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Sailing the Chesapeake

| March 18, 2010, 03:41 PM | 1 Comment

There and Back Again

It has only one name–the Chesapeake–but a solo sailing trip from bottom to top and back shows the author a Bay of many faces.

by Paul Clancy

It’s midmorning, the first of October. An early rain has given way to patches of blue sky and then a burst of sunshine that splashes millions of diamonds on silver-gray water. As I slip my mooring and pass the cargo terminal and naval base a gentle southwest breeze seems to whisper pleasant tidings. I’m anxious about all this, sailing alone from my home base in Norfolk to the northernmost reaches of the Bay, 200 miles or so at a notoriously fickle time of year. But the adventure tugs me along. What’s more, the following tide passing Old Point Comfort adds its small measure of encouragement.

I want to see parts of the Chesapeake I’ve never seen before, compare what I know of the wide-open southern Bay to the narrow chasms of the north. Learn a little something about self-reliance and taste one of the sweet adventures that living in this part of the world has to offer. And maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll run into some great people.

The Chesapeake is North America’s largest estuary, wheeling and dealing umpteen trillion gallons of water from its rivers and the sea, back and forth, fresh water, salt water, like an over-achieving horse trader. Once the riverbed of the mighty Susquehanna, geologists say, it grew ever wider as the river rose and spilled over its banks, and fifty tributaries joined the party.

Like the flood tide, I’m riding this highway from south to north. Where I’ve started, it might as well be the ocean. There are dolphins, sharks and sea turtles here, lots of them, and even an occasional whale. Off to starboard, black-tipped wings flashing, gannets are diving on schools of fish. I’m used to seeing them out on the deep ocean. Maybe they’re after the menhaden which migrate by the millions from the Bay to the ocean this time of year, close to the surface and vulnerable. I wonder if the gannets know this and return every year to this glutinous feast. Unlike the menhaden, I’m moving from dense salt water toward fresh, from pristine toward sediment- and nutrient-laden, from good visibility toward murk. At least, that’s the theory, although it’s hard to tell from three feet off the water. What I notice now is that the color changes with the direction of the light: green off to port, blue straight ahead, gray to starboard and aft.

So intent am I about the water, and somewhat blinded by my sails, that I don’t notice the boat passing on my right.

“Hey Paul!”

I almost jump out of my boat. Next to me is a classy Bristol 40 and its occupants–Sonny and Meriel Wright, returning down the Bay after a long cruise. My blue-gray hull and worn sails evidently have given me away. “We saw you coming a long time ago,” Meriel shouts. I jump up and down and wave with both arms like an idiot as they pass quickly and fall out of earshot. So glad am I for this unexpected sendoff, but at the same time I find myself already missing home.

It’s a long way, and this will be a lesson in patience. Like most people nowadays, I’m used to getting places at 65 miles an hour. Making a trip of two weeks or more at speeds that will average somewhere around four knots, 40 miles maximum each day, requires an attitude adjustment–and this ain’t happy hour. I was hoping to make it all the way to Deltaville on this first leg of the trip, but the late start makes that unlikely. Well, I’m doing four-and-a-half knots, I notice, thanks to a lovely southwesterly breeze, and don’t give a fig or a farthing for distance at this point. I’m on the Chesapeake and that’s all that matters.

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Chesapeake Bay magazine is a monthly publication devoted to boating, leisure, and lifestyle in the Mid-Atlantic region.

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  1. I know your secret too! I look at commenting in this way – since I’m relatively new to blogging, I always thought from the beginning that it was a two-way medium, where someone is starting a conversation that invites interaction, so I picked up the habit right away. In contrast, I’d think if some folks never commented when they first ventured into the blogosphere, it would be more difficult to jump in down the road (i.e. not a habit). Nevertheless, I agree with you on your last statement

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