by Lorraine Eaton
In the wake of a weekend sailing cruise gone awry, a list lit up my phone, a riskiness ranking of 37 daily activities during these pandemic times from haircuts to concerts to the safest of all, opening the mail.
Obviously, the members of the Texas Medical Association who developed the list weren’t sailors. Otherwise opening the mail would have dropped to No. 2, bested by a way more fun activity and one for which the Chesapeake Bay is famous; gunkholing.
Gunkholing is the boaters’ equivalent of leaving the trail and pushing deep into the woods to find a secret spot to make camp. The quirky term comes from the often-muddy bottoms of the out-of-the-way tidal creeks, coves and crannies that lure intrepid boaters to go where no boater has gone before.
The Bay’s 11,000 miles of crinkled coastline offers plenty of possibilities, secluded places to set the anchor, cocooned from the wind, and where it’s silent save the musical tinkle of tidal waves tapping the hull – the ultimate social distancing.
To nose into these sanctuaries requires knowledge of tide, water depth, absolute certainty of your vessel’s draft and a measure of derring-do. Sailboats, with underwater fins called keels that can reach 5 feet or more below the water, are at a disadvantage to motorboats, which generally have shallower drafts. Depth soundings on nautical charts aren’t always accurate as channels and shoals shift during storms. And a boat’s depth finder only indicates how deep the water is where you are, not what’s lurking a few feet ahead. All that makes running aground a nerve-wracking possibility.
That wasn’t a deterrent a few weeks back when an uncooperative wind had us south of a planned anchorage on the north shore of the York River. With late-afternoon storms in the forecast, we decided to go gunkholing on the Back River instead.
At the approach, a gorgeous stretch of deserted sandy beach beckoned, but with hardly enough water to get anywhere near it. Instead, we followed red and green channel markers into the mouth of the river, past the entrance to a small marina at Dandy Point and inched our way into the quiet, tree-lined southern branch, called Harris River.
We pressed on. Moving. Ever. So. Slowly.
The depth dropped from 6 feet to 4 – just enough for us to squeak by with our 3-foot, 9-inch draft. Suddenly, we were in 7 feet of water and hoping we could press on to find a hidey-hole ahead. The depth then dropped to 5, then up to 6. Then a dull thud.
Running aground triggers a sickly feeling in the gut. For a tense moment, time stands still. But it’s the risk gunkholers take in search of serenity.
That day, we eased away from those shallows and nosed up another couple of Back River branches but found nothing to keep us there. So, we sailed on home, tying up at the dock before the impending storms. Although we didn’t find the ultimate spot that day, take note, Texans! Our gunkholing adventure packed way more fun than a trip to the mailbox.