Dodging hurricanes, sunken rocks and food poisoning, the author celebrates middle age with a solo cruise on an electric boat. It’s a trip he’s not likely to forget.

by Robert Whitehill
illustrations by Polly Cox

As any woman can tell you, when a man gets into his 40s, he is likely to do odd things. Guys my age might buy a Porsche, precipitously marry or divorce, or quit the bank job to ranch emus. My own journey falls under the heading of "filial echo," when a man takes on some trait or act of his father--a crazy boat trip, for example. In his heyday, my father and a buddy had taken a 57-day cruise along the Intracoastal Waterway. I opted for a 250-mile solo cruise of the Chesapeake Bay in a 21-foot Duffy electric boat, from Chestertown, Md., to Smith and Tangier islands, and back.

A Duffy electric is a marvel of extremes, at once plush and bare bones. With neither galley nor head, it is all cockpit. Picture the African Queen with a canopy shading everything, and you have the Duffy--a floating surrey. It is a fine vessel for an outing on lakes, rivers and quiet harbors. But the open Bay? There's also the question of range; an electric boat will take you only as far as its batteries last. Then you need that all-important 30-amp outlet found at most but certainly not all marinas. Run out of juice and you are adrift, a plaything of the merry triplets wind, current and tide, at least until Sea Tow arrives. The boat I would be using, Electric Popeye, was my father's. I tested the battery range. Pulling 30 amps, Electric Popeye's batteries hummed along for nine and a half hours. Not bad, but that might not translate into enough mileage to the next plug. At 20 amps, the batteries lasted an impressive 15 and a half hours. You could go all day! Of course, it just might take all day. I began to lay in stores.  

I kept it simple and planned the menu as NASA might. Water and V-8 for hydration, Power Bars for protein, Mojo bars for grains, and Real Green bars to take care of that organic pressed fruit-and-vegetable jones that comes over me . . . well, never. There were also bags of plain and peanut M&Ms, and Mint and Double Chocolate Milanos. I was confident I would tie up nights within walking distance of some kind of eatery for more elaborate meals.

Then there was the matter of foul weather gear. I found a great jacket and a pair of farmer John pants at BoatU.S., as well as some white Wellies by Henri Lloyd. Excellent stuff, as I was to find out. For flotation, I invested in an automatic inflating PFD with a built-in harness. Since I would be alone on Electric Popeye, and since I already knew she could be tender in wake and chop, I also got a sturdy webbing tether for a jackline. Fully kitted out, I looked like a cross between someone on a hazmat detail and the Gorton's fish stick guy. 

The dawn of my departure on September 4, 2003, it was raining. I rose and took that romantic walk through Chestertown and across the Chester River bridge to the slip where Electric Popeye lay, admiring the long view down the river disappearing into the rain. Winslow Homer would have whipped out his brushes in a heartbeat. After making sure I had actually stowed the electric charging cord (wouldn't that have been a moment at the end of the day?), I was under way--at 20 amps, to be safe. The forecast on the handheld marine radio was evil and exciting. I made Kent Narrows after only six hours (remember Electric Popeye's strolling pace), with nine hours of juice left. A quick flick of the dividers on the chart from Kent Narrows to St. Michaels made continuing look like a risk worth taking. 

A few hours later, I pulled into St. Michaels. I had made reservations at the Two Swan Inn. It's right on the water and I could get a free slip with my room. I declined the room for the first night, preferring to sleep aboard and rough it, despite rumors of thunderstorms. I made my way into a slip under the boat shed and tied up; between the boat's canopy and the shed roof, I would be dry. After all, there is a difference between roughing it and irrational self-inflicted misery.

Once the boat was moored, I treated myself, exhausted and deserving mariner that I was, to supper at the Crab Claw. This was home turf. My grandfather had lived on a cove just up the Miles River, and the Crab Claw was a favorite haunt when we visited him. Unfortunately, I strayed from the menu's strengths (fresh crab and clams) and tucked into cream of crab soup, flounder stuffed with lump crab and key lime pie. It was delicious--making matters all the more tragic the next morning, when I vomited it all over the side. (Is this what sailors mean by heaving to?) It is disgusting and embarrassing to retch, especially in a closely packed marina. Fortunately, no one else was awake to suffer the spectacle (or to hold my hair out of the way, dammit).

At a respectable hour--and when I could actually move again--I staggered over to the Two Swan Inn to see if I could take up residency before the appointed check-in time. Then Nature and God could duke it out over whether I would live. Margaret, the innkeeper from Switzerland who even in her homeland had never seen anyone as pale as I, took immediate pity and showed me into a neat and lovely room with a double bed and framed duck stamp art on every wall. There was a potted plant stuck in the old sink to make sure you would not try to draw water from it, and a bathroom sink set in an old bureau to make sure you would not put clothes in it. I loved this place. It was old, and the foundation had settled to the point that the bedroom door opened only a foot wide, giving you the option of slithering past it so you could feel slim (which I certainly did at this point) or of mustering force to shove it open all the way.

Part of Margaret's truncated introductory tour had included pointing up the stair to the fridge with the Coca-Cola in it. I collapsed on the bed and awoke an hour later feeling I could make the climb. I grabbed up a Coke (elixir of life to the recently barfed) and sipped the pop more gratefully than I had chugged any beer in the dark and thirsty hours of my youth.  

Feeling better that afternoon, I cruised up the Miles River to see my grandfather's old place on the water. It was still lovely. I could see a few landscaping changes, but it was essentially the same, a small two-story house with an enormous porch on a high, tree-lined bluff.  

On the way back I got the first hint of the Duffy's handling in windy conditions. In calm water you can point the boat anywhere, walk forward to grab chow out of the forepeak and know you will not have to touch the helm for several minutes. It's like a Disneyworld boat attached to underwater rails, minus the plastic hippos rearing up. However, wind can make the ride distinctly more interesting. The Duffy dislikes any but a following sea or wind. Weather from any other quarter makes her bow hunt, and in heavy airs she steers wild. When the bow pitches up, the canopy becomes an airfoil slowing almost all headway. With no autopilot you're constantly working to hold even the most dubious compass heading. Of course, the Duffy isn't designed for heavy weather, but Eco-Challenge types who think nothing of kayaking over Niagara Falls should know what they are in for if they push the envelope in this boat. That was a very long, very wet mile. It was nothing compared to what was to come.

Hours after setting out, and exhausted, I finally regained the harbor, and moored Electric Popeye. Still enfeebled from the previous night's illness, I staggered to the Two Swan Inn and collapsed without the least interest in supper.   

On Saturday the fifth of September, I awoke to the sounds of Margaret puttering on the porch. I emerged from my room, ravenous, to find the most elaborate continental breakfast laid on a cloth covered table out in the yard. For me the term "continental breakfast" conjures images of Wonder Bread, an old toaster, bins of Captain Crunch and a carafe of unstirred Minute Maid, complete with disposable dishes and utensils. At the Two Swan Inn, though, it means your very own place setting, with a linen napkin and real cutlery, plus hot coffee and tea, homemade scones, fresh orange juice, cereals, cinnamon breads, rolls, bowls of real jam, creamy butter, yogurt and fresh sliced fruit. It also comes with an interesting collection of fellow guests, most of them ardent boaters. The conversation began with queries about Electric Popeye and my sanity for ranging so far from home in her. Then we got down to business. There is nothing so satisfying for a boater as bitching with another boater about the lubberly seamanship of a third boater who is not present to defend himself. Mooring and anchoring practices receive close and unforgiving scrutiny. Even the choice of vessel can earn the absent captain disdain. That loud speedboat is compensation for what anatomical shortfall, and why is it anchored smack in the middle of the harbor channel? On the other hand, having an offbeat, nonpolluting boat and an ambitious itinerary earned me praise. It was a very satisfying meal.

On Sunday the sixth of September, I had another delicious breakfast provided by Margaret, and a quick stroll through town. Then I boarded Electric Popeye at noon and left St. Michaels for the last time. With a late start, my destination for that day lay just down neck as they say on the Eastern Shore, at a slip in Knapps Narrows. I had called the Knapps Narrows Marina and Inn earlier in the day, but I still had no idea where exactly I was going. I hailed the marina dockmaster, Joe Evers, on the radio, and he quickly directed me into a slip. The people here knocked themselves out to be helpful. If the rooms are like the staff, you could be assured of a comfortable night's sleep for your $200. As it was, the slip with power, shower and the other amenities were like me, a reasonable fortysomething. Joe did me further honor by always referring to me as "Captain." Considering Electric Popeye's modest lines, this made me smile.

At the Bay Hundred restaurant I recalled that my family had enjoyed our last supper out with my grandfather there before he died. While not casting a pall over the meal, it did give me pause; I ordered steak again. Craig, the manager, a retired fire chief from New Jersey, continued Joe's networking of local sailors who could dope out the waters to the south for me. Macarena, the ebullient Chilean waitress, was equally interested in my strange journey, and introduced me to Darryl, the cool-eyed former skipjack captain, and Steve, the owner of a Sea Ray. After I had shouted up a round of beers I explained the Duffy's range and power limitations. Darryl (Macarena's ex-brother-in-law, it turns out) suggested a detour I hadn't considered. Instead of continuing straight down the east side of the Bay toward Smith Island, he said I should zig 24 miles across the Bay to Solomons Island, and on the following day, zag 24 miles back across the Bay to the Eastern Shore and Crisfield. Steve swigged his beer and agreed with Darryl. Since none of us was sure of any harbor that lay a day's cruise south on the Eastern Shore, this seemed like a great idea.  

At around 8:30 on Monday morning I set out for Solomons Island. Until now, I had only traveled on quiet Bay tributaries. This leg of the trip took me well out into the deeps of the Chesapeake itself. With a following sea and breeze, the Duffy's favorite weather, I passed down by Poplar Island. Then I was in Old Gas Buoy, Brownies Hill, through Devil's Hole, and on to Chinese Mud. (Freud would have said whoever named these spots in the Bay had toilet training issues.) This was a beautiful day's cruise. 

I said the Duffy was bare bones, but it does have one luxury item that I now put to good use--a CD player and a pair of Bose marine speakers. As the day wore on, I treated myself to a few unabridged CDs of Patrick O'Brian's The Golden Ocean, brilliantly read by John Franklyn-Robbins. Immersed in a sea yarn while at sea, swigging V-8 and scarfing Mint Milanos, I was a happy man. As the bluffs around Drum Point loomed up, some bald eagles offered me an avian air show. Solomons was a short hop around the corner.

I was staying at the Comfort Inn, and though underwhelmed with the service, I was happy at the sight of a laundry nearby. After tossing in a load, I walked to the Captain's Table for dinner. In swept the delightful Cindy, who plied me with rolls and the odd Hon', Darlin' and Babe. The food was fine. After paying for the meal and dropping a big tip, I went back to the laundry, gathered up my warm, linty clothes and went back to the room to sleep. 

Next morning--after a go-round with some sour milk at the breakfast buffet--I packed up, unplugged, unmoored and took off, pulling my usual 20 amps. The wind was already kicking up around 10 knots. My weather station was not coming in on the radio. Even then, I suspected that yanking on foul weather gear within moments of leaving harbor was a clue to wise mariners to come about. But I had Crisfield on my mind, and being single-minded I disobeyed a primary rule of seamanship--when in doubt, hang out.

If I may paraphrase the old saying about life, weather is what happens when you are making other plans. That afternoon, the wind reached 30 knots. The waves rose to four feet. It was a constant effort to keep the boat on any sort of heading. I had to throttle up to 40 amps to make any headway. I was burning battery power at an untested rate, and any but a due east heading was putting the sea over the vulnerable bow. For several hours, I vacillated about where to go. I looked longingly toward my destination to the south, but I was not going to get there today. Not enough battery power. And soon, not enough daylight.

Electric Popeye and I needed to be in the lee of Hooper Island across the Bay as soon as possible. The starboard locker cover had been knocked to the cockpit sole by the waves. I had visions of another wave of brackish water sluicing down into the battery compartment, possibly shorting out the engine. Leaving the helm to put the cover back in place was a drunken loose high wire act. At one point, a stainless steel canopy stanchion swept by my head as the boat was shoved almost on its side. The waves seemed to be coming at the bow like closing scissors.

Hours later, when I gained Hooper Island, I found the island itself too narrow to offer much shelter from the wind. I passed south by the small hamlet of Hooperville and could see into Rippon Harbor on the island's far side. There were a few sailboat masts and the bridge of a powerboat in sight. There might be slips with 30-amp hook-ups. Rounding Lower Hooper Island, I pointed northeast toward what I hoped was Rippon Harbor. As soon as the bow of Electric Popeye edged behind the harbor breakwater, all the wind stopped, and the sudden silence was deafening. Considering that my arrival felt like a miracle, the 20 bucks for a slip and power was a giveaway. There was no lavatory, shower or restaurant, but I was grateful to be here.

Despite the lack of amenities, Rippon Harbor is spotless and well populated by generous people. Norbert, whose Shamrock was tied up nearby, stopped by to admire the Duffy and was kind enough to offer me a ride to the store up the road if I needed it. Then Tom, owner of a painstakingly maintained sailboat, introduced himself and eventually regaled me with stories of his tours in Vietnam with the Navy. He was also a resource for local history. He told me about Methodist minister Joshua Thomas, who in the early 19th century plied the waters between the lower Bay islands, bringing the Word in a log canoe called The Methodist by some, and recalled as The Flying Methodist by Tom. He also told me about a lost town on the lower island that at one time had a post office, homes and three burial grounds--one of which was solely for the remains of Swedish and German immigrants reportedly kidnapped in Baltimore and forced to work the dredge boats in the lower Bay.

I had a difficult decision to make: Continue south for my destination, or throw in the towel and head for home. The weather was deteriorating as a tropical depression whipped up the waters. Another storm was organizing behind it. Realizing the weather was not going to improve before my time for the trip ran out, I determined with a discouraged heart that I had to turn back for Chestertown, a few days away.

The next morning I headed straight up the Honga River toward the Hooper Island Bridge. Tom had said that despite the channel's questionable government marks, the local watermen had "bushed out" the actual channel--marked it with pairs of young fir trees jammed into the shallow bottom at 200-foot intervals. It was eerie floating through this flooded arboretum, but the boat never touched bottom. 

Again, there was a breeze blowing up, so I sought what little shelter there was in the lee of Taylors Island. I passed James Island on the west side, and saw more of the old trees dead from Bay winds and flooding, leaning on their living neighbors. I suspected I was getting bone tired from the weather on this cruise, but I knew it for sure when I saw Jerry Garcia. Perhaps I should explain. In a fill area on the north end of James Island, a commercial-size steel double sink had been tossed sideways on a heap of spoil. Then an osprey had built a nest on top of the sink. To my fatigued eyes, the heap looked like Jerry Garcia, granny glasses and all (the double sink) capped off with a mop of unruly hair (the osprey nest). Looking good, Jerry.  

Beautiful as these waterways are, it felt like it took forever to cross the mouths of the Little Choptank and the Choptank rivers, since I was trying to conserve battery power and make Knapps Narrows. En route, I called the Tilghman Island Inn to book a room. While I was talking to the breezy Brit on the other end of the line (who told me that the restaurant was closed), there was a horrendous shriek over the phone, as if the receptionist was being murdered. She returned to the line and allowed as how Blanche, the cockatiel-in-residence, was just saying hello. Closed restaurant. Noisy bird. New ideas about supper began forming in my mind.

Fighting fatigue, waning daylight, the tricky Narrows currents and dubious directions, I made an ugly job of mooring. I entered the lobby of the Tilghman Island Inn--and nearly jumped out of my skin when Blanche, lying in wait on her perch by the door, let out another blood-curdling shriek. I dropped my gear in the room, then made the long dark walk down the lane, across the Tilghman Island Bridge, to the Bay Hundred Restaurant where I had dined so happily a few nights before.

Macarena greeted me like family, with hugs. Arriba Chile, I say. Soon, everyone who had given me advice on my trip joined me at my table to ask how things had gone. Darryl nodded understandingly when I explained the limits of my boat with regard to the weather. Craig said it was remarkable I was alive. After supper, I made my good-byes, and trudged back to the room, where I slept deeply.

I was up early on September 11th. At Craig's recommendation, I took a long walk to the So Neat Cafe and Bakery, where I stocked up on amazing tarts, muffins and Coke for breakfast. Then I was back on the water, traveling north. Difficult winds now rushed straight down the Bay. It seemed that all would go well if I were patient and didn't burn too much energy trying to hurry. But I was exhausted. Eight days out, two of those fighting weather, had emptied my own physical batteries. It was then, just south of Coat Island, I heard the Loud Noise.  

Let me remind you about how quiet Electric Popeye is. Pulling 20 amps and making nearly three knots, you can hear the chipping of a bald eagle, the gurgle of the wake, the plapping of the canopy in the breeze, the soft reassuring hum of the motor. Loud noises do not figure into the equation. But there it was: POW! At the same moment there was a distinct lurch, which was also not part of the quiet-weather routine.

Looking around the boat and finally peering aft, I noticed some interesting detritus that had not been there a moment before. I circled back toward the bobbing objects carefully, realizing I had touched on a small wart of rock projecting off of what I thought was a deep enough bottom. And lo, there were two chunks of my rudder floating there. I gathered up the larger pieces and noticed the boat was still handling fine. Then I remembered this Duffy had twin rudders! I could spare a third of one rudder, because that still left me with a whole rudder and change.

There was no vibration in the propeller shaft that would indicate a bad hit on the screw. No torrent of water rushing into the bilge. Except for the rudder, the boat seemed fine. A check of the chart revealed the culprit: me. In my joy at being away from Blanche the cockatiel, I had overlooked the faint outline of a submerged rock. Eyes now glued to the chart, I continued north for Kent Narrows, holding farther offshore in the stiff breeze than I would have liked, but well away from any other bumps in the road.  

Gaining Kent Narrows seemed to take a short eternity, but now I had only the Chester River before me, and home. This last leg of the cruise was special. That's an overused phrase, but once past Hail Point, the winds abated until the water was like glass. The clouds cleared just in time for a spectacular sunset. Not long after, the moon and Mars climbed up over the treetops before playing hide-and-seek behind a new streak of clouds. Almost 12 hours into the day, I was a contented Yankee on the most beautiful river I know. I backed the throttle down to let the voyage endure a little longer.  

At last, around nine o'clock, with battery warning lights flashing, I pulled into the slip I had left eight days before. I grabbed what little gear I could carry, and in the dark of a lovely evening--the last for many days, thanks to the  approaching hurricane--I walked across the Chester River bridge to home. 

[11.05 issue]