Issue: Online Reading Room
Three Hulls on the Potomac





by John Robinson


We're beating into the steep chop of the Bay off of Smith Point. Adam is at the tiller. The breeze is stiff out of the northeast and Go-Go Girl's sleek hulls are majestically parting the waves. With our three sons along for the adventure”Adam, 15; Ian, 14; and Taylor, 11”my wife Marybeth and I are exploring the 100 miles or so of navigable Potomac from the Bay to Washington D.C. Eyeballing an imaginary line between Maryland's Point Lookout and Virginia's Smith Point, my Adam yells, "Well, I guess we are officially in the Potomac now!"

At dawn this morning we left our home port on the Rappahannock aboard our Corsair F28 trimaran. I've been looking forward to this trip for months. The boys are recently out of school for the summer and the weather forecast looks fine. Life is good. As we round a bend in the St. Mary's River--which is especially calm and inviting after the crossing of the boisterous mouth of the Potomac--the sailing ship Dove comes into view. This stout vessel is a reproduction of the ship in which Leonard Calvert and his crew arrived in the new world in 1634 to establish first significant English settlement in what is now Maryland.

Prior to anchoring for the evening off of Church Point in the shadow of the Dove, we tie up at the St. Mary's College pier, with the dockmaster's gracious permission, and explore on foot. We wander the grounds of the college and the living history museum of St. Mary's City. It's a beautiful place, and I can't help but imagine how grateful those colonists must have been to be settling in such a place.

Later, after cleaning up another of our one-pot dinner stews, I sit in the netting between the hulls of Go-Go Girl writing in my journal as the sky blazes orange to the west. Ian entertains us with his guitar, and Marybeth studies the cruising guides. Taylor and Adam are finally coming back aboard from swimming and paddling our resident surfboard over to the Dove.

We delight in the immersion of ourselves into the life and history of the Potomac. Our days are full with all the activity that cruising entails: navigating, sailing, motoring, reading, playing, learning. We visit memorable creeks and points of interest. One of those is St. Clements Island, about 15 miles upstream from the mouth of the St. Marys River, also on the Maryland side of the Potomac. This is the site of the first landing by the St. Mary's settlers, and we are intrigued to visit it as well. A long, dilapidated pier makes access to the island easy, and we enjoy walking the sandy paths which crisscross the quiet island. The only structure standing there is a large stone cross erected in 1934 to commemorate the first landing. It's an evocative place, and on the day of our visit we have the island to ourselves.

On our Potomac cruise we sail when we can, which turns out to be more than we had expected. Otherwise we motor along with our trusty Honda outboard. When we sail under the Rt. 301 bridge, and see the cars and trucks speeding overhead, we feel like we're worlds away in time and space. Here we are on river time without a schedule, our trip unfolding before us at its own rate. We have definitely been looking forward to this: the sunken ghost fleet of Mallow Bay. The remains of over 100 wood- and steel-hull ships built for service in World War I, but too late and never commissioned, lie in the shallow water of this cove off the Potomac. We anchor among them for the night and listen to the frogs inland and gaze at the stars overhead, the water gently lapping at the boat's hulls.

Taylor at the helm A few days later and still further up the Potomac's Maryland shore, we find ourselves approaching Maryland's Smallwood State Park on Mattawoman Creek, motoring along in the calm before an impending evening storm. We tie up at the floating dock at Sweden Point Marina, and moments later the fury of a classic Chesapeake summer storm is upon us. We huddle buttoned-up in the cabin while the storm rages. Less than twenty minutes later all is quiet again, save for a distant rumble, and we open the hatches to welcome the rays of the setting sun. We explore the trails of the park, and especially enjoy traversing the arched bridge which spans a marshy cove full of water lilies. We utilize the picnic area for our dinner, and at dusk we stroll the grounds of Smallwood's Retreat, the 1760 home of General William Smallwood, a Revolutionary War hero and early Maryland governor.

The busy Woodrow Wilson Bridge comes into view. "Hey Dad, the GPS stopped working," announces Ian from the helm. We are obviously close enough to the nation's capital for such navigation devices to be jammed for security reasons. Very clever, and kind of spooky too, we agree. Commercial jets streak low over our heads, taking off and landing at Reagan International Airport, as if to welcome us to the bustle of the city. We approach James Creek Marina, situated where the Anacostia River meets the Potomac, and tie up our wide-beamed boat at an outer pier. I had called ahead to secure such a berth, and the staff is most helpful.

"Can you believe we got here by boat?" the boys marvel as we walk past the busy fish market on our way to the Washington Monument and the Mall. Indeed, this becomes an oft-repeated sentiment on our brief overnight visit to the nation's capital. I mean, really, we just sailed up and walked to the National Mall!

Heading back downstream the next day, we make our way to the Virginia home of an even more famous Revolutionary War general: Mount Vernon, the estate of George Washington. Our cell-phoned request to tie up at Mount Vernon's pier is met with a courteous reply that we would be welcome to do so. A kind security guard greets us as we tie up Go-Go Girl, and we spend the afternoon touring this beautifully restored and profoundly historic estate”which once comprised five distinct farms and 8,000 acres.
The next day we take a detour up the Occoquan River. As we tie up to the pier of a large powerboat marina, a good-natured boatyard attendant grins and says, "Hey, don't you know you have to have a motor as big as the state of Rhode Island to tie up here?" Laughing, he points us to the town where we take a brief walking tour before putt-putting out of the river with our meager but entirely sufficient eight horses.

The author writing Just downstream of the 301 Bridge, on an overcast day promising of drizzle, we are approached by an important-looking vessel with "Range Patrol" lettered on its hull. Pulling aside us, the two-man crew courteously advises us of the explosives exercises taking place at the U.S. Navy's Dahlgren weapons facility. So that is what the distant booms are all about! We are given navigational directions and told to monitor our radio for further instructions as we proceed down the river. Before leaving the area we are handed off to two more range boats whose crews ensure our safe passage.

Our next stop along the Virginia shore is Colonial Beach, which clings to its 1920s-beach-resort aura. We spend the night tied up in Monroe Creek at a pier not far from the whimsically named Winkie Doodle Point. Before dark we stroll the park and boardwalk, enjoying dripping ice cream cones from the beachfront parlor.

The sunset this night is particularly stunning, and I take it in while cradled in Go-Go Girl's netting, lazily writing in my journal. Marybeth is reading, and the boys are playing scrabble in the cockpit. A few more days and our Potomac cruise will come to an end. We'll enjoy visiting a few other places like Coles Point and Kinsale, before sailing home. But for this brief moment time stands still. This historic river has captivated and engaged us and has been the perfect setting for a family sojourn. As the orange sun dips below the silently blazing western sky I place my hands behind my head and smile. Life is good.  

Back to Online Reading Room