The Chesapeake is undoubtedly the most frightening body of water that I ever sailed. I didn't understand this at first. I grew up there as a sailor and was accustomed to it. However, the bluewater sailors who I met during those years were universally cowed by it. I failed to understand their fear until I too sailed the blue waters of open oceans.
Still waters are of little concern to anyone, regardless of where they occur. As hard as it may be for a landlubber to imagine, I have encountered them everywhere, even on the broad oceans of the Atlantic and the Pacific, and the Chesapeake Bay as well. The difference between these oceans and the Bay lies in the aspect of their waves.
I have experienced ocean waves that were many times larger than those on the Chesapeake, but none as steep as those on that Bay. Ocean waves grow in interval as they grow in size. That is, the space between them becomes longer and the slope up one side and down the other remains generally uniform. However, waves in the Chesapeake tend to maintain the same interval regardless of their height. Thus, they become steeper as they grow in size.
Riding on steeper waves is not only uncomfortable, it is more dangerous. Vessels pitch – tipping fore and aft – and yaw – rolling side to side – more violently on steeper waves. Local boat builders on the Chesapeake compensate by building boats of a uniform length – about 32 to 37 feet. Such a vessel generally sits comfortably on at least two waves under most conditions, thus reducing the violence of the pitching. They build hard chined boats – boats with flat bottoms – to reduce the yaw. Most blue water sailors visit the bay in longer, round bottomed vessels that do not fare as well in the local conditions. These are better suited to the open waters of an ocean.
Flat bottomed boats with center boards - projections from the bottom of the boat to prevent leeway or side slipping - are better adapted to shallow waters than the vessels that bluewater sailors rode. Thus, they feared navigating shallow waters of the Chesapeake where depths rarely exceeding a few fathoms. Indeed, there are many places on the Bay that can be negotiated only at high tide. Running aground is rarely a concern in the open ocean unless you approach too close to the shore. Sailing from any point on the West Coast of the United States, you have a thousand feet of water under your keel after progressing little more than a mile from harbor. You may well bump into the shore line in many places on Catalina Island without ever running aground! There is no Continental Shelf off the West Coast as there is on the East Coast.
Although pollution has greatly diminished its production of seafood in recent years, it was still teeming with life when I sailed there as a Sea Scout. We could stop almost anywhere in the Bay, tie one end of our lines to the gunwale of the boat and toss the other ends over the side with crude weights and scrap meat, and soon harvest a bushel of hard shelled crabs. Wading in the shallows with nothing but a rake, we could harvest a bushel of soft shelled crabs in minutes.
The most exciting fishing I ever experienced was in taking stripped bass – we knew them as “Rock” – from the Bay. Good eats, too! Most fished with stout rods and strong lines. I preferred ultralight spinning tackle and 6 pound test line. We trolled for Rock. The faster the boat pulled your lure through the water, the larger the fish you caught. Rock struck the lure like a marlin and “ran” with it like a demon. A three pounder on my rig sometimes required ten or fifteen minutes to “boat.” I never hooked one over seven pounds, but saw many larger ones, up to twenty-five pounds.
Although just a little more than two hundred miles in length and averaging just a few miles in width, the Bay has more than three thousand miles of shoreline when the beaches of its tributaries are measured. Thus, a sailor can spend the better part of a lifetime exploring them all. I believe that I sailed on every major river that fed the Bay. James and Elizabeth were named to honor monarchs of the colonial age. Middle and Back bespoke of location. Choptank, Rappahonock, Susquehanna, Patauxent, and Potomac harkened back to the native tribes that once populated the region. Sailing on the Bay was like leafing through the pages of a living book of history.
There you have it. My Bay. I left it at age twenty-three and still pine for it these forty-six years later.