When my wife, Nancy, and I first arrived in a rural area of Southern Maryland 40 years ago, we set out to find a local physician. Our young neighbor informed us, "My father's a doctor, everybody likes him."
And that is how we met Dr. Fred Johnson, whose practice was located by the nearly abandoned railroad tracks in La Plata. We learned that Johnson was descended from Col. Adoniram J. Warner, brevetted brigadier general, who was one of the wounded war veterans who served as an honorary pallbearer for President Abraham Lincoln.
Johnson, who had sailed with his brothers in his youth, developed a remarkably complete medical chest for our cruising, the framework of which is still aboard my boat.
The doctor sometimes sailed with his brother, Warner, a bright youth, who was destined for a life of action and accomplishment. His father gave him a Kodak Brownie box camera when he was 12, and Warner quickly became a shutterbug, developing and enlarging his own film.
Like many boys in the 1930s, Warner read classic accounts of adventures at sea: rounding Cape Horn, clipper ships and daring trans-Atlantic packets.
For him, the logical alternative to joining the land-bound Boy Scouts was becoming a Sea Scout. These youths, in a time before nonsensical over-insurance concerns and today's ridiculously litigious society, sailed real boats on long cruises for weeks at a time on the Chesapeake's tributaries.
The DC's Sea Scout "ship" sailed out of the Corinthian Yacht Club in the District of Columbia. This is not as elitist as it sounds; the club was founded in 1903 by 19 young men who simply wanted to get out on the water, be it canoeing, kayaking or sailing. The Sea Scouts were headquartered at the club so youths could learn to become responsible sailors. The Sea Scouts were racially and seamlessly integrated in a time when all of the South was rigidly segregated.
Their scoutmaster, called Skipper, was Frederick Tilp, who was an author ("This was Potomac"), eclectic lecturer and historian and probably knew more about the Potomac River than anyone alive at the time. His stories about this river were both widely known and obscure, including tales of the river's seamier side. I've no doubt that Tilp shared some of his stories with these eager lads before they embarked on their own life's adventures.
The yacht club's Sea Scout fleet had two catboats, 23-footers with great stability lent by a beam of 11 feet. Proverbially "half as wide as they were long," catboats have a long tradition on the Eastern Seaboard, starting as commercial fishing vessels in New England and spreading south along the estuaries of New York and New Jersey.
Catboat rigs are distinguished by a hefty mast stepped nearly on the bow of the boat and a single large mainsail. In their early incarnations, catboats had a gaff mainsail: The top of the sail was secured to a long wooden gaff that was hoisted in raising the sail to a rakish angle pointing skyward. The bottom of the sail was laced with a light rope to a long boom, which typically protruded well out over the vessel's stern. The result, in compensation for the wide beam, was a very large sail (perhaps 490 square feet) for the 23-foot boat.
The rig's advantages included simplicity for young sailors. "If you have trouble," the saying goes, "shoot the man at the helm and the boat will head into the wind and stop." The second advantage is a very wide and roomy cabin, with plenty of room to shelter a bunch of young salts at lunch or during a stormy anchorage.
Tilp trained his dozen charges properly. Every one of them was required, like good mariners, to keep a logbook of the vessel's progress and their personal experiences. They knew the proper names for each of the days' watches, sailing terminology and basic seamanship; and about weather and how to handle it: when to reef, when to lay low. Their boats were named Wildcat and Bobcat, and in 19th-century naval fashion, the boys on the other boat were collectively referred to as Wildcats or Bobcats.
Warner Johnson's log, illustrated with his own photographs, and in his neat 14-year-old schoolboy's handwriting, was preserved by his family.
The Sea Scout's cruise from July 1939 is a memory lane of Potomac River sailing, touching two centuries of history in its course. Johnson wrote: "Our flagship, Bobcat, and her twin sister Wildcat (has a crew) of...cook (this was Johnson), the bosun and a starboard and port watch of two each...Sea chests contain only the necessary clothes, such as blue shirts, dungarees, shorts and other summer garments. All personal effects are kept in our chests."
His mother, Maud, was famous for her well-filled cookie jars and it is almost certain Warner had a supply of oatmeal-raisin and sugar cookies stowed in a tight lidded tin to preserve freshness. In a boat full of boys, I suspect they did not last very long. Comments on his shipboard cooking have not been preserved, but I'm amazed how often they walked to riverside farms and bought fresh vegetables.
Summer wind on the upper Potomac is not an abundant commodity, and on their first day, July 2, the boats anchored for swimming until the tide changed, bringing with it enough wind to take them into Marshall Hall. This old amusement park once lay across the river from Mount Vernon. It was fun for young boys with pockets full of nickels and an hour to play the slot machines, but the development and planned expansions flew in the face of the viewshed from Washington's home.
Decades later, activist Bob Strauss, a sailor himself, spearheaded an effort to protect that panorama, and detailed the effort in his book, "The Possible Dream." If you stand today, enthralled by the vista from Mount Vernon, thank Bob Strauss and his friends.
After anchoring in Gunston Cove for the night, the Bobcat and Wildcat encountered a fresh breeze, so they sailed down and across the Potomac "to Malowes (Mallows) Bay where we anchored for the night."
Only a few years earlier, at the end of World War I, more than 100 ships, no longer needed for wartime shipping, were run into the shallows and abandoned at Mallows Bay. Bobcat and Wildcat picked their way amongst looming hulks and submerged wreckage as nightfall approached. This must have been an extraordinary experience for these young fellows.
This was early July in the mostly hot and humid Chesapeake, so the boys were sleeping in the catboat's big cockpit without covers. "Woke up sometime in the middle of the night to find a cold slimy frog comfortably settled on the middle of my stomach. Half asleep I tossed him towards where Vaughn (John Vaughn) the anchor man was sleeping. Nothing more was seen of the frog."
Warner's logbook notes that come very early morning he and a companion rowed the dinghy Kitten around these ghost ships and boarded some. There were local boats that had died after a life in commercial sail on the Bay and the boys salvaged some hardware they thought would be useful on their Sea Scout vessels. Imagine that in today's litigious society.
As Warner Johnson approached adulthood and his own fateful rendezvous with destiny, this entire fleet was burnt to salvage the metals then needed for yet another terrible world war. That July day, though, this was just another wonderful adventure.
The boys returned to Bobcat and woke the rest of their crewmates to weigh anchor and get under way.
"Fresh NW wind and we boiled through the reach with a spinnaker (an extra sail from some other boat the boys set atypically on their catboat). Sudden squall off Persimmon Point, lowered sail and anchored it out in 30 ft. of water. Experimented with using a small piece of canvas as storm trysail. Tied it between the topping lift and peak halyards. Worked fairly well."
The day progressed with freshening wind and as daylight faded, they sailed on down past Colonial Beach. "to entrance of Monroe creek. No stars and very dark night. Walter took us in without any trouble and without being able to see buoys until we were almost abeam of them."
Colonial Beach in those days had an ice plant, off which the boys anchored Bobcat. The diesel generators also powered the community's lighting.
They walked uptown to the boardwalk and "stood Wildcat's crew" to a game of duckpins. They won and the Wildcats bought them fruit-flavored "snowballs." How many of today's parents would trust 14-year-old boys to go on a multi-days' sail with neither cellphones nor adults and yet still behave in today's social environment?
The next day was rainy and they rowed around the anchored schooner Federal Hill and scavenged the wreck of an abandoned skipjack for useful hardware. The painted name board of Federal Hill graces the Johnson family home in Kilmarnock to this day.
At the time of the boy's sail, the Dahlgren base up the Potomac was used for testing naval artillery and frequently had live fire target practice with the shells dropping off Colonial Beach.
"Sailed from Monroe Bay at 3 bells in the forenoon watch (0930 - these boys were serious about being proper mariners)â€¦almost straight across the river towards Cobb Island Light. Dahlgren dropped a couple of shots about 1 Â½ miles in front of us as we were starting to cross, and then stopped until we were across," and presumably out of the line of fire. They found the Navy range boat on the other side of the river. What safety officer could get away with that today?
They were still lobbing rounds toward Kettle Bottom Shoals when I was working on the Potomac in 1971, but as our research vessel approached, we were chased off by the range boat.
At the end of the week, the boys returned to the Virginia side of the Potomac, sailing under the fossil-bearing Nomini Cliffs, near the plantation where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was born and raised.
Bobcat was inexplicably slow that day, with Wildcat, sailing faster and farther. Just east of the cliffs is an improbably long island, behind which, the two catboats picked their way in (both running aground briefly) and anchored in Curriomen Bay.
At that point, the Bobcats found a line trailing astern to which a bucket had been attached, dragging behind them like a sea anchor. The crews swam and hunted Eocene shark's teeth -many millions of years old - under the eroding cliffs. Nearby was Davis' country store, where an artesian well allowed them to luxuriate with cool, sweet water.
During the night, the Bobcats avenged the bucket incident by scrambling Wildcat's running rigging while her crew was asleep, which gave them fits when it was time to make sail. Thereafter a truce was declared and the incidents live on only in Warner's logbook. They sailed southeast down the Potomac, exploring the wreck of a steamboat that had come from Chicago to the Bay and picking blackberries along a nearby shore.
The boys sailed into the Yeocomico River and, contemplating a swim in the day's heat, found a number of large, red sea nettles to make their foray unenjoyable. They took their boats upriver to the hamlet of Kinsale, the site of a War of 1812 engagement.
Adm. Sir George Cockburn, commander of the British expeditionary force, had blockaded the mouth of Chesapeake during the summer of 1814, and was wreaking havoc throughout the Bay. At sunrise on Aug. 3, 32 barges from the British fleet with about 300 Royal Marines landed at Mundy Point near the mouth of the South Yeocomico River, and marched overland.
They were opposed by 30 Northumberland County Militia under Capt. William Henderson. Outnumbered, the militia was forced to retreat toward the Richmond Courthouse. The British, in hot pursuit, vengefully burnt several houses. The chase continued about 10 miles inland before the British broke off and returned to their barges. In anger and frustration, they set fire to the small town of Kinsale.
The boys, cruising there more than 120 years later, concluded that Kinsale was still a "once was" town, maybe never having recovered from the attack long ago. They awaited fair winds the next morning to depart for more fertile grounds.
Next month: The voyage continues.