Category Archives: Emergencies

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.

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.