Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Potomac Islands

Chesapeake sailing: island hopping the potomac river
Three Potomac Islands plus two 
good friends make for one great 
summer cruise. [April 2010]

By Jody Argo Schroath
Photographs by Tamzin B. Smith

It was early summer, and life was just a bowl of Jello (always assuming you like Jello, of course). My old college chum Jean and I were settled like Tweedle-dee  and Tweedle-dum into a pair of well weathered Adironacks overlooking Herring Creek at Tall Timbers Marina off the Potomac River. We had hot coffee and a VHF radio in hand and were studying the sky to the north because both NOAA weather radio and my friend Hal (located at a computer somewhere north of Washington, D.C.--and clearly with too little to do) had alerted us that severe early morning thunderstorms were at that very moment charging northeast across the Potomac from Montross, Va. This would put them either right on top of us or just to our north at any moment. So why move? True, there were no storms in sight. And, yes, the sky was powder blue and the breeze soft and seductive, just right for a lazy broad reach. But, no, we were in no hurry. We were island-hopping our way up the Potomac River. And, having set our mental clocks to island time, we felt no compulsion to slip our lines . . . not just yet, anyway. Besides we had already made a good start, with one island in our wake and only two more to go. Why push it?

I had conceived the idea of a lower Potomac island-hopping cruise during the dark cold days of the previous winter. It was just an excuse, really. I'll admit it. It was an excuse to spend a few idle carefree days nosing around the Potomac, poking in here and there, doing tourist-type things . . . or not . . . maybe just sailing around in big circles. All I needed was a cohort, a Tweedle-dee, if you will. So I called my old school chum Jean, who lives in Florida. Look, I began, there are three nice little islands on the downriver end of the Potomac: St. George, St. Clements and Cobb. They're all pretty close together--no more than a total distance of 25 miles--and all interesting in very separate ways. Come on up and we'll treat this like a Caribbean cruise. No plans except to get within at least a stone's throw of all three. We can go all touristy and visit museums and buy silly T-shirts, or just hang out on the boat, sail and swim. However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I am required to tell you that my boat has no shower, no refrigeration and only a portable toilet, but it floats quite reliably. How about it? Naturally, she jumped at the chance.

Early in June, Jean arrived in Annapolis with a sleeping bag and her clothes perfectly sorted and bagged. (I'm not bitter . . . really.) We purchased several pounds of hummus, cheese, bread, olives and beer (you get to skip the pot roasts if you leave the guys at home) and drove down to the Patuxent, where I'd left the boat several weeks earlier. The next morning we motored rather than sailed south, gliding over billows smooth and white (to quote the Tweedles) in a calm dead and doornail-like (to quote me), entering the Potomac early in the afternoon. We spent that night on Smith Creek, only a short hop from our first target: St. George Island.
The island is hard to miss, even in the Land of No Distinguishing Characteristics--also known as the lower Potomac. St. George juts out into the river so far that on a clear day you can see it from as far away as Point Lookout. But since we were only two miles away from it by the time we emerged from Smith Creek that morning, even I didn't need a GPS to find it. The island is separated from the mainland to the north by St. George Creek and to the west by a low fixed bridge (the bane of island-hopping sailors bent on circumnavigation). Armed with a sandbar that juts out half a mile off its eastern shore, the island guards the upriver entrance to the lovely St. Marys River.

In fact, I explained to Jean, who was pouring herself a second cup of coffee, St. George Island has been used to guard access up and down the Potomac throughout its history. It began life (in the European settler sense) in 1639 as part of a 3,000-acre land grant to the Jesuits, who settled in and turned their cattle out to graze. The British ruled the roost on the island during both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. When they left for good, they chopped down the island's trees and set fire to all of its houses. At that point, many of its residents packed up and moved to Kentucky.

"How do you know that?" Jean asked suspiciously as we negotiated a long pound net off Kitts Point, which marks the downriver mouth of the St. Marys.

"I read it, of course," I replied. "And I also read that they spent the rest of their lives kicking themselves for doing it. That part sounded a little iffy, so I didn't mention it. I understand that there are parts of Kentucky that are perfectly nice."

The mid-morning wind was beginning to fill in now, so I went forward to raise the main, while Jean got her first lesson in keeping Snipp pointed into the wind. I'm not going to say that the operation went smoothly, but we got it done. Unfurling the genoa was a lot easier.

Let's go up the creek side first, I suggested, since I was captain and got to make the big decisions. As we kept well offshore to avoid the long shoal and looked for flashing green "1", where we could turn into St. George Creek, I pointed to the long white Band-Aid of a beach that stretches across the stub-end of the island. That's Camp Merryelande and Far East Beach, I said. See the little cottages back under the trees? You can either rent those out or you can camp right on the sand. Cool, huh? Camp Merryelande, I added, started out in the 1930s as a summer camp for students of the Sisters of Holy Cross School in D.C.

"But I don't see anybody," Jean said.

I could see that I would have to explain a truth about Chesapeake cruising, which is: If you go during the week, even in the summer, you aren't going to find many people about or businesses open--like museums or bars with steel drum bands--unless you are in a major area like St. Michaels or Annapolis or Solomons. "And the lower Potomac does not fall into anybody's definition of major--which is part of its beauty, of course. We probably won't see much of anybody until the weekend."

After that, it was inevitable that we would  immediately find ourselves in the center of a virtual traffic jam of workboats coming and going from shallow little Island Creek, which cuts deep inside the island, and workboats traveling up or down St. George Creek. But beyond Island Creek, rush hour ended as suddenly as it had begun, and we had the leisure to inspect the private docks and piers that fronted a succession of modest cottages and extravagant "build-ups."

As we cruised along, I subjected Jean to more history (after all, we were both history and public affairs majors in school). After the welcome departure of the British following the War of 1812, somebody got the bright idea of raising merino sheep on the island. Not a good plan. Within a short time the entire flock was either dead or stark raving mad from the ticks and mosquitoes. Then after the Civil War, the island and nearby Piney Point became a popular place for presidents to while away a few winter days. Other people naturally picked up on the idea and there were several hotels built to put them in.

By this time, we were already most of the way down the island, which was quickly narrowing to a nubbin. As an island, I suppose it's lucky just to be here still. The Bay has more islands lying beneath the surface than above it. While our three Potomac islands are all still hanging on, they--like the old gray mare--ain't what they used to be. St. Clements, in particular, is a mere vestige of its former self.

Sailing the potomac river, chesapeake boating The boat traffic picked up again as we neared the bridge that connects St. George Island with Piney Point, as fishing boats cut back and forth between the creek and the Potomac. But Jean was paying no attention to that. She was looking beyond the bridge, to where high-rise buildings and a giant loading crane sprouted out of Henderson Point--thoroughly out of place here among the workboats and cottages. This is the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education, home of the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship, I explained. The school trains merchant seamen for U.S. flagged vessels.

Although we had now passed St. George Island, strictly speaking, we continued up the creek for another mile, enjoying the flights of gulls, a few high-flying osprey, the silent piney woods on shore and the soft chortle of the water as it burbled past the bow. Ah, this was the life! At Russell Point, we made a lazy turn into the wind and began short-tacking out. As the afternoon wore on, however, the wind kicked up sharply as it seems inevitably to do on the St. Marys, and we took a reef in the main and tugged in the genoa a bit. As the wind continued to increase, our short tacks began to feel a lot like thinly disguised chaos. Afternoon thunder squalls would be rolling in soon; it was time to pull over.

Regrettably, St. George Island holds nothing by way of hidey holes, except for very shallow-draft vessels, but happily the mainland side of St. George Creek does. Not great ones, where you'd be willing to ride out a hurricane--those can be found on nearby St. Inigoes Creek on the St. Marys, or even Smith Creek, about the same distance away--but just fine for 25 knots or so. We had already passed two of them, Schoolhouse Branch and Tarkill Cove, but the entrance to Price Cove now lay just off our port bow, so on the next starboard tack we eased the sheets into a reach and went in. We continued to ease the sheets to follow the dogleg to the left. There we found a quiet spot that still had a little breeze, circled and dropped the anchor and then the sails. It had been a fine first day of island hopping, and we still had time for a swim!

The next morning--appropriately late--we sailed out of St. George Creek and back into the Potomac, where we were promptly beset by the noontime doldrums. We drifted up the Potomac side of the island for a while, carried by the incoming tide, but that soon petered out, so during the slack before the ebb began we started the motor. The jumbo barge dock at Piney Point (where No. 6 fuel is transferred from barges to a pipeline that supplies the Chalk Point generating plant 50 miles away on the Patuxent River), was empty, so we motored in there for a close examination of the Piney Point Lighthouse Museum and the little park that surrounds it. The Piney Point Light is the oldest on the Potomac, built in 1836 and operating until 1964. Since it was a weekday, the museum wasn't open [see Cruiser's Digest, page 22], so we pointed Snipp back upriver. But not far. We had decided to stop at one of my favorite boatyards, itself a kind of island of the odd, old and interesting: Tall Timbers Marina on Herring Creek.

Three miles upriver of Piney Point, we found flashing green "1", and headed for the stone jetties that mark the entrance to Herring Creek. Tall Timbers Marina is just inside. Since we couldn't raise anyone on the radio or phone (not unusual here), we found an empty slip and tied up. I went looking for owner Rick Meatyard, while Jean grabbed her camera and began snapping pictures of the yard's mothball fleet­--boats of every vintage beyond Stone Age (and I wouldn't swear to that). I found Meatyard hard at work aboard the boat lift, maneuvering another vessel into an empty space. The man just can't resist an interesting old boat.

After I'd checked in with him and dragged Jean away from picture-taking, we changed for a swim at the marina's beach, a short walk across a field and through a stand of tall pines. The Potomac was placid and friendly, and the water felt good--still cool from the long winter. We could just see the Ragged Point light across the river through a thin haze.

We could have "island hopped" right here all week, chatting with the Meatyard and his son Jake, and with the people who drifted in to work on their boats--poets and painters and fishermen, often all rolled into one. But even island-hopping has its time constraints, so the next morning we made our coffeein the big screened-in room attached to the restaurant, the Reluctant Navigator (which was of course closed since it was not the weekend), and chatted and checked the forecast. Severe thunderstorms reported in Montross, Va., and moving across the Potomac. This is when we got the aforementioned text message from Hal. "Suggest you lie low," he wrote. "Severe thunderstorms coming at you!" So Jean and I took our coffee out to the Adironack chairs overlooking the marina and Herring Bay and watched and waited. And pretty soon, as predicted, the powder blue sky to the north was swallowed by a coal-black freight train of a thunderstorm, spewing lightening, and barreling east, hell-bent for leather. It was a great show, but in 10 minutes, it was only a dripping memory.

After waiting a little while to make sure there were no more storms on the same track, Jean and I packed up our gear and slipped quietly out of Herring Creek . . . or we would have, if I hadn't made the lame-brained decision to cut in front of the disproportionately large red marker that sits just off Tall Timbers. It was so large and sitting in such a small creek that I thought perhaps it had been put there in a moment of whimsy to confound visiting boaters. Wrong! Snipp's bow crunched something hard, and we came to an abrupt standstill. Happily, we'd only been going about two knots, so the damage was limited to my ego. "Come back here quick!" I called to Jean, who had gone to the mast to be ready to hoist the mainsail. I put the motor in reverse, and to my great relief, pulled free of the mud. I looked around to see whether anyone had noticed (I didn't see anyone, but you never know) and then went around the red marker the right way and out past the jetties to the Potomac.

For the next 10 miles, we had an idyllic reach up the river to island number two: St. Clements Island. St. Clements needs no introduction from a historical perspective, as the landing site of Maryland's first European settlers, but I explained it to Jean anyway, and she had no choice but to listen. In 1634, the settlers debarked here, celebrated mass and then went off to find (okay, found) St. Mary's City. Before they left, they named the island for the fourth pope, St. Clement, patron saint of fishermen, who had been martyred by having an anchor tied around his neck and tossed into the sea. (I'm thinking I might have picked a different patron saint, if anyone had asked me.) During the American Revolution and the War of 1812, St. Clements Island, like St. George Island, was controlled by the British, who harassed traffic going up and down the river.

"What's the story with that lighthouse?" Jean asked, having spotted one of the island's two prominent landmarks, which can be seen from miles away. This one was recently rebuilt. The original lighthouse had been built in 1853 and decommissioned in 1932. The island itself belonged to the Blackistone family for nearly two centuries beginning in 1669 and was called Blackistone Island until the name was changed back to St. Clements in the 1960s.

"And the cross?" she asked, alluding to the second landmark. I told her that it was put up in 1934 to memorialize that first mass, and that it's 40 feet tall, which also happens to be how many acres there are left of the island--there were 400 acres when the settlers landed. It now belongs to the state of Maryland, except the cross area, which is still federal, I think.

"In any case," I said, "let's go take a look."

That was the second bad decision I made that day. The island has two piers. The shorter one, near the lighthouse, is too shallow for us, so we maneuvered through the shoals downriver of the island to Dukeharts Channel, which separates St. Clements from Coltons Point on the mainland. Jutting out into Dukeharts Channel is the second pier, which is nearly 200 yards long.

Potomac river map, sailing

An easy enough target, I thought. We dropped the sails and started the motor to approach the pier into the wind. But I hadn't reckoned on a shift of tide. As the afternoon wind rose, so did the outgoing seas, which began running hard against the pier. We tried a landing, but lost badly to the push-me-pull-you effect of the wind and tide. Whack, went the bow anchor against a piling! Pop, went the screws holding the anchor shank to the deck! Holy cow, I cried, and hit reverse hard! Chastened, we headed for St. Clements Bay and St. Patrick Creek in search of Coltons Point Marina, where we planned to spend the next few nights.

The next morning, we went back to St. Clements Island, but not in Snipp. Bob Kopel was giving us a ride out on his boat, and we couldn't have found a better pilot. Kopel, who was on his way to St. Clements to oversee a group of men cutting and trimming along the path from the pier to the lighthouse, makes the trip most days anyway to keep an eye on the place and keep making improvements. From what we saw, it looked pretty fine already. Kopel had met us at the Coltons Point pier, just outside the St. Clement's Island Museum. A few minutes later he had pulled expertly up to the pier (in a flat-calm sea, I hasten to add) and we debarked. Much of the island off the road and monument areas is pretty wild and impenetrable, Kopel told us, then handed us the keys to the John Deere Gator utility vehicle and went off to find the men. We climbed into the machine and, feeling quite like Tweedle-Jane Goodall, set off down the path, which turned out to be part dirt road, part grassy trail, but all neatly trimmed and lined with shrubs and newly planted trees. We stopped looking for gorillas. It didn't take us long to reach the other end of the island. First we stopped at the great concrete cross in a large clearing and then went on to the Blackistone Lighthouse. The original lighthouse burned in 1956, but this one had been recently completed--after years of red tape--through the efforts of hundreds of local residents, businesses and officials. Since Kopel had also handed us the keys to the lighthouse, we let ourselves in and climbed up into the light tower. While it had been cool in the lower rooms, it was fiery hot up in the tower. We admired the view and then beat a hasty retreat.

We had had the good fortune to meet Bob Kopel through Mark Rabush, one of the new owners of Coltons Point Marina, a business that had been founded in 1960 by Kopel.

Bad weather kept us in port the next few days, but it was no sacrifice. We visited the museum, had an impromptu seafood feast during a particularly wild thunderstorm, again thanks to Rabush of Coltons Point, and stood on a picnic table in the marina's gazebo to get cell phone reception. When the forecast finally looked promising, we untied our docklines and motored out St. Patrick Creek into St. Clements Bay and back to Dukeharts Channel, where we turned upriver for our last destination: Cobb Island. As we emerged from behind St. Clements Island, we could see Cobb already, not quite six miles ahead. As we reached the mouth of the Wicomico River, we gave an island-hopping wave of the hand to three little islands not on our agenda: St. Catherine, St. Margaret and Bullock, all are surrounded by shoal water. We pressed on to Cobb.

"Is there a St. Cobb?" Jean asked.

"What?" I replied, puzzled. "Ah, you spotted a theme." No, Cobb Island was theoretically named for either the old Spanish coin known as a cobb, or a crude South American gold or silver coin also known as a cobb, or a piece cut from one of the above, which was used as currency in the colonies. Whichever it was, it probably derived from the island's original (European-wise again, of course) owner John Neal, who was granted the island (probably a peninsula at the time) because he was an ace privateer, capturing loads of Spanish shipping and thereby accumulating a great many cobbs. Nobody apparently lived full time on the island, however, until nearly 1900, when George Vickers used $5,000 he got by winning an election bet to buy it and then farm it.

"Where's the St. Cobb Lighthouse?" Jean asked.

"Ah, yes, another theme," I replied. I elucidated: Late in the 19th century the inevitable lighthouse was built on Cobb Point Bar. When it caught fire in 1940, the three keepers inside saved themselves by leaping out of the windows and into the water below. They were picked up by a Navy boat. The lighthouse was not rebuilt. Now the bar is marked by "1W", which is farther out into the river. "There it is," I pointed off our port beam. Now, to continue my history lesson, I said, refusing to be derailed by side issues, George Vickers, the early 20th-century owner, eventually failed at farming, so the island was auctioned off in 1912 for $18,000. Within ten years it was subdivided and developed.

By this time we had swung around flashing green "3W", which marks the end of a long shoal, and turned our attention to finding flashing green "2", at the entrance to Neal Sound. If you are a small powerboat with a shallow draft, you can get into Neal Sound from either end of the island. Sailboats and larger powerboats, though, are stymied by the 18-foot-high fixed bridge that connects the island to the mainland. There are marinas, restaurants and a few nice places to anchor on both sides. With the bridge directly in front of us, we picked out a likely place to drop anchor. We had been staying in a marina for the past few nights so here we decided to anchor out--but not before tying up at Shymansky's Marina and going ashore for a quick reconnoiter.

An hour later, we were walking through town admiring the variety of cottages that lined the streets. Hydrangeas were in bloom everywhere and in profusion. Purple and blue and occasionally red, the whole island looked as if it were dressed for a summer garden party. We peered into the windows of the art gallery (closed) and watched children playing in the park and neighbors talking over their lawnmowers and rakes. A thoroughly charming place! We walked the length of the island, admiring the hydrangeas and resisting the temptation to sneak into some of the cottages' secret gardens. About halfway through our tour, we arrived at a marker commemorating Cobb Island's signature historic event. Back in 1900, scientist Reginald Fessenden, assisted by Frank Very, sent and received the first intelligible speech using electromagnetic waves, using two 50-foot towers placed one mile apart. Fessenden went on to become Thomas Edison's chief chemist.

Late in the afternoon, as thunderstorms began their daily exercises across the Potomac, we hurried back to the boat so that we could find our anchorage before the storms arrived. We motored back to our chosen spot, dropped the anchor and set it. With the squalls threatening, I considered putting out a second anchor, but decided that we'd be well sheltered by the island. And we were. The skies soon darkened and the wind rose, whistling through the masts at the nearby marinas. Snipp swung gently at anchor as the wind shifted and the rain arrived. By that time we were tucked comfortably inside the cabin, eating the last of our hummus (oh, for a good pot roast!) and planning the next day's trip.

Our island-hopping adventure was at an end, alas, but we'd stretch it out one more day--in spirit, anyway--by anchoring in one of the little coves along the Port Tobacco River. We'd be able to get in another swim and just one more lazy afternoon on island time.