|by Ann Levelle|
In my best Louis Armstrong voice, I yelled "Good Mornin' everybody! It's a nice Day on the Chesapeake Bay. . . . Time for a dippy dippy!" Okay, so it was afternoon, and "everybody" consisted of my friend Annie and me, but yelling those words in earnest was a joyous occasion. First because we were ridiculously hot and dying for a swim, and second because it was almost in this exact spot 15 years ago that we first heard that phrase.
Though we had been only sophomores in high school, we both vividly remember being awakened by that battle cry. It was a three-night Outward Bound adventure on the Bay, and each cold October morning had been met with the "dippy dippy" call from our instructor, Tom Thomas. A wrinkly old salt with a booming voice and a thick, salt-and-pepper mustache, he wore a knit hat that made him look like a turn-of-the-century leatherhead. He woke us that way each morning, growling those maddeningly cheerful sentences at the top of his lungs, expecting us teenagers to immediately jump out of our sleeping bags, change into swimsuits and hop in the water. And we did. Despite the frigid water, we were, after all, teenagers and had little option but to comply.
But the morning dippy dippy had been only one of the tests of bravery my nine classmates and I, along with two instructors and one unbelievably whiny physics teacher, would endure. We had braved four days of sailing and rowing (mostly the latter) on the chilly Chesapeake aboard a 30-foot "pulling boat" (essentially a giant canoe with two stubby masts) with no head, no real shelter, crappy weather, and at times, only soggy CornNuts to eat. But despite near collisions with cargo ships, late night anchor watches, frozen toes and a near mutiny, this was the trip that made me want to become a sailor. This was when I came to love the Bay.
And ever since then--particularly since getting my own boat--I've wanted to retrace that journey. I wanted to go back and see, with adult eyes, the sights and sounds that started my love affair with cruising the Chesapeake. So this year, 15 years after the original trip, I decided to stop pussyfooting around and just do it. And, in keeping with the Outward Bound spirit, I wanted to be captain. I wanted to take the boat out without my husband John, to prove to myself I could handle the boat alone. Well, almost alone. I would need at least some crew--a backup Ann, as it were. So I called my old pal Annie, who had been on the original journey, to come along and sail memory lane with me. She's a teacher now and was more than happy to spend a few days of her summer vacation accompanying me on what we've come to call . . . wait for it . . . the Reenactment.
Although the Reenactment featured period attire (my old practice soccer shirt, complete with school logo and number), we knew it could only be loosely based on the original trip. After all, who knew how accurate our 15-year-old memories would be. The odds of our finding the exact spots we visited so many years ago were in fact quite slim. But we would try. And that, according to Outward Bound philosophy, is what's really important.
I had a pretty good idea of where we had gone on Outward Bound--or, since we're calling the second trip the Reenactment, I'll refer to the original simply as the Battle. After all, it was a darn rough trip, and if I'm going to reenact something, it might as well be a battle. It had begun somewhere in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and we had dropped anchor for that night on the Patapsco's southern shore, just downstream from the Key Bridge. On day two, we had sailed straight out of the river and across the Bay. I remember being thrilled at the prospect of going under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, but we didn't head south that day; we headed straight east toward the Eastern Shore. Then we hung a left into a tiny creek with nothing but grasses lining the shore and dropped the hook. We could no longer see the bridge, nor any of the few houses that lined the shore; we were completely isolated. It was a phenomenal spot, and I've spent many hours over the years poring over page 27 of my chart book trying to figure out exactly where we had been, which, given that the boat only drew 18 inches, could have been just about any creek on the Bay. On day three of the Battle, we had headed back across the Bay and spent the night in a creek on the northern shore of the Patapsco. I remember it mostly for being the precise opposite of the previous night's anchorage--lights from the industrial area were everywhere and we were very close to some sort of huge factory. I didn't like it one bit. On the fourth day we headed back to the Inner Harbor in terribly cold and foggy weather. And, lacking wind, we rowed all the way up the river. To this day, my hands ache when I think of gripping those oar handles all afternoon.
Annie concurred with my recollection of the trip, but couldn't remember much more than that. Actually, she had a fuzzier recall of the float plan than I did, but she sure had a better memory of the happenings onboard. Apparently, while I had been loving life learning about the boat, sailing and navigating, Annie had been focused mostly on the boys.
We couldn't start day one of the Reenactment in the same spot as the Battle had begun, since I live in Annapolis, and we didn't have an extra two days to start and end the trip in Baltimore. So instead, we left Annapolis and made our way to the Patapsco. I had been a bundle of nerves all morning, but once we got out on the water and I realized things were no different than if John had been along, they began to ease. I reminded myself that I'm perfectly capable of handling the boat, especially since John and I had done some anchoring practice and man overboard drills the day before. Plus we were wearing life jackets, and there wasn't much breeze anyway, so I doubted we'd be sailing for long. . . . I was right. By the time we hit Sandy Point, the wind died down and we had to motor on. As we putted up the Bay, passing one green channel buoy after another, we looked at the charts to see if we could remember exactly where we'd anchored the first night of the Battle. Our plan was to stay there the first night. The next day we'd make a quick swing through the harbor to find the Battle's departure point, then look for the Battle's third night's anchorage in the northern shore creek. On the third day of the Reenactment we'd look for the sweet spot--the anchorage on the Eastern Shore that has stayed a vivid memory all these years.
We got to the Patapsco after a few long, hot hours of motoring and continued up the river until we got about halfway to the Key Bridge, then turned south. Annie and I both remembered that on the first night of the Battle we'd anchored pretty quickly after passing under the Key Bridge--a very odd spot, we'd both thought at the time, since it was right in front of the homes lining the river. It felt like parking one's Winnebago in someone's front yard for the night. But Tom had assured us that we weren't doing anything wrong.
As Annie and I neared White Rocks and the southern shore of the Patapsco, we knew we'd found those same houses again: on Riviera Beach, lining the peninsula between Stony and Rock creeks. We also remembered the spit of land that extends from Rock Creek to Rock Point and had provided a backdrop to our anchorage. But we couldn't stay here tonight. The wind was picking up again, funneling straight down the river. It would've been a bumpy night if we had stayed put. Instead, we followed the winding channel into Stony Creek, into a wide semicircular cove where cute Cape Cods and beachy cottages lined the western shore.
SPLASH! Annie happily jumped in the water as I yelled Tom's infamous dippy dippy wake-up call. I passed down two beers and life jackets to float on, then jumped off the transom of the Dancing Outlaw too. Ahhh, instant relief. It was only the beginning of June, so the water was still cool, despite the seethingly hot air. So much for careful weather planning; Annie and I had chosen this week on the assumption that it wouldn't be too terribly hot and we could enjoy good cruising weather and encounter no nettles. Well, we were only half lucky. There were no nettles, but it was mid-July hot. In fact, it turned out to be the hottest week of the summer. I suppose it was apropos, being on an Outward Bound reenactment . . . we'd have to endure at least a little hell.
We felt pretty good that we'd made it this far. And even though we now were enjoying a well earned swim and ice-cold beer, I joked with Annie that I would be keeping other aspects of this trip as authentic as possible and that she'd be required to stand watch for several hours at night. And Annie assured me that since she had slept through every single one of her Battle watches, she surely wouldn't be keeping any tonight! I guess I was the geek that took the whole watch situation seriously. But Tom had told us that standing watch was serious business: We had to make sure the boat didn't drag anchor, and, more important, that rats didn't crawl up the anchor line.
Unlike the Battle, the Reenactment would not feature one-pot meals made over a Sterno canister. I had brought a nice bottle of red wine and a couple of steaks for dinner tonight. Annie was mighty impressed--I think she was expecting a steady diet of turkey sandwiches. Indeed, though my boat is actually two feet shorter than the pulling boat, it definitely has nicer amenities.
I didn't sleep too well that night. All of my dreams involved the boat dragging anchor or sinking. I was up every half hour or so making sure we hadn't moved--so much for not standing watch. But I guess it's my job as captain to worry!
The next morning we went for another refreshing dippy dippy while the coffee was brewing. Then we listened to the weather, which was not sounding good. The forecast was calling for major storms to roll through the area, starting around 2 p.m. and continuing through the rest of the evening. Neither of us liked the sound of that, so we modified the float plan. Instead of anchoring out that night, we'd head up the river and grab a slip in the Inner Harbor. That meant we'd have to go in search of our original journey's starting point by foot and skip out on the Battle's day three anchorage. I briefly considered anchoring out despite the bad forecast, but decided that I wasn't up for a lightning storm on my second night as captain. Annie fully concurred. She was not keen on roughing it through bad weather, which I guessed was because of the hell we went through the last day of the Battle. We had been forced to row up the Patapsco in cold rain and fog. We'd had only couscous to eat for breakfast, which Annie remembered because our physics teacher/chaperone had refused to eat any, claiming he didn't like couscous. Then he refused to help row because he was too tired from not having eaten any breakfast. We were almost run over by a giant ship when we accidentally ended up in the shipping channel, and to top it off, our only midday snack was the only food left onboard: soggy CornNuts. Fortunately we can look back on it now and laugh, especially at our teacher's wussiness, and how even the sight of CornNuts now will make our stomachs churn, but it really was a terrible day.
As we headed toward the Key Bridge, I pointed out to Annie the two creeks where we might have anchored on the last night of the Battle. It had to have been either Jones Creek, off Old Road Bay, or Bear Creek. I remember being very disappointed in this anchorage even back then. The previous night's anchorage had been so beautiful and serene, but this one was under the looming towers of industry. We were very near to some sort of factory or shipping port, and I hated it. So I wasn't upset that we'd miss out on finding the exact spot again. My guess is that we stayed in Jones Creek, because I certainly don't remember going under the Interstate 695 bridge that runs over Bear Creek. I apologized to Annie that we were having such hot and hazy weather and weren't able to enjoy a good day of sailing. She laughed and said, "At least we're not rowing!" Agreed. Motoring up the river was a lot nicer than rowing a 30-foot boat up the Patapsco.
We pulled into our slip at Baltimore Marine Center around noon. It was about 95 degrees outside with a heat index of 110. After a cool-down session in the pool, we hiked over to the Korean War Memorial park and caught the water taxi to Fells Point. I had a hunch that the Outward Bound boats had been kept at the Living Classrooms Foundation campus on South Caroline Street, so we headed there. We knew immediately we'd found the right spot. Baltimore's Outward Bound has suspended the sailing portion of its program (it now focuses on land-based and canoe trips), so our boat wasn't there. But seeing the Living Classrooms campus brought back a heap of memories--arriving on a wickedly cold day, heading to the docks and seeing the boat--it all came rushing back. We had been brought down to the docks, instructed to put all of our belongings into Outward Bound sanctioned duffels (I guess they were waterproof) and shown the truly primitive boat we'd be on for the next three days. It was totally open, save several seats athwartships. There was no shelter and no head--unless you count the wooden box just forward of the forward mast with a five-gallon bucket in it. But that was only for . . . uh, number twos. For peeing, the Bay itself would be our outhouse. Initially, the other three girls and I were horrified by this, but by the end of the first day had the bum-hanging technique down pat. As for sleeping conditions, we had to lay the oars athwartships, then put mats and our sleeping bags on top. Our only shelter was a tarp thrown over the boom. Good times.
Now the sky was filling with ominous clouds, so Annie and I headed back to the marina for dinner. As we ate, we looked out of the wide windows of Bo Brooks crabhouse and watched the roiling water and lightning all around. A generator at the marina next door was struck, throwing sparks in the air. I couldn't have been happier that we weren't out on the hook.
I sang to myself to try to ignore the scorching heat: He goes wa wa-wa-wa-wa wa-wa-wa-waltzing with bears/ Raggy bears, shaggy bears, baggy bears too / There's nothing on Earth Uncle Walter won't do / So he can go waltzing, waltzing with bears. . . . Annie and I were motoring down the Patapsco now, on our way to the Eastern Shore. I wasn't exactly sure just yet where we were headed, though I had several creeks in mind where we might anchor for the night. Annie was happily driving the boat (leaving a great snake wake behind, but I forgave her since she doesn't have a ton of boating experience) and I was distractedly studying the charts, deluded that I might find a clue to where we'd anchored on day two of the Battle. I went up the stairs in the middle of the night / I tiptoed inside and I turned on the light / To my surprise there was no one in sight / I think Uncle Walter goes dancing at night. . . . The song kept running through my head. This was one of many, many songs Tom taught us during the Battle. It's a totally goofy tune, but it's permanently embedded in my memory and it will pop into my head surprisingly often when I need a good giggle. It did a great job of taking my mind off the heat.
We had good wind for a little while, from the Key Bridge to the mouth of the river, but it died once we got out in the Bay. We kept the main up to try to maintain a little shade, but that wasn't going so well either. This day was totally the opposite of the day we crossed the Bay during the Battle. That day we'd had a wonderful sail. I had also learned to read charts, and I remember feeling darn proud that I wasn't one of those who got seasick.
Now Annie and I were closing in on the shore, heading into the Chester. I had Hail Creek in mind, on the southern edge of Eastern Neck Island, but wasn't sure we'd be able to get in there, even though the Outlaw only draws four feet. A few months before the reenactment, I'd visited the Outward Bound headquarters in Baltimore to search through old logbooks, hoping to find notes from the Battle. I was unsuccessful, but did find that Hail Creek was a somewhat regular stop on later trips. Plus it seemed to fit the criteria I was looking for--which was mainly a pretty creek somewhere on the Eastern Shore that I could turn left into. The only other places that seemed to fit the bill were Tavern and Swan creeks near Rock Hall, but I have a feeling we would've seen other boats, or at least lights from Rock Hall, if we'd stayed there.
The charts didn't offer much hope of getting into Hail Creek, but as we motored by I thought we might at least get close enough to jog our memories. Not so much. From the safety of deeper water, though, it sure looked like it might have been the spot. Now that we were relatively far into the Chester, I couldn't decide where to go, so we motored all the way into Langford Creek and to Cacaway Island.
There we found surprisingly deep water, even pretty close to the small, crescent shaped island. I had a bit more difficulty getting the boat to stay put, due to a shifty wind, but eventually we stuck hard. We could see a small sign posted on the island, and I had to check it out. It was a heck of a swim to get there, but I braved it. I was amazed how close I got to shore before I was able to stand. I'd say I was 10 feet away before I could stand up. I walked close enough to read the sign, which asked very nicely that people not come ashore, and told visitors that it is maintained by local community members and the state, and includes quite a few species of animals, including several that are endangered.
I considered my long swim to and from the island an homage to the morning Battle swims. While we had been required to jump in only on the first morning, Tom never gave up trying to get us in again. I guess I had enjoyed the spirit of the trip so much that somehow I found the courage to swim all three mornings. In fact, before breakfast on the morning we were on the Eastern Shore, I swam 27 laps around the boat. Bad idea. I shivered for hours. And while we were making breakfast, Tom had to help me thaw my toes out over the fire. I learned a lot from him that morning while talking about sailing and cooking breakfast. To this day I still make home fries the way he taught me--with sauteed onions and Old Bay.
After my swim to the island, Annie and I relaxed in the cockpit for a while, then we fired up the grill and cooked dinner--pork tenderloin. I surprised Annie with couscous on the side. She laughed and admitted that she had always considered it a breakfast food thanks to Outward Bound.
We hit the sack early. It had been another terribly long and hot day again and we still had one more to go. But again, I slept in fits, bedeviled by worries of dragging anchor. Finally I gave in and went to lie in the cockpit. The night sky was breathtaking. It was pitch black out, except for the twinkling of countless stars. I lay there for at least an hour, just staring into the endless sky. We may not have found the exact spot we stayed 15 years ago, but the effect was the same. This is what the Chesapeake is all about.
When I woke the next morning, Annie was already up, reading in the cockpit and enjoying the solitude and serenity of the anchorage. I raised the Battle cry loudly--"Time for a dippy dippy"--scaring Annie half to death. We had a long day ahead of us and I figured I'd get her adrenaline rushing.
After a final swim and breakfast, we weighed anchor and began the slog home. By the time we got to Love Point, we'd had the sails up for hours, but weren't able to do more than three knots or so. So we gave in and fired up the motor again. By the time we passed under the Bay Bridge, we had furled the jib, but left the main up in hopes of a little bit of shade. We took turns sitting against the mast in the tiniest patch imaginable.
About an hour from home I was so hot, sunburned and miserable that I could hardly keep my composure. I sang to myself the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." I feel so broke up / I wanna go home. We'd learned that song too during the Battle, and sung it often, our voices resonating sarcastically on the last lines--This is the worst trip! / I've ever been on! I looked at Annie, sitting on the cabin top, leaning on the mast to stay in the only bit of shade left on the boat. She looked back and said, unprovoked, "At least we're not rowing!"
Yes, I was miserable, and though I was singing that song, this was hardly the worst trip I'd ever been on. Annie and I had a lot of fun reminiscing about old times, catching up on current ones and enjoying spending a few days with an old friend. And I'm proud of myself (and Annie too) for having a successful trip. As my first true stint as captain, I had no troubles at all. And although the Reenactment wasn't 100 percent successful, I think Tom Thomas would be proud.