The northwest winds blew fresh and cool, ushering in some of the finest autumn weather I’d ever experienced on Chesapeake Bay. The light, shifty breezes and stultifying humidity of summer were gone, and I congratulated myself for waiting well into September before making the passage south aboard Sonata, the 36-foot Pearson cutter my wife, Liz, and I lived aboard. We’d come down the coast from Maine, bound for the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) and warmer climes.
The boat heeled hard to port, holding a steady 7 knots under a full main and yankee jib. I set a course right outside the shoals off the Chesapeake’s western shore to snug up in the lee of the land. Farther to the east whitecaps swept the bay, and as we crossed the wide-open mouth of the Potomac River, spray flew, glistening like sunlit diamonds when waves slapped the windward side of the hull. We were about to leave Maryland in our wake and enter the tidewaters of Virginia.
“This is the real deal,” I said, looking over at Liz from the helm, “the real Chesapeake.”
She smiled, glanced at the rough water on the river. “I like the lee better than the real deal,” she said.
Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, about 200 miles long with 11,684 miles of shoreline (including its tributaries), and is a unique national treasure. Its European-influenced history dates back to 1524 when explorer Giovanni da Verrazano sailed into its waters; the British established the Jamestown colony in 1607 with the help of Captain John Smith. Known among Native Americans as the Great Salt Water, the Chesapeake watershed touches five states and is fed by eight major rivers and hundreds of creeks.
The Chesapeake offers seemingly limitless cruising possibilities: quiet and scenic gunkholes, thriving sailor-friendly cities, forgotten islands with their own dialects and small towns where time seems to have stood still. Plus, the local blue crab is to die for. The stretch from Smith Point to Hampton Roads has all that and more. The Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James rivers slice Virginia’s western shore into three great peninsulas, each with its own assortment of attractions ranging from bucolic to decidedly urban.
The bay is 35 miles wide at the Potomac River, and it felt like an ocean as we passed Smith Point. Here the open water allows for splendid sailing with less concern about shoals and we started to feel the influence of the vast Atlantic beyond the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which stretches 17 miles across the mouth of the bay to link Virginia’s east and west shores. Soundings inside the bay average 21 feet, and when stiff winds oppose the tide, a nasty chop can develop.
Aboard Sonata, with a draft of 5ft 6in, the squawk of the depthsounder alarm became routine as we nosed into nooks like Antipoison Creek, just north of the Rappahannock River, and Windmill Point, where we snaked into the narrow channel and dropped anchor after our boisterous sail. If stress is poison, then Antipoison Creek is an antidote. Great Wicomico River, Dividing Creek, Indian Creek, and other tributaries between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers are additional gunkholes with good protection and holding in thick mud that clings tenaciously to anchors and rodes.
Stingray Point lay to the south on the other side of the Rappahannock. It’s home to Deltaville, a once-bustling boatbuilding port that’s now a small town where boating and fishing are popular. Farther up the river’s south shore, a bit off the beaten track, is the quiet, charming town of Urbanna. Virginia’s official oyster festival is held in Urbana in November and attracts hungry crowds of bivalve fans. Both of these destinations were appealing, but we knew we’d often be staying at marinas while on the ICW so the solitude of anchoring won out over a visit to civilization. Southbound Canada geese flying in V-formation honked overhead as the sun set, reminding us that we, too, were snowbirds.
The northwesterly winds held the next morning, perfect for the passage to Mobjack Bay and the York River. Classical music wafted up from the stereo below in the main saloon. I sipped hot coffee and relaxed. The wind gradually dropped. Then it died.
“It couldn’t last,” I said, trying not to sound morose as I stared at the limp sails.
“Ah, the sailing life,” Liz said. “Turn on the motor.”
Her suggestion made sense. I fired up the diesel.
Eventually, the abandoned 55-foot octagonal sandstone lighthouse on the tiny island off New Point Comfort hove into view. Commissioned by Thomas Jefferson in 1804, the lighthouse is the third oldest on the Chesapeake and marks the northern end of Mobjack Bay’s rural Mathews County, which is situated on what local residents call “the Middle Peninsula.” Its close proximity to Norfolk made it a busy steamboat hub in the past, providing service to and from Hampton Roads. Four rivers cut the shores of Mobjack Bay, the East, North, Ware, and Severn, and each has its share of secluded anchorages.?