The Chesapeake’s Sailing Lesson
Storms aren’t the Bay’s only surprise
In the summer of ’66, I was 13 years old and halfway through my first summer camp at Severn Sailing Association in Eastport, where I was learning to sail, getting my first full taste of what it was like out there on the waters of the Chesapeake.
All summer long we had sailed our boxy, square-bowed Cadets around short triangular courses in Annapolis harbor, always within eyesight of the club. Instructors in battered Boston Whalers shepherded our motley fleet, making sure that everyone was safe.
About the only time we got out of control was when the kids from the Annapolis Yacht Club sailed by in their pointy Penguins. Spontaneous water fights would erupt until our handlers established order. But on this hot and muggy Friday evening, we went on a big adventure. One of the kids lived in Bay Ridge, where we were going to sail for a beach barbecue and swim. We’d sail home before dark.
As we rigged our boats, the excitement in the fleet was like an electric current. Sailing all the way to Bay Ridge — only a mile or so away — seemed like a trip the moon. When we took to the water, even the young instructors — most in their late teens — seemed a bit nervous, like mother birds watching their fledges leave the nest.
A light breeze was blowing out of the southeast, meaning we would have to tack our way down to Bay Ridge. I was skippering; my friend Dick Arnold handled the jib. Within 10 minutes, all the Cadets were scattered across the mouth of the harbor like lost ducklings.
That’s when the line squall came swooping down like an osprey on the hunt. It blew in without warning from the west. In five minutes, it went from a clear day to a sky as dark as night.
I had never been so scared in my life as gale-force winds and choppy seas blew us toward the rocks off Greenbury Point. The instructors were helping other lost souls. We were on our own.
At the rudder, I was trying to keep the boat sailing in a straight line, for I knew that if we turned sideways to the wind we would capsize. But our course was sending us straight for the rocks.
What should I do?
Suddenly a tremendous gust hit our sails, and I lost control of the helm. The foundering Cadet spun around broadside to the wind and we went over. I remember like it was only yesterday thinking I would drown.
Dick and I hit the water and struggled in the white-capped maelstrom. Swallowing water, I fought to stay above the pounding waves. I started to go under and knew I was a goner.
Then an amazing thing happened. My feet touched the bottom, and I stood up. Dick did the same. We stood in the storm and laughed at the screaming sky, the warm rain lashing us.
We had just learned the hard way the best lesson the Chesapeake could teach a young boy: The Bay is really shallow.