Issue: March 2006
Crossing the Bar

It’s the getting there and back again that makes sailing such an adventure-like this weekend trip to the Rhode River.


     It was time for our annual post-Thanksgiving cruise. Friend Paul, son Stewart and I jumped aboard my little Tartan 27, Petrel, and headed out from Shipwright Harbor Marina on Herring Bay to meet up with our pals, the Shoemakers, aboard their Bertram Shoe In. We planned to rendezvous on the Rhode River, and we had a lovely afternoon in store. The weather was mild, the wind was from the west and it wasn’t too terribly cold. The long fetch of open water rolling up from the south lapped the shore with gentle swells. The tide was starting to come in as we slipped out of Rockhold Creek and into the tight channel leading into Herring Bay proper. Ahead of us another sailboat was heading out as well.

     “Look where they’re going!” I said to no one in particular. The boat ahead of us had veered east and looked to be cutting across Long Bar, heading straight for the open water of the Chesapeake itself. Anyone who has come into Herring Bay is well aware of the long shallow finger that shoots across the inlet, limiting direct access to Rockhold and Tracys creeks. Boats coming from the north have to virtually cross the mouth of Herring Bay, heading toward Holland Point, and loop around the flashing red mark at the end of Long Bar before slugging north again and into the protection of the creeks. How much easier it would be if you didn’t have to bother! My brother, who also keeps his boat at Shipwright Harbor, had suggested that my little centerboarder could probably slide over the shallows. He had noticed plenty of sportfishermen ignoring the channel markers. I drew about as much as they did with my board up, he said. But so far, I had only dared to cut that last mark. I watched the other boat carefully. She looked like a Cape Dory-not a terribly deep-drafted boat, but I was pretty sure she had a keel under her. I switched on the depthsounder; though I hadn’t had the boat long, I knew it was accurate. “Let’s follow them,” I said.

     We had already cut the engine and hauled up the sails. The worse thing that could happen was that we’d bump bottom and have to bear off quickly. The tide was coming in-that was in our favor, at least. And so far, the other boat was moving steadily along, on a beeline for Poplar Island. With one eye on the depthsounder and the other on the boat in front, I began edging over the bar. The numbers on the depthsounder dropped slowly. Eight feet. Then seven. At least the drop wouldn’t be precipitous-I hoped. Suddenly the boat in front swung to the right. Uh-oh, I thought, here it comes. But the depthsounder held steady, just above four feet. Stewart and Paul barely breathed. We had just inches to spare; anything lying on the bottom could have caught us-an old crab trap, a waterlogged snag . . . I wondered about the prudence of what I was doing, but rationalized quickly: We were just getting to know the lay of the land here, I thought to myself. In rougher conditions I would have left well enough alone and obeyed the marks. Really. But deep down I was thrilled to think that we’d shaved as much as an hour off our afternoon voyage, and I filed the visual bearings away in my brain for safekeeping. The depthsounder began clicking up. We were across. Now all we had to do was reach north toward Curtis Point and the mouth of the West and Rhode rivers.

     Needless to say, we made good time. About even with Bloody Point I tried to contact Shoe In on the radio but got no answer. That was troubling. I could hear plenty of chatter on my radio-including the Shoemakers trying to call us-but it didn’t seem as if anyone could hear me (Note to self: add “radio” to the list of needed equipment).

     We noodled around Curtis Point and saw Galesville in the distance on our left. The Rhode beckoned on our right. I tried the radio again, and this time Shoe In answered. They were anchored and waiting for us, they said. Hmmm. Maybe a new radio could wait. 

     Well up the Rhode River a thin crescent of beach is all that remains of High Island. While it’s still visible, high tide nearly swallows it up. Boaters new to the anchorage need to look sharp. Shoe In had anchored just off the island, south and west of Carr Wharf, a public landing where they had “planted” a car earlier in the day. Their daughter Kate had a concert to go to that night. When it was time for her to leave, we would slip Petrel’s lines and motor her over to Carr Wharf. The evening sky progressed from deep turquoise to a vibrant apricot yellow. Temperatures began to drop and the three of us were glad to climb aboard Shoe In and share the warmth of the cabin-and the fine meal cooking on the barbie. A rousing game of Uno closed out the evening, and we finally said goodnight and climbed back aboard Petrel and into our cozy bunks. When we awoke in the morning, it was to the blast of gunfire as duck hunters took aim from the wooded shoreline above the anchorage. So much for sleeping in.

     Patrick Shoemaker joined us for the trip back, but it was rough going. We had a brisk enough breeze leaving the anchorage, but we managed to get snagged on High Island before we could quite get under way. Then we came up hard on the point opposite Carr Wharf and Cadle Creek. We’d been warned about that, and Stewart tacked the minute the depth began to drop, but the boat didn’t turn fast enough (he says). Shoe In obligingly pulled us off, but we were burning daylight by then and hadn’t even made it out of the river. Even worse, the wind was coming from the south, and we had it smack on our nose when we finally rounded Curtis Point. It was cold. It was wet. And what had been gentle rolling swells the day before now piled higher and higher as the afternoon progressed till we were smacking through them like a hard fist. Water sprayed the deck and lashed our faces. Cold water. Cold November water.

     We started the engine as soon as we could make the turn into Herring Bay. It was high tide, and when we’d tested the bottom the day before the tide was low. We made our way gingerly across Long Bar, with all eyes on the depthsounder again. This time, we slid across with plenty of room. Cold, wet and bedraggled we motored into the dock just as daylight was starting to fade. It was a pretty glum scene, but I’m an optimist. “Hey,” I said. “The good times all fade into one happy blur. It’s the bad times that stand out as memories.” Stewart, Patrick and Paul looked at me as if I’d just swallowed a cup of raw bilge water. “And we made it over the bar,” I reminded them.

     “Speaking of bars . . . “ Paul said.