My yawl, Nimble, returned to the Chesapeake last month after a 1,000-mile sojourn into New England waters. For Nimble, this was homecoming to the Patuxent port where she has spent most of the last 15 years.
The poet, Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) wrote in “The Lay of the Last Minstrel”:
“Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d
From wandering on a foreign strand!”
Words memorized early in my youth at the direction of an English teacher, I can still recite the whole poem.
That late afternoon, sailing into the Chesapeake was an ethereal experience, rebonding with the vast estuary which I’ve chosen to call home. The waters across the broad Susquehanna Flats beyond the cliffs at Turkey Point were extraordinarily clear thanks to a burgeoning crop of underwater grasses that will be greatly appreciated by the waterfowl arriving this and next month.
Nimble carries a Secchi disk, a simple mid-19th century oceanographic device still used in monitoring today. It’s lowered into the depths to estimate water clarity wherever Nimble sails and this afternoon—compared with 18 inches near the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal—it was visible 81ž2 feet beneath the water’s surface around the flats.
The mouth of the Susquehanna River was a misty opening in dark tree-lined some miles northwest. It must have appeared that way when it drew John Smith to explore its lower reaches and contact its fierce Susquehannock tribes. Perhaps, the water was even clearer in his time.
My childhood friend, Bob Anthony, and his wife, Barbara, came this way at least four times when they lived aboard one of the classic Bermuda-40 yawls built by the Henry Hinckley yard in Maine. They named her Invictus (most unconquerable), after the William Ernest Henley poem, written in the 1870s:
“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.”
I’ll bet—since we were schoolmates—it was the same English teacher that made Bob memorize it!
Though only a year ahead of me on this planet, Bob was a role model in my youth. I was the same age as his brother, Butch, who was my best friend in our pre-high school years. We learned about small boats together buying two kayaks for $25 and $15 each in the spring of 1952. Their younger sister, Karen, was a couple of years younger and was my first puppy love.
We were all sure Bob would become a major league pitcher. Each day, he practiced by throwing stones as we waited for the school bus, propelling—one at a time—what must have been hundreds of pounds of stones from the gravel lane adjacent to both our houses. His target was a utility pole across the main road. His older brother, Tom, of Chestertown, MD, said that Bob was totally ambidextrous, pitching southpaw as well as right-handed.
Bob would imitate the cadence used by radio announcers of the day: “Men on second and third. There’s the pitch!”…and CRACK! Bob’s stone would smack the pole. “And it’s going.…GONE, for a home run!” Bob would imitate the roar of the crowd, completely real in his mind’s eye. I learned to throw from him and until recently, boasted a pretty accurate arm myself.
Bob never played professionally but came pretty close to the minor leagues by the end of his service as a U.S. Navy signalman.
He and Barbara raised a daughter, Jamie Jo and two sons, Mark and Ray. The family lived on a small Pennsylvania farm, raising corn and their own vegetables as well as a pig and a cow.
Bob and the boys cut and split all of the wood necessary to heat their home in winter.
Barbara can’t quite explain it, but after 15 years, they decided sell the farm. (Cruising sailors call the reverse—leaving the water for a shore-bound life—buying the farm!)
Bob, a fine finish carpenter, did quality cabinetry and was able to work anywhere. Barbara, a nurse, could also get a job anywhere. So, they began the cruising life aboard the Invictus, following the snowbird route to Florida or the Caribbean each autumn and retuning north with the spring.
This cruise in 2004 brought Nimble’s run to more than 18,000 nautical miles, many of these alone with my thoughts and observations about the Bay as the miles roll slowly beneath her keel. These are recorded in Nimble’s detailed annual logbooks, and on this September trek, Bob Anthony occupied my thoughts a lot.
One night, my anchorage was in the nearly freshwater Sassafras River, just off Lloyd Creek and east of Betterton, where the Anthonys had anchored once. Barbara went ashore and just fell in love with the place. When she and Bob “swallowed the anchor” and came ashore after their live-aboard years, that’s where they settled. She still lives there today.
This section of the Eastern Shore lies on a fairly direct route across from Baltimore. During the War of 1812, after the British had burned the Capitol and many of Washington, D.C.’s principal buildings, they prepared to move up the Bay from their base at Tangier Island to attack Baltimore, the upper Bay’s principal commercial port and shipbuilding center.
They were especially intent on destroying the source of the swift Baltimore clippers, in which U.S. captains, carried letters of marque that permitted them to sail as privateers against British shipping worldwide. Historian Aileen Hutchins said that at least 125 privateers sailed from Baltimore in 1812.
But first, the British had to reckon with Fort McHenry and to keep U.S. forces guessing and off balance.
Kim Neilsen, director of the U.S. Navy Museum at the Anacostia Navy Yard in the District of Columbia, said that one officer, Sir Peter Parker, burned a “fine schooner the Lion of Baltimore” in Bodkin Creek at the mouth of the Patapsco. Parker boasted to his commanders that not a single U.S. vessel had escaped his blockade of Baltimore. (He was the nephew of another Sir Peter Parker, who, during the Revolutionary War attack on Charleston in 1776, had his trousers shot off under heavy fire from Fort Moultrie, and was wounded in the thigh. He became the subject of a popular song dealing with “Sir Peter’s Honor” by Lesley Nelson Burns, which was published in the Continental Gazetteer.)
The younger Parker, who commanded the Menelaus, a frigate of 38 guns, was ordered to sail down the Bay from Baltimore but, partying with his fellow officers on the night of Aug. 30, 1814, said he’d not go until he’d had “one more lick at the Yankees.” Lubricated by spirits, he resolved to mount an immediate attack against an assembly of militia near Chestertown.
He set off almost immediately with a modest expeditionary force and landed to engage the militia —some believe their landing was near Tolchester Beach, just south of my anchorage—and forged inland with armed seamen and British regulars. Local communities, aware of the British depredations in Washington, D.C., as well as farms and villages all along Chesapeake shorelines earlier in the summer, were determined to resist.
In an hour’s pitched battle, they drove the British back to the Menelaus, leaving 14 casualties on the field. Among them was Parker, shot like his uncle in the thigh. When hit he was quoted as saying: “But it is nothing; push on my brave boys and follow me!” at which utterance he fell mortally wounded, bleeding to death from a severed femoral artery, at the age of 28. Legend has it that he died in the kitchen of a neighboring farm, now called Mitchell House.
Parker was embalmed in spirits—the local version has him stuffed in a barrel of rum. (This was also the fate of Lord Horatio Nelson, Britain’s near mythic naval hero at Trafalgar during the Napoleonic war and thus a most honorable end.)
Parker’s remains were returned to his family for interment in their traditional burial ground just as the war was concluded in 1815.
The Sassafras River is one of the Chesapeake’s prettiest, still bucolic in appearance and surrounded by agriculture. But in the decades after young Parker met his end, development prospects seemed very bright. By the 1830s, George Weems, who was involved in War of 1812 privateering and was founder of the Bay’s premier steamship line, was running ships round Howell Point past Betterton and up to Georgetown and Fredericktown at the River’s head.
The Weems Line also came to Tolchester, which became a popular resort destination and major amusement park.
Alan Bramble, whose family eventually owned the property, said that the recreational site at this landing developed shortly after the Civil War, and that for many years no alcohol was allowed. After church, people would take the trolleys down to Baltimore Harbor, and the decks of such steamers as the Wilson Line’s Emma Giles and Port Welcome were crowded with Baltimoreans going to and from this entertainment.
Former Bay Program Director Bill Matuszeski gave me a 1920 ragtime recording of a popular song of the time which touted, in part:
“Come on Nancy put your best dress on!
It’s all aboard for Baltimore,
Sailin’ down the Chesapeake Bay!”
Eventually, roller coasters, merry-go-rounds and the whip were added at Tolchester, and for the final 10 years, alcoholic beverages were sold in various attempts to keep the visitors coming.
The age of the automobile brought transportation changes throughout the Chesapeake. The development of the Eastern and Western Shore highway networks—and in the 1950s the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge—eventually connected Annapolis to Kent Island and the Delmarva Peninsula.
This spelled the end of the once comprehensive Baywide steamer and ferry networks. Tolchester and many other less showy Bay port destinations slowly went to sleep, just about the time Bob and I were going to high school.
The amusement park went broke in 1962, Alan Bramble said. His parents bought the land in 1963 with an eye to new opportunities: recreational boating—which was becoming increasing popular—as well as what was then a new concept: a marina.
They built their facility where the old steamer landings had been.
At Georgetown, Rock Hall, Solomons, and even Annapolis, Eastern and Western Shore small-boat harbors were reawakening, and beginning in the early 1970s and into the 1980s, Tolchester and hundreds of other former boatyards needed qualified workers to help them function in the face of new technology and increasing demand.
When Bob and Barbara first came ashore the Invictus was docked at Tolchester.
Bob joined his son, Mark, and brother, Tom, in a business venture, Renaissance Construction, which turned a rundown farmhouse into a showplace. “He had a way with mechanical stuff,” Tom said, “and the skills for good finish carpentry.”
When Tolchester Marina lost its main building to a fire, Renaissance Construction helped the Brambles make the place functional again. This began a decade-long association between the marina and Bob, whose skills helped to make the business successful. “He was really good for us,” Alan Bramble said.
Bob and Barbara also became active in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, a boating education and safety organization, the volunteer patrol boats of which are seen all over the Chesapeake on weekends. Bob eventually became commander of USCGA Flotilla 19-04.
It was almost 40 years before I reconnected with the Anthonys. In that time, Butch had been killed in an auto accident at age 28, shortly after his marriage. Lovely Karen had died of cancer in her 40s.
What brought us together again was a proposal by the Maryland Port Authority for a multiyear project to use large parcels of farmland near Chestertown as a high, embanked repository for muddy sediment dredged from the Baltimore Harbor navigational approach channels. The water slowly straining out of these sediments would be turbid and rich in nutrients and would eventually be released back into Chesapeake Bay.
Tom, a professor of classical guitar and lute at Chestertown’s Washington College, had as a pupil, the daughter of Congressman Wayne Gilchrest. Tom prevailed upon Gilchrest to listen to his constituents’ views.
Tom had also heard of my participation in a global warming conference at the college and prevailed upon me to join him and a number of local people at Mitchell House, the purported site of Peter Parker’s demise, now operated as an upscale bed and breakfast by Tracy and Jim Stone.
The Stone’s feared that they would be viewing dredge material containment dikes from their pretty B & B. Jim was a mariner/ educator with the nearby Echo Hill School, which then operated one of the Bay’s surviving skipjacks, and wanted to see the right decisions made for Chesapeake Bay.
For a variety of reasons, the controversial proposal was eventually dropped, a rare victory for folks defending their own back yards!
A few years ago, Bob became jaundiced, which was uncharacteristic for this strong, active man. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and fought valiantly to stave off this invader, but in sailor’s parlance, “he crossed the Bar” on Nov. 3, 2001 at the age of 64. Barbara had a friend read “Invictus” at Bob’s memorial, and as it was read, she said his children all mouthed the words together, long familiar to them in their father’s recitation of verses that spoke to his life:
“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.”