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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

Life on the St. Mary’s (and Other Big Waters)

Written by Capsize Kate, graduate of one-week course, Annapolis Sailing School (Intermittently known as Kate Chandler, Associate Professor of English)

Photo courtesy of Kate Chandler

The St. Mary’s River Is Well Worth Reading About.—It Is Remarkable.— Knowing the Water.— Tall Talk by Twain.—A Heavy Swell. —I Give an Account of Myself.

Here’s what I have to say: What does Mister Twain know about navigating real water? He claims to know the Mississippi River, and I grant him that. I read his book (a lot of it is madeup), but what about knowing WATER, all kinds? Every river worth its salt (or lack of) dumps into some bigger river or bay or ocean, and that’s the point. You don’t keep churning the same water over and over in your paddleboat. You go places. You get on that river and keep on sailing till you get to a distant spot like Oxford (not the one in Mississippi, the real one on the Chesapeake’s Eastern Shore) or Roanoke or even down to Charleston or Nassau in a completely other country.

I’ve sailed up and down the St. Mary’s River, motored it at sunset in no wind, anchored in welcoming coves, rocked over Horseshoe Bay in a gray chop, kayaked creeks and inlets, crabbed, watched oyster tongers, and dodged sea nettles when going overboard. It’s an amiable, appealing stretch of water. These days, my favorite river activity is sitting on the beach watching the sailing team whisk over the water or driving by the College’s River Center and seeing the crew club stroking powerfully under the lifting mist of dawn.

But I’ve got years under my nautical belt, and I’ve ridden the St. Mary’s right out into the sea. I don’t think Mister Twain adventured past those warehouses in New Orleans, yet he has the gall to begin his Life on the Mississippi swearing that the basin of the Mississippi is “THE BODY OF THE NATION.” Well, our St. Mary’s River goes right into the hefty Potomac all the way to Washington "HEAD OF THE NATION" D. C.

Trying for new places, now that is learning to navigate. Reading the shifting mud alongside the same river’s edge or watching the riffles change or keeping clear of the same snags you passed the week before on your trip upriver is a bit limited. You have to try your skills out on real water.

My husband and I have sailed and motored the Chesapeake, the largest estuary this Earth has left, and up and down the Intracoastal Waterway and out into the Atlantic. We almost sailed to Europe one time when our compass was off 10 degrees. That was crossing the Gulf Stream on our way to the Bahamas. We were just lucky we hit Walker’s Cay by accident and were mighty comforted to see its casuarina trees wavering in the distance after a blowing day lost in rough water. It was several islands up from where we were aiming, but we didn’t care. We had sighted land. Walker’s is the top island in the Bahamian chain, and I tremble to this day − our next sight of land could have been Portugal.

Try dodging oil tankers in a 30-foot sailboat when you’re crossing a shipping channel in dead calm or weaving through subsurface coral heads in rough seas. Or try being on constant lookout for floating hatch covers in the Atlantic or dodging crabpots as you navigate through a narrow inlet at night. Tangle up a propeller in one of those crabpot’s moorings, and you’ll throw your 6-horse over the side. Heck, try to anchor in slick grasses and discover your boat aground onshore the next morning.

Cross a sound like the notorious Albemarle, Mister Twain. See what wide water with no depth is like. Have a storm kick up in that, and you’ll find those waves come fast and are nearly square, like the wall of a building. Heeling at 40 degrees with every 10-foot wave, and you might spend ragged hours clutching the rail covered with a waterlogged-wool Army blanket like I did. Try that when you’re already drenched from a morning at the helm coming up the Alligator River under that same nor’easter and into that storm-stoked ocean inlet, and then, Sir, then you will know water.

Fog Everywhere.—Fog up the Waterway.— Fog Down the Waterway.— Measureless Sea.—Supernatural Piloting.— Nobody There.—All Saved.

Mister Mighty Mississippi Twain writes right about fog on the water. Nothing is more treacherous. He says, “we would be feeling our way cautiously along.” I couldn’t write it better myself. When he described “a deep hush,” I knew just what he meant.

But I want him to try maneuvering in fog-shrouded salt marshes that stretch for miles. Once we were in fog so thick, we couldn’t see the mast three feet in front of the wheel. That was down in Georgia in ’76 after four solid days of rain; even our month’s supply of beaten biscuits from St. Michaels was growing mold, and our fivepound box of Hershey's with almonds was worm-infested. This was not our best cruise on the waterway. Every piece of clothing we had was soaked or soggy, and we were down to yellow foul-weather gear. My new husband didn’t even have on bottoms; they’d gotten too damp and sticky to wear.

Mister Twain knew fog, I’ll admit, like when he wrote “all in an instant, a log raft would appear vaguely through the webby veil.” We didn’t worry over rafts; we worried over the massive barges pushed by diesel tugs at too-high speeds that left us almost no room in the waterway channel. Motoring slowly through the sloughs, we had those flat, grassy marshes to sidestep while we could barely separate land from water. We gave it up that foggy day in Georgia, choosing to anchor before we plowed aground into a saturated lowland.

I manned the wheel when my groom headed for the bow to drop anchor. We’d done it hundreds of times, but in this soup I couldn’t see him, only his yellow jacket. I knew it would be hard to tell when he bent to lift and heave the anchor; that was his sign that I should gradually reverse our engine to set the anchor.

Suddenly, I saw it − the signal. But I fell back laughing and lost the throttle. Below the slicker, two white globes shone through the fog. Headlights, you might say.

Mister Twain would’ve written about that.