All posts by Don Barker

Madison Bay and the Little Choptank

I was hoping to accomplish two things this trip: I wanted to do long row. And I wanted to sail out onto the open Chesapeake for the first time.

The forecast was for no wind before 11 a.m. I arrived at the landing in Madison two hours before. No wind, no problem. I wanted test my skiff, my DIY oars, and my own ability to get back home if the wind dies.

A little mishap at the ramp – the skiff would not slide off the trailer. I could see from the centerboard’s lanyard that it was in a downward position. I must have left the CB down when I landed after my last trip. Loading onto the trailer had worked fine; the CB rotated up when the boat slid forward. But when sliding back off the trailer, it dropped enough to make the boat stick.

It took me 20-30 minutes to row out to the buoy at the mouth of Madison Bay. About 3 kts in flat water. The skiff rowed easily and tracked well. But my oars need to be lighter and a bit shorter.

When I kayaked here in the 90s, I was fascinated to see crabs and grasses on the bottom that glided 3-4 feet beneath me. Now I could only barely see the bottom through green water. No crabs or grass. I wondered about the health of the Little Choptank River Sanctuary.

I paused for breakfast near the buoy. Back at Madison, the wind turbine started turning slowly at 1050. Then it stopped at 1110. But a light breeze touched the water where I was at the edge of the larger river. I could see the Western Shore 5-6 miles off. The forecast made me expect a long reach out past the mouth of the Little Choptank and back. But it turned out quite differently.

The forecast for noon still said 8 kt from the north. I raised sail but went nowhere. So I rowed downriver to the next buoy. When the wind finally came up, it was from the west. It stayed that way all day. So it was a long beat to windward if I would finally reach the Bay.

I tacked back and forth out past Ragged Island and reached the channel marker at the mouth of the Little Choptank about 2pm. Then swung over to the mouth of Woolford Creek to stop for a late lunch. I didn’t find the shelter I was looking for. Still, I hove and was able to keep the sail up. The skiff kept bow to wind and small rolling waves while I did crackers, cheese, and zinfandel.

It was a run back to Madison Bay. By this time, the wind had backed around to the south but was finicky both in direction and strength, as I was close to the south shore.

A dinghy cast off from a yacht anchored at the bay entrances. It crossed my path 100 yards ahead. The oarsman landed on the marsh beach and let his big dog out to run and fetch sticks.

I watched how this sailboat and one other in the bay rode at anchor. And I watched yard flags a mile off. And when I rounded the point to see Madison, I watch the direction and speed of the wind turbine. All to keep gauge of the wind. I was a bit concerned about getting back to the landing before dark.

Wind and sail crucial during last 90 minutes back to port. Watched two anchored yachts for wind direction at the mouth and farther into Madison Bay. Then watched the windmilll speed and direction. Both yacht and windmill swung 90 degrees and back.

How important this was for sail and oar. It was dark by the time a got to Cambridge 12 miles up the road.

Duration: 8 hours
Distance: 16 miles
More photos and videos are here.

I also write about traditional Eastern Shore sailing workboats here.

Into the Great Choptank

The peril of waiting to set the rudder
Drifting like a traditional workboat to hoist sail
The power and beauty of well-shaped canvas.
Hambrooks Bar Light back from the brink of death.

This was only my third time sailing solo. First was on the narrow Tuckahoe. Next on the middle Choptank. Now I would sail out of Cambridge into the Great Choptank.

I launched at the public ramp at Great Marsh Park. I needed to row away from the ramp before raising the sail. I had no tiller keeper. Rowing with the rudder in place and swinging around would be a problem. So I decided to set the rudder after I was out on the water, before I raised the sail.

I rowed from the ramp so I was out of the traffic land and leeway to let the boat drift while I worked to get under way. First I had to set the rudder. I was out on the big Choptank in a chop. Just a foot or so, but it bounced my skiff so that I couldn’t get the rudder pintles into the very small gudgeons. I tried and failed, drifted toward the breakwater, and had to row farther out to try again. Cursing helped. I finally got the rudder set, attached the tiller, and got ready to raise the sail.

In the few times I’d launched before – always in brisk winds, I tried to stay headed into the wind. But this time I was following the advice of Roger Barnes in his Dinghy Cruising Companion – hoist the sail while drifting broadside to the wind [*] with the gaff and sprit laid out over the lee gunwale. The Roger Barnes tutorial [*] helped me here: Let the boat drift. Winds were only 5-7 kts, so I was confident to try this.

Letting the sail and spars pay out over the lee gunwale kept them out of my face and reduced the risk of getting knocked out of the boat. It also helped that I had rotated the mast so the halyard cleat faces aft. This keeps me out of the extreme bow, the small boat less stable, while I tie off the halyard. And I learned to secure the halyard around the cleat and cinch it down without figures eights. For quicker release.

A northerly breeze at 7-10 kts was forecast for most of the day. This would allow me to sail downriver from Cambridge and back on a beam reach. But once again, the real wind was different from the forecast. Once again, I started off beating into the wind. But this time was remarkably different. Since my last time out, I had learned a lot about my balanced lug rig. Most useful was the video tutorial from Michael Storer for the lug sail on his OzGoose design here. I learned to pull the downhaul down hard and secure it tight. With this, I sailed much closer to the wind.

From Cambridge to Dickinson Bay.

I naively imagined sailing as far as the Tred Avon and Oxford. Big short chop and westerlies from broad lower Choptank slowed me down, even with a more efficient sail. I saw that I need more ballast forward will give more speed through the chop – another day.. Just to cross the Great Choptank was a big deal for me today.

In the shadow of Howell Point, the wind shifted and danced from north to west and back. I anchored in Dickinson Bay for lunch in the shallows near a five-star goose blind.

While crossing, I kept an eye on the Hambrooks Bar Light to gauge my position and progress. After lunch, I set my course for the light. Back in April 2020, I had been contacted by Jim Malone, a lighthouse enthusiast from Connecticut, who said the USCG had awarded a contract for demolition of the light in June. He also contacted the Jim Richardson Maritime Museum in Cambridge and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. Apparently no one in the local community was aware. I read later that Rep. Andy Harris got involved. So there it is, still.

Hambrooks Bar Light. Back from the brink of death.

From Hambrooks Bar, it was a leisurely run back to the ramp at Great Marsh Park. Outside the breakwater, I let the boat drift again broadside to the wind while I lowered the sail. Then I rowed in.

Duration: 3 hours
Distance: 7.5 miles
More photos and videos are here.


[*] Everyone used to hoist sail this way

It has become the normal practice on modern yachts to hoist the sails while motoring to windward, but this is unwise in a sailing dinghy. The motion is atrocious in anything of a chop … It is better to row or motor your boat into a patch of clear water, and then hoist the sails while the dinghy is drifting. A drifting dinghy will tend to lie broadside onto the wind, so the sails must be hoisted while they are squared off over the side.

Traditional rigs are designed to cope with this. Everyone used to hoist sail this way, before the easy availability of auxiliary power started to erode traditional sailing skills. By contrast, many modern rigs seem to be designed with the expectation that the sail will only be hoisted while the boat is lying head to wind, otherwise the luff jams in its track or the mainsail headboard gets caught under the spreaders. This is why yachts usually motor to windward when they raise their sails and racing dinghies have got into the habit of hoisting their sails ashore in the dinghy park. Neither of these options is suitable for a cruising dinghy. It is vital that her sails can be hoisted and lowered when the wind is on the beam.

– Roger Barnes, The Dinghy Cruising Companion

Wild Rice on Watts Creek

Family reunion July 4 weekend. Kids and grandkids came from Chicago, Madison, Baltimore, and Delaware. The day after, one of our sons and two granddaughters wanted to row the dory skiff . We launched at the Martinak State Park ramp into Watts Creek, just off the Choptank, with four of us piled into the 12.5 foot skiff.

A couple bends upriver, and we got our rhythm. Watts Creek is secluded and quiet. Only a few boat docks and houses on the high bank. Long stretches of marsh on the opposite bank. We glided past broad stands of wild rice.

John Paige Williams wrote:

The upper tidal reaches of virtually all the Chesapeake’s big rivers give wild rice just what it needs–fertile freshwater marsh soil and plenty of current flow. In a powerful river with a big watershed like the … Choptank, freshwater flow from the land is strong enough to keep incoming salt water well downstream, resulting in a long stretch of water that is considered “tidal fresh.”Especially good areas for exploring wild rice marshes are the Choptank around Denton and Tuckahoe Creek, its big tributary

[Read more]

These marshes along Watts Creek and nearby Tuckahoe Creek have not yet been overwhelmed by invasive phragmites (common reed). But they will be, eventually. Come see them while you can.

More pics and videos of wild rice on Watts Creek are here.

I also write about traditional Eastern Shore sailing workboats here.

Sailing out of Secretary. No capsize plan.

My second time sailing solo.
My first time nearly capsizing. 
And the last time I refuse a tow when it’s offered and needed. 

I still felt insecure about my boat, my rig, my oars, and my sailing skills. And the forecast was not ideal for a novice sailor – winds at 10 kts and gusting. But I needed to get the boat and myself back on the water. So I chose a stretch of the middle Choptank that gave me more room to tack but was narrow and protected from stronger winds. I expected an easy run out Warwick River onto the Choptank. Then a beam reach upriver all the way to the town of Choptank and back. It turned out differently. 

I backed my dory skiff into the water at the public landing in Secretary. From the dock, it looked like I should get under the bridge before I stepped my 12-foot mast. I rowed zigzag to the bridge. My oars were too long, too heavy, and too low on the gunwale. And I had not yet figured out that I should use my biker’s clip-on mirror to navigate while rowing. Nor had I figured out to lash my tiller. This was all new to me.

Once past the bridge, I struggled to step the mast while I drifting across the narrow Warwick River. I got the mast up as my rudder gently touched the mud at the opposite bank. A woman in a golf cart sped across her lawn to arrest me for trespassing. I raised sail just in time to escape. 

I expected an easy run out the Warwick River onto the Choptank. Instead, I was sailing into a very light breeze, not at all what was forecast. This would be the story for the rest of the day – “wrong wind”. While tacking my way down this narrow channel, I hit submerged riprap near entrance on the south side. 

My plan for the day depended on strong winds from the east and a beam reach five miles upriver to the town of Choptank. Instead, I ghosted for hours, across to Jamaica Point, then only a mile upriver to Cabin Creek. Plenty of time for sightseeing. And I saw an odd sight – several small trees floating upright on the ebb tide. By 3pm, I was just three miles up from Warwick River, and it was time to turn around and row back to Secretary.

I dropped sail and rowed over to the marsh near Blinkhorn Creek for my late lunch. Wine, bread, and cheese.

While I relaxed at anchor, the wind that was forecast for the morning finally appeared. Wind from the east at 10 kts and gusting higher. I quickly packed up, raised sail, and flew away from the marsh for a wild ride back downriver. It was only my second time solo sailing, and I was on edge all the way. Despite my timid hand on the tiller, the skiff heeled and dipped the lee gunwale to the water twice before we turned up into Warwick River.

I thought later about the capsize plan that I did not have. Now I face a different challenge – beating back up into the narrow channel to Secretary. After 4-5 tacks, I was making little progress. I dropped the sail and tried to row. The problems I had rowing out in the morning were compounded by the headwind. For 20 minutes I made little progress, rowing zigzag, oars popping out of their locks, wondering if I would get back to the landing before dark.

I was starting to get the hang of it, making some headway. Over my shoulder, I saw a homeowner standing on his dock, watching me struggle. He fired up his fishing boat, motored over, and offered to tow me back to the landing. We talked briefly about the conditions and my difficulty. But I turned down his offer. Why would I do that? What was wrong with me? It was part vanity. I was rowing better now and was about to beat this thing, I wanted to prove that I could. And I was feeling embarrassed that I was out on the water so poorly prepared. He waved and turned back.

I tied up at a piling next to the seafood packing house and the bridge to lower my mast before rowing to the landing.

Dinner at Suicide Bridge Restaurant, just ahead of closing. Crabcakes and IPA, thinking about lessons learned.

I also write about traditional Eastern Shore sailing workboats here.

Sailing the Tuckahoe. Tethered to 911.

I acquired my dory skiff in September 2022. I took it out just once rowing in November. Then I had a heart attack in December.

While I was recovering in January, I was eager to try my new skiff and balanced lug rig (about which I was clueless, as we shall see.) But I had to stay close to home and 911 responders. Staying close to home meant sailing on the upper Choptank and Tuckahoe. Narrow rivers that are not ideal for novice sailors, but I was impatient to sail.

In late February, I launched from historic Ganey’s Wharf near the mouth of the Tuckahoe. My plan was to sail up the Tuckahoe to New Bridge Landing. My wife could meet me there and check my pulse before I sailed back downriver.

Ganey’s Wharf on the upper Choptank near the entrance to the Tuckahoe

This was my first time sailing solo. Besides the challenge of the narrow river, the forecast was for winds above 10 knots in the afternoon. These conditions would make it painfully obvious how little I knew about my boat and rig, and about myself as a novice sailor. But I was dying to get on the water under sail at last.

The wind was blowing strong up the Choptank where I launched. Waves were over a foot – a big deal for a first time sailor in a very small craft . I tried to point into the wind to raise the sail. I barely had the sail up and the mainsheet in hand when the skiff turned downwind and ran fast toward the shoal on the right bank. The wind gusted and nearly knocked us down. I steered toward the more sheltered left bank and got the rig and boat under control.

I sailed in better form into the mouth of the Tuckahoe. The channel turned west-northwest and narrowed dramatically. This would seem to put us on a beam reach and more protected from strong winds and gusts. But the wind came from half the compass points – or not at all – as it was channeled by woods and fields and the river changed direction.

I was ready for the challenge and tedium of tacking up a narrow river. Narrow rivers will always be part of my sailing experience. But my rig was not ready. I hadn’t learned to set the downhaul for proper sail shape, so I made much poorer progress to windward and in light airs than I might have. Still, my slow passage along the lovely, quiet Tuckahoe was delightful.

I sent my wife a text when I was a mile from New Landing. Then she had to wait longer while I rowed the final half mile. Her photos and videos of my approach and departure show how poorly the lugsail was set.

These were mostly painless lessons. By summertime, I was sailing my small skiff smarter, on bigger waters and farther from shore. Through the spring and summer, I also proved with a regimen of running, rowing, and cardio at the Y, plus a week backpacking in the High Sierra, that I was no longer tethered to 911.

Duration: 5 hours
Distance: 7.2 miles

More photos and videos are here.

I also write about traditional Eastern Shore sailing workboats here.

Rowing the Tidal Head of the Tuckahoe

I acquired my 12-foot dory skiff in September 2022. I had never sailed solo. So before I sailed, I needed to start slow – rowing. In November, I finally got her into the water closest to where I live – near the tidal head of the Tuckahoe at Hillsboro.

Hillsboro is one of the oldest towns on the Eastern Shore. The first bridge over the Tuckahoe was built there in 1702. In the late 1800s, steamboats of the Wheeler Transportation Line came upriver to Wayman’s Wharf, just a mile downriver from Hillsboro. The 124-foot Minnie Wheeler turned around at Wayman’s Wharf to head back down river. Now the river channel is narrow and the banks so shallow that I’ve run aground near Wayman’s Wharf in a kayak, and in a bass boat.

I wanted to row from Hillsboro downriver past Wayman’s and Kentucky Ravine, the site of the cabin where Frederick Douglass was born, and take out at Covey’s Landing. But my hand-me-down oars were too long and heavy, and the oarlocks were too low on the gunwale, so I could hardly lift the blades clear of the water. And I had no cushion for my butt. I was not good at navigating while facing backwards. I ran aground twice before I reached Stoney Point Landing. It was a slow and painful row. A hard lesson about changes I needed to make in my rowing setup.

Primitive public ramp on the Caroline Co. side of the Tuckahoe at Stoney Point.

But I’m not complaining. The rowing was hard. But drifting along on the quiet Tuckahoe was lovely.

It was hard. And I was resting more than rowing. Only got as far as Highfield Creek, just above Kentucky Ravine. Douglass wrote that as a boy, before he was forced into daily labor at the Lloyd Plantation on Wye River, he watched his grandmother cast nets for shad, and he fished in the pond at Levi Lee’s Mill above me on this creek. I tossed a roped cinder block overboard and rode at anchor inside the mouth of the creek. I lunched on wine, bread, and cheese before pointing upriver and rowing back to Hillsboro.

Time: 6.5 hours
Distance: 7.2 miles

More photos and videos are here.

I also write about traditional Eastern Shore sailing workboats here.