We were sailing to Byzantium, no country for old women,
and we thought we'd find it somewhere on Eastern Bay,
between Tilghman Point and Poplar Island. [March 2011]
By Jane Meneely
Illustrations by Jan Adkins
We had an assortment of life-sustaining canned goods and a hefty box of equally life-sustaining cabernet sauvignon, which meant that my friend Karen and I were ready to set forth on our annual sailing adventure aboard little Petrel, my Tartan 27 sloop. So set forth we did, with a smart breeze clipping out of the west, putting us on a reach to . . .
"North or south?" I asked Karen. It was a simple enough question. Leaving from Herring Bay we had the whole stretch of the Chesapeake to choose from. "We can make Norfolk by dawn," I pointed out. "Or Havre de Grace by the wee hours."
"I was thinking much closer to home, like Eastern Bay," she said. "It's awfully hot today.
"Okay, Byzantium, then! What say we sail to Byzantium?" Clever, literary lass that I am, I was referring to Billy Yeats's poem about the land of youth, where passion and sensuality are emblazoned forever in the mosaic of time. I had been grappling of late with the vagaries of the aging process: the thickening waist line, the thinning hair, the thudding of hopes and dreams. "That is no country for old men," it begins. I suspect there aren't many old women there either, and I yearned for the respite of one last fling with youth, real or imagined, and what better companion for something like that than my best buddy from my own long-lost land of youth and vigor, whose memory pool converged so fabulously with mine?
"That's fine," Karen said, squinting at the sky. "As long as it's somewhere on Eastern Bay." She was never the poet. Karen's is the voice of reason, even-handed and unmetered, always, in these little escapades. It was going to get bloody hot as the day wore on, she pointed out, this being the blazing summer of 2010. If the breeze pooped out, we'd be stewing in our own juices there in Petrel's cockpit. And while we'd planned to have a hot time on this little cruise, we had hoped it wouldn't be because of the weather. Heading straight across the Bay was a far more prudent idea.
"As it happens, that's exactly where it is." I said, and lobbed the tiller to starboard a notch so the boat leaned toward Bloody Point. Grecian urns and mackerel-crowded seas aside, Byzantium could be anywhere, right? "Wait," said Karen, fiddling with her new-fangled handheld GPS. "Let me figure out our course."
"Our course is that way," I said, with a cursory wave toward the old Bloody Point lighthouse (we had amazing visibility that day). "We have a straight reach across the Bay, and then we nudge left."
"It might get foggy," said Karen. "Or the Eastern Shore could catch on fire, and we'd be blinded by smoke. We might not make it across the Bay before nightfall." She intently switched dials and pushed little buttons and kept her eyes glued to her GPS screen while she talked. "We have the GPS, we might as well use it. Besides, I'm still learning how it works."
I pretended not to head directly to Bloody Point, while Karen fiddled and twisted and tweaked her dials and finally said, "Okay." She was looking at Petrel's compass now. "Hold your course. The GPS says we should be in Eastern Bay in around four hours."
I didn't say anything. Petrel was moving along at a lovely clip. If the Eastern Shore were to burst into flames and ruin our visibility, it would have to hurry. I seriously doubted we'd run into a sudden fog bank, and nightfall was easily more than four hours away.
Karen studied the screen of her GPS. I watched a seagull drift by overhead in its guileless mastery of the summer breeze. I'm a colossally lazy navigator, and Karen knows this. I have a compass, but there's always something else worth looking at--like that ever-so graceful seagull or the white-capped waves or. . . . If I can see my landfall, then I point for it and to hell with plotting a course. It's a bad habit, I suppose, but honestly come by.
I used to pole my little crab skiff up and down Spa Creek, using my dip net to propel me forward. A flat-bottom boat is a wonderful way to get up close and personal with the world. I navigated by feel, by shadow, by fallen tree branch. Now that I'm a big girl with a big-girl boat, I find myself navigating the same way, usually. I just go. Point the boat and go. Now and then, I'll look at a chart and pick up the nearest mark (you're supposed to know where you are so you can report the position if you see someone in trouble, right?). Heading back, I can pick out Rockhold Creek by a particularly needley spindle jutting between a couple of water towers.
There's a certain freedom that comes with knowing your bearings by the lay of the land. Those of us who cruise the Bay are absolutely coddled by our ability to maneuver so far and wide and remain within sight of particular landmarks. For those of us with shallow drafts and centerboards, the Bay is a benign and forgiving place until a storm bursts our bubble or we snag a crab pot. There's always something to worry about. But, let's face it, sailing from Herring Bay to Eastern Bay isn't like sailing to Block Island or Bermuda, especially on a bright sunny day with a wind from the west.
Karen was still glued to her GPS, but now she had that "look" on her face. Something told me we weren't making good enough passage over ground--those blasted little boxes conjure up entirely too much information, if you ask me. Personally, I thought we were moving along just fine. But no. When Karen came up for air, her steel blue eyes locked on the jib halyard. "Give that a yank, will you?" she said taking the tiller with her GPS-less hand. That's one benefit of handheld gadgets. You can't very well do any actual work while you have them in your mitt.
I dutifully scrambled forward and gave the halyard a tug. "Change the fairlead while you're up there," Karen said in her sweetly cajoling voice. Karen never yells. I don't think she has the yelling muscle that seems to come standard on most human frames. Still, it's hard not to do her bidding. She makes it sound so reasonable and easy. Even when it's 112 degrees in the noon sun. Good thing we had a breeze.
"Do you have a swim ladder?" Karen asked, when I returned to the cockpit.
"Sure do," I said. "It's one of the old-fashioned ones, just rope and steps, so it's a little tricky to use. You have to be eleven, or a monkey, if you're going to manage it properly."
"When we get where we're getting to," Karen said. "I'm going swimming."
"When we get where we're getting to," I said. "I'm going swimming, too."
That's how hot it was, breeze or no. And, rope ladder be danged, eleven wasn't all that long ago for us, or so it seemed that lithe and lively afternoon as we sailed toward Eastern Bay.
The course from Herring Bay to Eastern Bay is pretty straightforward, as I mentioned. You can see where you're going--that is, if you're paying attention to what's around you and you're not staring at some back-lit box on your boat's dash or in your hot little hand. The interesting thing for me was the way Poplar Island loomed to starboard. The effort to rebuild what has been in my cruising lifetime a scanty trio of scrubby islands has gone off swimmingly, and the new island "footprint" is massive. I hadn't sailed north in quite a while and so had missed the gradual expansion of the island's shoreline. Now I did a double take.
When I leave Rockhold Creek I don't actually turn east and cut across Long Bar (I have that centerboard, remember) until I've got Poplar Island lined up just so to port. Lest you think me foolhardy, I've sailed that line with my electronic depthsounder going full blast and found the way to be deep and clear enough, even with my board down, except once at a really low tide when I had to hold my breath for a brief stretch. The humpy bit of the old Poplar Island has looked the same as long as I've been coming and going from Herring Bay. It rises unerringly like a gray-green Kilroy nearly dead east of the third channel marker leading into Deale. Now that I was actually closing in on it, I could see the new riprap expanding like a stony girdle, marking the outline of what will eventually be the new and improved Poplar Island, which is steadily being rebuilt--partly as a wildlife refuge--out of countless tons of dredge spoil. When all is said and done, Poplar will again be more than a semicolon on the charts--and Tilghman Island and much of the length of Tilghman Neck will have its circa 1850 buffer back to slow the inexorable erosion of mainland soil. Also, perhaps, the newly expanded shallows will play host to replenished underwater grasses and the critters that thrive therein. Terns and osprey and bears (well, maybe not bears) will have the run of the place, I'm told, and people on boats will be asked to steer clear (unlike Hart-Miller). It's all good. Boaters can go ashore at nearby Lowes Wharf or Knapps Narrows if they want to party. Most of the traffic here is on its way to St. Michaels or Oxford or Kent Narrows anyway.
We were in the thick of that particular stream of traffic at the moment, having effectively crossed the Bay proper and joined the fleet that was funneling into the mouth of Eastern Bay. Karen was satisfied with our speed, though she kept nervously telling me that we were heading for shallow water--she could see it on the GPS. I kept reassuring her that we were in wide-open Bay, heading for Bloody Point and then around Kent Point and that the water where we were going would be plenty deep forPetrel (bless her centerboard) albeit on the shallow side for the likes of, say, the Pride of Baltimore II. Karen found that of little comfort, but I did get her to look up as we neared Bloody Point Bar light.
A few years back (maybe more), I could hear the Bloody Point foghorn sounding through the darkness all the way across the Bay to Annapolis. It was a long and lonely sound that would make me feel all the warmer and snugger in my bed as I listened. I don't remember ever hearing it in the daylight--maybe because the fog had burned away by then. It would roll through my waking time in the morning, on fall days and early spring. Karen remembers it too, its low sonorous whisper mysterious and beckoning. They shut off the horn in 2002 and we aren't the only ones who miss it.
Once we'd eased up Eastern Bay, we finally had to tack a few times to get around Tilghman Point at the mouth of the Miles River. The exertion left us utterly exhausted by the time we finally dropped anchor off the wide strip of beach that leads to the entrance of Tilghman Creek. This is the north end of Rich Neck; the south end is Tilghman Island. We watched the rest of the fleet slog resolutely past us, heading up the Miles River to St. Michaels. No one else stopped to enjoy this inviting anchorage, which meant there was more of the inviting anchorage for us.
Out came the swim ladder, and overboard we went. The water was deliciously cool, the jellyfish didn't find us until we'd managed several laps around the boat, and the ladder wasn't entirely unmanageable. The red wine made a fine polish as we basked in the evening breeze, watching schools of silversides dapple the surface while skates cut jigsaw slices from the otherwise still water. Karen took some pictures, but something was desperately wrong with her camera: The images showed two middle-aged women (one with a bit of a paunch) lounging in the cockpit. I can't imagine where she was aiming that thing. Where were the two lithe young women, not far past eleven (though old enough to drink, apparently), who had just scrambled up a rope swim ladder and were now reveling in the afterglow of a marvelous sail? We were in Byzantium, where an aged woman is but a paltry thing, "a tattered coat upon a stick, unless soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing. . . ." And we were singing, just then, full of red wine and gusto, young and younger still as the night wore on.
Morning came, with the sun pouring over Petrel like hot scotch, burning our tongues with its armored heat. Karen and I stretched the awning over the cockpit and lounged, napped, read, nibbled on niblets. A fresh breeze blew so we weren't actually broiling. Having convinced ourselves that it was all rather pleasant, really, we were loathe to haul up anchor and go, but go we did. Early afternoon found us rounding Tilghman Point again, now heading for Poplar Island. We were going to see what was what in that newly reclaimed harbor, maybe anchor there for the night.
Our sail down the length of Eastern Bay was relatively uneventful. A storm was brewing as we neared our destination, and we decided that perhaps we would be better served to head into Lowes Wharf, directly east of the new, improved Poplar Island, about three miles north of Knapps Narrows. I recalled a restaurant there, and a small marina. A quick phone call confirmed that both were still there, and an inn to boot, all under the banner of Lowes Wharf Marina Inn. And indeed they had an empty slip for us, assuming we didn't want to anchor off the beach and have the "ferry" pick us up. The slip would be a tight fit for Petrel, even with the centerboard up, but with the sky looking angrier by the minute, we decided it would be the better option. We bumped once going in, and then couldn't quite smoosh all the way into the slip, but the tide was low and starting to come in, and we could scramble onto the finger pier, so we made her fast and climbed ashore. Since I'd been there last, the wharf had sprouted a new tiki bar, complete with live music and scantily clad patrons clustered here and there. Ah, Byzantium at last!
We weren't the only ones wearing shirts, but we were definitely in the minority. Trim healthy bodies surrounded us, gleaming and bronze, leaning against the bar and adorning the picnic tables on the sandy beach. Young children laughed and played in the froth of the shoreline, oblivious to the storm, which was, by then, stalking resolutely off to Baltimore like some time-warped British battalion.
Karen and I were minding our own business, sipping on vodka tonics, when a reasonably nice-looking fellow strolled over and leaned against the bar. "You're different from the other folks here," he said to Karen. Guys are forever strolling over to talk to Karen. That's been the story of my life, our life. If they stroll over to talk to me, it's only because they're hoping I'll introduce them to the attractive blonde I'm sitting next to.
I ignored the conversation that followed, and instead began one of my own with a fellow and his wife who had recently discovered the new bar and had come down from Kent Narrows to spend the afternoon. They had been ready to head back, but noting the thunderheads, chose to stay put till the weather cleared. We talked of tiki bars far and wide. Clearly this one at Lowes Wharf was the newest on the middle Bay, and it seemed to have a winning formula in play: The beer was cold, the band was in tune, and there were plenty of umbrellas. This was a Sunday afternoon. "You should have been here yesterday," my new friends said. "This place was really hopping." It looked pretty hoppy to me right then and there, but what did I know? I don't usually frequent tiki bars.
Karen's erstwhile acquaintance had sauntered away, and she was getting decidedly antsy. With the storm gone, as well as the vodka, we sidled back over to Petrel and shoved off--specifically, we were going to tuck into the wide and shallow inlet between Jefferson Island and the new dredge-spoil island to see if we could safely anchor.
"You two didn't chat long," I said to Karen when we were under way. "He was a little bit creepy," she said. "He thought we were gay." And apparently he didn't like the idea. I had to laugh out loud. "And therefore," I said, "have we sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium."
Karen ignored me and began fiddling again with her GPS. "It's going to be shallow over there," she said, nodding toward our destination: Jefferson Island, so-named by the group of Democratic politicians who established a hunting lodge there in the 1930s for their Washington cronies--Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, among others. The lodge burned in the 1940s and the dwindling island has remained in private hands ever since. "Yes, and full of mosquitoes if the wind dies," I added.
Fortunately for us, the wind didn't die after we'd dropped the hook. More fortunately, the anchor held, even though we had such a rough torrent of wind that night as I have never experienced on the Bay, not counting hurricanes. Karen and I sat and watched the lightning show that bedazzled the Western Shore. The entire sky from Baltimore to Washington was ablaze, and the wind blew all the harder, as if to snuff the flames. I slept uneasily in the cockpit, with the wind howling through the rigging and the stars scattered among the midnight clouds like golden tacks holding up the tattered sky. And then I could have sworn I heard something driving by on a gravel road, and I woke to see a truck rumble past on the rim road of Poplar Island. I gave a wave and got a wave.
Karen was awake too, tuning in to a weather report: scattered thunderstorms throughout the morning and afternoon, the NOAA voice said. Since we had planned to head back anyway, we decided to scoot while the scooting was good, so we set off for Deale without delay and made it back toPetrel's slip by noon.
Within the hour we were seated at Petie Greens, a nearby bar and grill, feasting on soft crabs. "Bet they don't have these in Byzantium," Karen said.
"Then Byzantium isn't all it's cracked up to be," I replied, savoring a crunchy back fin. "Where to next? " I asked between bites.
"How about Xanadu?" Karen said.
Sounded pretty good to me.