hearing that sunshine was predicted to give way to rain and clouds in the next 24 hours, we made our plans. We’d head to London Town on Saturday morning, then test those playful Fates with a reach north about 12 miles to arrive at Lake Ogleton by Saturday night. That would make the return to the marina base on Sunday much easier, as Lake Ogleton is barely two miles south of it.

To reach London Town by water, we motored deep into the South River, dropped the hook at Almshouse Creek, and tied the dinghy to the dock by the William Brown House.

Side stepping a wedding with a tangerine color scheme (London Town is open to the public for event rentals), we happened to visit on Dig Day—the Fates were at it again—with professional archaeologists teaching kids and adults how to sift through dirt to find historic items that tell the tale of the original town and its people.
Erin Cullen, who holds a master's degree in forensic science, chatted with us about her work at the site. "It's undisturbed," she said of the village as she showed a youngster how to sift through the sieve for bits of pottery and oyster shells. "We've been able to use archeological digs and methods to recreate the town, which hit a population high of 300 people."

After strolling through the reconstructed town, from its gardens to tobacco-drying structures to residences, we took to the garden trails. We’d stumbled upon an interesting and important landfall, and we were eager to spread the word that it should be on every charterer’s must-see list of destinations.

And we felt lucky that by 1500 on Saturday afternoon, there were still no storm sightings. It was a perfect weekend afternoon, the southeast breezes filled in, and everyone was out on the water. We tacked our way past the photogenic Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, which in 1975 was placed on the U.S. Park Service National Register of Historic Places.

Between tacks, we stole photos of the beauties out on the water. In particular, we’d admired one ketch that appeared, with fuel jugs and solar panels on deck, to have seen some offshore passagemaking. Its crew waved to us as they raised the mizzen sail, and we snapped away.

Not long after, I was horrified to hear a sound in the distance. Looking back, I caught the unfortunate sight of that same ketch hitting a green can.
"Oh, no!" I yelped.

Not missing a beat, the captain bellowed, "Everybody's got to maintain a lookout! You cannot cruise by GPS and autopilot!" Touché, Captain Mac, touché.
Hours later, exercised by our sail and tucked in at Lake Ogleton, we toured the waterfront by dinghy and, lo and behold, came upon the ketch at anchor, with a green smudge on its port bow. The crew seemed content, and we could only conclude that all was well. As we headed back to La Mia Stella, the first raindrops fell, and the captain was pleased.

“We’re so lucky!” Mac said. “What a beautiful way to end a charter—we cheated the weather forecasters and had a glorious day.”

I eased back against a cockpit cushion and could feel the Fates—smiling, scheming, and plotting their next adventure.

Elaine Lembo, CW_'s deputy editor, writes frequently about chartering._