SWS Spring Cruise Day 3: Rowing round the Little Choptank light

Their 44th cruise. My 1st.

[ SWS Cruise day 1 ]
[ SWS Cruise day 2 ]

I awoke still afloat. Tied up near the crab sheds on the commercial wharf at Taylors Island. Sunday morning. No boat traffic on Chapel Cove. No road traffic in town. Coffee and oatmeal for breakfast. I was under way by 8:30.

The sail out of Slaughter Creek was easy, steady 1.5 kts. None of the excitement and tension of the past two days.

I was out in the Little Choptank by 10 am. Plenty of time before returning to Madison. So I decided to pay another visit to the Little Choptank marker and light. But as I moved out of Slaughter Creek, the wind slowly died. I dropped the sail and rowed the final quarter mile to the light, then around it, and I kept rowing.

I rowed 2 miles from the light to Susquehanna Point, pretty straight, averaging 2 kts. From there, the wind picked up from the southwest, and it was a calm but fast reach to the point at the mouth of Hudson Creek.

I dropped the sail, anchored near the marsh, and set up my Trangia stove to heat up canned chowder for lunch.

Here we tested the stability of the Trangia in the wake of a passing workboat.

I’m satisfied with the stability of the Trangia and confident in my choice of an alcohol stove for my small boat cruising.

After this mid-afternoon lunch, the 5 kt breeze miraculously backed around to the north and pushed me right into Madison Bay. I ghosted up the bay at 2.5 kts while the windmill in town was motionless. I kept dozing off with one hand on the tiller and the other barely holding the sheet.

At 3:30 pm on Sunday, I texted John, Jerry, Norm W, and Norman and Diana that S/V Kai had arrived. Now all vessels and crew were accounted for. It would seem that SWS Cruise #44 was now concluded.

[ SWS Cruise day 1 ]
[ SWS Cruise day 2 ]

I also write about traditional Eastern Shore sailing workboats here.

SWS Spring Cruise Day 2: Solo

Their 44th cruise. My 1st.

[ SWS Cruise day 1 ]
[ SWS Cruise day 3 ]

I awoke on day 2 at my snug anchorage in the tiny cove adjacent to Old Trinity Church. None of the leg pain from yesterday, no blood clot, no 911 call in the middle of the night.

And I did not capsize my tiny boat while setting up my sleeping platform, changing clothes, arranging gear, or rolling over in the night. It was my first night onboard, and I worried. Each time I needed to turn in my sleeping bag, I put one hand on each gunwale to be sure I was near the center of the boat. Then I pulled on one gunwale to turn in the direction I wanted to go. It was a night of experimenting and learning, and not a very restful one.

My boom tent with its low peak kept me bent over and was therefore not a total success. I need to make some changes before the next overnight cruise.

But making coffee and cooking oatmeal on my Trangia alcohol stove was a great success. Some argue against alcohol fuel in a small boat. I weighed all the factors. I even tried propane bottles and a car camping stove in my driveway rehearsals. But I like the simplicity of alcohol and the Trangia. And the silence. And the greener footprint.

A Plan B for me

After breakfast and packing up, I rowed back to the Old Trinity dock and joined John, Jerry, and Norm W for coffee and talk about plans for the day.

Norm was feeling some shoulder pain and would sail Piilu back to Madison. I understood that the rest of us could sail over to Taylor’s Island and meet up for dinner. John our leader offered a Plan B for me, in case I was unable to make the 10 miles to Taylors Island before dark.

He looked over the chart of the Little Choptank with me and recommended Woolford Creek as a good anchorage, around behind the spit near the entrance. But he warned me to swing wide to the south and steer clear the sandbar. On a previous SWS cruise, he and Norm W had run hard ground off the sandbar. Others SWSers were already on the beach and sent out a ferry to bring them in for the barbecue. My dory skiff draws less than a foot of water, so I figured I could avoid trouble.

Keeping up with Normsboat Hull #1

12′ SV Kai packed for another day and night on the water.
Norm Wolfe in Piilu ready to hoist sail.

Norm W and I were ready to get under way ahead of the others. Norm said his habit is to tie up on the leeward side of the dock to hoist sail. I should have followed his example. Instead, I rowed out into the center of the narrow river. I caused a small scene by kneeling precariously at the bow and pushing sailcloth out of my face before finally getting the sail up and making headway. At least I did not fall overboard.

Piilu was 40 yards ahead of me by now. We were both enjoying a quiet and pleasant run out of Cabin Creek, then down Fishing Creek toward the Little Choptank.

I thought it was clever of me to sail as close to the lee shore as possible, maximizing the light breeze, while Norm sailed close to the wooded shoreline on our right. Soon he was stalled, and I pulled ahead. But that didn’t last long. Fishing Creek opened up, the breeze freshened, and Piilu inevitably pulled ahead.

Aground near John Z’s sandbar. Twice.

Norm turned up into Madison Bay, and I continued down the Little Choptank, still not certain of my destination. It was after 12 noon, but I was making good time. I still hoped to sail all the way to Taylors Island for dinner, stopping for lunch on John Z’s sandbar in Woolford Creek.

Wind was from the southeast at 5-7 kt, and it was an easy broad reach into Woolford Creek. I remember Jon warning to swing around to the left before going in behind the sandbar. But I was not constantly checking the chart. (I was not set up very well for that; I have to pull out my phone to take a look.) So I had a wrong picture in my mind about both the orientation and scale of this topography. I thought it looked like this as I approached from the east (from the right):

But this was the hard reality. I turned west too soon, centerboard down, and smacked into the bottom.

I pulled the centerboard out of the sand and dropped the sail. The wind was stronger now and coming out of the creek from the south. I rowed hard for the low banks of the marsh to the west. I tossed my anchor into the shrubs and found a few square feet of dry footing on which to step out and stretch my legs.

This was the sheltered anchorage that John had recommended. Should I stay? Light rain had started. I could anchor down and tent up here, or head back to Madison. But it was just 1:30 pm and only 5 miles straight sailing to the Taylors Island and an SWS dinner rendezvous. There were no new messages from the other SWSers, so I thought Annika and the Mac19 were coming up behind me. So I decided to press on.

I shouldn’t be out here doing this solo.

I thought that once I got around Susquehanna Pt, I could drive close hauled right up Slaughter Creek. But my lug rig wouldn’t carry me close enough to the wind, so I aimed for the turreted house on Holland Pt.

Farther from the lee of Susquehannah Neck, the wind got stronger. The rain was light but driven by severe gusts. The gusts and short chop riveted my attention and tightened my grip on the tiller and mainsheet.

I was in control for now and not fearful. But I was feeling foolish and inexperienced. This was no longer the sunny weekend cruise that I had imagined. I had missed a chance to reef back in Woolford Creek. I realized that a capsize out here would be disastrous. I had no VHF and no EPIRB or PLB at hand. And my cruising companions had not come into sight as I had hoped.

With my bow pointed to that tall house on Holland Pt., I imagined someone looking out the tower windows, watching that small boat until it reached shore safely. A persistent, ridiculous vision.

On the final tack that carried me around Holland Pt, I sailed past pilings a quarter mile from the shore and turreted house. The chart shows an island there that’s now gone.

Soon I caught sight of the Taylors Island bridge. It took me another hour to make my way up Slaughter Creek. On the final tack, I barely cleared the point then sped into the harbor. I approached the first wharf and turned into the wind dropped sail, threw out the anchor, and pulled out my cellphone. Texts from John and the others told me they had pulled out a few hours before. Jerry had towed Annika into Madison.

I heard a halloo from a young man at the end of the wharf. I couldn’t understand in the wind, I hollered back that I needed a place to tie up. He beckoned me over.

I met Andrew and his girlfriend, Kristy. She was raised in Federalsburg, he had lived in Marydel – both ends of Caroline County, where I live. Andrew said he dredges for oysters on the skipjack Rebecca Ruark out of Tilghman Island.

And while I was looking around and considering my options for the night, I wondered if this would be okay. It was dinner hour. And 90 minutes till dusk. I really wanted crab cakes and beer. And I really did not want to go looking for a calm anchorage in the dark.

Andrew and Kristy showed me with their kindness that it would be okay here. They secured my bow and stern lines, carried out fenders and tied them to the pilings, and helped me ashore. And re-tied one of my knots. Then they wished me a good night.

I was stiff from a long day folded up in my skiff. I wobbled up the wharf and down the street to the Boats and Hose restaurant. It was crowded and lively, the staff were friendly, and the crab soup was like no other.

I wobbled back to my boat just before dark. I set up my sleeping platform (which must be done while sitting on the platform), rolled out my sleeping bag, and climbed in before 9pm. I read from Traditional Fishing Boats of Britain and Ireland about scaffies, fifies, and zulus. I was exhausted and asleep in minutes. The lights of the harbor made my white tent tarp glow all night, but I slept pretty well.

[ SWS Cruise day 1 ]
[ SWS Cruise day 3 ]

I also write about traditional Eastern Shore sailing workboats here.

SWS Spring Cruise Day 1: Late for Dinner

Their 44th cruise. My 1st.

[ SWS Cruise day 2 ]
[ SWS Cruise day 3 ]

I was back on the Little Choptank last weekend to join the 44th annual Spring Cruise of the Shallow Water Sailors. 

SWS formed in the 1980s, sailing mostly Bolger Dovekies and Shearwaters.  The vintage SWS website has an archive of nearly 40 years of photos and newsletters with cruise stories and tips for sailors.

Today SWS is a dwindling but talented group.  John Zohlen has led the group since the 1980s. John is 82 and no longer sails. But he still plans the monthly Zoom meetups and leads the cruises from his kayak.  Norm Wolfe is the owner of Normsboat hull #1, designed by Jim Michalak.  Jerry Culik is Technical Editor for Small Craft Advisor and writes the Tech Bytes column. Brian Forsyth is the driving force behind the Patuxent Small Craft Guild at the Calvert Marine Museum. Dave Dawson built Terrapin, a John Harris Autumn Leaves design, and wrote about it in Small Boats Monthly. Bob McMichael crafted a unique boom tent for his Core Sound 17, designed especially for sultry nights on the Chesapeake.

This was my first SWS cruise. John said they’re always loosely organized. The only fixture would be the Friday night dinner rendezvous at Old Trinity on Church Creek.

Four SWS boats launched from Taylor’s Island and Madison:

  • Norm W’s Normsboat, Piilu
  • Jerry’s MacGregor Mac19 Powersailer
  • Norman and Diana Hudson-Taylor’s Litorina, Annika. (Per Norman: Only 15 produced, in Sweden by Naviproductor. None but Annika are sailing in the US.)
  • Me in my 12.5 ft Harry Bryan dory skiff, S/V Kai. This would be my first time camping aboard.

John’s kayak stayed on his car for this cruise, and he provided critical landside support.

Friday morning when I arrived at Madison, I found John waiting for me at the ramp. He offered advice and told SWS stories while I unpacked. Jerry soon motored up, tied off, and said there were whitecaps out on the Little Choptank. And he had burned lots of fuel pulling Norm off when he ran aground after breakfast. Jerry waited at the Madison ramp while John drove off to refill his gas can, and I launched.

I rowed out past the Red 4 buoy then over to the lee of the trees to hoist sail. Too cautious. I ghosted along at .5 kts until I finally reached the mouth of the bay, out of the wind shadow.

Medical emergency. Late for dinner.

When I came out of Madison Bay into the Little Choptank, the wind was ENE and both wind and chop increased dramatically. My GPS track below shows my intention to beat upwind a bit on the Little Choptank then enjoy an easy reach up Fishing Creek. But the wind bedeviled us on both days of this cruise. It blew downriver, no matter which way the river turned. So it no easy and pleasant reach up Fishing Creek. It was a slow grind in my small, flat-bottom skiff into the wind and chop.

Then a reversal.

I got past Cherry Point, almost half way to our destination on Church Creek, when I felt a sharp pain on the inside of my left thigh. Through one more tack, the pain grew more intense. My skiff is small and packed tight with gear – not much room to unfold and ease a cramp. I tried to stretch, rotate, and swing my leg every way possible to ease the pain. Soon I was arched over the space between the sternsheets and the centerboard thwart. More pain. And flashbacks to my heart attack 16 months ago. And recent advice from my cardiologist about blood clot risk after long periods of inactivity.

I thought of calling 911. But then what? Sail over to one of the waterfront mansions? Then what?

I wasn’t sure where Piilu and the Mac19 were. But I realized that Annika was behind me. I dialed Norman and Diana’s cellphone while nodding thanks for the cell tower in nearby Madison. I explained the situation to Norman and turned downwind to meet them – less than a mile behind me.

By the time Norman and Diana had me in tow, the pain had subsided. Their electric outboard, working in an internal well, drove us into the wind at 2 kts. We arrived late for the traditional SWS cruise dinner in the cemetery at Old Trinity. But John and Norm W were saving some for us – Norm’s chicken curry with garnish of raisins and peanuts.

Dinner rendezvous at Old Trinity.
From left: Piilu, Annika, S/V Kai, Mac19

Safe haven at Old Trinity

After dinner, we talked about where to anchor for the night with wind forecast at 5 kts blowing downriver . Jerry settled into the Mac19 tied to the end of the dock. Norm rowed Piilu 30 yards upstream and anchored. I followed Annika into the cove downstream from the dock. Norm and Diana anchored out, and I rowed into the smaller cove next to the church cemetery. John would be camping in the parking lot, ready to respond if I experienced another medical event.

Old Trinity Church, ca. 1670, is on the right near the dock.
Annika and S/V Kai anchored in the cove at center

Annika, the rare and intriguing Litorina design from Sweden

S/V Kai anchored for the night.

This was my first night onboard SV Kai. I was glad for the protection of this micro-cove. But I didn’t know anything about tide behavior on this river. I was anchored in 2.5 ft of water. Would I be sitting dry in the morning when the tide ran out? Throughout this first night onboard, I kept reaching out from my sleeping bag to touch the gunwales and gently rock the boat to see if I was still afloat. Many other concerns woke me often, and I didn’t get much rest.

But it was an important “first”.

[ SWS Cruise day 2 ]
[ SWS Cruise day 3 ]

I also write about traditional Eastern Shore sailing workboats here.