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Sailing the Potomac River

Put your shoes on, Captain. And button your shirt.” These were the first words I heard when we stepped ashore at the dinghy dock in Washington, D.C., on the Fourth of July, 2012. It was 104 degrees...

Put your shoes on, Captain. And button your shirt.” These were the first words I heard when we stepped ashore at the dinghy dock in Washington, D.C., on the Fourth of July, 2012. It was 104 degrees. It had taken Marlene and me eight days to sail up the Potomac River, just so we could get our 39-foot Prout catamaran, Different Drummer, anchored in the Washington Channel in time for the fireworks on the Fourth. “That’ll be 10 bucks,” the girl added. Welcome to our nation’s capital.

The Potomac River is riddled with historical significance. Capt. John Smith mapped the river in 1608, and did so with astonishing accuracy. President George Washington was born on it, lived on it and died on it. He also established the new nation’s capital on it, and referred to it as the Nation’s River. John Quincy Adams went skinny-dipping in the Potomac River every day of his presidency, from 1825 to 1829. But by 1860 the river was so polluted President Abraham Lincoln rode three miles out of Washington every night on horseback to get away from the stench. John Wilkes Booth crossed the Potomac River at Port Tobacco in a 12-foot boat with a broken leg, six nights after assassinating Lincoln. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson called the Potomac River “a national disgrace,” and vowed to clean it up. Today, swimming in the Potomac is not just ill-advised, it’s illegal.

Still we were determined to spend Independence Day on the river, sailing up its storied shorelines, bows pointed at our nation’s capital.

We came to the Potomac from the greater Chesapeake Bay, where we spend our summers sailing on Different Drummer. After sailing from Fishing Bay, Virginia, to Smith Point on the Virginia side of the entrance to the Potomac, we were dead tired. We should have anchored in the Great Wicomico River near Reedville that night, but neither of us had any idea just how big the Potomac would be, so we blundered on. Washington, D.C. was still a hundred miles away, upriver. It was June 27 and we had seven days to get to there.

The Potomac is so big it creates its own weather. The mouth of the river is nearly 12 miles wide and dumps so much water into Chesapeake Bay it causes erosion on Tangier Island, almost 30 miles across the bay to the east. Only the Susquehanna River empties more water into the Chesapeake. Going north up the bay, the rivers are the James, the York, the Rappahannock and the Potomac, or the “Fourth River.” John Smith wrote, “The Fourth River is called the Patawomeke and is 6 or 7 miles in breadth.” At the time he and his grumbling crew were paddling upstream in a poorly designed wooden boat following a near-mutiny close to present-day Baltimore.

Marlene and I had our own near-mutiny at a “self-service” fuel dock near Fishing Bay Marina the day before, where I expected Marlene to lasso dock pilings like a cowgirl and she expected me to park Different Drummer like my Corvette. Neither happened and me shouting “Marlene, you throw like a girl!” didn’t help. In any case, that was yesterday. Today, we had our two Yanmar diesels churning away. Still, it felt like we were going uphill, climbing a waterfall. We were bucking the wind, the tide and the current, and it was getting dark. We turned left the first place we could, into the Coan River at mile marker 3 on the Virginia side, and worked our way into a narrow channel called The Glebe, where we anchored at dusk for the night, exhausted. “Nice anchorage after grounding,” I wrote in my log the next day.

We weighed anchor the next morning, promised to never do that again, and motored upriver to Cole’s Point Plantation. From then on, for the next two weeks, the only wind we had was on our nose. Upriver, downriver, north, south or sideways, the wind was always on our nose. So we motored. And we motored. And we motored some more.

I expected the Potomac River to be lined with marinas, docks, Tiki bars, condos and Golden Arches all the way from the Chesapeake to the Washington Monument. In reality, it’s mile after mile of beautiful wooded shoreline, and lots and lots of Really Big Water, with no place to buy so much as a Band-Aid. Supplies are limited, and if you’re on a cruiser’s budget like we are, you probably won’t want to pay Washington, D.C. prices anyway, so provision before you go.

Our next stop, Cole’s Point Plantation, is a jewel. Blackbeard is rumored to have hung out there, and there’s even a small pond named after him. The marina sits on a thumb-like projection of land on the Virginia shore and has a crystal-clear swimming pool and showers that make you glad you came. The staff is friendly and helpful, and the restaurant is a crab-lover’s delight. It’s good to see places like this on the upswing.

The folks at Cole’s Point Marina convinced us that a stop in Nomini Bay was a must. Because we were still on schedule to get to D.C. in time for the fireworks, we slept late, pigged out on one of Marlene’s super blueberry pancake breakfasts, filled our water tanks and didn’t leave Cole’s Point until after lunch. We motored to the end of Nomini Bay and into Nomini Creek, one of the prettiest anchorages we’ve seen. Giant trees hang over the creek, casting shadows where fish jump and pelicans dive. Capt. Smith and company were ambushed here by Indians on June 17, 1608, right where we anchored. When Smith’s men fired their muskets across the water, “the echo of the woods so amazed them as down went their bows and arrows,” he wrote. It was the first time the Native Americans ever heard gunfire.

That night the wind hit 65 knots on Nomini Bay and over 80 knots in Washington, D.C., where it blew out the power and filled the river with everything that wasn’t tied down. Leaves, limbs, branches and entire trees, two-by-fours, shingles and rafters, tables and chairs, and trash of every description was flowing downstream–fast–and it was my job to avoid it. It was June 30, and we had 75 miles to go.

Through a strange twist of history, the state of Maryland owns the entire Potomac River. Both Maryland and Virginia’s original charters granted each the entire waterway, which led to almost 400 years of rights disputes. But in 1776, Virginia ceded its claim, while reserving the river’s free use. Complementing this gesture, the Compact of 1785 grants Maryland the Potomac bank-to-bank, with Virginia retaining full riparian rights. So when you’re on the river, you’re in Maryland.

We anchored 20 miles upriver from Nomini in Monroe Creek at Colonial Beach, Virginia, still shaken from the previous night’s storm, and drained from all the white-knuckle-steering. NOAA weather radio was knocked out, and a Colonial Beach marine officer told us most of D.C.’s power was, too, and to get ready: “Another storm is on the way.”

Colonial Beach is roughly halfway between Washington, D.C., and the Chesapeake, and is the only port on the Virginia side of the Potomac with reasonable provisioning or marine services. We dinghied to shore, didn’t see very many sailboat masts, and got back to Different Drummer just in time for the next thunderstorm. The winds hit 45 mph that night, our last night in Virginia.

The Harry W. Nice Bridge (vertical clearance 135 feet) carries U.S. Route 301 across the Potomac River at mile marker 44, a little more than halfway to Washington, D.C., from the Chesapeake Bay. We motored under the bridge into 10-15 mph winds, had no problems with the tides and currents we’d been warned about, and chugged into the Port Tobacco River. It was 100 degrees when we dropped anchor close to where John Wilkes Booth lay shivering in the swamp for five days in 1865. “If any place in the world is utterly given over to depravity, it is Port Tobacco,” a journalist wrote at the time. “Five hundred people exist in Port Tobacco. Life there reminds me, in connection with the slimy river and the adjacent swamps, of the great reptile period of the world, when iguanodons and pterodactyls and plesiosauri ate each other.”

Today, according to the 2010 census, 19 people live in Port Tobacco and have a median income of over $100,000 per year.

The forecast called for more temperatures above 100 degrees with no end in sight, so we left Port Tobacco River in the cool of the morning. Sam and Dave, our port and starboard engines, were doing a heroic job pushing us through the wind, current and storm debris, and I didn’t want to make them mad by making them hot. We turned into beautiful Mattawoman Creek on the afternoon of July 2, anchored early, went swimming, had an early dinner (cheeseburgers in paradise) and went to bed early, looking forward to an early departure and mid-afternoon arrival in Washington, D.C. We had less than 25 miles to go.

Mount Vernon. George Washington’s home. Seeing it from the water, in the early morning light the way George did when he came home, stopped me cold. Mount Vernon sits up high on the bank overlooking the river, just like it has since construction began in 1741. If it doesn’t give you goose bumps when you see it for the first time, you probably had trouble in history class. We were getting close.

We passed Alexandria and slipped under the 75-foot Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge. We were in D.C. waters and in sight of the Washington Monument! We’d made it! There were sirens and helicopters everywhere, and I pretended they were all for us, announcing our arrival and welcoming us to our Nation’s Capital. We followed the helicopters up the Washington Channel, set out two anchors like the Waterway Guide said to, and called the Harbor Police.

Then it was time to relax. I noticed that only a handful of sailboats were in the channel; I had expected more masts. We waited awhile for the sirens and helicopters to go away—since we were safely anchored, I felt they were no longer needed—but they did not let up the entire time we were there. Not for one hour, not for one minute, not for one second. It was intense. But hey, we thought, tomorrow was the Fourth of July!

I woke up on the Fourth to find a power boat had anchored way too close to us. Before I could launch our dinghy and go over to object, more and more power boats were anchoring, all too close to each other. By noon, it was 95 degrees and Washington Channel was packed. By 1500 it was 102 under the bimini, and by 1800 it was so crowded I wanted to leave. Our neighbor’s son had a radio-controlled boat that he repeatedly sent screaming past Different Drummer, and I was taking aim for it with a full can of beer when Marlene reminded me that we were almost out of beer. She calmed me down and pointed out, “We couldn’t leave if we had to.” She was right—we were trapped. “The fireworks will be nice,” she said.

The fireworks lasted seventeen minutes. Seventeen minutes.

The sirens and the helicopters went on all night.

Dennis Mullen cruises on Different Drummer with his wife, Marlene. For another glimpse into “a day in the life”, check out Dennis’s essay on page 104

Cruise Notes

Washington, D.C.

By the late 1800s, the north bank of the Potomac River was so silted in and polluted that people were unable to get from their boats into town. Thus, the city dredged a channel and created a tidal basin that fills and flushes out every day. Beware, the ebb current from the basin is the reason behind the two-anchor rule that isn’t enforced.

East Potomac Park is on the south side of the Washington Channel. It has lots of trees and grass and picnic tables behind a high seawall that has no place to tie up. It’s beautiful, but that’s about it. From the Washington Channel, the only clue that you are in the nation’s capital is the top one-third of the Washington Monument that peaks up above some drab buildings that block the rest of your view. There are no “Welcome to D.C.!” signs, just a few signs on the north side of the Channel asking for $10. No courtesy car, sorry.

Everything we wanted to see and do in D.C. was within walking distance from the Washington Channel: the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Botanical Gardens, The Wall, The Mall, the White House, the American History Museum (where the only motorcycle on display was a Honda), the WWII Memorial, the Library of Congress, the Capitol, and Smithsonians 1, 2 and 3. All the places I dreamed about seeing my entire life were right in front of me, and they were all free! We never paid admission anywhere. It’s great to be an American.

Beyond the museums, prices in D.C. leave something to be desired. At lunch near the Capitol, a bottle of Sam Adams was $6.50. A restaurant overlooking the Washington Channel was having a “special” on Corona Lights: $21.00 a six pack. Bottled water on the streets was the equivalent of $72.00 a case.

So we discovered the Fish Wharf. Located at the far upper end of the Washington Channel on the north side, you can tie up your dinghy to their dock and—after asking permission and with a promise to buy some seafood—leave it there all day for free. The Fish Wharf itself is a seemingly endless line of floating docks with open-air stands where fresh shrimp, wahoo, mahi-mahi, octopus, crabs and lobster are all displayed on mountains of ice. Not only can you tie up for free and get a fair deal on fresh fish, these purveyors will also pack your cooler with ice before you return to your boat.

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