Issue: May 2009
Cruises Down Memory Lane

Four writers visit memorable cruising haunts of Dick and Dixie Goertemiller.

illustrations by Dick Goertemiller

Back in the day, armed with a few dozen cans of Dinty Moore stew, a list of destinations and a willingness to run aground in the line of duty, Dixie and Dick Goertemiller sailed up and down the Bay, in and out of creeks, guts and hidey-holes year after year and reported it

all--the good and the bad--in the pages of Chesapeake Bay Magazine. Setting a record that is likely to stand alongside Cal Ripkin Jr.'s consecutive games played, Dick Goertemiller wrote a Cruise of the Month story each month for 10 consecutive years--and produced the watercolor sketches and maps to go with them.

So earlier this year, when we hatched the idea for a commemorative article on the Goertemillers, we asked Dick and Dixie to give us a short list of their favorite cruising destinations. We half expected them to fling something solid--say a Weems and Plath desk compass--and cry "Impossible!" And they said just that (though, to their credit, they didn't throw anything). We took the hint and compromised on a short list of memorable cruising spots and what they recalled about each one. Then we took that list and asked the same number of writers to go and have a look for themselves.

On the next few pages you'll find the results of Dick and Dixie's soul-searching and our writers' fact-finding. We think you'll enjoy it. And this summer, you may want to do a little investigating of your own.

Dick & Dixie Remember Swan Creek

Dixie and I anchored on Swan Creek near Rock Hall, Md., in the company of a dozen or so other boats, all snuggled fairly close to each other because of nearby shoal areas. The next day I woke early, fixed some coffee and carried a steaming cupful out into the cockpit. This is one of my favorite times of day. Our trusty dinghy bobbed serenely behind--but with an unusual guest aboard, a large great blue heron, who appeared to be staking out a prime spot for fishing.

She turned and watched me as I froze in place. I didn't want to scare her off. The great blue stared suspiciously at me as I looked around for my camera. It was down below,out of reach. We watched each other for some time, long minutes, till she finally gave out a loud squawk, then spread her winds and flapped away.
Some months later, Dixie and I were giving our slide show, The "Charm of the Chesapeake," to a Middle River boating group. A fellow boater came up after the show and handed me a photo he had taken on a recent cruise to Swan Creek. It showed our boat, Moon Song, with her dinghy and the great blue heron hitchhiker.

Swan Creek Today text and photo by Ann Levelle

On the last warm Friday before we hauled the boat for the winter, my husband John and I took off for Swan Creek in the hope of spending one last quiet night on the hook. It was a resolutely calm day on the Bay--the lack of wind and boats left the water eerily flat. So we motored, enjoying being practically the only boat between Annapolis and Rock Hall. As we got inside the Swan Point Bar, the myriad masts that line the Rock Hall skyline appeared, then disappeared just as quickly, as we passed to the north of town. There, the autumn colors on shore began to come alive, the trees a mix of vibrant oranges and golds, as we rounded the corner into Swan Creek. The chart suggested an average of six feet in the creek, but we found the depths closer to eight nearly throughout.

Right away I understood why Dick and Dixie Goertemiller have such fond memories of this creek. It's quintessential Chesapeake--quiet, calm, lined with grasses and trees instead of ostentatious homes. And though there is a marina within sight, it felt like a homey backdrop rather than an eyesore. We dropped the hook, which set nearly immediately, and drifted to a comfy spot dead center in the creek. John took to scrubbing the cockpit, while I moved to the foredeck to sip a beer and take in the scenery. I listened contentedly to birds chirping, geese honking and fish flopping about as I watched a heron standing at attention in the grass. The moon was already bright at 4 p.m. and the sky was cloudless, except over the eastern treeline, where it seemed as if someone had painted a low, purple mountain range far in the distance.

All was going according to plan, until--as happens all too often on the Bay--our eveningof Chesapeake solitude was interrupted by an incoming raft-up. Fortunately the two boats stayed near the mouth of the creek, far enough away that I could hear only occasional muted laughter. And besides, I thought, as we watched the giant, deep orange sun dip into the reeds, it would soon be dark enough that all we'd see of them would be anchor lights--just two extra stars in the sky.

John and I were finishing our sunset cocktails as the faintest of breezes began to blow, just enough to ripple the water for the last bits of sunlight to play upon. A lone workboat puttered by the marina far down the creek, and the frogs croaked fiercely. After dinner we lay in the cockpit and stared at the moonlit sky for a bit before going to bed. I was already excited about the next day, when I would enjoy the brisk fall morning in the cockpit, a hot cup of coffee in hand, and the chance to take it all in one last time this year.

Dick and Dixie certainly weren't the first folks to enjoy this peaceful anchorage, nor would John and I be the last. And although it's no secret that Swan Creek is a wonderful example of a popular Chesapeake cruising ground, from time to time you can have it almost all to yourself.

Dick & Dixie Remember Dividing Creek

Our plans called for meeting a couple of other boats on Dividing Creek, about two miles up the Wye River, north of St. Michaels, Md. As we beat down the Bay, the already-threatening clouds opened up with a light shower. From the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the sprinkle continued, with winds blowing about 12 to 15 knots. As we got to Bloody Point, the wind intensity built up and with it a heavy rain turned the water into a seething milky-white pattern of waves. Several other boats nearby became obscured by the downpour, and our vision became limited to the immediate vicinity of our own boat. The tall tower of Bloody Point Light disappeared, as did the whole shoreline and Poplar Island. The rain, driven by stiff wind, stung our faces; and for a brief spell we sailed on blindly.

Finally the rain abated, and upon nearing Lowes Point we tacked right up Eastern Bay to the Miles and from there tacked south to the mouth of the Wye.

Past Bennett Point, around Bruffs Island and Shaw Bay, we wound our way eastward, with each bend of the river revealing the tranquil beauty of secluded coves and estates.

We spent the night anchored in Dividing Creek, a mile or so past Lloyd Creek on the Wye East. We motored into the creek past a 13-boat raft-up of Cal 25s and within a hundred yards found a 13-boat raft of Alberg 30s! At the same time there was a scattering of individual or paired boats, making it tough to find anchoring space. However, the creek has good deep water practically to the shore; and we soon snuggled into our chosen spot near our friends.

As evening shadows closed in, the tranquil waters were broken only by the fish feeding to the sound of tree frogs coming from the woods surrounding us.

Dividing Creek Today by Jody Argo Schroath/photo by John Bildahl

No way, I thought, as my husband Rick and I finally reached the entrance to Dividing Creek after an exhilarating but alarming day of beating into a 30-knot wind and a bull-mastiff chop down to Eastern Bay from Annapolis. Nope, I thought as I peered up the creek, there was just no way, short of adding a boatel, that you could jimmy 26 boats plus Dick and Dixie Goertemiller into this skinny little offspring of the Wye River. Thirteen Alberg 30s and 13 Cal 25s indeed! It's no wonder the memory lingered on.

Rick and I, arriving in mid-October, were greeted by no such jamboree. A single sailboat lay serenely at anchor about halfway up the creek on the windward side. All was blessed peace and tranquility. Just as Dick and Dixie remembered it. Just as legions of cruisers past and present have found it. The creek is deep to its banks and well shaded by old trees, and the air is pleasantly dank from the smell of decaying wood and vegetation, fodder for the wetlands that feed the creek. As we ghosted in, the couple on the anchored sailboat pointed above the trees and called sotto voce, "Look, a pair of eagles!" We both (regrettably) turned to look and promptly nerfed the opposite bank. Oops. Wincing, we retired to the top of the creek and turned our nose into the minimal wind and dropped anchor. As if on cue, the celestial houselights dimmed and night took center stage.

It was utterly quiet. Uncomfortably quiet. All the long day, the wind had been whistling too loud and too long in our ears, the sound of the bow butting one wave after another too insistent, the struggle for balance too consuming. Now, exhausted but still keyed up, we strained to hear the sounds that had ceased, to balance against the stillness. Fifteen minutes later, we were sound asleep.

Two hours later, it started to rain. The wind was up too. The boat swung at anchor.Iscrambled around in the darkness until I found my foulies, then popped my head out of the cabin like a prairie dog to make sure we hadn't dragged. I watched the flashes of faraway lightning. I thought about Dick and Dixie, beating down to Eastern Bay, too, with rain thrown in for added sport. We had had no rain that day, but plenty of frustration. All the way down to Bloody Point Light we had looked forward to a fine reach into Eastern Bay and then a run up to Tilghman Point before facing another beat down to the Miles. Instead, the wind had been waiting for us around every turn until we finally capitulated near the Miles and turned on the motor. Once past Bennett Point, the Wye's famous calm enfolded us, as it had the Goertemillers many years ago.

Now standing on deck in Dividing Creek, the rain ended and the wind died. I stood for a few more minutes in the dark, listening to the water dripping from the branches. Then the tree frogs took up their song. Ah. A long time has passed since the night that Dick and Dixie remember, I thought, and the Chesapeake has seen a lot of changes, but not here . . . not now. A noisy beat down the Bay followed by a silent night on Dividing Creek is immutable.

Dick & Dixie Remember Fishing Bay

This broad anchorage at Fishing Bay, near Deltaville, Va., is big enough to handle the largest of cruising groups. The east side of this interesting body of water is the long finger-like peninsula of Stove Point Neck. From our early cruising, several things stand out in my memory.

First there is the wide range of hailing ports on visiting vessels. And not only local Chesapeake Bay ports, but also boats from the Bahamas, Texas, Florida--seems as if we've seen every place we could imagine in Fishing Bay at one time or another. And the voices over the water were comforting, not raucous. In the evenings, over the stern, charcoal grills came alive. If the wind was right, you could smell the steaks cooking.

Fishing Bay provides good protection from the east and west. It also has other attributes. On a stifling mosquito-laden summer night in settled weather you can get a blissful night's sleep under the stars in the open cockpit by hooking over the stern and catching the light wisp of a southwesterly that is nearly always present, and bug free. The morning sun climbing quietly in the east will gently awaken you from a comfortable, restful night. Memories linger of the music drifting over the water from a party at the Fishing Bay Yacht Club as you were lulled to sleep.

Staff at the area marinas were knowledgeable and courteous. They would try to help you get to town for whatever they could not provide. Everyone in the area was routinely kind and helpful. Locals would offer a ride to boating transients who were walking to town.

Whether you used Fishing Bay and its facilities as a harbor of refuge, a vacation destination, a place for rest, or a place for a party, the area would not only "fill the bill" but also bring you back again and again.

Fishing Bay Today by Diana Prentice/photo by Karen Ashley

Deltaville's coordinates usually go into Strider's GPS rather hastily, when we're somewhere in or near the Rappahannock River in a situation that we're not too crazy about. Like something broken or malfunctioning on the boat. More often, though, it's weather. Then several years ago, when our six-foot keel stumbled in Jackson Creek, Randy and I discovered one of Dick's and Dixie's favorite spots, Fishing Bay--an alternative refuge with no tricky navigational issues.

Southbound on a Saturday last October, this waypoint again became our friend when gusts and unnerving jibes reminded us that calm awaited on the other side of Stove Point. Once we had dropped sail, cranked the engine, and bounded toward "2" off Stingray Point, a curious splash off the port stern caught my eye. One, two, then a half-dozen dolphin were frolicking alongside, under and ahead of Strider. Amused by their antics, my attention turned abruptly to a yawl that was coming our way, swerving wildly, heading for open water. Though the solo skipper had his hands full, he smiled and waved while adjusting the mizzen--a weekend-warrior, bless his heart, eagerly entering what we were eagerly escaping. I searched for my escorts, but they'd changed course to seek another playmate. Perhaps the yawl.   

We rounded the long, arrow-straight Stove Point Neck, continuing toward Fishing Bay's northern reaches. In the distance, a small speedboat, towing a couple of kids on an inflatable, made rapid maneuvers in the welcome smoothness. A kayaker dabbled in the shallows closer to shore. Unlike some of the havens that Randy and I squeeze into, this one gives boaters a bit of room to enjoy the still-warm autumn sun, despite rougher-than-a-cob conditions just around the corner. 

In the northwest corner, we anchored in 16 feet off the boatyard and adjacent marina;we like the holding here and Fishing Bay Harbor's convenient dinghy dock (fora small fee). Like the Goertemillers, we've never made the long trek for groceries entirely by foot, because the locals here apparently find it unconscionable to drive by transient boaters without offering a lift.   

Just three other boats were anchored when we arrived--all far enough away to be virtually non-existent--but this would change. Boat after boat ambled in that afternoon, singly and in small fleets, and by nightfall Fishing Bay twinkled with sailboats and trawlers of all ilk and sizes. The bay is nearly a mile long and a half-mile wide, so there was room to spare, as Dick and Dixie would attest.

Scanning the group for familiar boats, we spied one nearby with a Maine hailing port, and another from Oregon's Coos Bay. Generally, though, we distinguish distance-cruisers from our weekend brethren by accouterments: wind-generators, wind-vanes, solar panels. These kindred spirits would be following us on our seasonal journey down the coast, and our courses would likely cross again in weeks ahead.   

But on this mild October night we were just strangers in the darkness who happened to take the same Piankatank River exit, and who had shared a 360-degree sunset. A dog barked. A heron squawked. No sirens. No traffic noise.

At dawn, underway again toward the river channel, we passed the 105-foot schooner Alliance, last night's latest arrival, with two guys at the manual windlass. They'd be heading for the Caribbean. Silhouettes on most foredecks were clattering chain. Boats slowly rotated positions, joining the out-bound parade.
Southward on the Chesapeake, another species showed up to escort us: a small flock of pelicans. They sailed overhead, alternately flapping and gliding in unison, possibly amused at the way humans play follow-the-leader.

Dick & Dixie Remember Onancock Creek

The entrance channel to Onancock Creek, on Virginia's Eastern Shore, extends a mile or more out into the Bay. Often you can see experienced sailors navigating the creek's entrance under full sail. Their bright sails can help you pick out the more distant marks.

Over the three-plus miles that lead to the town of Onancock, we were treated to some of the most beautiful shoreline on the Bay. Marker after marker took us past beautiful homes, lawns, and fields. We anchored near the town harbor in a pocket of water to the starboard side, just before the town dock. A short dinghy ride took us ashore to Hopkins & Brothers Store and its interesting view into the past.  The many handsome old buildings in the nearly 300-year-old town made it a pleasant place for a stroll after a hot cruise.

We had come to Onancock to eat at one of its fine restaurants, Armando's. The food there was unique and very enjoyable. Meal preparation included herbs and flowers grown on their patio. Our dining experience was so enjoyable that it prompted me to write a restaurant review for Chesapeake Bay Magazine's Galleys Ashore column. Armando's owner was so happy he put aside a bouquet of flowers and a couple bottles of wine for us on our next visit. Meanwhile, friends of ours ate there, and Armando gave the gifts to them to bring to us. We found out later that the flowers wilted and died, but our friends drank the wine for fear it too would spoil. Some friends, huh? Nevertheless, we happily returned to Onancock many times. Alas, Armando's is no longer there.

Another of our fondest memories of Onancock includes food as well. Near the harbor was a bakery shop, and when the wind was just right, you could smell the doughnuts baking early in the morning from the boat. Mmm, who could resist?

Onancock Creek Today by Jane Meneely/photo by Jay Paul

You can certainly smell the fresh bread and doughnuts when you walk past Onancock's Corner Bakery in the morning, but I've never been lucky enough to catch a whiff from the harbor. Maybe the wind was wrong the time that we dropped the hook in front of the old Hopkins & Brothers Store at the foot of Market Street.

On my first trip to Onancock, 25 years ago, Clint, Lindsay and I were winding our way homeward to St. Michaels after cruising to the James River. Having seen the sights on the Western Shore on our trip south, we were following the Eastern Shore north. We had picked up the channel out in the Bay, due east from Virginia's Northern Neck, and followed it into Onancock Creek and all the way past a lovely stretch of Virginia lowlands until we reached the town proper. Onancock has long been an oasis on the lower Eastern Shore of Virginia, offering a few transient slips to visiting boaters and a deep sheltered anchorage (there's room for perhaps a dozen friendly boats to raft up) on what is otherwise a shallow stretch of shoreline (even for our centerboard). We were delighted to be sequestered from the brisk fall breezes out on the Bay and were ready to explore the quaint town that lay before us.

On that first trip we found little to do on shore but wander up streets laid out three centuries before. The town was one of Virginia's first designated ports, and as isolated as it still is from the rest of the world, it's small wonder that the original town plat still largely defines the community, complete with the original village square. The old Hopkins & Brothers Store, which once served as a general store for the community, had closed long ago, though efforts were afoot to operate it as a small museum. We peered through dusty windows and saw the old counter and a variety of barrels and hardware on display, but it was not open for visitors during our visit. Aside from the Corner Bakery (going strong) a block up Market Street, I don't recall there being anywhere to eat. Perhaps we didn't look hard enough; fresh doughnuts would have been enough.

When I ventured back late last fall, I was greeted by the same small-scalemarket-townarchitecture that I remember, but I noted a decided shift in the right direction as far as merchandise is concerned. Nowadays antiques, art and great food make up the majority of the small businesses here, and the attractive storefronts and Victorian architecture reminded me of other Bay gems--this is clearly the St. Michaels of the lower Eastern Shore--but without the crowd. The Hopkins & Brothers store now houses Mallards at the Wharf, an informal dining room and outdoor bar (in season), but the original counter and store shelving remain in place (next best thing to a museum, I guess). Next to Hopkins is the launch ramp and starting point for Onancock Kayak Tours, a new and timely bit of eco-tourism added to the mix. When I wandered into town for lunch, the Onancock General Store served me a slab of spicy sweet potato pie that was to die for (I think the secret ingredient was chili pepper--the cook had sure added something to give it some zest). Down the street, the marquee of the Roseland Theater touted a first-run movie and its International Film Series (second Thursdays). The North Street Playhouse offers live theater productions. Busy place!

Throughout the town, shop proprietors were optimistic that tourism would replace the farm produce that once kept the town dock and its recently renovated dock-master's office busy. Moreover they're keenly aware that Onancock is at the end of a very long haul, whether by car or boat, so they take care to make the extraordinary mix of collectible treasures, gourmet menus and attractive B&Bs worth the travel.

Dick and Dixie Goertemiller remember the smell of the bakery as a kind of siren call that lured them ashore. It takes a special breeze to carry that scent all the way to the harbor; steel yourself though, if you venture up Market Street at breakfast time. Those doughnuts are hard to resist.