A Travellerspoint blog

Up the Potomac

There are channel entrances to the east and the west of Tangier Island. When I first studied the charts it seemed necessary to enter and exit from the east side. The entering part was OK, but exiting to the east added about 25 nm to the mouth of the Potomac River. Mr. Parks said that there was enough water for the boat in the western channel so we tried it, on the half tide, and everything went well. Of course, then the 45 nm trip for the day was only 20 nm and at 1000 we found ourselves where we thought to be at 1700.

I ran some numbers, using the old reliable circular slide rule for the first time in many years. The decision was fairly easy: we had planned to stay at Colonial Beach on Thursday so we would change the reservations to Tuesday and would complete the transit by 1600. Carol called the marina early and, the poor darlings, they only work from 9 am to 5 pm, almost unheard of, most marinas opening at 8 am and the rest at 7 am. Oh, and by the way, 9 am to 5 pm does not include the 9 am to 5 pm on Tuesdays. We didn't want to anchor out, thinking that it would be cooler than it turned out to be. So, we ended up at a place across the river called Cobb Island, in Maryland. There was enough water, by inches at low tide, to float the boat; the marina has all of the grace and charm of an abandoned FEMA trailer park in the lower 9th ward of N.O. But it had power to keep me warm and a restaurant with fresh crab to keep Carol fully nourished so it's OK. One thing struck me on the way in was the number of pairs of ospreys here. Just about every day mark has a nest with two birds. Caught the morning sun across the river.



This is our first time on a true river; many bodies of water called rivers along the coastal plains are not. It's about 100 nm from the river's mouth to WDC. The mouth of the river is 9~10 nm wide, and for the first 50 miles, or so, the river is several miles wide. The river narrows about 50 miles inland and at that point there is a bridge, the only one until WDC. We saw this: literally a lighthouse, something about which I had never read or ever seen. It is on St. Clement's Island, about 30~35 nm up the river, on the Maryland side.

Carol has been lusting after fresh crab meat; I find the prospect less engaging for practical reasons. There cannot be crab cakes without crab traps to catch the little buggers; there cannot be crap traps without buoys to mark the traps' positions; we cannot traverse the bay or river without doing the sailboat slalom to avoid all of the above at the risk of fouling the propeller. Been there, done that! No encores are necessary. Mostly crab traps are in fairly shallow water, rarely in water much more than 20-ft. deep. Crossing the bay we found some that were in more than 50-ft.

The Chesapeake Bay has an incredible amount of navigation markers; swing a cat by its tail and you'll hit three or four. Some tell you where you are; most are to tell you where to go; the rest where not to go. The thing that is different here is that the physical locations of many of these markers are also a named way points on the charts. If the GPS ever indicates that the distance to a way point is 0.00 nm, we're probably going to be dealing with fractured fiberglass and bailing out the boat. We had a Close Encounter of the Buoy Kind on the way to Cape Charles. If the hull hadn't been so clean, we would have removed some barnacles.

In south Florida and over into the Bahamas the VHF traffic on channel 16 was constant. At one point we heard sequential USCG broadcasts from Key West, Miami and Jacksonville, FL. With all of the personal watercraft down there the cross talk was annoying, folks not understanding that the channel is a hailing frequency, not a cell phone. Here, not at all. Maybe one USCG broadcast a day; no local chatter. This is good, but at times I become concerned that the radio may not be working because it is so quiet. Speaking of cell phones, our Verizon coverage has been surprisingly poor. The only time on the whole trip that we had five bars on the iPhone was in Cape Charles, the marina being 200 yards from the tower. Most of the time, though, we have had LTE coverage which is pretty quick. Our early conclusion about the iPhone is that it is, in fact, a very smart phone, but not a very great phone. We have an old, heavy duty Motorola phone that Carol has preferred using; it just works better with weaker signals.


I took a picture of this sea gull, figuring that at almost full life size on the computer screen I would have an easy time making the ID. Not! My best guess is that it is, maybe, a Herring Gull, the most common along the eastern seaboard. These gulls have a distinctive mark on their bills which this bird has cleverly hidden in its pose. Anyway, I liked the picture, a good contrast between the water and the bird.


We cannot arrive in WDC before Friday, mid day, so we laid over a day at Cobb Island to do chores: clean the boat, defrost the fridge, a couple of minor repairs. Part of the rationale for stopping a day was rain and thunderstorms, predicted to start at 1 pm on Wednesday. At 2 pm, still sunny and in the 70's. Of course when the going gets tough, the tough ...... take a nap? Carol is not handling the stress of being 67 very well.


Got up Thursday morning to the weather that we had expected to see on Wednesday, the weather we laid over a day to avoid. Blowing hard, low sky, intermittent rain showers. Checked the weather forecast ..... clearing by noon and sunny. So, who do you believe? Your own eyes or the weatherman? We decided to give it a shot, assuming that, somehow, we could get the boat off the dock with a heavy wind hitting us broadside. We didn't wreck the dock (no one would have noticed) and didn't wreck the boat, but we would not have gotten any style points from the judging panel. We hit the bridge, where the river narrows, about 1000. Narrow for the Potomac is a relative word; it went from several miles wide to 1~2 miles wide, not exactly close quarters. Then, a miracle happened: the skies cleared as predicted, it got warmer and sunny. The last/best anchoring spots are about 25 miles from WDC, so we picked a spot, maybe 2 miles north of Quantico, VA, and put out the hook. Not a great spot, too narrow, and, with the wind from the east, the boat swung too close to the shallow water behind it. But the holding was OK and we're not for moving. There was enough wind to turn on the wind generator, which seems to work fine.

I love to look at sailboats and, when we're at a dock, I always walk about to look at the boats and I've noticed two things about sailboats in the Chesapeake area. First is that more than half the boats have whisker poles, a device to improve down wind runs with foresails and spinnakers. These are not so common in the cruising community; I've only seen two cruising boats with poles deployed. Second is that the CQR anchor (letters to mimic the word: secure) is almost the sole anchor on the bows of boats. We had one and abandoned it in favor of the Manson Supreme, a choice I have never regretted. But, when I see so many "votes" against my decision I wonder if there is some critical information that I have missed, or whether it's just a case of blind, mindless group-think. The point of this is that our anchor worked wonderfully in the soft mud of the river, a bottom that is reminiscent of South Carolina's "pluff mud, but without the needless drama of naming rights. Anchoring out was a check list item, something that we needed to do to get comfortable with it again.



Friday broke rainy and windy with thundershowers in the forecast. We got underway early to try to beat the worst of the weather. The river has its ways with boats; there is a tidal current, even 80~100 miles from the bay; there is a river current that is, at some points, eroding the shore line. Most of the spots we saw were on the Maryland side, a small state getting even smaller. I don't have any sense, yet, for how to plan for these effects in the distance, rate, time equation. Throw in the wind and it gets confusing. Even unplanned we made good time against whatever current there is and with both high and low tides.

On Thursday, I thought that I saw an eagle. It was low over the water, hunting, so I never got to see the underside; but the body was dark with a bright white head and tail; I gave it an 80% confidence rating. On Friday, just below Mt. Vernon we saw one on a buoy, no question, no doubt, a 100% confidence rating and an exciting thing to see. I was almost ready with the camera when a small boat went by and spooked the bird. Maybe on the return trip .....


We saw this house along the way. It kind of reminded me our our house, both houses being set back from the water about the same distance. I have to admit that Panther Branch must yield to the Potomac River in terms of scope and scale. Modest though it may be in width, it need concede nothing to the Potomac when it comes to the natural beauty of the place. Most of our time on the boat has been spent in Florida and the Bahamas, the trees there being pointless iterations of pines and palms with some shrubbery added. The anchorage last night was about as close as we'll ever get to anchoring in Panther Branch; it was surrounded by hardwood trees, oaks, maples, etc. just like home. Most of the homes we saw lining the river were older, having a quiet stateliness about them even when they were very large. They are, I suppose, are a testament to the fact that not many people have ever gone broke contracting to do work for the US government.


When I was researching the trip I found that Mt. Vernon was along the Virginia side of the river. I didn't know if it would be visible from the water. At green marker "71" there it was, plain to see. The General chose well, a beautiful location maybe 15 miles south of the capital, but that was a fair distance to travel back then. My guess is that he may have made the trip by water since the house is on the other side of the river from the Capital. On the way back, we may try to find a spot to anchor nearby so that we can dinghy to site for a visit. Looking at the two house pictures, what would happen if there were a law prohibiting any house being larger than Washington's at Mt. Vernon.


This I had never heard or read about, Ft. Washington, on the Maryland side. It was built to protect the city. Completed in 1809, it was abandoned during the War of 1812, allowing the British to raze the Capital; it may not have protected very much but it looks great from the water. The old yellow house is hard to see but it looks like it might have been the commandant's residence.

The trip was hardly pedestrian but when we cleared the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, it almost took my breath away. There, not two miles distant, were the Washington Monument to the left and the Dome of the Capital Building to the right, the dome, seemingly lit from above, dominating the horizon. The marina Carol picked is close in to the city; we're not quite moored in the Reflecting Pool, but we're pretty close, less than 3/4-mile from the Washington Monument itself. Way Cool! There are cherry trees in blossom .... saw some on the way in; pictures to follow, I hope. I have never flown into or out of Dulles Airport. As we came up the river from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the airport was on the left side of the river, tight along the river's western bank. And, just upstream from there was the bridge which the Air Florida flight hit that winter day. It was so easy to see and to understand when viewed from the water. With the winds today the planes were coming in low over that same bridge to land; taking off they headed straight south along the axis of the river.

We have no set plans for the visit, not even how long to stay. There's lots to do, it's all touristy, and it's all great. The critical component seems to be Carol's appointment to get her hair done, red now being mixed with visible gray. There is one night next week forecast to be in the 30's so that will, surely, figure into our plans.

Posted by sailziveli 14:27

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