Husband Rick and I were sailing up the Bay out of Solomons last summer when the wind died so suddenly that for a few seconds we thought we had run aground. One minute we were fairly skimming along, and the next our old Albin Vega, Snipp, gave a little shudder and pulled up short--like a horse shying at a jump. I looked up sharply from my supine position on the port deck and saw an expression of complete bafflement on Rick's face. I could almost see the words "What the. . . ?" running through his brain like a news crawler. I scrambled down into the cockpit and together we squinted into the mid-summer haze like a couple of meerkats. It took us only a few seconds to spot the enemy. Rising like a dust storm over the steep clay cliffs of the Bay's western shore was a seething, roiling bank of dirty white and yellow clouds. The coming storm was sucking in all the air it could, and soon--a few minutes at best--it would expel it all in a big and mighty roar.
"Oh, great!" I said, meaning quite the opposite.
Rick instinctively reached down to start the motor, while I pulled and grunted and swore as I pulled in the roller-furling jib line and adjusted the jib sheets, then clambered up to the mast to release the main into the lazy jacks. I was still yanking up the topping lift in preparation for releasing the main halyard when the first ominous breeze whiffed the sail.
"Got any suggestions?" Rick asked as the motor purred to life. We didn't have a multitude of choices. We could turn and try to make a run back to Solomons, but at five knots, by the time the storm was over we'd still be bucking wind and waves in the mouth of the Patuxent River. And as anyone who has cruised the western side of the Bay between Solomons and, say, Herring Bay knows, there are precious few places to hide.
"How about you hold us into the wind for now," I said. "I've a theory that I've been wanting to test anyway, and this is the perfect opportunity."
"Oh, great!" he said, meaning quite the opposite. But he dutifully held Snipp's nose to the wind with just enough power on to keep her riding more or less in place. After what seemed like a long time, but probably was only about 10 minutes, the west wind vanished as quickly as the morning's southerly. Over the cliffs the sickly yellow pallor of the cloud bank deepened as it grew vertically, like Godzilla showing off before devouring Tokyo.
"Okay, now!" I whispered into the uncomfortable silence. "Let's motor in slowly toward the cliffs, but to the northern side of that little bay."
The wind would soon swing 180 degrees to blow off the land . . . I hoped. So if we tucked in close to the cliffs, the worst of the wind should stay over our heads . . . I hoped. In any case, as long as the wind stayed from the west, or even northwest, we would have sea room to burn. So if we did that and dropped the anchor and kept the motor idling . . . well, maybe it would work.
And it did! The wind whistled over our heads. We could see it lay down the boats that were riding out the storm in mid-Bay. And it didn't clock back to the west. In any case, we were anchored, revved and ready if it did. But we stayed on deck all the same. A few minutes later, the rain came in torrents. Ten minutes later, it was all over and the sun was back, as if it had never left.
Rick peeled off his foulie. "Um, where are we exactly?" he asked, looking first up at the cliffs, where a handful of large houses crowded the edge as if they had a death wish. Then he peered out on the Bay, where boats were shaking off the storm and picking up the thread of their journeys.
"We are," I said, slowly turning to face north, "in just the right place to visit Cove Point Light . . . right there." I pointed to the tip of the lighthouse which was just visible above the bank of trees at the tip of a nearby point. Its light flashing intermittently and ineffectively into the bright sunshine.
I went forward to pull the anchor out of the muck, then held it off the bottom instead of hauling it all the up way, as Rick eased us closer to the lighthouse, keeping a close eye on the depthsounder as he did. When we had gotten to within 15 yards or so of the yellow sand beach, I released the anchor and we drifted back until we could feel it catch. Now we could just make out a high chain-link fence that cut the lighthouse and its buildings off from the Bay.
"I'm pretty sure we'll be able to find a way through," I said with false confidence.
"Short of scaling the fence?" Rick replied, unfooled.
We descended the ladder off Snipp's starboard quarter and swam ashore. We were already pretty thoroughly soaked from the rain and figured we'd dry quickly enough in the sun. All too quickly. It was getting hot! We walked along the beach, past a small spit of sand and shoal water, and were just looking around for a chink in the fence when a small powerboat with three adults and a youngster slowed down and came to a halt within a few feet of the Vega. They too dropped an anchor and jumped overboard.
While Rick was preoccupied with watching the newcomers, I searched in earnest for a way in . . . and, with some relief, soon found it. "This way!" I shouted.
We made our way through a small buffer of scraggly undergrowth and emerged into the lighthouse compound, which consisted of the lighthouse, three smallish buildings, a two-story house, informational markers, a small viewing platform and a small parking lot. Oh, and the lighthouse, of course.
We immediately bumped into Calvert Museum staff member Lori Cole of Prince Frederick, Md., who invited us into the former lightkeepers' house, handed us a pamphlet and explained what was what. For example, she explained, Cove Point Light--Maryland's oldest continuously operating lighthouse--is now owned by Calvert County (since 2000) and is operated by the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons. It's still an official aid to navigation, however, so the Coast Guard maintains the light. And the Coast Guard Auxiliary comes by on summer weekends to operate a radio station in the old generator and fog-signal building.
"It was always considered a plum assignment among lighthouse keepers," Cole explained, "since it was located on land and had a separate house." In fact, for many years the lighthouse keeper had an assistant, and in 1950 a second assistant keeper was added. Unlike most of the other lighthouses on the Bay, Cove Point Light still had a lighthouse keeper as late as 1986, when the light was finally made fully automatic. In addition to tending the light and operating the fog signal when necessary, early Cove Point Lighthouse keepers were also responsible for reporting to the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce about any vessels heading up the Bay.
"So they could order a brass band?" Rick asked.
Cole quite rightly ignored the question and went on to say that we were welcome to look into the lighthouse and peer up the spiral staircase. So we looked into the lighthouse and peered up the spiral staircase and then went back outside to have a look from the viewing platform just north of the lighthouse. From there we had a fine view of the Bay as well as the high-security liquid national gas terminal platform just to the north.
"Do you think they are watching us watch them?" I asked.
"Stop, I'm getting lightheaded from hunger and thirst without the help of circular arguments," Rick replied. "Let's swim back to the boat. If they want to, they can watch me enjoy a ham sandwich and a cold beer."
"Yes, I'm sure they'll enjoy that. Let's go then." A short walk, a quick swim, and we were back on the boat, doing just that.
My theory about using Cove Point as an emergency storm hole had worked out pretty well, and I pointed this out as Rick reached for a second sandwich. The little bay between Cove Point and Little Cove Point to the south seemed to offer just enough protection from the worst of the squall's fury. On the Little Cove Point side, the water is too shallow for most boats, but it drops to 8 to 10 feet a little past midway, just before the start of the Cove Point Beach neighborhood. And it stays roughtly that deep to within a dozen or so yards of the beach.
"That makes it a great place to take a break, drop the anchor for a swim and a visit to Cove Point Lighthouse," I concluded.
"And who knows," Rick added, "by the time we get to Baltimore, they may have a brass band waiting."