A cruise down Chesapeake Bay

Ananda's blog
Keith and Stella Myerson
Mon 7 Nov 2011 21:58

38:58.61N 76:28.49W

As the sun sets, we slip past Sandy Hook light at the entrance to New York harbour and head out into the Atlantic.  There is little choice – with a draught of over 8 feet and a mast height over 80 feet we are just too big for the Inland Waterway, an inshore route that meanders for over 1000 miles down to Florida.   Our plan is to take a short cut to Chesapeake Bay by sailing 50 miles or so up Delaware Bay and then traverse the C & D ship canal that joins the tops of the two estuaries together. 

The night is clear and bright with an offshore breeze that gives us calm seas, and we make good progress south, keeping only a mile or so off the New Jersey coastline.  On we sail, past Little Egg inlet and past Atlantic City and Ocean City. The town casino’s enormous billboards shine brightly out to sea, though now giant LED screens take the place of the neon signs of old.



The sun sets on Shark River inlet, New Jersey


 By dawn we have reached Cape May at the entrance to Delaware and in the settled conditions we lay a route close inshore through the shallows to shave 15 miles off the normal shipping route.  But it is a long slog against foul tide to the upper reaches of Delaware and evening by the time we drop anchor south of Delaware Fort on Pea Patch Island.  Centuries ago, Confederate prisoners-of-war were housed here – 32,000 in total.

As we reverse to dig in our anchor, a loud knocking noise ensues.  A host of possible faults springs to mind:  a fault with the feathering propeller?  Or with the transmission?  The cause of the disturbance soon becomes visible as a lobster buoy with its mooring line floats free from under the boat, and the noise disappears!  The buoy has been released by the action of the yacht’s prop shaft’s rope cutter, severing its mooring line - a total cure for this particular ailment.

 The Chesapeake and Delaware (C&D) Canal is a 12 mile cut that was originally built in 1829.  Nowadays there are now no locks in the canal and it is navigable by some pretty big ships, up to 886 feet long.


Tug pushing a barge in the C&D canal.  To clear shipping, the railway bridge (behind the barge) lifts up, balanced by a clever system of counterweights, cables and pulleys.




The canal is a haven for wildlife and as we watch a bald eagle circles over our mast.  The wildlife seems to flourish here despite the local penchant for tearing up and down the canal at reckless speeds in noisy overpowered race boats.  Amazingly there is no speed limit in this canal!


“Howdie bud – here’s your ‘wake-up’ call…”



The route up the Susquehanna River to Havre de Grace is a curious mixture of nature reserve and naval military weapons testing area – the Aberdeen Proving Ground.   Every so often the peace is disturbed by an enormous explosion.  Now we are beginning to understand why the authorities are so tolerant of noisy speedboats!


Paddle steamer at Havre de Grace - entirely suitable for the shallow waters of the Chesapeake. 





Our friends Tim and Barbara join us for some cruising and we are driven to the Annapolis Boat Show, thanks to the wonderful hospitality of American friends Jo and Jim.  They also show us the local countryside and take us to an Amish Market in the Hunt Valley, near the border of Pennsylvania and its large Amish community.  They are gentle, serene people living a simple life as in times gone by.  Although plain, their clothes remain distinctive; the men wear braces and sport ‘bowl cut’ hair and beards without moustaches, the women wear their hair parted in the middle and swept back under a lace cap.


The mouth watering array of fruit and veg at Wegmans store.





Havre de Grace is famous for its ‘decoys’ – painted wooden ducks used to lure birds to their doom.  Here they were about to be deployed until heavy rain postponed the shoot.  Hence, I suppose, the _expression_ ‘lovely weather for ducks’.



The Sassafras River is pretty and we spend a few days in deserted anchorages with turkey buzzards and blue herons for company.  We explore the wooded banks and hidden creeks by dinghy.  It’s all very quiet and end-of-season, and all the more charming for it.


Evidently short of business, the marinas in Sassafrass River are now taking terns…





Covered slips on the river at Georgetown.  Not quite sure what the covers achieve, though.





Impromptu entertainment from a stunt pilot over the Sassafras river. 



After their enjoyable company, eventually it’s time for Tim and Barbara to return home, and so on a rather blustery grey day, we head further south towards Annapolis and sail beneath the remarkable Chesapeake Bay bridge (actually 2 bridges side by side).  It’s certainly high enough, with its clearance of 182 feet.  Soon we’re anchored safely off the town next to the US Naval Academy.


Bowling down the Chesapeake – and cold enough to bring out the wet weather gear




Annapolis is a great place to visit (and a hard place to leave too).  It has many facets to it.  There’s the US Naval Academy, a prestigious College dating back to 1845, with about 4,500 midshipmen (students) who are awarded a BSC on graduation.  Famous alumni include a US President, 2 Nobel prize winners, 46 Rhodes Scholars and 52 NASA astronauts.  Before lunch each day there is a full scale military parade for all midshipmen, complete with military bands and drums.  This entails a lot of marching about and shouting – all great fun to watch.

There’s an interesting naval museum here too, with an interesting collection of ships models.  Many were made by the shipyards that built the great ships of the 18th and 19th centuries, others made by prisoners-of-war.



Midshipmen hurry to make the noon parade at the US Naval Academy




Sailing is a pretty popular pastime here, and there are plenty of yards and facilities to make life easier for crews and boats.  We take full advantage of the local suppliers to replenish our spares kits and we service both generator and engine.

When exploring ashore, yachtsmen can leave their tenders in ‘Ego Alley’, right alongside the historic centre of the town, for no charge.  Otherwise, one can use the reasonably priced ‘water taxi’. 




American football is probably not Indian Warrior Tecumseh’s favourite game.  For every time there is an important game, his statue suffers the indignity of being ‘decorated’ with warpaint.



There are many fine old buildings here, including the 18th Century State House with the largest wooden dome in N America.  It was here that George Washington came before Congress in 1783 to resign his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental army, transferring the power of the military to the civilian authority. This made Annapolis America’s first peacetime capital at the end of the Revolutionary War.


Anchored off the Naval Academy, Ananda and Vulcan Spirit enjoy a grandstand view of Annapolis Yacht Club’s races.




It’s a particular treat to meet up with Barbara, an old friend of Stella’s, together with her husband Mike and son Scott.  They have lived in Maryland for 15 years and we are delighted to visit their lovely new home built in a forest north of Baltimore.  Keen cyclists and now owners of 3 tandems, they take us for a 16 mile ride along the Northern Central Railroad trail, a disused railroad heading from the Hunt Valley north through lovely countryside almost to the Pennsylvanian border.



A short break on the Northern Central railroad trail with Mike and Barbara.  Our fold-up Brompton cycles were well up to the task though they attracted a lot of attention.





Eastport is a trendy suburb of Annapolis, separated from the city by Spa Creek, an inlet lined with marine facilities of every kind.  Eastport marches to the beat of its own drummer, and when Spa Creek Bridge was closed for repairs some years ago, some local wags decreed that Eastport should secede from the City.  So they declared themselves as the ‘Maritime Republic of Eastport’.   Passports were issued, and amid much merriment, Brussels sprouts shot from muskets. 

The rivalry with Annapolis still persists, and we enjoy the annual tug o’ war – Eastport versus Annapolis – held across Spa Creek using a half-mile long rope.  Both sides of the creek compete to provide the best street party to accompany the event, with live bands, food stalls and a really good atmosphere.  Fortunately we’re able to attend both parties using our yacht tender – a great day for all.


An Eastport team psyches up to do battle against Annapolis in the annual tug o’ war event






Amidst all of this mayhem, a bride and groom pose for photos on the Annapolis waterfront!




Anchored alongside us one evening is the fine clipper Pride of Baltimore II, a 1988 reproduction of an 1812 era topsail schooner and an excellent goodwill ambassador for Maryland. Sadly her predecessor, the original Pride of Baltimore, was sunk by a freak squall off Puerto Rico in 1986, taking her captain and 3 crew members down with her.


Pride of Baltimore II, a Baltimore clipper.  At 157ft overall, she’s a pretty impressive sight



 But no trip to Chesapeake would be complete without spending time, possibly a great deal of time, in Washington.   Annapolis is not too far away, although public transport is not always great in this land of the automobile.  But we learn that there is a good commuter bus service to Washington early in the mornings. 

So before dawn we’re at the bus stop, complete with packed lunch and flask of tea.  If Americans go into battle complete with Coca Cola factories, so we have provisions too.  After all, survival is the key word on the new frontier (according to Steely Dan, anyway).


The US Treasury Building, Washington



US Capitol Building, Washington DC



No prizes for guessing this one.  Sadly Michelle didn’t invite us in for tea…





So much to see here.  But our favourites must be the Smithsonian National Aerospace and Aeronautical Museum and the National Gallery of Art.  Although we return to them both on another visit, there is still so much left to be seen.


The original Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian National Aerospace Museum.  The Apollo 11 lunar command module is here too – the one that carried Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the moon.




The ‘Hope’ diamond, sold to Louis XIV in 1668 and later ‘stolen’ during the French revolution and acquired by King George IV.  Here exhibited in a modern setting at the Smithsonian Natural History museum.



Everything has to come to an end, but we are sorry to leave Annapolis and its quirky blend of establishment and fringe.  The weather doesn’t help us stay, though.  It is getting cooler - in fact decidedly cold.  We even have snow, in October.  It doesn’t stick around for long, although New York has several inches; only the 4th time NY has had snow in October since the Civil War.