Issue: August 2007
OFF THE CHARTS: Hitting Bottom

By Wendy Mitman Clarke

Come on. If you haven't run aground around on the Bay, you aren't trying hard enough. You aren't pushing the mud envelope. I don't have a real problem with grounding. I don't like it, but it isn't the end of the world. It is mud and/or sand, after all, not coral or rock. This laissez faire attitude probably comes from my father, whose first sailboat was a Columbia 30 with a six-foot fin keel. That's not the ideal hull appendage for these parts, but I think Dad harbored delusions of sailing performance grandeur. Besides, it was a good stout boat that could sleep six of us without much fuss.

We and the Columbia's keel had several encounters with the bottom of the Sassafras River, some easily undone with high rpm in reverse, others requiring a kedge anchor dropped from the dinghy, all very upsetting to everyone but Dad. (I never asked him, but I suspect that dodging U-boats in the North Atlantic during World War II shaped his opinion of the relative dangers of recreational boating.) In one memorable performance, Dad was standing forward of the shrouds tossing a lead line (yes, a lead line) as we made our approaches to Turner Creek, which had some notorious doglegs in places you might not expect. I can't remember who was steering, but I remember the brief soliloquy that drifted back toward those of us in the cockpit: "Ten feet." Pause. Splash. "Ten feet." Pause. Splash. "Nine feet." Pause. Splash. Pause. "Hmmm (bemused), that can't be right." Thud. Of course thud isn't exactly the right word for it, but it's the best I can come up with for what it feels like when a six-foot keel plows into a three-foot wall of mud. Invariably we managed to wiggle our way out of these embarrassing situations, and I don't seem to have been permanently scarred.

My husband Johnny, on the other hand, isn't laissez faire about much. And when we started sailing Luna--which, as fate would have it, draws six inches more than even my Dad's old Columbia--it quickly became clear he had "issues." The problem first raised its ugly head on a trip to Tilghman Creek off Eastern Bay. This creek has a twisty little entrance channel, narrow and not very deep. The weather was fine, the visibility was perfect, and Himself was a nervous wreck as we crawled past the daymarks with all the speed of a sea cucumber.

"What's the matter?" I asked. "It's damned shallow, that's what's the matter," he said. I looked at the depthsounder. He was right, it was shallow. But hey, it was mud. It wasn't as if we were on a rocky lee shore in 20 knots of wind. I probably said something to this effect. Johnny glared at me. We poked our way into the creek without mishap and, like a bride who's just discovered something new and unexpected about her betrothed, I filed it away under that compartment where you put stuff you hope you don't have to deal with again (the denial compartment). Naturally the Bay had other ideas, and it wasn't long before the bottom came up to meet us, and Johnny again looked like he was sitting in a dentist's waiting room contemplating an impending root canal.

"Really," I said, in what I am sure was a provoking manner, "what is this thing with you and running aground? I mean, you grew up here, right? Isn't it a fairly common state of sailing around here, to be running aground?"

"You don't understand." And wouldn't you know, for him too it goes back to the Old Man. Only his father, instead of being somewhat bemused and amused by the playful antics of the lead line, eschewed its use entirely, insisting whenever anyone suggested that perhaps he might want to be careful around this area or that, "I know these waters like the back of my hand!" At which point everyone onboard would clamp on to the nearest solid object so that when the boat slammed into the bottom--which invariably happened--they wouldn't end up with a mouthful of deck. Evidently there were episodes involving long cold nights awaiting a rising tide; I didn't want to probe too much. This sort of deep emotional damage is best handled by professionals.

Hello, Sea Tow? . . .