A journey to a Peaceable Kingdom, at least during the day.
I wish I could remember how it came into my hands, perhaps a reference in a sailing magazine, but a book written by Robert de Gast, called Western Wind, Eastern Shore, captivated me when I was in my mid-thirties. It describes a month-long trip the legendary photographer had taken on his 22 foot sloop, sailing from Annapolis to Annapolis around the Delmarva peninsula one May in the 1970s.
The most fascinating part of his account was the meander from Chincoteague, Virginia, to the peninsula's southernmost point, Cape Charles. There he had worked his way through the maze of channels, marshes and guts past islands like Assawoman, Metomkin, Parramore, Hog, Cobb and Mockhorn through a region called the Virginia Barrier Islands. This area may be only a few hours’ drive from several major metropolitan areas, but because of its inaccessibility it contains one of the most remote sets of barrier islands along the East Coast. At the time the book was written, its only inhabitants were two dozen people tending a Loran-C Coast Guard station on the northern tip of Parramore Island and they’re now gone.
For 140 miles, there are no billboards, boardwalks, or buildings of any kind, only occasional remnants of places such as the resort on Cobb Island popular during the latter half of the 19th century or the town on Hog Island whose residents gave up trying to battle the Atlantic's storms in 1933 and floated the surviving houses to the mainland.
Between the federal government, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the Nature Conservancy, virtually every barrier island from Assateague to Fisherman Island at the southern tip of the Eastern Shore peninsula is in the hand of conservationists with the Conservancy holding the largest share. Over a period of several years, the foundation assembled the 60-mile-long Virginia Coast Preserve, a 35,000 acre chain of barrier islands that begins south of Chincoteague Island. No small boater can resist being stirred by de Gast's account of this estuarial wilderness.
Over lunch one day with my friend Mark Baker, I told him about the book and the area that de Gast had described. Mark had never done any sailing before, but he had grown up in the Shenandoah Valley backpacking in the surrounding parks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and he was always ready for a good adventure. We agreed to sail the area.
To find a launching point, Mark and I drove to Norfolk in January, crossed the Bay Bridge Tunnel to Cape Charles, and drove up Route 600 past the aging plantations, their back porches surveying the miles of untouched marshes and tidal creeks sparkling January sunlight behind the barrier islands. We settled on Oyster, Virginia, as our launching site, a small fishing village that had the only large boat ramp in the region suitable for putting over a catamaran. We selected the Wednesday before Memorial weekend as the most appropriate date for the cruise because I thought the bug and boat population would not be too great and May was when de Gast had done his trip for the same reasons.
The following account was written in the early 1990s.
My theory on having a great sail is to be sure not to get too carried away with planning, because if you do, the adventure may be bleached out by logic, reason and common sense. Yes, I turned apoplectic when my children follow my example and exercise the same degree of thoughtlessness, but it's different for adults. We really aren't being careless, we're simply trying to stretch ourselves.
It's like the training of the Apollo 7 astronauts. Their simulations had been so carefully planned and conceived that Alan Shepard had trouble believing the first Mercury flight wasn't just a pale replica of just another day on the centrifuge. To be sure there would be some adventure on this outing, we had elected to wander aimlessly inside the Barrier Islands letting the wind or whatever else moved us decide our course. At night we would sleep on the boat pulled up on an isolated beach. Simplicity itself.
We arrived at Oyster at 1600 on the appointed Wednesday with three days of supplies stuffed in two of the largest waterproof duffel bags I could find. Mark and I no sooner had gotten them strapped to the Hobie’s trampoline, the mast stepped, and the boat ready for launch when we were accosted by an overbearing bearded naturalist type, the kind of guy that roomed down the hall from you in college who kept a python wrapped around his closet pole and thought you were the one who was strange.
He asked us where we were going in what, we felt, was an excessively authoritarian tone for someone standing in a public landing dressed in Eddie Bauer Goodwill attire characteristic of someone homesteading along the Yukon. Mark and I debated silently whether this vigilante deserved a response, but remembering that my car would be left unattended in the parking lot for three days, an opaque reply seemed to be in order.
By this time it was 1700, and he started eyeing our two duffel bags.
"Not going camping, are you?"
Not going camping? Oh no. We had just gone to all this trouble loading the boat with 40 pounds of high tech equipment, freeze dried toothpaste and LORAN wrist watches for no other reason than to sail out in the channel for an hour or two, come back, tear the boat down and try to find a motel before midnight.
"Well, yes, we had been thinking of doing just that," was my response as we started growing more irritated with Oyster's parking lot monitor.
He then proceeded to issue a formal notification that all the barrier islands south of Chincoteague were owned either by the federal government, the state government or the Nature Conservancy, that he worked for the Conservancy, and that no camping was allowed on their lands. Mark looked at me with eyes that said, "Real smart, Mr. Thoughtful. We're going to be sleeping in the car tonight."
The two of us had simply assumed that the rules for camping here with all of the wide-open beaches swept daily by the winds and tides would be no different than camping along Virginia's Appalachian Trail which is to just keep far out of sight of the main trail. That, quite suddenly, was no longer an option, but there was no way we were going to be defeated at the jumping off point. We needed an alternative. Deciding to make use of our legal educations, Mark and I pulled out our laminated charts and started determining ownership of the various islands with this authority figure.
"Who owns this one," I eventually asked, pointing to a tiny patch of yellow near the mouth of Sand Shoal Inlet, something titled Little Cobb Island? It was at the southern tip of the much larger Cobb Island, separated from it by a small body of water called Loon Channel.
"I don't care if you camp there, but it's mating season on the islands, and there are tens of thousands of birds in the area right now. A Nor'easter blew through here two weeks ago when the season should have started, and it really messed things up. We don't want you two disturbing anything out there." This sounded like an eminently reasonable request, and we replied that he could count on us to be very careful.
By 1730, we got the Hobie into the water and whooshed out of Oyster Harbor in a broad reach towards the narrow channel that snaked towards Sand Shoal Channel, the main waterway that would take us 10 miles or so out through the marshes to Little Cobb Island.
A moment or two should be spent on this whooshing, which was the first high of the trip. If you're a small boat boater, you know the tedium that sets in after you have sailed familiar waters for the 53rd time. The winds, waves, water, sounds and smells are stamped so indelibly in your mind that you could sail blindfolded for three hours without hitting anything. That's why leaving places like Oyster's harbor for the first time are moments to be savored, cherished, and permanently stored in memory for easy access when stuck in traffic on a cold winter night. You don't know what the winds are going to do once you clear the last building surrounding the harbor. You don't know if the Nor'easter rolled a shrimp trawler in the middle of the channel, its steel masts lurking just below the surface ready to rip your hull to shreds. In fact, we really didn't even know where the hell we were going. For the first time in years, we were going to have to read a chart to figure out how to negotiate unfamiliar marshes. The adventure had begun.
The evening breeze was blowing gently from the southwest, and we quickly snaked our way down the dredged creek to Ramshorn Channel and then south a quarter mile to Sand Shoal Channel, a narrow course 50 feet deep in spots filled with water a deep emerald green. The air was fresh, the sky a pale blue and the marsh grass swaying underneath hundreds of darting birds. The water lapped gently against the hulls as we reached towards the Atlantic, but it soon became apparent that the system for attaching the duffel bags to the Hobie's hulls that I had so carefully worked out in my mind was a complete bust in practice. With the added weight, the boat was sitting low in the water, and any wave larger than six inches would catch the bags tied ahead of the trampoline and slow our progress. They would have to be repositioned if we were to make Little Cobb Island before nightfall.
The area between the shore and the barrier islands was filled with hundreds of acres of marsh grass and mud flats, but only occasionally did tiny islands rise more than a foot or so above the water, ones large enough to beach the Hobie. Looking about, we finally spotted a low pile of oyster shells at the point of a wedge of water pushing aside the marsh grass on the south side of the channel and decided this would be a good spot to stop. We slowly sailed the Hobie into the wedge, being careful not to disturb anything.
Until this point, my exclusive experience with the water around the Virginia Barrier Islands had been sailing near Chincoteague. There, the bottom was littered with what appeared to be mutant strains of weird vegetation that fed off garbage dumped into the water from the houses that line its shore. The crabs love the stuff, but experience had taught me that shoes with steel plates in their soles were always a good idea when wading around the Chincoteague shallows. Also, the water itself was black from all the runoff from the town.
As the Hobie slid to a stop, the contrast was overwhelming. Everything was fresh, clean, pristine. The water was clear, and the bottom looked like drawings from a naturalists' textbook on marine life in tidal waters. There was no trash, no scraps of paper or Styrofoam cups, beer cans nor human leaving of any kind. Except for the distant roofs of Oyster's houses that could barely be seen above the surrounding marsh grass, there was no sign of civilization apart from the infrequent channel markers.
It was late in the day now, and the lowering sun sent shafts of light through a huge arch of white puffy clouds above us. Turning to one another, Mark and I both felt as if we had gone through a reality separation field and had entered a natural cathedral. Looking carefully for eggs and finding none, we stepped off the boat and quickly retied the duffel bags. We then eased the boat back into the channel to avoid getting it caught in the marsh grass and disturbing the natural order of this remarkable place.
By 1930 we turned into Loon Channel and coasted to a stop on the shore of Little Cobb Island. On it, there was only an empty dilapidated shack set high on pilings. We unpacked the duffels, set up the gas stove and feasted on freezed dried dinners of lasagna, corn, coffee and anything else that we came across as we watched a sky laced with soft pink, orange and blue clouds slowly darken.
While we ate, it came to me that it might be a good idea to try once again to figure out where we were relative to that tide thing. All day I had meant to check the tables, but something had always interrupted me before I could pin down the times. Glancing over at the pilings on which the house was sitting, I was hit with a gut punch. The wooden posts were liberally coated with crustacean activity up to a point parallel with the middle of my chest.
"Mark," I said slowly, "I have a feeling its low tide."
To my surprise and relief, Mark had very little reaction to what I thought should have been a startling observation. The word "tide" has a nice ring to it, and his biology classes must have taught him that it was, among other things, an elemental force of nature that nurtures the shore. But Mark had probably never thought much about the inexorable force it exerts on anything in its path. I reflected for a moment how wonderful it was to be boating with someone even more ignorant than myself. Mark blithely assumed that I knew exactly what I was doing at all times, and thus far he had treated any idle comment of a maritime nature as profound nautical wisdom. Being as nonchalant as possible, I rummaged around in the duffel and found our official Radio Shack weather radio (yes, there was some planning) and, to my dismay, the droning voice confirmed my observation. It was exactly low tide.
The sun was now setting, and as we looked about the island, we quickly determined that the highest point on it was the one on which we were standing, an interesting revelation in that we were located only about six inches above what presently constituted the level of the sea. Our predicament was a bit unsettling, because it meant that the waters of Loon Channel would be slowly rising such that by early morning (early, as in 0030 or 0130) Little Cobb Island would cease to exist as an island and become a shoal. I had wondered why the words "Cobb Bay" on the chart overwrote the names of all the creeks, inlets and guts in the area. Apparently, at low tide there were things like Loon Channel and Sand Shoal Channel, but at high tide all those meandering bodies of water disappeared under the broad expanse of an inland sea. That may have also explained the derivation of the name Loon Channel and why ignorant wretches like ourselves were directed to this particular piece of geography by the locals.
I also couldn't help noticing that we were very close to the mouth of the inlet and that I could hear the roar of the Atlantic's waves crashing on the other side of Cobb Island, only a stone's throw away. That meant the slack water gently lapping at our feet might pick up a little speed once the tide started running. There was really no need, however, to mention this to Mark for the time being, as he was beginning to give off faint signals that he had begun questioning the fitness of his expedition leader for an exploit of this magnitude.
We finished our dinner, repacked the duffel bags and threw them up on the deck of the shack along with the sails. We then dragged the Hobie to a point squarely in the middle of four ancient pilings that protruded six inches from the sand. I tied the boat securely to the pilings, using a new knot that had been described in a book of knots given me for Christmas, leaving enough slack to handle the rising tide.
Since the sun had now set, we stretched out our sleeping bags on the trampoline and climbed in for the night. There was no town of any size for miles which meant the dark sky quickly turned into a brilliant canopy of stars. While the sight was exhilarating, it was also unsettling in that it reminded us how isolated we were.
About midnight, I awoke to find the Hobie cruising along at about two knots in dark water. Frantically thrashing about for my glasses, I looked out across what the chart termed Cobb Bay. The acres and acres of marsh grass and bare sand that had surrounded us when we dozed off was now open water stretching for miles. Disoriented, it took several minutes to realize that we weren't actually cruising, but that the tide was ebbing towards the sea at two knots. Mark fortunately was sound asleep. Slipping off the boat phantomlike into water hip deep, I discovered the nifty new knots on the mooring lines had slipped off three of the four pilings, and that the Hobie was being held tenuously by only one remaining line. As I quickly retied the lines with a level of intensity that would result in the pilings being sucked out of the sand before a line slipped again, Mark awoke with a start.
When we had dozed off, the Atlantic seemed a long way away, and we felt very protected by the inlet. Now that we were surrounded by swiftly moving water and the shoreline had moved well to the west, I must admit that Mark was not entirely off base when he pointed out we were bobbing around in the ocean.
"But hey, Mark," I said forcefully, "have you been stung by a single mosquito? Of course not. And how could you? You're simply being protected from those pesky little critters by our being moored way out here in the middle of the bay. That's why you slept so peacefully and why you have so much energy right now. You didn't even notice the tide lifting the boat off the sand. So relax, go back to sleep. Everything's fine."
I soon dozed off again but awoke at 0330 when the outgoing tide finally dropped the boat back on the reemerging island. Mark was sitting bolt upright, his mouth half opened as he stared wide-eyed into the black night. He congratulated me on my ability to sleep soundly under these circumstances and informed me that he had been standing watch the entire time, checking the mooring lines once every five minutes. He said that he was pleased that he had not awakened me when he had climbed off and back on again. Thanking him profusely, I promised him that there would be no more high tides that evening and that he needn't play hero any longer.
We woke with the sun to see Little Cobb Island and Loon Channel as we had found them the previous evening, and we pulled the duffel bags off the deck and began to fix breakfast. The weather radio was turned on to get the day's forecast, and we were told that it would be, "South to southwest winds at 10 to 15 knots."
I'm sure it's just me, but over the years as I've listened to many a summer marine forecast, it seems that unless the weather folks are warning boaters of an impending cataclysm, they simply play a repeating tape that says, "South to southwest winds at 10 to 15 knots." There may be no wind, or there may be a twenty knot winds. The wind may be blowing from the south or it may be blowing from the north, east or west. Yet the forecast is always the same—south to southwest winds at 10 to 15 knots—which I think is a polite way of saying, "Hey, no one knows what the winds are going to do, idiot. The only important thing is that there won't be a hurricane today." On this particular day, the winds would blow from the north all day long at 5 to 10 knots, the direction in which we would head.
As we were eating, a small motorboat raced up the Loon and into the marsh about 100 yards away. Two men got out and spent several minutes digging through the sand. We thought, good Lord, the Conservancy cops are on our case already? During the next half hour, they rooted around in the sand, slowly working their way towards us, and finally got near enough to strike up a conversation.
We discovered that they were not part of any organized conservation group but just two locals digging whelks to sell to a cannery. Mark and I had begun thinking of ourselves as a latter day Lewis and Clarks, and these two had the audacity to jolt us out of our reverie. Apparently, they spent most of the year cruising the barrier islands, making their living harvesting the marshes. Our crowning achievement, on the other hand, was going to college and then law school so that eventually we could figure a way to escape for three whole days to cruise these same marshes.
They also had a hard time believing that Mark and I were not in trouble of some kind. After all, the island on which we were standing had been drowned just a few hours ago, and no one they knew was so dim witted to spend the night out here. Laughing to themselves, these gypsies finally got back in their boat and shot off towards Oyster with their morning's treasure.
By 1000, we got underway in the light breeze and decided to head north on the inside passage, sailing up Eckichy Channel through the marshes. The day was heavenly. Eighty degrees, a soft wind, bright sunshine, sailing through the pristine marsh. We would only see four boats that entire day, including the motorboat that had carried the whelkers. We did see, however, at least a dozen Navy fighter jets. We were buzzed all day long by would-be top guns who raced at us two or three hundred feet off the deck from 20 miles offshore and then shot skyward directly overhead us with afterburners blasting. The Hobie's aluminum mast must have registered nicely on their electronic warfare systems.
Because Eckichy Channel heads in a northeasterly direction, we spent the morning tacking back and forth in its narrow waters. By noon, we turned right into Gull Marsh Channel which allowed the Hobie to go into a close reach and take us quickly into Machipongo Channel where we started to look for a place to stop for lunch. We soon found a tiny island that will go unnamed because someone from the Conservancy will suffocate me in my sleep if I disclose it. We were able to run the boat aground without actually bringing the Hobie onto the island, for here rested everything that had caused our Conservancy friend so much anxiety.
The island was no more than a thousand square feet, and on this Peaceable Kingdom was a concentration of bird life the likes of which neither of us had ever seen. If our boat could have been turned into a college biology classroom, the professor could have lectured for three months. Circling overhead were about 50 oyster catchers shoveling the air with their long, flattened bills. On one side of the island, nearly a dozen snowy egrets pranced delicately through the water. On the other, a small horde of sandpipers was swimming and feeding. There were marsh wrens, laughing gulls, and rails. Three blue herons waded the deeper pools and spread across the island were dozens of unhatched eggs baking in the sun. After a minute or two, the birds simply ignored us and went about their business. Spellbound, we silently watched the pageant spread before us as we ate our sandwiches, feeling once again and even more like the intruders that we were.
Soon we were back in Machipongo Channel heading northwest, except that high tide had returned and but for a distant landmark, there was no channel, only Hog Bay that stretched for miles in every direction. In the afternoon haze, the channel markers disappeared completely, and we continued towards what we thought might be north for a half hour or so looking for a black dot on the horizon. Finally, one appeared, and we continued tacking towards it. Machipongo Channel eventually winds its way into Willis Wharf on the mainland, so at marker "186" we turned right into North Channel that would take us to Conjer Channel and eventually Quinby Inlet leading to the ocean. Mark manned the tiller heading as close to the wind as possible while I dozed off feeling totally at one with the world and not wanting anything to change.
Reaching North Inlet, we turned east again which enabled us to fall off as the wind picked up, and the Hobie began ripping towards Hog Island with Mark out on the trapeze. As we hummed along, a large center console fishing boat carrying four men emerged from the haze behind us going only slightly faster than we were. Eventually, both of us arrived at Hog Island at about the same time, and the boats were beached a few yards from one another.
As Mark and I lowered the sails to take a break, one of the four broke away from the group and strode over to our boat. We were probably 25 to 30 sailing miles from Oyster, we had sailed all day in this wilderness and seen almost no one else, and here again in the late afternoon a Conservancy type pounces on us.
"I heard about the two of you from my colleague," he said, and once again reiterated all the rules.
The three others were a more easygoing. They looked like Greenwich old money guys who had majored in philanthropy at Yale. We assumed they were from one of the foundations that gave large sums of money to the Conservancy for the purchase of things like barrier islands and center console boats. They had flown down from New York that morning to view a particular species of bird that happened to be nesting on the island. One commented that the Hobie looked to be "an absolutely marvelous way to tour the area," to which I readily assented, pointing out that having no motor, the boat was environmentally pure, gesturing towards the tiny oil slick that emanated from his outboard. He had no idea to what I was referring.
I did assure the representative that we were being extremely careful and that there had been no camping out (which I defined as sleeping directly on the ground, with or without a tent). He still seemed very uncomfortable with our presence.
The six of us walked along the shore of the inlet towards the ocean, passing a narrow channel of deep water just 30 feet from the beach. Swimming in it was a pod of porpoise, including several newborns. These tiny offspring would tag alongside their mothers so closely that they seemed to be held on a leash. But while their mothers behaved like mature porpoise do, arching upwards for air and then sliding beneath the surface, the newborns would come out of the water upside down or backwards or standing on their heads, whatever seemed like fun at the time.
The only drawback of this island was that it was home to perhaps some of the largest and most aggressive mosquitos known to man. Within minutes, blood was dripping down our legs. When vaguely planning an itinerary that morning, I had thought that perhaps a wide-open place like this might be a good place to beach the Hobie for the night, but the thought of what a night here might be like was frightening. As we strolled back to the Hobie, we started eyeing a backup site, and an island devoid of vegetation a few hundred yards away looked promising. We were coming to the conclusion, however, that someone would be patrolling for us around sunset.
By now the Conservancy people had finished their field trip, and we helped them get their boat off the shore before shoving off ourselves, not that they appreciated the push. Fortunately for us, the three philanthropists had to be taken to the Norfolk airport three hours away so they could catch their flight back to New York, but the last thing our Conservancy friend wanted to do was to leave us still sailing at 1630 more than 30 miles away from our car. He motored as slowly as possible back towards Quinby, and for a time we followed in his wake, not sure what we were going to do. However, the center console was going so slowly we kept overtaking it, even though we were sailing the Hobie so close to the wind it only looked as if we were actually making forward progress.
Still swatting mosquitos 100 yards from the barrier island, Mark and I concluded the following. On the one hand, we didn't want to bob about in the middle of a bay again. On the other, there was a good chance of being turned into waste by carnivorous insects if we stayed near the marshes. Still, we wanted to sleep on solid land. Therefore, we would need to lose the island patrol.
We tacked, went into a reach and accelerated out of Quinby Inlet into the Atlantic. As the sun sank over Quinby, we sailed east for six or seven miles over the swells until the shore looked no bigger than a slip of paper viewed sideways. At that point, we figured our mast should have disappeared from view in the haze.
By now it was 1800, so we tacked again and sailed northeast five miles or so along the shore of Parramore Island past a tall stand of pine trees that would shield us from anyone that wasn't willing to motor offshore a mile or two in the dark. Finding an open spot well away from the woods, we turned the Hobie into the surf and sailed it hard up onto the beach.
The gas stove was quickly lit, and soon we were cooking a dinner of freeze dried beef stroganoff and vegetables. As we ate, another pageant unfolded. Parramore, we soon learned, has an abundant fox population, and these inquisitive beings apparently had not savored meat prepared this particular way in some time. In the distance several tiny heads could be seen jerking from side to side deliriously as their sharp noses searched the air. Soon they formed a circle less than 50 yards around us and began slowly closing in, stopping fortunately at a respectable distance while we finished dinner.
In the darkness, Mark and I hoisted our food halfway up the mast and unrolled the sleeping bags on top of the trampoline, feeling very mellow as we listened to the waves crash against the shore. While I pondered the possibility of critters walking on top of me all night, Mark reflected that in all the camping he had done over the years, sleeping on the Hobie was the most comfortable. He also said that one of the reasons he liked camping so much was that it was a reminder of how little one really needed to stay alive and function in relative comfort. All we had, he pointed out evangelically, was the boat, a few clothes, a little food and our sleeping bags. What else did we really need? For two days now, he declaimed, we had moved through a beautiful maritime sanctuary with very little matter attached to our experience and not once had we complained about something we lacked.
Unfortunately, we soon discovered Mark was wrong in one respect. Our adventure in minimalist living would have been improved considerably with the addition of a mosquito-proof tent. It was the bugs. There were little bugs, and there were big bugs, but they were all voracious bloodsuckers siphoning the life out of our veins. We were carrying several small bottles of what we had been told was awesome, state of the art, hi-tech insect repellent, and we poured it liberally over every square inch of exposed skin. It had no effect. Despite wrapping ourselves in our sleeping bags and draping jackets over the opening, the onslaught continued unabated throughout the night. We even stuffed small wads of toilet paper in our ears to quiet the incessant screaming. Mark had gotten sunburned during the day, and I think the agony was even worse for him. All night long he thrashed back and forth, bouncing me off the trampoline.
At first light Mark was up, packed, and then while I tried to continue sleeping he packed all my gear. When the only remaining item was my sleeping bag, it was yanked out from under me with superhuman force. I asked whether we were going to eat breakfast. He told me to chew oatmeal.
Pulling on my bathing suit, I tossed out a wild idea simply for the sake of discussion. There was no question that by day the Barrier Islands were a wonder to behold. And I know our dream for lo these many months had been to camp three nights out here to be sure we had worked in two full days of sailing. But between the nature patrol and the hyperactive night life, perhaps, I wondered, Mark might prefer not spending another night coated with crawling beings in a blood lust.
"What if we ended the day back at Oyster," I casually mentioned as I unhooked the shock cords from around the mainsail. We had been discussing this trip for so long that I was deeply concerned that Mark would feel shortchanged, but during the night we had been given some fairly strong hints why the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island 150 miles to the south had disappeared without a trace. Suicide was a good bet.
"That wouldn't really bother me," he said uneasily, fearful I might not be serious.
By 0630, we had worked the heavy boat through the surf and were sailing south towards Oyster. "South to southwest winds at 10 to 15 knots," the forecast had intoned again that morning over the radio, and unfortunately for us that day, the tape would be accurate, which meant the wind would blow directly from our ultimate destination. So once again we tacked back and forth, this time off the beach as we worked towards Quinby Inlet.
Nearing the large channel marker at its entrance that stands as a sentinel, Mark said that picking our way through the guts and channels again today would be fun, but what he really wanted to try his hand at was sailing out in the ocean along the coast. Because the winds were still fairly light and keeping well offshore would keep us away from anyone quoting lengthy sets of regulations, I readily assented.
We began a series of long, slow tacks in the 5 to 8 knot breezes that took us towards shore just inches short of getting caught in the breakers, and then out into the ocean seven or eight miles until the beach was barely visible. Returning towards shore after one of these leisurely tacks, I noticed the chart indicated fairly shallow water around Quinby Inlet in spots, but never less than two feet at low tide. It also mentioned breakers about a mile or more from the beach which seemed odd, and they could be seen to our east a half mile or so. Even with the low tide, I felt that we shouldn't have any trouble negotiating this stretch of water which the chart showed never got less than two feet. Mark in his innocence made no comment as I rambled on, discussing our situation out loud, until we suddenly came to an abrupt stop.
We weren't a few dozen feet away from the waves breaking on the beach; we were at least a mile offshore. Looking down, we saw that we were trying to sail in ankle deep water. We stepped off the boat, but then I recalled a similar situation in Chincoteague with my brother, and I quickly jumped back on and yelled at Mark to do the same. Seeing my strange behavior, Mark followed suit and then listened very carefully as I laid out the plan. We would drag the boat across this shoal, but never, never would we let it go of it. Once the riderless Hobie got into water deep enough to support the hulls, I warned Mark it would take off like a Cigarette boat. When that happened, I wanted to be sure at least one of us was on it. I knew I had gotten through to Mark when he swiveled his head around, thinking about standing on this shoal a mile or so from shore while the tide slowly rose around him.
As we dragged the Hobie across the shoal, I looked towards the distant beach and saw a speck sporting binoculars that appeared to be one of our Conservancy friends. It was 0730. Mark and I both felt pangs of guilt over having kept this poor guy up all night worrying about us disrupting the Natural Order. Yet, by heaven, we had played our part in enriching the ecosystem by donating two quarts of blood each that had fed and sustained thousands of protein rich insects who were now being eaten by the very birds that he was sworn to protect.
We dragged the boat for at least twenty minutes, a task that began to ease somewhat with the rising wind. Then without warning, the light brown water gave way to deep blue as the shoal ended, and the Hobie lunged ahead like a thoroughbred jumping out of its starting gate. Screaming at the top of our lungs, we threw ourselves on the boat, groping for the lacing of the trampoline as she sped out into the Atlantic at 12 knots, leaving our distant warden on the faraway beach.
The morning wore on and the winds and waves gradually increased. We tacked back and forth down the length of Hog Island, then Cobb Island. Sailing against the wind and waves became progressively more difficult, and Mark sat as far forward as he could to keep the windward bow from being lifted too high in the stiff breeze and forcing the catamaran to fall off more than we wanted.
After a several hour slog, we finally turned into Sand Shoal Inlet between Cobb and Wreck Islands and crossed a line that separated the boisterous ocean from the sheltered cove. One moment everything was wild and chaotic, the next quiet and calm, riffles replacing breaking waves.
Heading west now, we reached down Sand Shoal Channel towards Oyster after taking a quick swim in the emerald water to cool off. To complete the mood of the voyage, Mark stood in the stern with his legs spread apart, steering the raft down the channel looking like Huck Finn on the Mississippi.
We had left Oyster with a dramatic flourish two days earlier, the bright orange mainsail full and the boat moving smartly along in a reach. Our return, however, didn't really do justice to the skills we had picked up after spending two days on the water. As work boats motored in and out of the harbor, we tried to sail the Hobie into the narrow mouth filled with a swirling wind blowing directly in our faces. Each time we would tack, the wind would shift with us, which meant we kept getting blown into pilings, the side of a huge seafood processing ship, and decaying docks. For fifteen minutes, we were toyed with in front of the watermen who seemed to relish the spectacle. "Why is it always this way," I thought.
"Good God, ain't you got no motor on that thing?," one would ask while all the rest laughed. "What happens if the wind dies?" I wanted to say, "The same thing that happens when the salt water finally gets to your big Chevy," but they were having too much fun listening to themselves.
At long last, the wind got bored diddling with us and turned its attention to something out in the marsh which provided just enough time for us to sprint the last 200 feet and regain part of our dignity.
And so as the rest of the Baltimore-Washington metro area jammed itself onto the highways going east to the beaches for Memorial Day, Mark and I drove west, Hobie in tow, against the miles of gridlocked beach traffic crawling along Route 50. Unlike our frustrated opposites, we could not have been more pleased with ourselves and life in general. Glowing with fresh sunburn, we felt as if we had conquered something monumental by breaking out of our well-ordered lives and exploring unfamiliar territory, even if it was for only a few brief days. Soon we would be back in our routines, but we will never forget our lunch in the Peaceable Kingdom, completely at one with nature. How could that ever be replicated.
In the weeks after the trip, we spent considerable time getting a better understanding of the remarkable work that has gone into preserving the Virginia Barrier Islands. Called the Virginia Coast Reserve, the Nature Conservancy over a period of years outmaneuvered developers attempting to turn the area into another typical seaside mega development. The reserve is described here, and a map of the protected areas can be found here. The web contains several stories about the land wars over these islands, and a story in the Bay Journal, entitled "Last Cedar Island House Slips into sea," does an excellent job of recounting the the dogged efforts and resources that have gone into its preservation. For a more in-depth account of the islands and the work to maintain them, a blog by Charles McGuigan is suggested. Finally, this description of how the area can be visited today may be of interest to those believing in proper planning.