Skip to main content

Fall Solitude

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
  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

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.?

Related

DUFOUR_470.JM-LIOT-15

Boat Review: Dufour 470

Annapolis may be the sailing capital of America, but if you looked around the United States Sailboat Show last fall, you would have no choice but to conclude most sailboats are now built in Europe. The Dufour 470 is a good example of a modern French performance cruiser. DESIGN & ...read more

01-LEAD-IMG_6563

Close Encounters: Captain Sarah Schelbert

I met Captain Sarah Schelbert back in 2019 while on the boat trip from hell aboard a seaworthy but poorly run Triton 28 in the western Caribbean. I was trying to help the owner sail his boat back to Florida from the Rio Dulce, in Guatemala. Outbound from the river basin, we had ...read more

02-Voice-of-the-Oceans---sailboat-Kat-11

Raising Their Voices

Many of us who are cruising sailors have been sailing mid-ocean or walking along a perfect beach in the middle of seemingly nowhere, only to be appalled at the amount of plastic trash we find. Few of us, however, have taken that disheartening reality and turned it into a ...read more

IC37racingonSunday-Photo-by-Paul-Todd

IC37 North American Championship

This past weekend saw 20 IC37s off Newport, Rhode Island engage in fast and furious one-design racing with the win going to Peter McClennen’s Gamecock. “It’s huge,” said McClennen of the win. “I think of the one-designs of this club going back to the New York 30 [built in ...read more

01-LEAD-IMG_2056

South Pacific Storm Prep

Having set ourselves the task of transforming our recently purchased Open 66 ex-Vendée Globe racer, NV, into a performance family cruiser, my partner, Timo, and I found ourselves (extremely) high and dry as cyclone season approached. The favorite cyclone strategy in Fiji is to ...read more

00-Alexe-1---GUaGKDY4-single-boat-sailing-away-from-skyline,-Hill-Holiday

Cruising: Find Your Own Adventure

Whether they’re at the end of their collegiate career or after aging out of a summer sailing program, a lot of young sailors have a hard time finding a way to continue sailing as adults. Some of the barriers to sailing, including location, finances and time, can be hard to ...read more

00LEAD-IMG_2183

Heavy Hitters on Heavy Weather

“What’s the joke about heavy weather? You know it when you see it.” Figure 8 singlehander Randall Reeves drew laughs from the Cruising Club of America (CCA) sailors attending the forum “Heavy Weather Sailing: Bluewater Perspectives” as part of the CCA’s centennial celebration in ...read more

Nominne-Promo-2048x1149

Best Boat Nominees 2023

The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. Some of it is timing. Some of it is just the way of the world. Either way, it can be fascinating to see the evolution of the boatbuilding industry over the years, as has been evident in SAIL magazine’s annual Best Boats ...read more