While our cruiser names names on the lower Chester River, the ship's dog keeps a sharp lookout for spies.
by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller

I had eased the Albin 28 stern-first into Browns Cove on Grays Inn Creek off the Chester River and settled her down for the night like a broody hen on a clutch of chalk white eggs when I hatched this theory. It's true that I can come up with theories faster than a UFO hunter at a flying saucer convention, but I was sure this was a pretty good one. In fact, it was the culmination of a long day of theorizing.

The ship's dog Skipper and I had left Annapolis that October morning for a leisurely exploration of the lower Chester River. The air was brisk and the sky a brightly polished blue as we passed under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and headed north toward Love Point, which marks the entrance to the Chester. As we rounded the point and began the four-mile southward leg, I cut back our speed. No need to hurry. We were already where we were going. With the wind now at our back, the temperature rose and the noise and bustle of fighting a chill north wind disappeared altogether. As if the fasten-seat-belt sign had just blinked off, Skipper unfolded himself from between the port seat and the bulkhead and walked to the stern to keep an eye on our wake. (Skipper has his own conspiracy theories.)

One of the many charms of cruising--well, really, traveling in general--is that each time you go out, you can choose what to make of it. You can make it a social occasion, for example, with good company and good food, or you can make it a nature-watching expedition, identifying flora and fauna as you go and arguing whether that's a lesser grebe or a white-belted buffell-snipe. Or of course you can combine the thing into a smorgasbord of entertainment. For this cruise, I had selected "place names," a water sport that enjoys as much popularity as left-handed bowling, because most of the time it wavers between the twin gutters of  "hopeless" and "obvious." And yet, every once in awhile it's a sport I find irresistible. It's also a sport best enjoyed alone . . . or with your dog. When I've tried it with company, I've found that pretty soon they start beating their head against the bulkhead. But since dogs use their own place names--Dog Biscuit Bay or Yummy Rotting Fish Marsh, for example--and rarely pay attention, anyway, it works out fine. 

Love Point is a good example of why this sport is not on television. The spot could have been named for a person named Love . . . or it could have been named for the other obvious reason. If I had been sailing that day and therefore had more time on my hands than sense, I'd have made up a story to go with it, probably involving early English explorers, the indigenous population and a tennis match. Not being on a sailboat, however, I simply aimed for the opposite shore to pick out Baybush, Panhandle and Narrows points along the low-lying edge of the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. All pretty much "obvious" gutter balls. As I followed the Chester's horseshoe turn, I passed Blackbeards Bluff to starboard. Another "obvious" gutter ball, though whether the piratical name was based on fact or wishful thinking, I didn't know.

About a mile farther along, however, and I was about to roll a spare. To port was Hail Point--hardly an unusual moniker on the Bay, of course, but this one was theoretically (I just love that word!) not named for a place to hail a ferry to get to the other side--the usual "hailing point" purpose--but to hail ships coming up the Chester for taxing and internal security purposes. To complete the spare, on the opposite side of the river, at the entrance to Queenstown Creek, was Coursey Point, named for Colonel Henry Coursey, one of the most fascinating characters in 17th-century colonial America--fighting battles and establishing treaties with the Indians as far away as New York. You must have heard of him. He's the one who received his grant of land from the grateful Lord Baltimore by sticking his thumb on a map of Maryland. The area covered by the thumb became the boundaries of his property, which he called, appropriately, Lord's Gift.

And so my game went for the next five miles, as Skipper and I traced the Chester north toward Grays Inn Creek. First we followed the Queen Anne's County side: Abbot Cove--hopeless, a name or an occupation. Tilghman Creek--a good one--named for a member of the prolific Tilghman family, maybe even for the first one, Richard Tilghman, who set himself up here in 1659. Break Point, at the mouth of Tilghman Creek--clearly another tennis reference. Then followed Butler Cove--hopeless. And finally Piney Creek and Piney Point--obvious.

I swung the Albin to the Eastern Neck side. The first name was Shipyard Creek--duh. Then came Durdin, Overton and Bogle--hopeless, hopeless and hopeless. "I hope you're having better luck, Skipper," I called. But Skipper wasn't listening. He was looking daggers at Belts Bar Point (hopeless but interesting), where a great blue heron, had established a beachhead. 

I left Skipper to his work and returned to my game. Next up was Church Creek, which would seem both obvious and hopeless since you're liable to trip over a colonial church every two or three steps. But I happened to know that this particular Church Creek was named for St. Peter's, the first church on the Eastern Shore. St. Peter's, however, did not survive the passage of time and eventually disappeared from both sight and memory. It was, in fact, lost utterly to history until--according to Hulbert Footner's Rivers of the Eastern Shore--a farmer turning the soil in his field one day a couple of hundred years later (Footner is not specific here), broke several plow points. On further investigation, he discovered gravestones lying beneath the top soil, and so St. Peter's Church was disinterred, so to speak. Just inside Church Creek, I spotted Frying Pan Cove, which is shaped pretty much like its name, then, at the tip of Church Creek, Ringgold Point--named no doubt for James Ringgold, whose manor, Hanover, at one time encompassed a great deal of the Eastern Neck. 

From Ringgold Point, I steered for green can "1", near the middle of the Chester in order to locate the narrow channel between the shoals that extend well out into the water at the mouth of Grays Inn Creek. For at least 60 years, mariners have been following precisely the same directions to negotiate the entrance. These directions appeared in Fessenden Blanchard's 1950 Cruising Guide to the Chesapeake and they appear in the 2010 edition of this magazine's Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay. So who was I to argue? I reached green "1", (black spar "1" in the 1950 Guide) then, leaving it to port, headed for the end of the wharf at Spring Point, which lies on the left side of the creek. About 50 yards off the pier, I swung away (as directed), and headed up the creek, keeping more or less to the middle. From there it was easy, since Grays Inn Creek's channel stays wide and deep for the next two miles, as far as Cherry Tree Point (obvious, though the tree's probably long gone), where the creek narrows and shallows dramatically.

Somewhere opposite Cherry Tree Point--maybe on land or maybe now under the water--lies the lost city of New Yarmouth, the Eastern Neck's first settlement. Sometime in the mid-1600s, 100 acres was sliced from Ringgold's Hanover estate to make New Yarmouth, the first seat of Kent County. A courthouse and jail were established there, followed by a couple of shipyards, some taverns and eventually a town full of people. But it didn't last long; in 1696, the county seat, with its courthouse and jail, was moved farther up the Chester River to "New Town" (soon to be Chestertown). New Yarmouth's residents soon moved on as well, and soon, the town was nothing but a memory.

As I idled the boat off Cherry Tree Point and tried to conjure up an image of old New Yarmouth, Skipper trotted into the cabin and reemerged with his orange treat-ball. This is Skipper-speak for "Let's eat!" He had a point. The shadows were growing long across the western shore, and we still had to find a nice place to spend the night. Skip also had a little shore leave coming. So I put the Albin back in gear, and we spun slowly around to head back downstream. I had spotted just the place for an anchorage about a mile in, just opposite Grays Inn Creek's only tributary, Herringtown Creek (obvious . . . probably). A few minutes later we had reached Prussian Point (hopeless, though probably a good story) and, just beyond it, Browns Cove, a thoroughly enchanting, thoroughly protected cove, whose shores began with marsh, then progressed to woods, and ended in farmland. When we arrived, the cove was already full of transients--squawking, flapping, floating geese.

As I backed the Albin into our little cove home for the night, the lowering sun set the shoreline trees on fire in a blaze of red, yellow and orange. A few minutes more and the colors were doused in shade. But looking out of the cove to the east, the ochre autumn light kept the shoreline glowing softly for another hour. In that time, Skipper had been ashore to claim the territory as his own and I had slogged along behind with a brown plastic bag to relinquish the claim.

Back on the boat, I turned my attention to a hot cup of coffee and the day's last puzzle: Grays Inn Creek. The easy answer would be that it was named for a guy named Gray and his colonial Motel 8. But I didn't think so. So I sipped my coffee and thought some more. That's when I hatched my theory. Here it is: The name probably predated the townspeople and the taverns, but it might not have predated the courthouse and the jail. A courthouse meant lawyers, of course, and 17th-century lawyers in Maryland almost certainly had come from England. And back in the mother country, all lawyers--then and now--must belong to one of the Inns of Court, of which there are four. And one of those Inns of Court is . . . drum roll please . . . Gray's Inn. Ipse dixit, Grays Inn Creek. (The other Inns of Court, by the way, are the Inner Temple, the Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn.)

"Strike!" I shouted into the darkness, shooting my fist into the air in triumph. Skipper raised his head and looked at me, then sighed deeply and went back to sleep. I didn't care. I was psyched. As I crawled into my sleeping bag a few minutes later, I thought: Maybe ESPN would be interested in this sport after all. Okay, maybe not.