Cruising 101: Raise The Jib, Hold the Rib-Eyes

(Above, Maryland Tourism; Top, From Pat Mcnees)
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By Nancy McKeon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

"But you don't like boats," said Pat.

And, Jane pointed out, I don't particularly like feeling clammy and damp.

Holly didn't know my eccentricities well enough, so she remained silent.

Nonetheless, last spring I declared that one weekend in late summer was going to be the first-ever Babes on a Boat Chesapeake Bay Charter Sail. For whatever reason, suddenly the watery world of the bay -- dockside restaurants, fishing charters, sailors up and down the East Coast making online plans to get together in a bay cove -- seemed appealing. If everything went according to my newfound fantasy, we would charter a sailboat and spend a restful weekend on the bay. We would swim and maybe dock for Sunday brunch. We would sleep like babies, lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat. We would sun ourselves and recline into sloth.

The reality was quite different -- a learning experience, even.

The second thing I did in preparation for our cruise was to get paper cocktail napkins made up: a brilliant aqua imprinted with a jaunty-looking white sailboat and "Babes on a Boat!" beneath it. Made it official and festive. But the first thing I did was find a boat.

Holly said it should be a sailboat; otherwise, what was the point? I didn't know then that she had grown up sailing on a succession of her dad's boats. Jane didn't want to spend a fortune on some fancy yacht, then feel stupid just sitting there in heavy water traffic. Pat was up for pretty much anything: "I'll do anything if you'll do the organizing."

I found what I thought was the right boat, a 41-foot Hunter sailboat with three cabins and two heads, at BaySail on the Chesapeake, a sailing school and charter outfit in Havre de Grace, Md. But I was given the wrong answer to the first question I asked the company's genial Steve Young: Could four of us, who didn't want to learn to sail, didn't want to do anything but loll about on the water, achieve the perfect lazy sailing weekend by chartering a boat with a captain?

Sure, Young said. But the truth turned out to be more complicated.

After sleeping dockside on our boat Friday night, we rose to our first pleasant surprise, the early-morning arrival of our captain. I had imagined some young, tattooed kid or a gnarled, toothless salt. What we got was Cap'n Jack, a semi-retired chemist for Big Pharma who slotted sailing gigs between seminars for foreign drug firms on best testing practices.

So, where would we go? "Here's a nice quiet cove," Cap'n Jack said, showing us a picture of Fairlee Creek, which to me looked pretty much like any other patch of water. We could anchor there and swim.

Getting there, mostly under power, taught me something about the navigation channels on the bay: They seemed narrow. And they were delineated in harrowing fashion, by crabbers who install their crab pots right up to the edges, marking them with small buoys. That's when it became clear that laziness wasn't on the day's agenda: We took turns standing and calling out things like "There's one at 11 o'clock!" We sounded like a World War II movie.

Maneuvering became dicier when we decided to sail. The wind gave us a nice and speedy six knots, but now we needed room to tack back and forth. That meant someone to spot the crab pots and two others to work the jib sail. Holly and Jane really got into it, wrapping the lines, unwrapping the lines; to me it was a new vernacular marked repeatedly by "Ready about!," "Helms alee!" and the swoosh of the sail swinging left or right.

In late afternoon I went below, to spend some quality time reading (otherwise known as napping). When I awoke to some bumping and scraping, I assumed we were docking in the quiet cove. But no, we were scraping bottom. Turns out that our nice quiet cove was wall-to-wall sailboats, many rafted together, blocking all but the shallowest part of the cove's entry. Were these the jolly boaters whose messages I had seen on the chat boards planning their get-together? I'll probably never know.

After Cap'n Jack maneuvered us out of there, we anchored nearby and were evidently set for the night, even though it was barely 6 p.m.

Our Saturday dinner had been carefully planned: steaks under the stars. The boat had a small gas grill aboard, and now the rib-eyes were just waiting for us to find it. Jane and Holly, I think, finally unearthed it -- covered in sludge, which was correctable, and missing the hardware to bolt it to the boat's grill frame, which was not. Sigh. We resigned ourselves to a repeat of lunch: cold cuts. We were feeling a bit cranky, but the stars and the gentle shooshing of the water soon exerted their calming effect.

Until we ran out of water. Cap'n Jack said he'd have to rip apart half the boat to activate the second tank. (Not true, Young later told us.) And then the ship's radio didn't work. (That was okay: Our cellphones did.)

Our Sunday was spent buying water, trying to radio home (again no luck), time out for swimming, then chugging back to Havre to Grace, under power. It wasn't exactly a sailing weekend, but not having to handle that jib left more time for passing out drinks. And watching out for crab pots.

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