Charter Trip on Chesapeake Bay
May 23 - 27, 2005
by Dave Shores

Where ?
The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the US, covering 4480 sq. miles and extending about 200 miles from the mouth of the Susquehanna River (north of Baltimore, MD) to Norfolk VA at the south end. It is 35 miles wide at the Potomoc River. Two of the five largest Atlantic US ports are located on the Chesapeake, and it is home base for the US Navy’s Atlantic fleet. The average depth is 21 ft, and it experiences tides and tidal currents. For sailboaters these statistics raise two “flags”: watch the depth of water under the boat (more about this later) and watch out for commercial traffic. Actually, the Chesapeake is a very good sailing venue. We sailed in the “Lower” Chesapeake, traveling first north from the mouth of the Rappahannock River to anchor in one of several large “creeks” in the “Northern Neck”, then east across the Bay to Onancock, VA and Tangier Island, then back across the Bay to another creek in the “Northern Neck” before returning to the home marina (East Coast Yacht Management, Deltaville, VA). The total trip distance over the five days, not counting fruitless tacks because we were head-to-wind for three days, was about 102 nautical miles.

Osprey family on channel marker watching “Victoria”
(picture by Al Kiecker)

The Crew
Five people: Jim Henderson, Dave Shores, Kris Nelson, Al and Bev Kiecker were distributed among the positions of skipper, navigator, crew, cooks and photographers. All had an opportunity to drive the boat and all had an opportunity to crew, but, by mutual agreement, not all cooked. Cooking is far too important to trust to amateurs. The boat was a Beneteau Oceanis 381 named “Victoria”, with roller furled 135% genoa, an in-mast roller furled main, dodger and bimini, 56 hp in-board diesel engine, auto-helm and nice accommodations. At about 15,000 lbs displacement (normal for a 38 ft. cruiser) it wouldn’t do well in our BBYRA races, but it would have right-of-way at all mark roundings (according to the charter master, tonnage “trumps” the other rules).

A textbook Atlantic coast late spring “Nor-easter” produced cold, windy, rainy weather for three of the five days, and to our frustration, the winds clocked around to keep the wind on our bow for three days. While we would have preferred to sail the entire trip, we were reduced to motoring much of the time just to get to our destinations in a reasonable time to meet our objectives for what turned out to be an excellent food and wine program.

Nesting ospreys occupied many of the channel markers, and our photographer took full advantage, because the ospreys were not especially afraid of the boat (see photo). The Lower Chesapeake is noted for crab cakes, and we sampled enough for meaningful statistics (3 of 4 encounters were rated 7 to 10 by the judges). We spent an afternoon at Onancock, VA, a small town on the Eastern shore at the head of a navigable creek. There was a “classic” meeting of the town elders on the “Liars Bench” at the dock, no doubt discussing the skipper’s skill and finesse at docking (words like “goose with one broken leg” were overheard). To our astonishment, the boat’s OWNER, who lives in Onancock, showed up at the dock to greet us. Skipper to crew: “I don’t think the timing is a coincidence”.

 However, instead of inspecting his boat for damages, he graciously drove the cooks to a grocery store and back - real southern hospitality.

“Victoria” at anchor in Dymer Creek, VA (picture by J. Henderson)

We next visited Tangier Island, whose two main “ridges” defined the paths of Main Street and Ridge Street. These highlands were about 5 ft. above mean high tide. Unlike Onancock, Tangier Is. has to date completely escaped the influx of “northerners” who build big, expensive homes and resorts and golf courses. It remains a “waterman’s” (crabbing) village with about 700 residents (and twice as many boats), most of whom are named Crockett, Parks and Shores (no kidding - read “Tangier Island” by my “distant cousin,” David L. Shores). The principal modes of land transport are golf carts, scooters, bicycles and boots, all perfectly suited to a thoroughfare width of 7.5 ft. and a downtown that’s about 3 blocks by 4 blocks in size, residential and commercial combined. The one auto I saw fit snugly on the bridge with less than 6 in. clearance on each side. Various traffic signs announced “Speed Limit 15 mph - Radar Enforced”, but I didn’t see any evidence of police or of a police cruiser golf cart. We were also treated to an astonishing display of boat handling skill: a crab fisherman came up the channel at “right good speed” in a 25 - 28 ft power boat, swung around at speed, shifted in mid-turn into powered reverse, and BACKED into his slip in a truly “fluid” pirouette at speed, then gunned the engine in forward and stopped the boat inches from the dock. The slip was defined by four pilings with about 2 ft clearance on each side. The wind was blowing, the tide was running, and no fenders were used. Breathtaking! There is an annual docking contest among watermen from Tangier and other communities on the Eastern Shore ($1000 top prize, according to Milton Parks at Park’s Marina), and this fisherman will be a competitive entry.

Onancock, VA residents at town dock “Liars Bench”
(picture by J. Henderson)

The people we met were invariably friendly. Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House caters to visitors with a family-style set-up: no menu, one price, the food comes on platters and dishes which are passed around, and the crab cakes and clam fritters were rated “best of the week” after the judges awarded style and atmosphere points to break a tie with a fancy “in-town” restaurant in Norfolk.

Quotable Quotes
All trips produce “moments”; here are a few of ours:

Charter broker lady whispers to a female crew while we are checking out the boat: “are you sure you want to go out in the Bay with these guys?”

Navigator to GPS about ½ hr into the trip (with some frustration): “which way is North?”

Navigator to Skipper, 1 hr into trip: “We’re not getting into trouble very quickly” A few minutes later, the engine dies. (It was repaired by the Charter Master “at sea”.)

Picture 3 guys trying to direct one woman on her first time at the helm (with significant wind and waves), Helmsman to all: “I REALLY don’t like this ...”

At Tangier, navigator to all: “...some of my best friends are tarts...” (Context was a discussion of food)

Skipper to Helmsman: “let’s tack NOW!”

Skipper to Helmsman, after a long watch for crab pot markers: “There’s penguins in the water ahead.” (Monotony breaker or visions?)

Last day, Skipper to Navigator: “where the heck are we..?” [Navigator response, “keep calling out any penguins you see!”]

Helmsman (with some intensity) to Skipper: “we’re at 2.5 ft depth and RISING”

Navigating the Chesapeake Bay can be a challenge, because of shallow water extending a mile or more offshore, and because of major shipping channels and prohibited areas (e.g., unexploded ordinance, sunken ship bombing targets) to be avoided. On the other hand, there are numerous navigational “position markers” and the channels into rivers and creeks are clearly marked. We used a detailed chart book (lays flat, easier to handle, and has 1 minute grid lines compared with 10 minute grid lines on paper charts), a “Cruising Guide” and a hand-held GPS. Although we had picked an approximate track weeks before the trip, we modified it daily. The process that worked well for us was to pick a destination each day. Then the navigator in-loaded waypoints in the GPS for major position markers along the way and for markers at the entrance to channel. Both kinds of markers also appeared on the internal GPS map, so it was easy to create waypoints. Using the “go-to” function the GPS generated our course bearing (magnetic) and actual heading. It also drew a track on the internal map. Driving with the engine, the course and heading would be essentially the same, but under sail they differed as we tacked back and forth. The GPS also showed our present position as an icon on its map for comparison to the “go to” track. On an (approximately) hourly basis, we also plotted our position on the chart book. Importantly, as a reality check, we also visually identified each position marker as we passed by, and used it to check our position on the chart book. We found the boat’s compass deviation compared to the GPS was as much as 20° in some directions, and for the autopilot compass it was as much as 15° in the same directions. To put this in perspective, if the distance from one position marker to the next were 20 nm, then a compass error of 20° would cause the boat to miss the next mark by 6.8 nm, a distance about twice the east-west dimension of White Bear Lake, MN. Likely, all but the tallest markers could not be seen at this distance.

Crab Restaurant at Tangier Island (picture by D. Shores)

Driving up a creek or river channel to an overnight anchorage required a different sort of navigational mindset. In most cases the channel was about 100 - 150 ft wide and around 7 ft (water depth below our keel) deep. Because the terrain is quite flat, the channel meanders. One side of the channel is marked by a red or green numbered triangle on a post about 10 ft above the water. Generally, the channel markers were located a mile or so apart or where a significant turn was required. The rule is: “Red on Right on Return” (return meaning from the sea or up-river) and it’s very inflexible. The most common reason for grounding is cutting across a bend or missing a channel marker. We grounded twice, but since we were going slowly under power, we were able to back off. We had a near miss on the last day, because on heading back out the channel into the bay, at about a mile offshore, we mistook the next marker a mile ahead as a position marker. So we turned south, and … (see the last “quotable quote”). A great save was made by the quick reaction of the Helmsperson who did a hard reverse and a slow turn toward open water.

Elements of a successful week-long charter

(1) a person or persons who can handle the boat competently,
(2) a competent navigator,
(3) a good cook.
If the functions are fulfilled adequately, not necessarily in that order, then good people who like to sail will likely get along for a week. At the end of the trip we were still good friends, so by that standard, and several others, the trip was a success.

Many thanks to fellow charter members for ideas and pictures incorporated into this article.

Dave Shores teaches sailing classes for Northern Breezes Sailing School during the summer and learning minds as a professor at the University of Minnesota during the school year.