The Piankatank River’s Wilton Creek may be the Bay’s perfect refuge in a blow.
by Jody Argo Schroath
We didn’t really need to go to Wilton Creek. There was no storm to escape, nor even any late-season squalls to avoid. But the winds had been picking up steadily all day, and, since we were in the neighborhood, it seemed like the perfect excuse to put this legendary storm hole on the Piankatank River to the test. Rick and I, along with the ship’s dog Skipper, had sailed out of the North River onto Mobjack Bay, gray and choppy in the new September morning. By the time we had rounded New Point Comfort and turned up the Bay, we were sailing in and out of sunlight under a clearing sky. The wind, meanwhile, was inching around the clock from south to west and slowly gathering strength—now 10 knots, gusting to 15. A front was clearly coming through. By the time we passed Wolf Trap Light, the clouds were gone altogether and the air was turning dry. North along Gwynn’s Island we sailed, trimming the sails every few minutes as the wind edged west. We held north beyond Cherry Point at the tip of Gwynn’s to avoid the long shoal, and as we did the wind increased a little more—15 knots, gusting to 20. By the time we turned west to cut in front of flashing green “3”, which lies midway between Cherry and Stingray points, to enter the Piankatank, the wind was blowing from the west-northwest—allowing us to pinch an entrance into the Piankatank on a close-hauled starboard tack. Soon afterward we eased the sails and turned south to go around Stove Point, which reaches halfway into the river from the north shore to form Fishing Bay. This is easily the river’s most popular anchorage—for both its protection from the north and east and its proximity to Deltaville, the mid-Virginia Bay’s boating mecca.
The wind now obligingly completed its circuit north as we pressed west, steering between the shoal at Fishing Bay to the north and Godfrey Bay and its shoal to the south. The next leg of this meandering river was north, and we would soon be at Wilton Creek, so we started the engines and dropped the sails, which flapped like gulls in the sharp wind.
So why were we headed for Wilton Creek? Because we wanted to add it to our portfolio of storm holes—places we knew we’d find safe shelter in anything short of a hurricane. But before we could add it, we needed to try it for ourselves. What were the depths? How much scope would we need? How was the holding? We didn’t want to wait for a real storm to try that out, if we didn’t have to . . . which we didn’t since we were in the neighborhood anyway.
Wilton Creek has severe-storm hole written all over it. Even if you did nothing more than study of the charts, you’d be attracted by Wilton Creek’s narrow north-south orientation and good depths. “Look at that little bay there,” you say to yourself, “that looks as if it would be perfect from just about any direction.” Then you might see whether other people shared your assessment. You’d ask friends; you’d go look it up. CBM’s Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay calls it “just the spot to ride out a storm.”
I decided, just for fun, to see whether that grandfather of Chesapeake cruising guides, A Cruising Guide to the Chesapeake (Dodd, Mead & Co., 1950), happened to mention Wilton Creek, as well. Indeed it does: “This is one of the loveliest and snuggest anchorages on the Chesapeake,” wrote author Fessenden S. Blanchard, “the kind you dream about on a stormy night on wide waters.”
So now here we were. We would find that cove, dump the anchor and wait for nothing to happen. A little more than an hour after we had entered the Piankatank River, we reached the entrance to Wilton Creek near the bottom of a mile long north-south leg along Glebe Neck, which also forms Wilton Creek’s eastern shore. Yet another of the happy characteristics of Wilton Creek as storm hole is that its entrance faces southeast, while the remainder of the creek itself runs north-south. This breaks the southerly fetch in a storm—though also, of course, any sweet southern breezes you might be craving in August. The mouth of the creek is unassuming and unmarked, except for a no wake sign and some white poles that apparently mark oyster beds. Not unusually there are shoals off both points, so the best plan is to wait until you reach the middle of the entrance before turning in, taking the no wake sign to starboard. That’s what we did, and the depth stayed 10 to 14 feet across the entrance at near low tide. Inside, we found 8 feet as far as the first cove to the right, through the cove, and then at least 6 feet for the next quarter mile, which is as far as we went since the depths started to drop off beyond that. Inside, too, as described, the shores rose high enough to offer plenty of protection, and although homes dotted the banks, many were lost amongst the trees. Along the western shore, two small sets of docks marked a development called the Coves of Wilton Creek. Otherwise, the creek was just as quiet and peaceful as we had imagined it would be.
When the depth hit 5 feet, we turned and cruised slowly back until we were opposite the first set of docks. There we turned into the small cove and sounded for a good place to drop the anchor. It wasn’t big, and it was longer than it was wide. “You’d sure want to be one the first three or four boats here,” I thought, as we tested the cove’s limits before deciding on just the right spot. We let go the anchor and then waited for the wind to push us back. Nothing happened. We waited some more. Nothing. Finally, I put the engines into reverse long enough to get us started. Twenty-five feet and we stopped again. We knew the wind out on the river was still blowing at least 15 knots. Even out on the creek, we could see the wind riffling the water. But inside this magical little cove, there wasn’t a whisper. We must also have hit slack tide as well, we weren’t even getting a push from the current. Finally, we just reversed slowly until we felt we had let out enough scope. Then we gave the anchor a final tug to set it and settled in for the night. As the sun set a couple of hours later, the temperature fell into the low 60s, making the lack of breeze no issue at all and allowing us to close the cockpit door against late-season insects.
The following morning, we took time to enjoy a cup of coffee and watch the sun light up the western shore before we retrieved the anchor and left Wilton Creek and the Piankatank behind. We had found everything we had hoped to find. And now we had a beautiful new storm hole to add to our collection.