The Corrotoman River offers countless quiet places to drop your hook,
do some great sailing, fishing or whatever floats your boat . . . or clears your head.
by Wendy Mitman Clarke
photo by Starke Jett
They say necessity is the mother of invention. When it comes to cruising the Chesapeake Bay on a 34-foot sailboat with two young kids, though, necessity is in fact the mother of adventure. The fact is,sometimes they just gotta get off the boat. It's not always enough to find a sweet, peaceful anchorage; you need a beach to go with it, a place to run, explore, chase ducks and generally get your yah-yahs out.
It was precisely this necessity that led us to Virginia's Corrotoman River, a place that wasn't even on our list when we'd started a two-week southern Bay cruise. First of all, as someone whom locals would consider a Yankee, I couldn't even figure out how to pronounce it—was it cor-ROT-o-man or cor-ah-TOE-man? (The latter, as it turns out. According to a Lancaster County history published to celebrate the county's 350th anniversary, Corrotoman is a corrupted English translation of Cattawatowoman, who were among the resident Native Americans.) And second, based on preliminary reconnaissance, there didn't seem to be much there, there, if you know what I mean.
There was, however, a beach. A beautiful beach with deep water right up to it and safe anchorages nearby in case of weather, according to theGuide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay, which I sweated over while we sweltered our way up from Cape Charles on a late July afternoon. Also, we knew Yankee Point Sailboat Marina was on the river; we could get ice and maybe replace the boat cushion that had gone overboard somewhere in our travels. "It's a ways up the Rappahannock," I said, "but we wanted to see some of that river anyway. And maybe we can escape the nettles."
We didn't really need any other reasons. And so, we went.
The Corrotoman strikes northward from the Rappahannock River about 12 nautical miles up from Windmill Point. Its main stem forks into the Eastern and Western branches at a place called West Point. Our destination—a spot unmarked on the chart but locally known as Sandy Point—was about a mile up the Eastern Branch. It was easy to see, a prong of white sand poking out from the river's eastern side, with tall woods behind it and what appeared to be a fairly new house on a hill behind that. We nosedLunaslowly in on the back side of the beach, and with two feet still reading under her six-foot keel the bowsprit was nearly over the sand. The kids jumped off immediately and set about exploring while Johnny and I pulled the boat back and anchored at a safe distance.
After tidying up we launched the kayaks and paddled in to join the kids. It was immediately obvious that while we'd achieved one goal in finding a great beach, we hadn't managed to elude the jellies; the clear water revealed dozens of huge, man-eating nettles languidly cruising around. Oh well. When one can't swim, one fishes, and within a half-hour or so of casting off the beach Johnny had caught a half-dozen perch and a croaker, while our daughter caught her first perch all by herself with her brother showing her how to release it.
That night was the most uncomfortable we had in two weeks. The usually dependable evening breeze was a no-show, and even the fans did little to make sleeping pleasant in the heat. But the next morning we woke to a lovely cool breeze. I hopped in the kayak and paddled across the river to Bells Creek, exploring it all the way back to its marshy head. I sat there in the marsh as the sun came over the trees and illuminated every strand of grass, shining with dew. All the tiny webs between the grasses flickered with rainbows in the early light. It was extraordinary. In the perfect silence, broken only by songbirds, it was like watching something being born.
I would come to find out I wasn't alone in this sort of pursuit on this river. "I usually try to go rowing first thing Sunday mornings," Bruce Gibbs, who lives with his wife Ethel on Myer Creek, told me on a later visit. "I try to stay offshore so no one catches me or wants me to do something. You can go way up in these creeks."
With its long wooded hillsides, white necklaces of beaches, flat water and wide sky, this is a place that beckons sailors like Gibbs, who came here 19 years ago from New Jersey trailering a Cape Dory Typhoon. Though many cruisers are far more familiar with Carter Creek just south of the Corrotoman, with its chic little community of Irvington and the well known Tides Inn, the Corrotoman offers something quite different. There's no town here, no port of call anymore, though there were several in colonial times. Lancaster, the county seat, sits at the head of the river's Western Branch, but it's only accessible to the smallest and shallowest of boats, and there's nowhere to tie up. But the people who come to the Corrotoman don't seem to care much about any of that.
"In the years we've lived and cruised here, we've spent more nights on the Corrotoman than off it," writes Richard J. Dickson in his indispensable bookletA Cruising Guide to the Corrotoman River. "We had come to the area to sail the Chesapeake Bay. In the process we found the Corrotoman and haven't left it, at least not often."
"We said, boy, this is really quite a place, it's really something," says John McConnico, who with his wife Carole Jean brought their 37-foot Tartan Blackwatch here from Tennessee, via Florida. A friend had told the McConnicos about Yankee Point Sailboat Marina on Myer Creek. "I wound up buying the marina. And my wife and I ran it for fifteen years."
As for the river itself, McConnico sums it up perfectly: "The river seems like a welcome-home place."
Evidently early English settlers felt the same when they arrived here in the 1600s, finding themselves in the heart of the Powhatan Confederacy. With its deep protected water that probed far inland past the fall line (prime milling waters), the Corrotoman was an obvious choice for waterborne commerce, and during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries this was a busy place. When Lancaster County was established in 1651, its powers-that-be chose a spot just inside Town Creek, on the northwestern side of the Corrotoman's mouth, as the county seat. Queenstown—located on what's now shown on the charts as Ball Point—was organized in 1691 and had a courthouse, jail, warehouse, private buildings and a public ferry that ran across the mouth of the river from what is now Corrotoman Point; the ferry was free on days that court was in session. But silting of the creek meant its early demise—by 1741 ships could barely get to the town landing. In 1743 the county abandoned Queenstown and moved the county seat to its present location, Lancaster Courthouse, near the head of the river's Western Branch. Today, there's nothing left of what once was Queens-town, and the only way to navigate to Lancaster is in a seriously shallow-draft boat.
The Corrotoman played a major role in the Commonwealth's early history. Virginia's most prominent landholder in the 1700s, Robert "King" Carter, inherited from his father John Carter more than 6,000 acres bordering more than half of the river's southeastern shore. Between 1715 and 1720 Carter began building his home "Corotoman" on the tip of the peninsula bordered by the Corrotoman to the northwest and Carter Creek to the southeast. With imported marble and tiles, the mansion was fit for a colonial tobacco baron, but it burned three years after completion. Excavation in 1978 by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources found a 90-by-40-foot foundation and determined the building had two stories with corner towers connected by a veranda. The site, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is owned by the state's Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.
The fertile land surrounding the river grew colonial gold—tobacco—and its forests grew the stout, massive trees needed for shipbuilding. The river's headwaters provided sites for several mills, among them John Carter's "Great Mill" established in the 1670s on the Eastern Branch. A mill continued operating on this site into the 20th century. And on the Western Branch at Merry Point, near the government tobacco warehouse operated by John Davis, a ferry was established to connect the eastern and western sides of the county. That ferry, which continues to operate today, is one of the few state-run cable ferries left in Virginia. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, deep-water ships pulled into the bustling wharf at Merry Point, and in the 1740s, James Gordon, an influential merchant, built a brick home on the hillside overlooking the landing. Later owners changed the name of the home to Verville, and it remains a privately owned home, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Corrotoman continued to be a busy commercial waterway in the steamboat era, but by the early 20th century things were quieting down considerably. After the Great Storm of 1933 wiped out many of the steamboat wharves, the river was left mostly to commercial fishermen and seafood operations. Today, the river "is one of mixtures," writes Dickson. "The shoreline is growing with new homes of those who have come here to retire. Yet watermen still work their crab pots here. Some still tong for oysters, once thought disappearing but now slowly returning. You may see a long-time resident standing on the bow of a skiff netting for soft crabs, poling the boat close around the shoreline with a net handle."
Our visit here on Luna last summer was too brief; we spent a single night, stopped at Yankee Point Sailboat Marina on our way out for ice, fuel and that replacement boat cushion, then headed out the Rappahannock and north to Fleets Bay. I returned this summer by car and made the marina—the only one on the Corrotoman—my first stop.
Anyone who's done any East Coast offshore racing probably knows something about the marina on Myer Creek and its group of diehard sailors based at Yankee Point Yacht Club. The club's headquarters is over the marina store, which once was an oyster house. Begun in the mid-1970s by the marina's then owners, Harry Farmer and Randy Walker (who later sold the marina to McConnico), it continues a strong tradition of encouraging long-distance offshore racing and sailing.
"There are some very powerful sailors there," says Charles Lytton, the club's current commodore, who sails his 42-foot Tatoosh from the Corrotoman. He and his wife Carol and crew sailed the Newport–Bermuda race in 2002, 2004 and 2006 and were fourth in the Annapolis–Bermuda Race in 2000. They've also cruised to Nova Scotia, among other places. "I don't know that we get new members coming into the club for that particular reason [offshore racing and cruising], but sailors in the club just get intrigued by the bluewater mystique and they go with us."
McConnico admits he was "obsessed" with offshore racing when he came to the Corrotoman and Yankee Point. (To this day he keeps his feet wet; though he no longer owns his Tartan, he regularly delivers a friend's Bristol 55 to the Caribbean and Newport, R.I., and back, just for the joy of getting out there.) It was that passion for the sport, along with his love of boats of a certain age that prompted him and his friend Chuck Harney to begin what is now the biggest annual whoop-de-doo on the river, the Turkey Shoot Regatta. The rules—and there are very few—say that boats can't be any younger than 25 years. Racing experience doesn't matter; a happy attitude does.
"It's a very laid-back regatta," McConnico says. He tells me a story about one year when his friend the late Dick Stimson, a well known and accomplished racer and offshore navigator, came down from Annapolis to crew with him. The two of them ended up on the race committee instead, and when a competitor sailed by and asked which way was the right way to start, McConnico was happy to tell the confused sailor. Stimson, he says, was mortified; it's considered extremely poor form to ask for any kind of navigational help from a race committee, and most committees won't even acknowledge such a request. "He said, 'You can't do that!' '' McConnico remembers, laughing. "And I said, 'Well, yes, you can down here.' ''
The Turkey Shoot got its name because it was held the weekend after Thanksgiving. A few years back the sailors elected to move it earlier, into October, and since then attendance has boomed; last year saw nearly 100 competitors, all based at Yankee Point Sailboat Marina. The event raises money for area hospices.
In 1999, the McConnicos' 39-year-old daughter, a hospice nurse who lived in Colorado, was killed in an auto accident. John McConnico says her death "kind of knocked the wind out of me," and in December of that year he sold the marina to Ken and Karen Knull.
New to marina ownership but with backgrounds in marketing (he) and finance, personnel and accounting (she), the Knulls have brought with them a longtime love of the Bay and boating, as well as a desire to consolidate the boatyard's reputation for top-quality work and to attract more kids and families to the marina. Hurricane Isabel actually helped them, Ken Knull says, since they had invested in the best insurance they could find and it paid out without dispute. Though they estimated they had about $500,000 in damage, they were able to replace three of the five aging docks, and they've continued to upgrade. They recently overhauled their 40-ton boat lift and bought a 10-ton hydraulic trailer that has let them increase their dry storage by 30 percent. This summer they opened a snack bar and state-of-the-art, saltwater-chlorinated pool. Set on a pretty hillside under enormous old oaks, with long rope swings hanging from the high branches for the kids, the spot is rapidly becoming popular.
During a walking tour of the yard and boat brokerage area I see a mix of sail and powerboats and ask the Knulls whether the "sailboat" in the marina's name is giving way to changing times. "We're getting more powerboaters as the sailors get older," Ken Knull tells me. But they continue to see a strong influx of long-distance sailors, many of them from the Caribbean who are spending their hurricane seasons on the Bay. And long-term cruisers continue to be attracted to the boatyard where do-it-yourself work is still permitted.
It may seem strange that sailors would manage to find and migrate to such a relatively small, hole-in-the-wall place. But Lytton, McConnico and others say it's not really odd at all. The Corrotoman River offers myriad hurricane holes and quiet anchorages, they say. For a sailboat, it's an easy overnight trip to Annapolis, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel or Mile Marker One of the Intracoastal Waterway. And there's always the Rappahannock right around the corner. "Regardless of how hard the wind blows, you can still sail on the [Rappahannock]," McConnico says. "Even if it's too rough on the Bay. So you can practice your heavy-weather sailing for thirty minutes if you want and come on back in. You have more options up here."
The same is true for powerboats, says Chris Robertson, who keeps his 50-foot Marine Trader and a Tartan 37 sailboat at Yankee Point. "It's a great accessible spot to work from. There's great sailing right there in the Rappahannock, and if you need more you just go out in the Bay," he says. "I keep my boat in the water year-round and I take it out in winter and go to spots like Sandy Point. And I go up the Western Branch in my little inflatable [into] the inlets and creeks and watch the ospreys and birds fishing."
When I leave the marina I trundle up Ottoman Road to the Merry Point Ferry, and there I run into yet another long-distance traveler who is making the Corrotoman his home for now. Jay Meltzer has been cruising his Hinckley Bermuda 40Gypsyfor four years. After enduring too many hurricanes in Florida, he had decided to bring his boat to the Bay for the summer—and ended up weathering Hurricane Isabel at Yankee Point. Since then he has gone and returned; this time the boat is going up on the hard for a while so he can get some work done on it, and spend some time on land. "I love this river," he tells me as we stand on the ferry, watching the cable come up dripping with sea nettle strands, pass through the roller and disappear back into the clear green water. "This is wonderful, wonderful cruising country. You can drop your anchor wherever you want and have a beautiful place."
We're approaching the Merry Point side, where countless ships and steamboats once tied up and took on their tons of tobacco, then timber, then passengers and produce. I look back across the shimmering water, past West Point where the two branches join to form the river's main stem. A fine southerly has piped up, and in the distance the white triangle of a sailboat reaches downriver to points unknown, all places possible. And that's all there is—the rich green of the wooded hillsides, the white fringe of beach, the sparkling river and a single boat, alone, all the wide river to itself.
Cruiser's Digest: Corrotoman River, Va.
The Corrotoman River is on the northern side of the Rappahannock, about 12 nautical miles from Windmill Point. After you pass beneath the 110-foot Rappahannock bridge, you'll see Carter Creek to the right. The next point of land (John Neck) was the home of Robert "King" Carter; his estate called "Corotoman" was located at Orchard Point. About 2 nautical miles to the northwest is flashing red "2" off Corroto-man Point (where the public ferry once ran across the river to Queens-town), and this marks the river's entrance. Just up-river and to port is Town Creek, where Queenstown stood as the colonial county seat in the late 1600s.
Myer Creek is the first substantial tributary to port; you'll pass flashing green "3" at Ball Point and then look for red "2" to the north to find Yankee Point, the northern entrance to Myer Creek. Just inside here is Yankee Point Sailboat Marina, and this is also a popular creek for anchoring, since it meanders with fairly deep water quite a way.
That's the case for much of this river and its myriad tributaries. By far the best way to get around is to find a copy of Richard J. Dickson'sA Cruising Guide to the Corrotoman River. (The marina store at Yankee Point is currently out of copies but is hoping the author will print more soon.) This extensive guide lays out the best anchorages, gunkholes and describes how to get in and out of them, which can be a bit tricky since many of the smaller creeks have bars at their entrances and overhead power lines up-creek.
The river forks at West Point at flashing red "8", about 3 miles from the entrance to the river. Aids to navigation pretty much peter out from here on in, other than those privately maintained. Sandy Point, unnamed on the chart, is on the eastern side of Eastern Branch, just across from Bells Creek. The Merry Point Ferry is on the Western Branch, about a mile from West Point. Always pass behind the ferry and leave plenty of room for the cable to lay back down across the bottom before you cross. When traveling up the creeks, pay close attention to the power line crossings shown on the charts.
Yankee Point Sailboat Marina (804-462-7018;www.yankee pointmarina.com) is the only marina on the river. They offer overnight slips, full service, gas and diesel, a marina store, laundry, showers, snack bar and pool.
This year's Turkey Shoot Regatta is October 6–8; call the marina for details.
There are other marinas and boating facilities in nearby Carter Creek; see the Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay for information on these.