In sailing, it's all about serendipity. Which is a good thing since it sure isn't all about the itinerary. In a powerboat, you say, for example, let's go to Rudee Inlet today. And, barring a hurricane, you can pretty much reserve a table at Rockafeller's for seven that evening. In a sailboat, you can say anything you want to, but you'll end up where the wind and your sailing acumen get you. Sometimes it happens to be Rudee Inlet, but more often it is somewhere along the way. It's all about surprise.
So it was that a visit to New Point Comfort Lighthouse and New Point Comfort Nature Preserve one afternoon in late summer was pure serendipity . . . though really on one level at least it could hardly have been called a surprise. After all, by the time my daughter Kristen and I had made the decision to take a closer look at the 87-foot-high octagonal sandstone historic landmark, we had already been staring at it so long that day that we felt there was little new information to be gained by a closer inspection. Yet really, we told ourselves, we have nothing better to do for the foreseeable future.
All day long, Kristen, her dog Echo (a shih tzu-poodle mix with an unusually agreeable disposition), my dog Skipper and I had been moving slowly north in Snipp, my Albin Vega 27, nudged along by an intermittently workmanlike southwesterly with just enough oomph in it to keep the sails mostly filled and the boat moving generally forward. We had left the Severn River at the bottom of Mobjack Bay that morning with the vague notion of an evening anchorage in one of the many inviting creeks just south of the Great Wicomico River--as I say, we knew better than to be any more specific than that. By three o'clock that afternoon, however, the breeze had clearly left work for the day and we were facing an ignominious retreat on an outgoing tide. That's when we decided we might as well visit the lighthouse. Kristen and Echo went forward to drop the anchor, then we loaded up the inflatable for the trip: electric motor and battery, oars, life jackets, hand-held radio, Chex Mix (for emergencies) and four big bottles of water.
We had let go the anchor in 12 feet of water on the Mobjack side of flashing red "4". And now as we puttered silently (if you can putter silently) toward the old gray lighthouse, perched on its little doily of riprap, we looked back to check Snipp. No worries on that score; she lay as still as a memory in the hot summer haze. All around us, the sky was an impenetrable blue, with no tell-tale cumulous clouds forming over the shore. Looking toward the lighthouse, we spotted a pair of kayakers aiming for it as well. Hey, where did they come from?
"From the nature preserve," one of them replied as we drew closer. "There, just beyond the other side of New Point Comfort Island," the other said, pointing her paddle toward the shoreline. "Is the lighthouse open?" Kristen asked. "No, they say it's not safe," the first kayaker answered.
Just then we were all distracted by a flying circus of pelicans, cruising inches above the surface then peeling off to start another run. Echo and Skipper watched avidly, as if they expected a barrel roll or a wing-walker at
I turned back to the lighthouse. It was time for my moment of obsessive discursion. (I swear I could see Skipper try to cover his ears.) "New Point Comfort Lighthouse is the third oldest on the Bay (1805) and the tenth oldest in the United States," I began. "And before you ask, the answer is Cape Henry (1792) and Old Point Comfort lights, which came first, and the other answer is Boston Light, if you count the earliest (1716)--it had to be rebuilt after the Revolution--or Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey, if you count oldest original (1764)." Kristen, who has faced a lifetime of my obsessive discursions, nodded vaguely and turned dutifully to look at the lighthouse too.
"When Elzy Burroughs built this lighthouse," I continued, "he put it on the highest point of New Point Comfort Island, which in those days covered about 100 acres."
"But the kayakers said that's New Point Comfort Island over there," Kristen added, "this is the lighthouse over here."
"Yes, well, the whole place has been battered by storms over the years, of course, so the sands have shifted this way and that, generally messing things up. The coupe de grace came in 1933, when two whopping hurricanes within a couple of months of each other cut through the island entirely, leaving the lighthouse on a little nob here and the rest of the island over there."
The storms also had shifted the shoals to such a degree that in the 1960s the Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse, turned off its light, and put up a new lighted marker about three-quarters of a mile to the east, which they named New Point Comfort Spit Light, but which we know more prosaically as flashing red "2". Then they set a second marker, flashing red "4", to mark the western edge of the shoal.
"So why does the lighthouse still have a light?" Kristen asked.
That's thanks to Mathews County, I explained, which now owns the lighthouse and is determined to keep it up. The county found funding to restore it and relight it in the 1980s, and this past year they got a grant from the state to build a 12-foot-high rock wall to protect it. And there is a fund to keep up the lighthouse. "One of the cool things about that," I added, "is two of the major donors to the fund were descendants of Elzy Burroughs."
"The man who built it. Weren't you listening?"
"Hmm?" (Rats, the curse of the compulsively discursive!)
We had completed our circumnavigation of the lighthouse by this time and Kristen was watching more kayaks launching some distance away near a long walkway, which I concluded must be the New Point Comfort Nature Preserve.
"Shall we go take a look?" I asked Kristen. The dogs had finally given up on the pelicans and were now eyeing the kayaks with some suspicion. Hearing no opposition, I turned the dink toward the nature preserve, less than a mile away. Just before we reached the park, however, the water shallowed out to only a couple of inches, so Kris and I had to climb out and pull the dink, dogs and all, onto the sandy landing area. We removed their life jackets and snapped on their leashes and went ashore to explore. The property is owned by the Nature Conservancy, which I was sure wouldn't welcome non-native wildlife (the dogs) running around loose.
In front of us, a long boardwalk stretched out from a small parking lot, across pools of water and islands of marsh, away down the peninsula. We walked to the end of the boardwalk, reading the educational signs along the way, until the walkway opened into a wide hexagonal viewing area. Through the haze we could make out the lighthouse, some distance away, beyond a broad sea of marsh grass--dusty green and rust--and a ribbon of water, where those 1933 storms had separated the lighthouse from its island. Here new flights of brown pelicans patrolled the perimeter, while confusions of gulls squabbled over fishing grounds. Along the shallow shoreline, a great blue heron waited with the patience born of centuries of evolution. If it hadn't been for the half-dozen brightly colored kayaks poking in and out of the marshes and heading back and forth to the lighthouse, this would have seemed a lot like the end of world. To the west of the lighthouse, Snipp lay motionless at anchor, and just beyond, a workboat slid quietly by, on its way into nearby Davis Creek.
Seeing the returning workboat reminded me that it must be getting late and that we too still needed to find at least some minimal shelter for the night. Davis Creek was the nearest place, but it's busy with workboats and a marina, and has little room left over for a boat to swing at anchor. Besides, the weather was quiet and promised to stay that way through the night. Reason enough to forgo the usual protected coves and creeks in favor of something new. And I had just the place in mind. As we had drifted slowly up Mobjack Bay earlier in the day, I had had plenty of time to study the charts. Next to Davis Creek, lay Pepper Creek, open to southerlies and very likely a bad place to ride out a summer blow, but just the place to catch a meager evening breeze--a breeze that I hoped fervently would be strong enough to keep the marshland's famously voracious insects away.
So a few minutes later we piled back aboard the dinghy and poled off into deeper water, then dropped the electric motor's tinker-toy shaft and started back to the boat. We almost made it, too, before the tinker-toy battery pooped out. Oh well. I loosed the oars from their sockets, and Kristen and I pulled just enough to ease us across the flow of the outgoing tide to intercept Snipp.
Once aboard, I started the motor and we covered the four miles to Pepper Creek in short order, heading first northwest to pass outside flashing red "6" and then turning northeast at green "1" to enter the creek at red "2". After that, we made a short dogleg east to avoid the shoal off the north shore before settling carefully into the center of the creek, where the depth read five feet. We didn't go far in. Once we were clear of the shoal, we dropped the anchor again and snugged Snipp down for the night.
As the sun dropped into Mobjack Bay, the lights from the few homes along the shore winked on and a perfect breeze rose and blew straight up the creek. The dog kibbles came out and then the cold meatloaf and the artichoke salad, and we all tucked happily into our respective meals. Soon afterward there was a brief skirmish over the most desirable areas of deck and cockpit (on a 27-foot boat, "desirable" is wherever you can stretch out your legs), followed by a long and contented silence. One by one, the nearby house lights clicked off, replaced by a million billion stars in the haze-free sky. Just before I fell asleep, I wondered where we would end up the following night. On the Rappahannock? The Great Wicomico? Well, wherever it might be, it would be a surprise!