“The Wind Blows Out of the South”
Dick Harrington, W887, Blue Mist
The first week of June is a wonderful time to be on the waters of Chesapeake Bay. The Bay is beginning to come alive. The crabs will be now starting to emerge from the mud of the marshland rivers - awakening from a deep winter’s slumber. Warm southerly breezes, gentle and fresh, stir the waters of Tangier Sound. Boating activity remains quiet; albeit a few watermen can be found out chasing the first of the elusive crabs. Joining them might be some hardy early season sports fishermen anxious to try their luck with stripers and sea trout. Meanwhile the yachting crowd remains occupied in boat yards scraping and painting hulls.
2014: The familiar pungent smell of the salt marsh greeted us upon arrival in Crisfield, awakening pleasant memories of prior cruises. The town was quiet and very little changed. Far enough off the beaten track to fall below most people’s horizon, Crisfield has yet to become prey to ruthless big money developers. It continues as a blue collar town surrounded by modest farmlands. Seafood, tourism, and summer residences provide some industry but it falls short of providing a thriving economy. Things move slowly and don’t pick up until summer is in full swing. That is how it is with this part of Maryland’s Eastern Shore and we like it that way. In a sense, though poor, Crisfield remains unspoiled. Our little group of Wayfarers on that early spring day was pretty much the main action in town.
A mostly cloudless blue sky and light breeze allowed the warmth of a brilliant spring sun to quickly drive away the last remnants of the winter’s chill in our bones. Donning shorts and a t-shirt had taken some conscious thought. We were still getting adjusted to the idea that summer had arrived in full force. Our skin was lily white and we would need to be careful.
By the time Tom and I had cleared Crisfield’s outer harbor our fleet was widely scattered. We were last except for Uncle Al and Hans bringing up the rear. Let’s count sails, we decided. Yes, it seemed we had all six W’s in sight. The crossing to the entrance of the Big Thorofare on Smith Island is only five nm, but the land is so low the island wouldn’t be visible until we were more or less half way across. Even then, the human eye finds the channel markers impossible to pick up until close in. With Tom on the tiller, I worked up a temporary compass heading from the chart and played with sail trim. At that moment, having a precise compass heading didn’t matter a whole lot as the weak southwest wind was forcing us to sail too low anyway. When I got the chance, I would fire up the GPS to get a proper bearing; assuming I had input the necessary waypoint. Meanwhile it didn’t take long for Uncle Al and Hans to put us behind them; adding to the irritation of how easily Kit and Mark had already bounded far ahead of the pack. But at least Tom and I weren’t the only ones being left behind.
It seemed that we were in for a slow passage that could include some unpleasant beating. I wondered how tedious it might become once inside the Thorofare. The prospect of getting mired in mud with just a light wind didn’t appeal to me. Being that it was already approaching noon when we departed Crisfield, the thought we might have to resort to the emergency food rations for dinner the first day of the cruise was disturbing. We couldn’t afford to arrive late and find our one and only restaurant closed.Thankfully, while these depressing thoughts were running though my head, making me think the unthinkable and wish Blue Mist had an outboard engine attached to her transom, the wind unexpectedly picked up. This also brought a favorable shift. Now we were able to make a beeline for the Thorofare entrance and sailing was again a delight.
The low marshlands of both Smith and Tangier Islands are crisscrossed by channels referred to as Thorofares. Though appearing to be broad, they are in fact narrowly dug trenches, no more than ten or twenty yards wide with a depth of five or six feet. These are bordered by mud flats and tall marsh grass; the mud covered by only a few inches of water. Wander outside the navigable trench and you are immediately buried in mud or on sand. Catching the tide wrong or encountering a head wind can mean lots of trouble. Hung up on a sand bar on a breezy day a couple of years back, Jane and I capsized. Obviously not hugely dangerous, but Jane nevertheless was quite unhappy. Others have managed broken centerboards and rudders. Seldom does one navigate the Big Thorofare without having to get out the paddle or oars, or sometimes resorting to jumping overboard to push off.
Nevertheless, experiencing the beauty and thrill of exploring the wilderness marshlands of the Eastern Shore is a big reason for going there. So taking on the navigational challenges is well worth the effort and continually teaches us new skills. The Big Thorofare that bisects Smith Island from east to west provides for two entrances to the interior. Ewell is on the west side. From the east the tortuous channel leading to Ewell is about two n.m. long as the crow flies. But that doesn’t account for the many twists and turns.
Pauli Eades and her husband, Steve, run the small Smith Island Marina and B&B in Ewell. We’ve been visiting Pauli for many years and she has become a dear friend of the Wayfarer gang. So it has become difficult to plan a Chesapeake Bay cruise without including a stop at Pauli and Steve’s place. Pauli and Steve have always treated us like family. Existence on Smith Island is hard. This is especially so following the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy two years ago. We have empathy for the Smith Island folks. They are very independent, hard working people who are determined to follow the traditions of their forefather watermen.
With one hand permanently affixed and ready to raise the centerboard and otherwise ready to tack or jibe at a moment’s notice, we made our way to Ewell. Keeping an eye on the boat in front of us for signs of trouble we might occasionally get lucky and leapfrog that nearby friendly boat. But then again, they would soon return the favor when we screwed up. Thus lighthearted competition amongst buddies made for much fun.
The prize at the finish line was the satisfaction of knowing we’d successfully completed a tricky passage. The newcomers had learned something new; that, and a cold beer, some welcome snacks and camaraderie on the deck of Pauli and Steve’s visitors’ club house. Meanwhile, the tastiest crab cakes in all Maryland awaited us for dinner.
Captain Harrington with Pauli Eades and their salty friend on the dock of the Smith Island Marina.
2015: We will repeat the Tangier Sound Triangle cruise which includes visits to Smith Island, Tangier Island, and Watts Island. This is the same cruise planned last year. It is a five day cruise departing Crisfield Sunday, May 24th and returning Thursday, May 28th. A sixth day, returning Friday May 29th is optional if desired. Arrival and launching at Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield will be Saturday, May 23rd. In 2014 we had twelve participants with six Wayfarers attend. New participants are welcome.For additional details contact Dick Harrington at email@example.com.