Great fun in small boats
Chesapeake Voyages of Discovery, 21st Century Style
The August issue of Chesapeake Bay Magazine will be our annual weekends on the water. In anticipation of that, let’s talk about exploring our Chesapeake in smaller boats. The bay’s tidal system comprises somewhere close to 6,000 miles (status) of navigable water to discover, so what’s there to see and what types of boats are suitable? Tradition has long held that a large boat with overnight accommodation – preferably under sail – is necessary for a good cruise, and that only wide, open waters with suitable wind are satisfactory. This tradition misses out on too many of the Chesapeake’s most interesting waterways, as anyone who’s explored rivers like the Nanticoke can attest.
Notice the ships of the early Chesapeake explorers: a thousand years of Algonquian canoes, then the aptly named Capt. 30 foot long smith Discovery barge in the years 1607–09. Small (rather) boats allowed them to survey not only the main course of the bay, but also virtually every river, creek and creek in this sprawling ecosystem. Note, too, how such journeys—by oar, paddle, sail, and even power—place even 21st-century explorers in intimate proximity not only to immediate weather conditions, but also to the effects recent conditions, especially since they have affected the current. , wind, tides and salinity, as well as the course of the seasons.
With recent climate variations and weather patterns throughout the sprawling Chesapeake watershed, from southwest Virginia north to Cooperstown, NY, and east to the Capes of Virginia, our bay system is never the same from minute to minute, much less from day to day, month to month, or year to year. When we hone our observational skills, both in preparation and on the water, they help us contemplate how the parts of the Chesapeake fit together or transition from one to another. They also challenge us to think about how the progression of seasons affects the system. A useful perspective combines human and natural history, the opportunities and challenges presented to us by the Chesapeake ecosystem, and how we have learned to live with it or damage it. Remember that we humans are largely creatures of the system and dependent on it.
Your portal to observation and contemplation can be something like bird watching or fishing, or maritime history. It helps to focus on finding something, whether it’s an eagle taking off from a nearby tree, a shoal of white perch on an oyster reef, or the pilings of an old steamboat dock. Focused research sharpens all the senses, but how do you begin the process? First, follow your own interests and curiosity. Researching the waterway in question in advance is a good way to start. Unlike Captain Smith or pre-1600 Indians, we have a vast array of resources available on shelves, online, and even on board our ships. The list of Chesapeake books is extensive. Just search Google for books on the Chesapeake Bay and dive into a topic that piques your interest. Consider that we can literally spot a trip in advance with several free versions of Google Earth or the virtual tours offered by the Chesapeake Conservancy, and even a smart phone can act as a GPS chartplotter. Yes, it will show not only your position, but also the shape of the bottom under your boat, if you have an inexpensive map app from C-MAP or Navionics installed. If you opt for fishing mode, the app will even display bottom contours in one-foot increments, giving you a detailed three-dimensional idea of the waterway you’re traveling on.
Add even an inexpensive electronic fishfinder and you’ll have a real-time preview of what’s happening below. Yes it will show fish and over time you may even learn to tell different species apart from the marks on the screen, but you will also see features such as bass, reefs and oyster holes , as well as human structures such as piles from old docks and shipwrecks. It is easy to learn to distinguish between hard and soft bottom. In my years organizing school trips to the tributaries of the bay with the original Chesapeake Bay Foundation fleet of canoes, I carried an old-fashioned portable fish finder that taught me a lot about how whose tidal rivers and streams are formed by moving sand, gravel and mud around. This was particularly helpful in learning how these rivers adopt their distinctive meandering pattern. Yes, I used it to catch fish, but it taught me a lot about how Indian tribes and the English set up their villages, towns and trading docks around these meanders.
The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail is a reasonable starting point, looking both to the native communities before the English arrived and to today. There are many research sources to help you get started. Just understand that the founding of Jamestown in 1607 marks a point in time. Remember that the map published by Captain Smith in 1612, the first faithful representation of the bay and its tributaries, opened the region to English colonization in the 17th century. As they had done for the Native Americans, our waterways gave the English instant infrastructure in a land without roads, reaching to the navigational heads on the great rivers on both banks. Note that the Chesapeake Conservancy offers a free online book Boater’s Guide for Capt. Smith’s Trail. It is designed to serve people in all types of watercraft, from kayaks and skiffs to trawlers.
So what types of boats are suitable? First, consider what is appropriate where. I believe everyone should have the opportunity to explore the small waterways of the Chesapeake while self-propelled, whether aboard a kayak, canoe, stand-up paddle board, or paddleboard. real rowing boat. This type of quiet, slow, participatory journey opens the senses of sight, hearing, touch, and even smell to the environment. There’s no better way to experience a tidal stream, whether in the Big Salt Marsh of Poquoson’s Plumtree Island National Wildlife Refuge, the wild rice paddies of Choptank’s Tuckahoe Creek, or hundreds of other Havre waterways. of Grace, Md. in Virginia Beach, Va. Areas like these are particularly interesting to paddle several times during the seasons of a year to observe the progression of flora and fauna. The range of launch facilities for these craft around the Chesapeake is vast and growing, as is the equipment available to transport them easily and safely onto the roofs of even small vehicles.
That said, there are moderate speed values. Spend a lot of time paddling a particular section of a waterway and you’ll start to wonder what’s around the next bend. This is where the judicious use of a motorboat comes in handy to learn how the different parts of the stream or river fit together. After many 2-4 mile trips with students on rivers like the Patuxent, Pocomoke and Rappahannock with the CBF canoe fleet, I had a great time exploring these and other rivers on skiffs 14 to 20 foot speedboats, especially first light, my trusty Boston Whaler Montauk 17. Cruising at 15 knots with his four-stroke outboard is efficient and fast enough to explore 30-40 miles of river in a day with time to idle stop, drift or stretch the legs on the ground. Often these trips are round trip to the same landing, allowing the first leg to absorb the basics of the itinerary, with the return dedicated to absorbing the details. My skiff wears a pushpole which helps in lean spots.
She and her sisters are easy to tow behind a midsize pickup truck or utility vehicle, and the list of launch pads around the Chesapeake is huge. I have no idea how many different ramps first light was lit, but it is north of 50, stretching from the Harrisburg Pool on the Susquehanna to the South Fork of the Elizabeth River on both sides of the bay. The realities of most of our lives mean that day trips and weekends are the easiest to plan. Even so, just as some people hiked huge chunks of the Appalachian Trail one day at a time, boaters can explore the Chesapeake in smaller chunks with boats hauled on cartops or trailers. At the larger end of the skiff spectrum, if properly equipped and maneuvered with care, these boats are perfectly capable of venturing into open waters, even as far as Tangier and Smith Islands.
As for spending a weekend with an open boat, our area is full of overnight accommodations and county tourist offices are ready to provide information. What do you need for a day and what for a night: state, state and county parks, campgrounds, local bed and breakfasts, motels of all categories, luxury hotels? Granted, the facilities are rustic on many rivers, but that’s the point for many of us. Saturday breakfast ashore, a thermos of coffee, a picnic with snacks afloat, a nice supper ashore, a comfy bed, and the same format on Sunday can make for a lavish Chesapeake weekend.
Incidentally, the advent of larger but still efficient four-stroke outboards makes 20-28 foot center console and dual console boats good choices for a different type of cruising. These boats are large enough to be comfortable for long journeys, with overnight stops for accommodation ashore, and their shallow draft allows them to prowl most rivers effectively.
Sailing and motor cruising boats have a long and proud history around the Chesapeake Bay, but you don’t have to own or rent one to experience all that this remarkable waterway has to offer. to offer. Choose your favorite small(er) boat and set off to discover it.