On a Friday morning in May 1971, five men cast off the docking lines of their chartered Columbia 28, L’Amie, and set out to sail the Chesapeake. Little did they suspect they were beginning a tradition that would endure for the next 34 years.
The five men were the Board of Governors of the Cooper River Yacht Club. All were experienced skippers of small one-design racing sloops, but this was their first “big boat” experience.
The Cooper River Yacht Club, located in Collingswood, New Jersey is on a stretch of the Cooper River several miles long and about 200 yards wide. Because of limited sailing waters, cruising in larger boats is not an option. The club has a very active one-design racing program and a highly regarded learn-to-sail program. At the time of this adventure, the club raced fleets of Comets, GP-14s, Sunfish and Moths. The GP-14 fleet had over 100 boats—the largest in the world.
The CRYC Board of Governors (BOG) monthly meetings consisted of the commodore, vice commodore, rear commodore, secretary and treasurer. During one of the winter meetings of 1970-71 the commodore suggested they charter a sailboat for a weekend getaway on the Chesapeake. The idea was well received and plans were set in motion. A Columbia 28, owned by another CRYC member, was available for charter for a three-day weekend in mid-May. Sailing a 28-footer would not be a problem, but handling her under power and navigating the unfamiliar Chesapeake would be a learning experience.
The first day’s destination was Georgetown on the Sassafras River. Underestimating the length of the river, the sailors found themselves over a mile from Georgetown by nightfall. Unfamiliar with the river and night navigation, the last mile was covered at about two knots of speed and four crew members anxiously piercing the darkness with a flashlight in search of channel buoys. To add to the difficulty, they ran out of gas in the primary tank. The spout on the reserve fuel jug wouldn’t reach the fill pipe on the main tank so they used a coffee pot to perform the fuel transfer in the dark. A grand celebration concluded day one with cocktails and dinner at The Granary Restaurant.
Day two took the BOG south on the Bay. With the sailing easy and pleasurable, each crewmember took a 30 minute shift on the tiller. At the mouth of the Chester River, several crewmembers lobbied for Kent Narrows as the evening’s destination. The commodore, however, insisted Queenstown had more to offer. It was a little further up the river but had a quiet anchorage, town dock, post office, movie theater and restaurants. The commodore’s suggestion ruled and Queenstown would be the destination for the final night.
The entrance to Queenstown Creek was easy to locate, but the channel was not. With three crewmembers on the bow and several encounters with the bottom, L’Amie arrived at Queenstown’s town dock, which was comprised of a dozen rotted pilings. With L’Amie at anchor in Little Queenstown Creek, the group rowed ashore. Two fisherman were hauling their skiff out of the water on the crumbling launching ramp. A conversation with them quickly determined that the cruising guide was out of date by 15 years and there were no longer any restaurants in town.
The conversation also determined that the fishermen had come in early from the water because they had run out of beer. Sensing an opportunity, the L’Amie crew offered a six pack of beer in return for a ride to the nearest restaurant three miles away. The fisherman agreed and soon the hungry crew were dining at a small roadside bus stop eating a New York strip steak dinner for $3.95.
The return trip was easy sailing back to Swan Creek and the marina in Gratitude. During the sail back, the crew reminisced on lessons learned: that when a 28-foot boat advertises that it sleeps five, several men should expect to share a bunk; that one should always check the fuel level in the tank before departing; that one should always check the date of the cruising guide.
During the winter of 1971-72 the yacht club had the annual change of officers. The new commodore was quick to suggest that the five board members charter and sail on the Chesapeake again.
The seven-man group, comprised of the five BOG and the immediate past commodore and the social committee chairman, decided to charter two boats. With three crew members aboard L’Amie, and the remaining four on the Alberg 35 Tiwit, the two boats set sail in May.
To appease the protests of the distaff members of the families, the crew decided to sail the first day to the Sassafras River and invite all the spouses to join them for dinner at The Granary. This turned out to be a good solution and grand social event. One mishap occurred when one of the wives toppled off the pier into the water while trying to assist with a docking line. (Keep in mind that in those days, it was common to sail with dress attire onboard: blue blazers, white shirts and neck ties. Accordingly the woman were “dressed” for dinner so there was one thoroughly soaked good sport at the dinner table.)
The second day of the cruise set its destination for Annapolis, where the crew had reservations for dinner at the Annapolis Yacht Club. Both boats motored out of the Sassafras, then set sail into a southerly breeze on the Bay. The Columbia seemed strangely sluggish, until the crew realized that the tender had filled with rainwater.
L’Amie arrived at AYC about 1800 in her assigned slip. Expecting that Tiwit had probably arrived several hours earlier, the L’Amie crew was surprised to find no trace of the other boat. Efforts to reach them by radio were unsuccessful. With the dinner reservations pushed back to 2100, the L’Amie crew ordered cocktails and looked out over Spa creek, where they spotted Tiwit motoring into the harbor.
Tiwit had run aground off Sandy Point. Knowing that they had a big lead on L’Amie and were near Annapolis, they decided to enjoy cocktail hour while aground. Becoming ungrounded turned out to be a much more difficult task than anticipated. Rocking the boat and using the engine was unable to set them free. A decision to use an anchor kedge determined that they could not throw the anchor far enough from the boat to permit it to dig into the bottom, so after another cocktail, one crew rowed the dinghy and the anchor out a sufficient distance to be a proper kedge. Using the kedge and engine, they freed the grounded boat but backed over the anchor rode and entangled it in the propeller. It took some underwater work to free the rode…not the way they expected to conclude cocktail hour.
The next day brought rain and fog, but with good wind and anticipation to visit St. Michaels, both boats set out from Annapolis promising to stay within eyesight of each other. That commitment lasted less than an hour as the fog claimed visibility and any hope of staying in sight.
Several wondered if any other hearty crews had ventured out into the nasty conditions, and even talked about returning to Annapolis. Then out of the fog appeared a downwind boat under full sail and spinnaker. Soon another colorful spinnaker appeared. Then another and another and another. All of the bright colors appearing out of the gray were surreal, but helped to build the crews’ confidence. Lots of dedicated sailors were enjoying the Bay winds that morning.
The cruise continued to St. Michaels, where the town’s enchantment took hold of them both that day and for many subsequent cruises. The entire crew enjoyed steamed crabs and beer at the Crab Claw.
The second cruise concluded with a passage through Kent Narrows and some informal racing on the Chester River before returning to Gratitude. Upon their return, the crews were stunned to learn of the shooting of George Wallace just across the Bay in Laurel, Maryland. Once again, there were some lessons learned: save cocktail hour until the boat has safely reached its destination; check the dinghy for water before towing it.
Over the next winter, two of the sailors decided they were so enamored with Chesapeake Bay sailing that they bought cruising boats. One purchased the Columbia 28 L’Amie, and another purchased a Morgan 35 and named her Nepenthe. These two boats became the fleet for the 1973 cruise. There were no more charter boats. By 1974, two more sailors purchased boats, a Morgan 28, Encounter, and a Bristol 24, AnyWay Two.
The BOG cruise tradition was established.
Destinations were sometimes quiet bays or creeks where the boats could anchor, raft up and cook on board. Other times they included marinas with shower facilities and restaurants. On an early raft-up in Swan Creek, one crew member awoke around 0200 to find that the single anchor holding the five-boat raft was dragging. He woke the captain of the middle boat, Nepenthe , to discuss a proper course of action. They woke the crews of the two outside boats who were instructed to start their engines. Then, under the command of the middle boat's captain, the entire five-boat raft was motored and moved to a point in the creek where the anchor was reset. The plan worked, but this method was never tried again and is not recommended to other cruising groups.
One raft up a few years later had seven boats on a single hook in the inner cove behind Gibson Island—not a recommended practice. That night, the crews were settled comfortably in their cockpits, enjoying a night cap after a beautiful day, and no one had checked the weather forecast. A concerned good samaritan rowed out from his home on Gibson Island to warn the crews of an approaching serious storm. The raft was dismantled and each boat set its own anchor. Shortly thereafter, they were pelted with considerable rain, rocked by wind guests and treated to a spectacular thunder and lightening storm display as the storm moved away. All boats rode it out safely.
The Tenth annual cruise held in 1980 featured a dinner celebration at the Officer’s Club of the U.S. Naval Academy. Stories and slide presentations helped recall the ports, anchorages, incidents, laughs and crews of the first nine cruises. It was resolved to keep better logs of future cruises. They didn’t.
Over the next 20 years the cruise typically had six to nine boats and 20 to 30 crew members. Each year the itinerary was varied but the participants had several favorite destinations that were regular stop-overs. Early cruise members loved dinners at Eulah William's Shady Rest in Gratitude. (Only real old time Bay cruisers will remember that wonderful eating spot.) Rock Hall Harbor became a regular rendezvous spot for the first evening. The Riverdale Restaurant (destroyed by fire about 2002) in the upper reaches of the Magothy River was another regular stop-over, as were the towns of St. Michaels, Oxford and Galesville. The West River Sailing Club was especially hospitable to the cruise, inviting them to many Friday night cookouts. Other destinations included the Little Choptank, Herrington Harbor, the Rhode River, Shaw Bay, Dun Cove, Church Creek off the South River, Little Round Bay on the Severn, Chestertown, the harbor behind Gibson Island, Langford Creek, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Fells Point, and Fairlee Creek.
Nepenthe was the cruise flagship for the early years, then in the late 1980s two sailors purchased a classic Concordia 41 yawl, and Live Yankee became the flagship for the remainder of the cruises. The captain of Nepenthe held claim to having participated in the most cruises: thirty one. Live Yankee initiated an interesting custom, a ten o’clock beer, yes, ten AM. The captains explained that this tradition started when they purchased Live Yankee and faced a fourteen hour sail to their home port. Getting underway at 0400, by the time 1000 arrived, they felt they had been sailing so long it must be afternoon, and a beer seemed appropriate. The practice became a cruise custom and the crews of most participating boats would have a ten o’clock beer knowing others crews were doing the same.
Sadly, as the cruise participants aged, one by one they retired from sailing and their boats were sold. The final cruise was held in 2005 with just two boats, Second Encounter and Encore. Both Nepenthe and Live Yankee were gone. Fittingly, the captain of Second Encounter was the Commodore whose suggestion for a Board of Governor’s cruise in 1971 started at all. It was the end of a grand Chesapeake Bay tradition.
Ken Thorn was the Cooper River Yacht Club Commodore who initiated the BOG cruise. He learned to sail on Manhasset Bay, NY in the 1950s. As a member of the CRYC he raced a GP-14 for many years. He has sailed the Chesapeake Bay since 1971 and currently sails his Pearson 33 Second Encounter out of Zahniser’s in Solomons, Maryland. Ken has been known to drink a beer at ten o’clock in the morning.