by Ann Levelle
photographs by John Allen
"Get here early," said Art Willis, owner of the Sailing Emporium, when I called to double-check on my slip reservation for July 3, the night of last year's (and every year's) Rock Hall fireworks display, "It's gonna be busy." So, not wanting to jeopardize a well planned holiday weekend getaway, John and I aimed high and left a full day early from Annapolis, spending the night at Kent Island's Castle Harbor Marina before sailing out early Friday morning for Rock Hall. And what a sail! It was blowing like snot from the west, enabling us to shoot on a broad reach right up past Love Point, inside the shoals and into Rock Hall Harbor. And to boot, the weather was great--hot and sunny yes, but the rollicking breeze tempered the humid air. We arrived in the harbor about 11 a.m., maneuvered around the obstacle course that is the Rock Hall channel, and hoped that our relatively early arrival would earn us a prime slip assignment for the night.
Willis was right--this place was busy--dockhands flitting about helping boats into their slips, people moving about everywhere, setting up for the weekend's festivities. It's no surprise really, as the Sailing Emporium has been the hub of Rock Hall's Fourth of July celebration since its inception 17 years ago. Now, in addition to putting on the world-class fireworks display, the marina also puts on a pre-fireworks picnic, complete with all-American cookout food and a performance by the Navy "Commodores" band.
The first slip we pulled into was as prime as a steakhouse ribeye for watching the fireworks, but, up against the bulkhead, we promptly ran aground. A friendly dockhand helped us back off the bottom and we headed down the next runway instead to another slip along the bulkhead. Unfortunately we were now behind the lift slip, which was occupied by a large Uniflite trawler, but we figured the fireworks would be high enough that it wouldn't matter.
We were surprised that the slip next to us was still empty, but by the time we were tied up properly and ready to go check in at the office, a pretty gray-blue Sailfish was headed in. And, to our amazement, it was our neighbors from down the block in Annapolis, Pat and Cindy Edwards and their little daughter, Laila. We didn't even know they had a boat, so this was certainly a surprise. We let them get tied up and settled while we went to check in and ask about bikes and the trolley schedule, since it was getting on lunchtime and we wanted to eat before everyone got into town and wanted a bite before the fireworks. But as bad luck would have it, the trolley was out of commission for the weekend and consequently all of the bikes were already taken.
Pat and Cindy were headed toward the office, so we said our hellos and told them about the bike/trolley predicament. Cindy and Laila went to check in, and in a minute came back out with good news--clearly aided by the charm of an adorable blonde three-year-old, they had secured a ride into town for the five of us from one of the women in the office (whose name we never did catch). We were headed to Waterman's Crab House for lunch. John and I had never been there and we were curious to find out why it was such a popular spot here, and the Edwards were happy to join us. Our friendly driver dropped us off and gave us a solid three-prong strategy for getting back to the marina: (a) ask someone at Waterman's to drive us back (b) beg for a ride across the creek on someone's boat (c) if plan A and B don't work, call the marina and she'll come get us. (I love small town hospitality.) Outside on Waterman's giant patio, diners crowded the picnic tables under big red umbrellas and a band was setting up for the first set of the day (a long lineup of bands played almost continuously until midnight).
John and I split some delicious steamed shrimp and then shared a crabcake sandwich and fish and chips. The crabcake was truly excellent--a gigantic mountain of crab with hardly a trace of filler. We sat and ate and enjoyed the scenery and weather for a while, reveling in our two-beer holiday lunch. Laila even danced a bit to the cover band duo. After lunch, Cindy asked the hostess if someone could take us back around to Sailing Emporium, but no luck--too busy, she said. We all chickened out on asking anyone on a boat to ferry us back across the creek, which was sad because we could probably have thrown a crab mallet and hit our boats. So plan C it was. We called Sailing Emporium and got a ride back to the marina.
The wind had kicked up to nearly gale force by the time we got back and dark clouds were on the horizon. I was tempted to make a dash for the pool, but thought better of it; it wouldn't be much fun if a storm kicked up. So instead John and I took a stroll around the marina, which was buzzing with people--at the pool, at the cookout areas, on their boats--all waiting for the party to start. Then we retreated to the cockpit for a little afternoon relaxation. Only minutes after we'd settled in the cockpit, a couple from down the dock came over to ask us about our boat . . . "A Newport?" He asked. "Yep," we told him. "All 28-feet." Well, they had one too. The instant bonds of similar-boat-ownership formed, we walked down the dock with Deb and Erik Van Dexter to their 30-foot Newport, Debonaire (get it? Deb and Er?). It was stunning down below. Erik, a cabinetmaker by trade, had put an awful lot of work into the interior. Hailing from Sewell, N.J., they've been keeping their boat in Rock Hall since they bought it 20 years ago after taking a sailing course at Annapolis Sailing School. But even after all these years, this would be their first time in town for the Fourth of July. They have always been very active in their hometown parade in New Jersey and so they've never ventured away because of that.
While we chatted with the Van Dexters, the sky had turned from gray to black, so we dashed back down to the boat to close her up. As we attended to the hatches, our dock neighbor on a Sabre named Chardonnay suggested we should put on our sail cover too. If the wind kept up in its current direction, he said, we'd have one seriously ashy sail, courtesy of the fireworks. We got the boat closed up and the sail cover on just in time for a heck of a storm to blow through. It was as short as it was loud, though, and within 20 minutes the sun was back out and the fun resumed. John and I headed to the pool for a quick dip, then we got showers and waited for art director Karen Ashley and her granddaughters to come visit. Karen lives in nearby Chestertown and was excited to meet us at the marina for the festivities. By six o'clock the marina was hopping. Loud music could be heard from across the creek at Waterman's, creating a festive backdrop for the people milling about . . . some in lines for the showers, some gathering grill provisions and heading to the picnic tables and grills on the lawn, setting up lawn chairs and pouring drinks. The smell of grills was intoxicating. Meanwhile, the Commodores, the Navy's 18-piece jazz ensemble, was setting up in front of the large American flag that had been draped over the entrance to the main office, and now tour buses full of people were disembarking and positioning their lawn chairs in a semicircle around the band.
When Karen and the kids arrived, we got everyone fed with good old-fashioned cookout food that the marina was selling, then showed the girls around the boat and played card games in the cockpit while listening to the Navy band. We got to talking to our neighbor on Chardonnay again, who told us we were really lucky to get such a great slip for the show--which in his 20 years at the marina has only gotten better every year. He reminded us that the other festivities in town were no slouch either, and urged us not to miss the American Legion breakfast in the morning--even offering to drive us over. He also raved about the Rock Hall parade, saying "It's like being transported back to the fifties."
It was dusk when the Commodores stopped playing, and as soon as the applause ended, everyone turned their lawn chairs 90 degrees to the right, moving the semicircle from around the band to the direction of the fireworks display, which is launched from a barge on the edge of the harbor.
As darkness set in, we looked around the packed harbor at the bunches of anchor lights, and even spied a few handfuls of boats anchored out past the breakwater in the now-choppy Bay. We could see them hobby-horsing from our vantage point at the farthest end of the harbor and thought, that's dedication. You've got to really want to see those fireworks to endure that kind of bouncing.
Then, over the howling winds, the national anthem began to play, blaring from gigantic speakers on a barge in the harbor. Amazingly enough, we were able to hear the music perfectly over 20-knot winds. That's some sound system, I thought . . . I think we're in for one heck of a show.
And the Rockets' Red Glare . . . Thwump-thwump . . . Bam Bam! You guessed it, red rockets. The bombs bursting in air . . . Bam Bam Bam Pow! Gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there . . . Ka POW!
The show had started slowly, dramatically following along with the national anthem, but by the time the next patriotic song had started, the show was going full force. Now, I'm no head-to-toe-red-white-and-blue-zealot, but some "Go Get 'em, America" songs really add an emotional dimension to a fireworks display. Not that you really needed added emotion with these fireworks, because they were spectacular. A barrage of low fountains and crackling bursts of light were being set off, keeping the low horizon constantly ablaze, all while assortments of enormous, colorful bouquets and golden brocades lit the sky high above the harbor. And because of the wind, firework blossoms would blur horizontally for a moment before fading into the dark--which gave the whole thing a slightly surreal, trippy feel.
God Bless America . . . land that I love . . . PowPowPow. Stand beside her . . . KABLAM! and guide her . . . BAM! thru the night with a light . . . phew phewphewphew poppopopoppopop from above . . . BLADOW!
I won't lie--I actually wiped away a tear at this point. And as far as I could tell, we weren't that far into the display. Geez, I thought, if this is the middle, the finale's going to be insane! I wondered if maybe they'd prematurely launched the finale by accident. But the blasts kept on coming . . . at least for a few minutes, but then the show ended abruptly. Everyone around us was mighty confused and the music actually continued for a song or so after the blasts stopped. As it turns out, I was half right about that finale. Due to the high winds (over 20 knots is a no-go) the show's orchestrators were concerned that they'd have to stop the show early, and so they decided that the show must go on, launching the finale before schedule in case they had to pull the plug on the entire show.
The moment the patriotic music ended, the band started to play again across the harbor at Waterman's. Oh boy, I thought, this is going to be a long night. It sounded like one hell of a party over there. And, for at least a half an hour after the fireworks ended, the party at the Sailing Emporium continued. But soon enough people retired to their boats, the cars of folks who weren't staying on their boats disappeared, and suddenly the place was practically deserted. Knowing that the fun had only just begun and that we had a big Fourth of July Saturday ahead of us, John and I took advantage and crashed early. We could still hear the band playing at Waterman's, but were asleep in no time.
The breakfast at the American Legion only lasted until 9:30, so John and I got up at eight to give ourselves enough time to find a way into town for breakfast. We checked at the office to see if we could land a couple of bikes, but nobody was around yet to unlock the bikes. I guess after putting on the previous night's party, they all earned the right to sleep in a bit. But we were hungry and determined to get a good ol' American breakfast on the Fourth of July, so we headed out on foot. It's about a mile walk to town, but we made it to Main Street by nine, and happened to be walking up Main Street just in time to cheer on the winners of the town's annual Flat Five race as they were running across the finish line. We took a right at the Sharp Street light, passing by a very busy Java Rocks coffee shop, then looked for the army tank on the side of the road to lead us to the American Legion. "It's the only tank in town," our dock neighbor had told us the night before. "You can't miss it."
Well, there was definitely a tank out front, but we almost missed it because of the commotion in the parking lot. With only 20 minutes left in the breakfast, there was a flurry of people coming and going, and the line for breakfast reached outside the door. Once inside, the line snaked around the outer perimeter of the room, which had two looong rows of tables in the center of the hall. Families, many of them decked out in red, white and blue, were eating and laughing and mingling. We made it through the line and to the buffet in about 10 minutes. An open window at the buffet gave us a look into the kitchen, where dozens of white-haired ladies were busy making biscuits and rushing about. We piled our plates high, choosing from the buffet's fresh biscuits (yum), scrambled eggs, home fries, bacon, sausage, sausage gravy and pancakes. Coffee, orange juice, apple juice and water were at the next table, where a very dear old lady was keeping a furious pace, pouring cup after cup of juice, making sure the table was constantly stocked. I heard her tell someone she'd been there since 6 a.m. and that she was definitely ready for a break.
As promised, the breakfast was tasty. It was exactly what I needed--a stick- to-your-ribs breakfast would fuel me up for most of the day, and it put a stop to that teensy headache from one too many beers. And it was clearly made by folks who have made this time and time again and have spent a good many hours making biscuits. It was the best seven-dollar breakfast I've had in a long time. Maybe ever.
Stuffed and happy, we headed back to town to get our spot for the parade. Though the sidewalks were mobbed--kids running about, families setting up camps of folding chairs--we were still able to grab a spot on the shady side of the street, just in time. The parade began as the Grand Marshal, Henry Hubbard (a World War II vet who served under General Patton) marched down Main Street, followed by a group of motorcyclists. And from there, the parade progressed exactly as you'd expect a small town parade would. . . . Local politicians, dance troupes, beauty pageant winners, check. School marching bands, check. Classic cars, check. Local business (and farm) floats, check. Candy throwing, check. Kids eating all the candy except for the red-and-white striped mints, you bet. And, this being Rock Hall, there were boats . . . the local Shriners were riding in tiny boat go-carts, each named after an Eastern Shore county, and the fire department was showing off its newly donated rescue boat. There was a yacht club junior sailing float, and, of course, a Pirates & Wenches Weekend float. There were also a ton of fire trucks and ambulances, old and new; and the impressive Kent County Community Marching band, led by an extremely charismatic and animated drum major.
The parade lasted so long and there had been so much to see that our arms were tired from clapping and waving by the time it was over. "That was the most fun I've had at a parade since I was ten!" John declared. But the fun wasn't over yet. The crowd quickly began to disperse, folding up chairs and heading en masse toward the Civic Center park, for a full afternoon of food, games and family fun, along with awards presentations for the winning floats and cars and bands, etc., from the parade.
On our way to the next set of festivities, we met up with Karen and her grandchildren again and made our way to the park with the rest of the crowd.
Having no idea what to expect, I was shocked at the size of the party. We were greeted by a giant inflated tiki statue that turned out to be a rock climbing wall. All around the wall, there were kids' inflatable slides and bouncy rooms and other games. We continued, walking down a long line of crafts vendors. Next up were the food tents: pit beef, crabcakes, hot dogs, corn dogs, and the all-important freshly squeezed lemonade (could it possibly be the Fourth of July without that?). Karen got the kids some hot dogs and a crabcake for herself while John and I took a loop around the pavilion to check out the horseshoe tournament and the crafts vendors. We would have loved to stay all afternoon and enjoy the party, but we still had to walk back to the marina and then sail back to Annapolis that afternoon.
Back at the marina, we got the boat ready to go and were under way by 2 p.m., which gave us plenty of time to sail home and anchor in the Annapolis harbor melee to meet with friends to watch another fireworks display. I know, I know, poor me.
But as I watched Annapolis's fantastic fireworks show, I found myself missing the small town excitement and patriotism that came with the weekend in Rock Hall. When the Annapolis fireworks started, there was no patriotic music. Instead, the go-fast boat anchored next to us chose to blast the Black Eyed Peas. Oh well, I thought. I'll get another dose next year in Rock Hall, because I'll definitely be going back.h