Four peaceful creeks and one lovely old Virginia
town--a Fleets Bay package deal. [February 2010]
By Paul Clancy
Photographs by Scott Sullivan
Here's what I remember best about our trip: the day we dropped anchor in a lovely creek and rustled up lunch. Sandwiches (with pickles, or else why bother?) and cookies to follow. And our boat, ever attentive to wind and current, did a nervous about-face as the wind shifted from west to north to northeast. If it was a harbinger of things to come, we'd worry about that later. What mattered most was that as we left the creek and headed back north, we were flying
close-hauled up this gorgeous little bay, thrilled just to be there, doing that, on such a splendid day.
We were exploring Fleets Bay, just around the corner from the mouth of the Rappahannock River. Tucked in just north of Windmill Point, it's the broad collective mouth of four neatly arranged creeks--Antipoison, Tabbs, Dymer and Indian. And for us, out on a mid-October jaunt, determined to go somewhere we'd never been, it was just the ticket. Three of the four creeks (all but Tabbs)
are wide and deep enough for Ode to Joy, our five-foot-draft sailboat, and they all offer generous, protected anchorages. Plus there's Kilmarnock, Va., a great little town to explore, with a bustling marina that has much to offer. And the bay itself? It's one great big watercolor painting, with a shoreline brush-stroked with sandy beaches and deep woods.
We'd come to see the place we'd heard much about, and to visit its revitalized town, soak up wisdom and jokes at a popular hangout (favored by a former governor and his breakfast buddies) and enjoy some quiet nights at anchor under 14-carat stars. It had been a little rough coming up the Bay from Norfolk. We'd splashed anchor in Horn Harbor in late afternoon and resumed the journey at dawn, still bucking north winds and waves. But soon after Barb and I turned the corner at Windmill Point and silenced the engine at last, we felt Fleets Bay's welcoming tug. And the tug of its history.
First of all, there's Antipoison Creek and its famous Captain John Smith story. Everyone who gives you an explanation starts by saying,
"Legend has it . . ." a phrase that always makes me suspicious. But this story actually makes sense: During his travels in 1608, the famous English explorer had been badly stung by a cownose ray at the mouth of the Rappahannock. Smith was certain he was a goner, the story goes, but the local Indians knew better; they applied a poultice of mud from the banks of the creek. Ergo Antipoison Creek. And, for that matter, ergo Stingray Point, where the incident had begun.
A dozen or so years later, Captain Henry Fleet (also spelled Fleete) arrived in these parts after dropping off a boatload of settlers at Jamestown. His idea was to trade with the natives--English goods, tools, fish hooks and such for furs and skins. But as he made his way up the Potomac, he was captured by the Anacostan Indians, who kept him as a prisoner for five years. Making the best of the situation, Fleet learned their language and, later, after being ransomed, proved invaluable as a negotiator. One of his noteworthy accomplishments was securing land from the Yeocomicos for what was to become St. Mary's City, Maryland's first capital. He served in the general assemblies of both Virginia and Maryland before settling in what became known as Fleets Bay. He's buried at Fleets Island near Windmill Point. Fleets still abound in the area, including Alex Fleet, the mayor of Irvington, Va.
As everywhere on the Chesapeake, the names of the creeks mirror the history of the people who have lived on them--though no longer the Corrotoman, Chickacoan and
Wicomico tribes that once dwelt here. Dymer and Tabbs were both fur traders. Antipoison and Indian are European monikers as well, even if they do make reference to the earlier inhabitants. The land here also offers up the occasional evidence of British occupation and Civil War skirmishes--the latter in the form of Union cavalry raids and gunboat bombardments. But there's a gentleness too--you might even call it gentility--as well as a sense that people living here belong here, however temporarily. Maybe even we cruising sailorfolk.
We sailed straight up Indian Creek toChesapeake Boat Basin, and were invited to tie up at the T-head of one of its piers. The marina presides over the small harbor where Kilmarnock Wharf used to welcome steamboats, and even the occasional showboat. Right next door is a Perdue grain depot, where corn from local farmers is trucked in and then heaped into barges, bound for chicken processing plants. Until Clay and Lisa Holcomb bought the marina in the late 1990s, the place had been more than a little run down. But the Holcombs brought new life to it, and continue to make improvements. Indeed, we saw a bit of that for ourselves as workers put finishing touches on floating docks, 32 of them, that will be open this season for overnight visitors. And right next to a newly painted clubhouse, an old building was coming down to make way for a swimming pool.
The Holcombs do as much as they can to attract transients, though their very location does most of the work. Being roughly halfway between Norfolk and Solomons, it's the perfect layover for people making that run--and the approach from the Bay couldn't be easier, with a channel that is straight, wide and deep. And if you're in an exploring mood, Kilmarnock is only a mile and a half away--a 10-minute ride on one of the new fat-tire, coaster-brake bikes that are available free to marina guests. The town has good restaurants, a new inn and dozens of nice gift and antiques shops. The Holcombs also hope to persuade the town to make the marina one of the stops of the Kilmarnock Trolley, which offers 25-cent rides to White Stone, Irvington and other nearby spots.
Kilmarnock was no more than an Indian trail crossroads at first. In the 1700s, William Steptoe began operating a storehouse and ordinary there, and "The Crossroads," as it was called, became "Steptoe's Ordinary." Then, in 1764, an agent for a mercantile firm in nearby Glasgow changed the name to Kilmarnock after his hometown in Scotland. But Steptoe lives on. From May to October, merchants and the local art league put on "Steptoe's First Friday Walkabout," a kind of street party, with live music, entertainment, food and sidewalk sales.
Barb and I had a little walkabout of our own--or a ride-about, to be exact. Right after landing at the marina, we borrowed a couple of bikes and rambled to town on the quiet country road, past a large cornfield dotted with purple and pink morning glories. In town, we parked the bikes and strolled along newly brick-paved sidewalks, part of Kilmarnock's recent Main Street revitalization project, and peered into gift, home furnishing and antiques shops. "Everyone in this town has perfect taste," Barb quipped after we paraded past several . . . well, tasteful places.
That night we prepared dinner on one of the grills provided by the marina and dined in its guest lounge while pouring over charts and making plans for the next day. Our choice for breakfast was easy. Lee's Restaurant has been serving home-style food, homemade pies, fried chicken, stewed tomatoes and the like in Kilmarnock since 1939, but it might be best known as the place where locals gather almost every day for breakfast. And from the chatter at the long back table we knew we were in luck. First of all, while polishing off our eggs and grits, one of the waitresses smiled at a fellow who had gotten up to leave. "See you, Governor," she said.
I followed him outside and mumbled an introduction. "I'm Linwood Holton," he said with a craggy smile. Holton was governor from 1970 to 1974, and is probably best remembered as a progressive Republican who set an example by sending his four children to majority black schools when Richmond was ordered to desegregate. One of them, Anne Holton, is now married to the most recent governor, Tim Kaine. Governor Holton is also known as the politician who fought the old-South Democratic Byrd machine and brought Republicans to power--before falling out with them when, in his mind, they went too far to the right.
He now lives in Weems, Va., on a point of land on the Corrotoman River, just off the Rappahannock. Until recently he had a 38-foot yacht, on which he and his family cruised the Bay from one end to the other. He's enjoyed great power and prestige in Richmond and Washington but now finds small-town life more agreeable. He grew up in Big Stone Gap, a town of 3,000, "and we're now in a town that doesn't have 300, I wouldn't guess. I'm back to my roots, except it's the other end of the stick."
While we talked on the corner near Lee's, he referred to his friends inside as "my redneck crew," but wished he hadn't said it. "Don't get me in trouble with my friends." I didn't get him in trouble--even though I used the line as an introduction. The whole tableful of locals laughed and invited me to sit with them. It was about 9 a.m., the start of "the second shift," they said--the shift that makes sure the stories told in the first jibe with the second. True or false, the stories told at this table, looking out on Main Street, are the stuff of news and gossip.
"I can come in here at seven and sit till ten," said Robert Mason, editor of the Rappahannock Record, "and get more news than I can print."
Dave Hinson, sitting in the middle of the group, warned me not to take them seriously. "You listen to some of these people long enough," he said, "you won't know what right on red is." I moved down to the end and spoke with Bradley Sisson, who told me he was 94 and doing okay, although his vision wasn't so hot. It's been a great place to live, he said. Even back in 1933, just before he joined the Marines. "We had plenty to eat--oysters, wild duck and fish," he said. "but we didn't know what a dollar looked like!"
Then he told me about the old menhaden factory, which didn't have controls on its boilers and put forth a ferocious odor. "We had an old boy who ran a service station, Fitzhugh Stevens, who could aggravate people to death," he said. "One morning Stevens opened up early and this [out-of-towner] pulled in. When he got out of his car, he said, 'My God, what in the world is that smell?' Stevens said, 'We have an undertaker in this town, and he's got an old tar barrel with a fire in it and sometimes when he gets behind and starts his cremations up. . . .' He was lying, of course, but the guy thought he was serious. He said he'd never smelled anything like that."
Later that morning, eager to continue our exploration, Barb and I cast off and sailed out of Indian Creek--and before long we were swinging around the wide shoals of Fleets Bay Neck and heading into Dymer Creek, the next stop south. The second inlet on the creek's south shore is dominated by one of the largest mansions I've ever seen, a rambling English Tudor-like affair that locals refer to as "the castle." It occupies the spot, I later learned, where the old fish factory once sat.
Just around the corner from there we tied up at the dock of Dymer Creek Seafood and Winegar's Marine Railway, side-by-side businesses that have long served the region's palates as well as its boats. There we met Cathy Davenport, granddaughter of the business's founder, John Winegar. She runs the onshore operation now, while her husband and their son, both watermen, bring in the catch. They sell to wholesalers.
A couple of fishing boats, the Bay Princess and Ashley B, rested at their dock. There's a large soft shell business there, too, with almost 60 tanks.
Nearby, a yellow-painted deadrise (owned by a clammer, Davenport told us) rested on rails after having been hauled up by a 1929 Model A Ford motor. For us, it lent a timelessness to the whole scene. For Davenport, it's just part of it all, part of who she is. "You see that house?" she said, pointing through trees to a gentle rise just back from the railway. "That's where I was raised." Back then, she said, there were only 11 other houses on the creek.
Even though it was October, it seemed like a summer day. An old black dog lay in the sun, a kitten rolled in the dirt and several fat gulls perched on pilings. Davenport told us that even though she loves to travel in the winter, sometimes to exotic places, this is where her life is centered. "I'll be honest with you," she said. "Nothing makes me happier than sitting on my patio with my coffee and watching the world go by. It's so peaceful."
Our next stop was Antipoison (pronounced by locals as if it were spelled "Antapoison"). What appears to be the creek's wide mouth is in fact another bay, according to the chart--Little Bay, to be exact, tucked in under the brim of the mushroom-cap peninsula called Fleets Island, which has Windmill Point at its other end. We only had time to duck into Antipoison Creek for a quick lunch on the hook, but we could see why it is known as the most protected of the creeks, with Fleets Island blocking the easterlies.
We got back to Chesapeake Boat Basin in time to walk the mile and a half back into town and get a tour of the Kilmarnock Museum, tucked into a small frame building on Main Street. It's loaded with photos of bygone years--the old firehouse, an outlandish hotel, a Spanish-style theater and a couple of bottling plants--a time when local promoters touted Kilmarnock as "the New York of the Northern Neck." Our guide was museum founder Augusta Sellew, whose family has lived in town for generations. "My grandfather and his brother had a general store that sold everything from horse collars to feed to women's hats," she told us. "You name it, they had it. And all of it had to come here by boat." The town endured three disastrous fires, as well as a 1933 hurricane that took out the wharf--ending the town's steamboat era with a bang, not a wimper. Building booms followed each of these catastrophes, so it's no surprise that Kilmarnock, after a bit of a slump a few years ago, is growing and prospering yet again.
We fed our faces at a place called Buenos Nachos, a Mexican grill on Main Street. There's something on the menu called a Kilmarnock Quesadilla, containing shrimp and crab, and in the interest of careful reporting, I tried it . . . and liked it. They also didn't do so bad in the margarita department, either--
although here, where the Spanglish pun is king, it's called a "buenarita."
From there, feeling quite bueno, we strolled over to the Kilmarnock Inn, to have a peek at what would be our decidedly upscale accommodations that night. Nothing like sleeping on a sailboat to make you appreciate a great big fluffy bed and a bathroom with an actual tub. This extravagant inn's story goes back to 1984, when Shawn Donahue, a local real estate developer, bought a vacant century-old house on East Church Street and couldn't figure out what to do with it. Kilmarnock was pretty much a ghost town then, he says, but he knew it was coming back and he'd be part of it. An anchor hotel was what it needed, he decided. One day while having lunch at Sal's Italian Pizza, where they had one of those paper placemats showing all the Virginia presidents--eight of them--it dawned on him: a B&B with eight "presidential" cottages!
"I never have an original thought," he said with a shrug. "I see something I like and copy it." It took years, but eventually, the idea came to fruition. Each of the cottages, placed in a campus-like half-acre compound, has a distinct architecture; thus there are buildings resembling Jefferson's Monticello, Washington's Mt. Vernon, Madison's Montpelier and so forth. There are even cottages representing minor presidents like Taylor, Tyler and Harrison. The main house, the Wilson, includes "The 14 Points Lounge." It's all quite elaborate, with multiple guest rooms in all but one of the cottages (the Madison is dedicated to the honeymoon suite). We stayed at the plantation-style Monroe Cottage, which has four guestrooms, each named for a Virginia river.
The next day--sadly, our last on Fleets Bay--we had a choice: try to make it home in spite of the nasty weather approaching, or leave the boat and come back. We chose the latter, renting a car and going home. High winds persisted for two solid weeks and finally, in very late October, we retraced our steps to Kilmarnock. Back on board, we fueled up that afternoon and motored to Pitmans Cove--another popular anchorage here, just around the corner from the marina. There, planning to get an early start the next morning, we dropped anchor near a trawler from clear across the continent: Victoria, B.C. There were more Canadians about, as well; as Barb and I broke out the wine and cheese and settled in the cockpit, a riot of Canada geese took to the air from a nearby farm field. One of the squadrons was so big it seemed to take forever to form up, ending up looking like a fish hook trailing a long line. We swung gently at anchor, reading and knitting, listening to John Williams playing classical Spanish guitar. At night, the cove was splashed with stars. Dawn on the Bay was drop-dead gorgeous as we sailed out of the creek, glad to have come this way.