Monday, June 30, 2014

And So We Sat in Crisfield. The Wrap-up of the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay.

We arrived at Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield, Maryland on Friday, June 20th, with every intention of just hanging out there for a week, which we did. The reason for the lollygagging was that we didn’t need to be in Annapolis until the 1st of July, so there was no need to hurry. And since Somer’s Cove Marina only charged us 50 cents per foot and their internet connectivity was very good, why push it. And, from Crisfield it was only two days to Annapolis.
The story on Crisfield was the same as the other towns and harbors sprayed around the eastern shore, a great marina attached to a run down and struggling town. There really wasn’t anything to do there except stream and watch six seasons of a Canadian television show we got hooked on called Murdoch Mysteries. (Think CSI set in Victorian era Toronto.)
With our visit to Crisfield we have, for all intents and purposes, finished our exploration of the main ports of the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay (south of Annapolis) that we started last summer. The only town we skipped was Oxford, and frankly, we don’t think we’re really missing anything. You see, the eastern shore of the bay was, well, disappointing. Actually it was confusing.
“Confusing?” you may ask. Yes, it has left us with a lot of mixed feelings.
On the positive side of things there were really three main virtues to boating over on the east side instead of just hitting the usual western destinations. First, the boating over there was a lot of fun.  I got to drive my boat instead of just pointing it north or south and hitting the autopilot button. The second, the marinas are great! Most of them are new and the ones that aren’t new are in very good shape. All of the harbors had plenty of depth and room, and their shoreside facilities were all top notch. The third reason was that the people at the marinas went way out of their way to make sure we were welcome and taken care of. Oh, there were some really great restaurants too. (The Shanty in Cape Charles was incredible. Try the friend clams.)
Even with those good things, our overall opinion was that our expectations were not met. We had bought into what I call the Eastern Shore Mythos. That is that the destinations are amazingly charming and quaint villages with lots of shops and things to see and do. Not so. Most of them were run down, with boarded up storefronts and deserted streets. They were trying to put their best feet forward, but they were severely challenged by many years of a declining regional economy and fewer boaters. (St. Michaels was an exception. I’ll talk about it later.)
 They lacked any of the conveniences that cruising boaters are looking for, like nearby grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, or liquor stores – things to see and do. As is typical in America today, most of the shopping in the areas have moved away from the town centers and are located out on the main highway drags. As elsewhere, this business migration sucks the life out of the former business hubs.
So why all the hub bub? Why is there so much hype? I think it’s because that Chesapeake Bay is largely a boating body of water for Virginia and Maryland locals. With only a few exceptions Why Knot was the only boat out there with a transom that had a home port other than Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Deltaville, Solomons, or Annapolis. Loopers are only on the scene for a short time in May and they shoot up the bay to get to points north. They don’t linger. And for the most part, the bay is a highway for mega-yachts to get up to New York and New England. So they all stick to the west side of the bay. And other long range cruising boaters have better places to be, I guess. And I was surprised that I didn’t see boats from states like Florida or Georgia, evading the hurricane season.
I met a man named Bucky, a sailor, who is from Norfolk and had been a coastal and bay boater for thirty years. He said that he had been to every point south of Chesapeake, including the islands, the Keys and the Gulf Coast. When I told him my opinion, he agreed. He said that most of the boaters around there very rarely stray from the bay. In other words, they don’t know any better. They aren’t aware that there are a multitude of wonderful boating locales that, frankly, blow Chesapeake Bay out of the water. (I think that was a pun. If it is, it is not intended.) And they are the ones that are pushing the mythos out into the boating world.
He also told us that the total number of boats from anywhere is way down compared to what it was like in the near past. He said that the bay used to be, “…thick with pleasure boats.” The fact is that while we were in Cape Charles, we were the only people on their boat in the marina for three days! It wasn’t until Thursday that boats started to come in.
The biggest thing missing from the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay were people. The boaters are out mostly only on the weekends and the towns are deserted during the week days.
In the last two and half years Lisa and I have been to some extraordinary places. If we had to rank the Chesapeake Bay experience it would fall somewhere in the middle. It really doesn’t compare to Canada, Lake Michigan, and pretty much all of Florida. (Now, about St. Michaels…it’s a nice town with some nice attractions, like the outstanding maritime museum. But it’s per foot price point is waaaay out of line with the value received.  For that price point, St. Michaels should be extraordinary. It’s not.)
And there are things about the Eastern Shore Mythos that are outright lies. Tangier Island is a good example of that. Before we actually got there (via ferry from Onancock), we bought into the idea that Tangier Island was this kind of strange place that purposefully isolated itself from the outside world with its own kind of exotic culture and English dialect. We thought that we were going to witness natives that were at least suspect of outsiders, if not downright hostile to them; a place somewhat frozen in some period of time where the authentic Chesapeake Bay way of life was still the norm. At least, that is what we read and were told. Well, not so much really. When we were getting off of the boat we were met by happy locals handing out flyers encouraging us to visit this store or that ice cream stand. The homes were all fairly new and the people were about as exotic as my Aunt Delores. Even the dialect was, to my ears, really nothing more than a southern drawl that was slightly thicker than normal.
Another example would be Crisfield. From the image they project you would think that for most of the summer, hundreds, if not thousands of people sat around the waterfront eating crab. Well, that image and the happenings that produce that image, only occurs around Labor Day weekend. Otherwise it’s a sleepy town without much to do.
Now, I’m a marketing guy. I understand the whole thing about creating a brand and an image that is a differentiator so that people are attracted to something versus something else. All commercial, and many non-commercial entities do that. And you know what? I’m all for it. But in my opinion, boaters have more to lose when they make a decision about visiting a destination that turns out to be flat. We don’t have the flexibility that someone in a car has when going someplace. For boaters going someplace takes a greater commitment. We have to plan more and the execution of that plan is more involved than jumping into a car and hitting the road. If we make the effort to go someplace and it turns out to be less than great, we somehow feel like we’ve been taken, especially if it was hyped up big time.
So, the Eastern Shore is hyped up. The mythos about it that has been created is very powerful and resilient. But I’m going to myth-bust the whole thing and boil it down to four sentences. Here’s my bottom line opinion on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay –
The boating is fun!
The marinas are terrific.
The food is, for the most part, very good.
The towns kind of suck.
So would I recommend that you, a cruising boater, make the effort to spend a summer and explore all of these over-hyped, under served, somewhat isolated places, most without much to show for them?
YES! And here’s how you should do it.
First, there are some totally bang up events throughout the summer at these locales, and I absolutely believe that anyone wanting to explore these places should schedule their visits during these events. These events though, do seem to conflict with a logical cruising itinerary. You may be heading up the bay for one of them, then back down for another, then back up for another.
Second, if you are visiting a town during some other time without an event, you need to have your expectations set low. If you buy into the pictures in the color brochures and websites and think that what those show is what you’ll get when you get to one of these places, you will be disappointed. With the exception of the excellent maritime museum in St. Michaels, there isn’t a whole helluva lot to do in the towns themselves.
And third, the eastern shore would be great for buddy boating, where you have friends around you so you don’t have to rely on the destination itself to amuse you. (btw, Crisfield was the only town on the eastern shore that had a nearby chandlery, if you need to do maintenance on your boat. It is only three blocks from the marina.)

We’re glad that we spent the time and money to visit these places during our two summers in the eastern shore region of Chesapeake Bay, but were, in the end, somewhat disappointed. But we know the truth about them and the truth isn’t bad at all. Your expectations need to be set correctly. We perhaps had ours set too high. 

But then, I might be wrong.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Why Knot is looking pretty, and heading up the bay

Our two week stay in Hampton was very productive. We did some maintenance work, got Lisa to see a chiropractor, and Lisa got a huge slab of accounting done. But the biggest item on our to-do list in Hampton was to get new canvas for Why Knot.

When we purchased her back in very late 2011, we knew that the canvas on her was, at best, poor. We don’t know exactly when it was first put on, but we suspect it was around 2001 or 2002. So by 2014 the bland khakis colored canvas that covered her fly bridge and sundeck was dingy, dirty, moldy and downright ugly. So, we had budgeted time and money to get it all replaced early in the summer before heading up Chesapeake Bay. I mean, we wanted her to look pretty to all the snobs in Annapolis, don’t cha know.
Before (Taken on the Illinois River, Sept. 2012)
We turned our attention to this project all the way back in October, 2013 while we were home in St. Louis. We determined that the best place to get this work done would be at the Hampton Public Pier Marina in Hampton, Virginia. And this was a very satisfactory location in our minds. We like the marina and the locale. The docks are very new and in great shape. There is also an Enterprise car rental office almost dockside. Shore side facilities are nice and there is even access to the swimming pool of an adjacent hotel. But the main reason that we like that marina is the dockmaster, a great young man named Jake. (Many loopers that attended the 2012 rendezvous in Norfolk may remember him from Waterside Marina.)

We contacted Jake about whom he might recommend to do the canvas work. He gave us the name of Chandler and Charlene at Signuature Canvas in the town of Phoebus, which is adjacent to Hampton. We called them in October to start our discussions about them doing the work. We knew that when we would be in Hampton would be in the height of their busy season. But we made a mutual agreement that we would indeed contract the work to them and they, in exchange, put us on their calendar to get the work started and finished within two weeks of our arrival in Hampton on June 1st. (During the following eight months we stayed in contact with them to maintain the relationship and the arrangements.)
Sans Canvas. Note the frame. (Hampton City Pier, Hampton VA)
Why Knot is a little different than many boats in that she does not have a bimini structure to support the canvas. (A bimini top can be folded down if needed.) Instead she has two large ten foot by ten foot rigid aluminum installed frames that cover the decks. They are very heavy duty and are rock solid. There are also some side canvases on the sundeck that are a mix of regular canvas that is lower on the frames and sunscreen netting from about waist height to the large horizontal canvas frame that covers the deck. (see the before picture) We were prepared to be told that we would need to replace all of it. But that was not the case however. The netting was deemed to still be in good shape.

Arriving in Hampton on time (actually two days early), as Chandler and I had arranged, we contacted him as soon as we had the boat tied in and the power connected. True to his promise, he and his installer were on board Why Knot within an hour. That impressed us. After a bike trip over to their shop the next day, all the arrangements were made, the fabric was selected (We chose a fabric called Nautec instead of the usual Sunbrella.) and everything was put into motion. And as promised, the work was completed and installed on time and as per their quotes…quotes that were made eight months earlier without seeing the boat except for some photos I sent them. There were no surprises.
With her pretty new canvas.
So, if you are thinking of getting new canvas for your boat, we highly recommend Signature Canvas located in Phoebus, Virginia; close to Hampton.
By the way, we uninstalled and re-installed the radar ourselves. No problems, though I do still need to re-calibrate it. 
With all of that done and out of the way, it was time for us to start heading up Chesapeake Bay to our eventual destination of Annapolis Landing Marina in Annapolis, Maryland; one of our most favorite places on the planet. And with all of the aforementioned canvas work done, for all intents and purposes about a week early, we started to make our passage up the bay at a leisurely pace.

When heading up the bay, most boaters go up the western shore. The usual destinations of Deltaville and Solomons are the most likely stops. There’s nothing wrong with them for a night or two, but with a half of month available to cruise three days worth of routes, and we generally like to keep on the move, we decided to go exploring along the eastern shore again. We already visited St. Michaels, Smith Island, Tangier Island (via a ferry), Onancock, and Cambridge as we headed south last year. This year we decided to hit two locations – Cape Charles, Virginia and Crisfield, Maryland. Cape Charles was up first.

We departed Hampton with good conditions on the short route across the bay (and northeast) up to Cape Charles. The harbor is actually very busy. There is a small industrial area with some kind of quarry or other bulk goods processing facility and barges on the south shore of the inlet entrance. The Cape Charles Harbor Marina pretty much covers the rest of the inlet. There are very nice new floating docks there with one-hundred foot long tee head docks at the ends of the three spacious slip docks -- a good day’s trip and a nice place to tie up for a few days. There are also quite a few clam boats that come in and out of the marina to drop off their catch at the farthest point of the inlet. It’s a busy place.

So, what was our take on Cape Charles? I guess the best way to describe our experience there is to say that they get an A for effort to turn Cape Charles into a boating destination, but they still have a long way to go. The town itself is unremarkable except for two very good restaurants: Kelly’s, an Irish pub vibe kind of place with some very good sandwiches, and The Shanty, a seafood restaurant right on the water’s edge at the marina. Their food was excellent! (Try the clam strips, the calamari and buffalo chicken nachos. Egads!) But other than those two places and a couple of shops there really isn’t much going on there. But, like I said, they are making an effort. The new marina with everything else that goes along with it, such as a nice bathhouse, is a good start. But they need better shoreside amenities. Our opinion is that it is a great place to go with some boating buddies and hang out at the restaurants or on the dock itself. We were there four nights and we had pretty much done everything to do there in one day. But if you are looking for a great marina to stop at, it would be a good choice.

We left Cape Charles to head to our next destination; Crisfield, Maryland. It was a long day on the water. The route was sixty-two miles long almost straight north the entire way. Our first leg was forty-miles of rough stuff. We had a north wind, which we wanted so we would be diving into the waves, instead of being rolled or having wind and waves swamp our transom. So while there were some heavy waves (Our ship’s bell rang by itself three times.) it was manageable.

We eventually made our way up to Tangier Sound and past Tangier Island where the seas calmed down considerably. Another twenty miles past that we pulled into Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield.

Now, go ahead and ask, “Hey, Darrell. Why did you choose that marina in Crisfield?” Go ahead. I’ll wait…………..Well, the reasons are simple. First, it is the only marina up there, and it’s a good one. And second, they are running a special for members of the American Great Loop Cruisers Association, of which we are members. Until the end of June they are offering an incredible fifty cent per foot rate for dockage. That’s 50 flippin’ cents per foot!!! That's a great bargain by any measure. And since we are ahead of schedule and have time to kill before getting up to Annapolis by July 1, what better way to do that then to hunker down at a nice marina in a town that looks like it actually has something going for it and at only half a buck per foot.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Hampton, VA – Two Days of Gloriously Wonderful Boating

All is well on board the good ship Why Knot. The potential repairs that we faced in North Myrtle Beach have been done and fortunately they turned out to be relatively minor, if you can consider dropping a couple of grand minor. The coolant in the oil situation turned out to be a, shall I call it, educational opportunity for me. Turns out that fresh Rotella oil can, under certain circumstances, actually look green. The technician came on board, replaced the thermostat, a couple of hoses, did a thorough examination and tweaking of the Onan generator, and pronounced it fit.

One last hassle to face in Myrtle Beach was a hail storm our last night there, which damaged the boat’s old, soon-to-be-replaced canvas. Oh, and by the way, we were there for both of the area's controversial motorcycle weeks. Yes, it was very loud all the time, even at the marina.

And so we started heading north to Hampton, Virginia. For the most part, weather conditions for the first several days were spotty. It wasn’t necessarily stormy, but there were several days of high winds. We had to linger in a couple of locations to let those wind-intense fronts pass on through. But the conditions on the water have been good. For example, the Neuss River was only a moderate chop when we crossed over to Whittaker Pointe Marina at Oriental, North Carolina.

The real delight was the last two days out on the route, Monday the 2nd of June and Tuesday the 3rd. The south and southwest winds were less than ten knots and the water was, for the most part, flat. Because of these conditions we planned two long days so that we could get up to Hampton, Virginia early.

On the 2nd we went from Dowry Creek Marina at Belhaven, NC all the way up to Coinjock Marina; a total of eighty-two statute miles. For you boaters with boats that can travel at ten or twelve mph, that may not sound like too big a route. But for us cruising along at 8.5 mph, that’s a pretty long haul. But like I said, the conditions were damn near perfect. So much so, crossing Albemarle Sound was close to being boring.
The night spent at Coinjock was typical for the place. When we pulled in about 4:00 pm there were still some big spaces open on their long facing dock. But by 6:00 pm it was packed with some late arriving yachts. Again, as being typical for the place, anchors of boats were hanging over the foredecks and transoms of each other as the able dockhands packed everyone in as tight as they could.

To get to Hampton we decided to make another long jump directly from Coinjock without a stop at Great Bridge. Again, the weather forecasts were just too good to pass up. As we have done in the past, we let almost all of the other boats at the dock in Coinjock do all of hassle of getting off the dock first, leaving us plenty of room to maneuver without the threat of bumping into someone. (In the back of my mind is always that thought that I would rather have them have to call their insurance company rather than us having to call ours if something went wrong.)

As we ran north on the ICW the conditions were not only good but improved the later it got. Our timing of the swing bridges along the way, including the Great Bridge bridge and lock was spot on. And once we entered the industrial area south of Norfolk the running was smooth and easy. We did, however, get yelled at be a security patrol boat for running with too much of a wake, which for Why Knot was a compliment.
When we made the turn out into the James River the winds were calm and the water was almost eerily un-disturbed. During the morning we could pick up a lot of U.S. Navy chatter on our radio, so I half expected the harbor to be busy. But by the time we started to run out towards the opening of the harbor and to Hampton, starting from ICW mile marker 0.0, there was, and I’m not exaggerating, zero boat traffic in Hampton Roads – commercial, Navy or recreational – nothing -- save for a couple of sailboats that were becalmed in the windless conditions. We had the whole damn harbor to ourselves. And what made the experience a bit more surreal was that there was, just like the physical boat traffic, zero radio traffic. So, we just perked along to the entrance of the channel into Hampton, pulled into the marina, tied up with the able assistance of Jake, the marina’s dockmaster, and our sixty-two mile cruise for the day was done. Eezie-Peezie!  

As I’ve mentioned earlier, we are getting new canvas for the boat in Hampton and we have been working with Signature Canvas Makers to do the job. I have always been a believer that building a relationship with people that you do business with can be very advantageous most of the time. This was the case with the folks at Signature. We first contacted them back in October to get us scheduled in during this summer, knowing full well that this was their busy season. I made it a point to contact them monthly to make sure that all parties involved were committed to getting the work done within our two week time period that we would be in Hampton, so they would have no excuse to give us the bum’s rush or to blow off what our needs are. Well, so far so good. Within minutes of getting tied up in Hampton, just like Chandler, the owner and I planned, I called him and, just like they committed to do, they were on board within an hour examining our needs. It also turns out that their shop is only 1.3 miles from the marina. So, things are look good at getting our pretty boat made even more pretty with some wonderful, new, forest green canvas.

I’d like to close this post with some quotes about boating. Why? Well, why knot?

"Cruising has two pleasures. One is to go out in wider waters from a sheltered place. The other is to go into a sheltered place from wider waters." - Howard Bloomfield

"Land was created to provide a place for boats to visit." - Brooks Atkinson

“There is NOTHING--absolutely nothing--half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
- Kenneth Grahame

“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Give him a fishing lesson and he'll sit in a boat drinking beer every weekend.” - Alex Blackwell

And one more is Lisa's birthday. When she woke up this morning I told her I didn't have a birthday card for her. She said, "I have a living 3-D card right here."  Happy Birthday, baby. I love you.