We drove down on a muggy September Sunday night, having arranged to board the sailboat the night before our charter began (the extra time to settle in, we had learned on previous charters, is worth the slight additional fee). But when we arrived, mosquitoes swarmed as soon as we opened the car doors and a drizzle began as we started loading the boat. Did we really want to subject ourselves to this, we wondered as we stowed all a family of four needs for five days afloat on the Chesapeake Bay: food, drinks, water (because water from the boat's tanks tastes like the boat's tanks), sunscreen, hats, rain gear, life vests for our daughters (charter companies don't always provide children's sizes), flashlight, binoculars and a VHF radio. And secreted in my bag: a new copy of "Misty of Chincoteague."
But we also knew from experience that the inevitable annoyances of bug bites and bad weather and sometimes restless children are easily washed away by a few days on the water in a boat of (for now) our very own. This was our fifth time chartering on the Chesapeake, usually in the prime of the autumn sailing season when the winds are crisp and more reliable.
Luff American style: Sailors come from all over the country to charter sailboats on the Chesapeake, where calm waters, autumn breezes and coastal towns make for good cruises.
(Annapolis Sailing School)
These are bareboat charters, which sounds, I know, like topless tropical naughtiness, but really just means we rent the boat only -- no captain, no crew. We run the thing ourselves for a week of exploring the bay's coves, crab houses and marinas.
As with many amateur sailors, the Chesapeake was where we first made the jump to skippering our own rental.
"The Chesapeake Bay is really an ideal location for a first charter," said Kim Richards of BaySail, a charter company and sailing school in Havre de Grace, Md. "It's a pretty safe place to sail. We don't usually have large waves and there are no coral reefs and not many rocks. We have had customers come from around the world to charter with us on the Chesapeake Bay for these reasons."
Annapolis is the sailing capital, of course, but bareboat charters are available at points all around the bay, including Rock Hall, Md., and Deltaville, Va. This time we were chartering out of Deltaville, just below the Rappahannock River. We wanted to explore the wide-open stretches of the lower bay, and our five-hour drive to Deltaville saved us a two-day sail down from Annapolis or Rock Hall.
After our dockside night aboard, we spent the morning going over the now familiar checkout list. The charter agent reviewed the 31-foot Beneteau's systems with us: lines, sails, engine, pumps, head, galley. Not only was she showing us the ropes, she was making sure we knew the basics.
Before they turn over an $80,000 boat, charter companies want to be certain you won't sink it. They want to see your sailing "résumé," a chronicle listing formal sailing instruction, boats owned or chartered and any other relevant experience.
"I'm looking mainly for a sailing history -- not just a course you took yesterday," says Jacqueline Appleton of Haven Charters in Rock Hall.
My husband, Paul, and I are experienced sailors, so the charter agent stepped ashore and we took command, ready to explore the wide open stretches of the lower bay. NOAA weather radio warned of storms to the south, where we'd planned to go, so we headed north to the Rappahannock instead. Experience has taught us to be flexible -- a day sailing into the wind can be misery. The drizzle started soon after we'd left the slip; we had our rain gear on before the downpour began. After we entered the river, the rain let up and we came out from under our hoods. We motored upriver, poked slowly along, exploring and admiring homes along the shore. The Chesapeake Bay Cruising Guide, which lists anchorages, marinas and walking tours of various towns, mentioned a carillon in a village near Carter Creek, so we headed there. Elizabeth, 7, went forward to help Paul drop anchor; Margaret, 4, watched the depth meter and called out changes. We shed the rain gear.
The sky was that limpid blue that appears after a storm. The girls leaned out over the stern, quacking at some ducks who came nearer in response. A gray-haired man in a Boston Whaler putted past, on his way home from checking crab pots. "You're fine anchoring toward the channel," he called in friendly response to Paul's query. "There's no traffic this time of year. No one here but us chickens."
I heated chili for our dinner on the two-burner gas stove. There's a small top-loading fridge, a toilet/shower/lavatory compartment the size of a voting booth and berths for up to six (if you're really close friends). It's a little cozy with everyone below, so after dinner we sat out in the cockpit and I read "Misty" to the girls. And we heard the carillon play.
We looped south to the York River. Two nights later, in Gloucester Point, we were sitting inside the River's Inn Restaurant at the York River Yacht Haven enjoying crab cakes and filet mignon. We'd arrived midday and wangled a ride up the road to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, where the girls watched a moray eel being fed and patted the horseshoe crabs in the touch tank. We toured the institute's Tidal Marsh Garden and played at a park. After a couple of days surrounded by water, it was a pleasant change to use proper toilets, shower off the sweat and sunscreen, and enjoy a multicourse meal someone else had cooked. Anchoring out is bliss, but shore time is a good counterpoint.
We headed out the next morning, breakfasting in the cockpit while underway. As we came down the York, we saw watermen working the big tongs used to harvest oysters. A huge Navy ship came upriver, and the gentle, wide swell of its wake was the only movement of the water on the windless day. This was the closest we came to any large ships, which was fine by us. The big cargo ships cannot always see or maneuver to avoid smaller boats, so it's a good idea to sail straight across the shipping channels rather than linger along them.