Two cold-weather cruisers find that even rain can't spoil a truly great anchorage.
by Jody Argo Schroath
I know that all the southern Bay boaters reading this Cruise of the Month will nod in agreement when I say that Sarah Creek is one great anchorage! That's because southern Bay boaters--and plenty of ICW cruisers as well--have been acquainted with the virtues of this York River tributary for years. For northern Bay boaters, it would be a lot like saying that Worton Creek is a really great stopping place. (In fact, for that very option, see this month's Marina Hopping on page 17.) Sixty years ago, Fessenden S. Blanchard was so impressed with Sarah Creek that in his Cruising Guide to the Chesapeake (1950) he wrote: "On the north side of the [York] river, not far from the ferry that connects Gloucester Point with Yorktown, is one of the finest creeks on the Chesapeake, Sarah Creek."
So what makes Sarah Creek so fine? It's deep, it's protected, it has a dozen or more great places to drop anchor, and it has three great marinas. But more than all that, it's ideally situated, only about five miles upriver from the Bay and smack dab across the river from historic Yorktown. Although Gloucester Point is now connected to Yorktown by the Coleman Memorial Bridge (U.S. Route 17), rather than a ferry, it's still only a two-mile walk or drive. And although Yorktown now finally has its own marina facility--Riverside--Sarah Creek still makes an ideal staging area for a visit.
Which is where I come in. And it only took one visit to turn me into a bona fide "Team Sarah Creek" bobblehead. Never mind that it was wicked cold and thoroughly damp when my friend Hal and I dropped anchor there one early fall afternoon--and wicked cold and thoroughly rainy when we left. Still . . . if you are going to spend a crummy day or two on the water (if such a thing is possible because, after all, you are on the water), Sarah Creek is a pretty un-crummy place to be. Of course, we could have been significantly more comfortable if we had stopped at one of the creek's marinas: the super sleek York River Yacht Haven, which has fuel, a good restaurant, a comprehensive ship's store and lots of very big boats to admire, or Jordan Marine Service, which is a working yard that caters mainly to watermen and so also has lots of good boats to look at. (A third, Gloucester Point Marina, which is located between the two, is not currently offering transient slips.) But the idea was not to stay at a marina, because I was in one of my roughing-it phases, which come over me every so often like a bad head cold and go a long way in explaining why I'm not as popular as I might be. My shipmate/victim for the trip was Hal, who usually sails with me, but in a moment of weakness (or perhaps it was the several Guinnesses) had agreed to overlook the fact that we would be making the trip on a powerboat instead and that the forecast was dreary and to come along anyway.
The first day out, we motored down the Bay from the lower Potomac to Fishing Bay at Deltaville, Va.--another exceedingly popular anchorage. The following morning, under a pewter sky, we continued our trip south, dogged by a drizzle that made visibility only a fleeting thing. After we had put Wolf Trap Light behind us and New Point Comfort was rising somewhere in the mist ahead, we considered throwing in the towel (an unhappy choice of metaphor, I admit, since we were no doubt going to need that towel) and picking our way into Horn Harbor, or even Davis Creek just around the corner. But the seas were lying flat, despite the light rain, and we were relatively dry in the shelter of the Albin 28's roof. Besides, we were roughing it! So Hal passed out the soggy tuna-salad-on-white-bread sandwiches and we pressed on, now crossing the five-mile-wide entrance to Mobjack Bay, which we could almost but not quite actually see. When we had gotten about halfway across, we passed green "5" at the entrance to Mobjack Bay. Our next marker would be flashing green "3", which marks the narrow channel that splits a four-mile-long shoal off Guinea Marshes at the tip of Jenkins Neck. It wasn't a marker we wanted to miss. Sitting on a sandbar in a cold drizzle goes beyond "rough." Of course, we could have made an end run around the shoal by detouring a couple of miles east and then cutting back, but now we had the bit in our teeth and tuna salad inside, so we squinted through the mist while keeping a close watch on the chartplotter. Finally, we spotted the flashing green light and slipped through the swash channel without ugly incident.
Shortly afterward, at green "1", we turned west to enter the York River. Beyond the marshes at the river's mouth--Guinea Marshes to starboard and Tue Marshes to port--the York's shores took on two widely different identities. To starboard, the land rose almost imperceptibly from the marsh, but enough to support homes and piers, until a couple of miles upriver, the entrance to the well protected Perrin River offered a final siren call of early shelter from the rain. To port, the Tue Marshes gave way to the Giant Yorktown Refinery, whose tanks and towers seemed to stretch for miles, coming to an end at last near the entrance to Wormley Creek, the U.S. Coast Guard training facility, Yorktown and its national battlefield, the U.S. Naval Weapons Station and beyond--though all of that appeared only as maddeningly brief flickers through the curtain of mist. But finally we caught sight of our destination, and there was nothing except a handful of sandbars to keep us away. As the Coleman Bridge flickered on and off ahead of us in the mist, we found flashing red "2" and turned off for Sarah Creek at last.
The first interesting thing we noticed about Sarah Creek was its entrance, which is not straightforward. The second thing was that we couldn't actually, um, see it. It seemed to be just a nice little bay with no outlet. Studying the charts, however, we could see that most of the nice little bay held only enough water to float a nice little rubber ducky. So our procedure was to aim for the little bay's far shore and then, just about the time we were thinking we were close enough to walk up and ask the homeowners for a cup of coffee, we saw the red daymark "4". So we kept going, slaloming between the green "5" and reds "6" and "8". One more mark, and one more jog left to pass green "9" at the narrowest part of the entrance, and we were
Sarah Creek itself holds only one mark, green "11", which warns you away from the shoal water at the entrance to the Northwest Branch. Other than that, you're on your own. And that's fine, because until you get pretty far up either of the two major branches (Northeast and the Northwest, logically enough), there's plenty of water--as long as you stay clear of the shallow water off the points. But we all do that that anyway, right?
As Hal and I passed green "9", we had a prime-time view of York River Yacht Haven, an impressive place both for its large modern docks, walkways and buildings, and for the size and snazziness of the yachts residing there. We felt like tikes in a toy boat as we idled by a couple of 80-foot steel cruisers. At the end of York River Yacht Haven's docks, the creek opened up and then split right and left. We decided to amble up the Northwest Branch first, noting possible anchorages to left and right as we worked our way upstream. When we had passed first Gloucester Point Marina on a point to our right and then almost immediately Jordan Marine Service on our left, we made a lazy circle in front of a low bridge and returned to our starting place. We had noted at least five inviting anchorages.
Then it was up the Northeast Branch, passing one quiet house with a boat dock after another until the depths began to read four to five feet. Again we circled back, but this time with our anchorage decided. We had picked out a lovely little inlet not far from the spot where the creek split, just opposite another perfectly good anchorage inside a lovely little inlet on the opposite side. But since that one was already occupied by a handsome cruising sailboat, we took the first. The couple on the sailboat gave us a friendly wave from the shelter of their bimini as I dropped the anchor (I lost the coin toss) and Hal backed down to set it. We made a note of our position, each of us sighting a couple of markers on shore, and then we dove like rabbits into the cabin.
A little while later, after we had stuffed our wet gear onto the package shelf and Hal was pouring fresh coffee, we could hear the day's tentative drizzle give way to earnest rain. Tomorrow we'd scoot across the York to tie up at Riverside and then explore Yorktown. That is, if the rain stopped. If it didn't, well, I might let Hal persuade me to give up this roughing-it thing in favor of a slip at York River Yacht Haven, a hot shower and a very big dinner at its River's Inn restaurant. Hmm, maybe another day of rain wouldn't be so bad after all.