After two weeks of fighting headwinds, Moment of Zen flies up the Bay and into the night on a following wind and sea...
by Jody Argo Schroath
It had been that kind of cruise. You know that kind, when the wind and waves meet you head on every morning—sometimes with a gentle shove and sometimes like a couple of schoolyard bullies, rudely pushing and shoving until all you can do is whimper. Well, it had been precisely like that last September, when Rick the Husband, Skipper the Dog and I spent a week working our way down the Eastern Shore, then another week cruising north from Rudee Inlet in Virginia Beach. The wind had met us headlong at every turn. So on September 19, when we stuck our nose out of Indian Creek, off Fleets Bay, after a night at Chesapeake Boat Basin, we were stunned to find the wind blowing our way. It wasn’t much more than a zephyr, barely rippling the surface as it whispered across Fleet’s Bay from the south. Rick and I looked at each other in wonderment and quickly set about raising the sails. Skipper left his foul wind retreat under the cockpit table and stretched himself out luxuriously on the starboard cockpit cushion. Almost cautiously, we turned to head north-northeast toward Smith Point Light. The sails slowly filled, and we moved forward, It wasn’t riotous, but it was enough. Enough to be sailing at last. A few minutes later, as we came out from the lee of Windmill Point, the wind filled in, blowing six or seven knots now, and soon we were clipping along at a modest pace, the water burbling merrily as it slapped the bow. Rick and I were silent, afraid to break the spell and our turn of luck, each of us sure that any minute the wind would clock around to the north and each of us hoping that it would hold at least until we reached Point Lookout on the north shore of the Potomac. That would be all right, we told ourselves privately. We practically held our breath until we came within shouting distance of rusty red Smith Point Light.
It was 11:30 a.m. as we began the long trek across the mouth of the Potomac, and the south wind was our new best friend, growing stronger and more playful as we left the Virginia shore behind, now pushing along a one-foot sea like a lab puppy rolling a beach ball with its nose. Zen leapt in pleasure, happy to join in the game. Now we were gobbling up the miles, passing Point Lookout at 12:30 and soon bearing down on Point No Point Light. Then it happened. It wasn’t the wind; that was there, as faithful as ever. No, it was something stronger than a force of nature. It was the U.S. military, and they were closing the area around the Targets for live-fire practice. This meant a long detour, either running north up against the western shore or shooting east toward the shipping channel and then north up the eastern side of the Bay. We acknowledged the radio call and dutifully trimmed the sails for a beam reach and turned east, on the theory that the wind would be better that way. And indeed, Moment of Zen heeled delicately and took off eagerly for the outer marker.
When we had reached it and turned to run north again, it was time to make a decision. The previous evening we’d agreed that we’d do well to reach Solomons, Md. But now, thanks to our detour, we were considerably further east than planned—and wondering if we might just go ahead and strike out for a nighttime landing in our home port, Annapolis. This will seem perfectly wimpy to those of you who sail regularly into the night, but we had never come into Annapolis after dark. Indeed, we haven’t done much night sailing anywhere, anytime.
“Why not?” Rick said. “The weather’s clear. The moon will be up an hour after dark. We know the way backwards and forwards.” For me, in the end, it was the wind that swung the balance. The Goldilocks south wind that was now blowing a not-too-strong, not-too-weak, just-right 12 to 14 knots, pushing along 1 to 2 feet of sea on our beam. There is something impatient about a following sea. “Come on, hurry along,” it seems to say. I couldn’t say no. So I broke the bad news to Skipper, and we held our course north.
Afternoons do not linger in September, so when we passed Sharps Island Light at 5:30 p.m., the day was already fading. We decided to keep to the east side of the channel, which turned out to be a good decision, because as darkness fell, the shipping traffic increased. We’d recently had an AIS ship identification system installed, but I found it easier to watch and identify the ships passing our way on my phone’s Marine Traffic app. We were watching the progress of two northbound freighters and a southbound cargo ship, when the Coast Guard ordered us all to get out of the way for the cruise ship Splendour of the Sea, which was steaming majestically down the Chesapeake. Down the Bay she came, escorted by guard-boats like so many pilot fish. Reluctantly, we altered course to exit the channel by way of the nearest buoy, I confess to a tinge of resentment though. Hey, it’s my Bay too, I thought.
As we watched the Splendour pass by us, we also watched the sun set behind her. Suddenly it was very dark. And everything changed. You would think that the water at night would look like a negative of the day, with red and green lights substituting for red and green markers, but everything in essentially the same place. No. In the daylight you are in the Chesapeake Bay between Herring Bay and West River. You have this marker here and that one there. In the dark, you are some place you have never been before. The moon perhaps, or Idaho. Your depth perception ambushed. Is that green light closer than the other, you wonder. Yes, you know they have different blinking patterns, as noted on the chart, but you can’t read the tiny print in the dark and don’t want to take the time to decipher it because you don’t want to take your eyes off scene in front of you. I’m sure you get the hang of it after a while—as you’d eventually get the hang of, say, riding a unicycle blindfolded. But in the meantime . . . yikes!
We rode the wind until we had passed Thomas Point Light, staring hard into the darkness. There we dropped the sails and continued to pick our way through the markers and anchored ships, baffled by our inability to spot the Tolly Point Shoal green light, the last and critical marker to honor before entering Annapolis Harbor. Finally, when we had pulled opposite it, we spotted it weak green blink, outshone by a much brighter but navigationally unimportant green to starboard. Rounding Tolly Point, we were gobsmacked by a line of excruciatingly bright lights that completely blinded us to everything else. Were Martians landing in City Dock? Had Annapolis become home to an international airport while we were away? The answer, it turned out, was that these were the practice field lights at the Naval Academy. Well, I’m glad they could see.
We shielded our eyes as well as we could and motored into the harbor. It was a weeknight, but the waterways were still busy with boats—water taxis, dinghies, picnic boats, center consoles. Finally we were far enough inside the harbor to make our turn toward the two greens and a red that mark the entrance to Back Creek. We felt back on familiar ground. But, inside the creek, a dozen boats, early arrivals for the boat shows, now lay at anchor in the space between Annapolis Landing and Mears Marina.
Weaving carefully through those, and dodging a final water taxi and dinghy, we came at last to the Port Annapolis docks. Carefully we counted down to C Dock and then, with relief, turned in and ghosted to the end, spinning the Zen carefully to make the bulkhead slip we could feel more than see. Home!
Fleets Bay, Virginia, to Back Creek, Annapolis, on the shoulders of our only favorable wind of the cruise. Yes, it was worth every minute.