Years ago I was up in the Chesapeake Bay, somewhere in Maryland. I don’t know what the year was, but I was in my twenties.
I had spent the summer cruising and exploring the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, something known as “Gunkholing” up in those parts. I had no rhyme or reason for the places that I chose to go to, I would just read through my cruising guide, check my charts, and try to find a destination that was favorable to the wind direction. The place that met those criteria this time was a town on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake called St. Michael’s, Maryland.
St. Michael’s is known as a tourist town that a lot of the hard working folks from D.C. and Baltimore go to for a weekend retreat. To use a cliché, it is a quaint little village. It has lots of neat little shoppes and beds & breakfasts, and it has a lot of history. It is also home to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, and as I was to find out, a very expensive little town.
While cruising I would always stay at anchor instead of renting a slip, except for when I needed electricity to plug in and charge my batteries. My outboard didn’t hardly work, and it didn’t have an alternator anyway. I did have one solar panel, but this was over 15 years ago and solar panels were not very powerful back then. Still though, it could provide enough power to keep my auto-pilot working, and that was about all that I really needed power for – but in all honesty, I could even do without that if I had to.
In the Chesapeake during summertime though, it is nice to have plenty of battery power. It gets hot there, and afternoon thunderstorms are common, so, it helps to be able to run some fans. Also, at nights it is much cooler in the boat if you can use your interior lights instead of burning oil lamps.
When I got to St. Michael’s I had hoped to get a slip because all three of my marine batteries were dead. Being a small town on the rural eastern shore of Maryland, I was thinking that I might find cheap dockage rates, hopefully under $1/foot (of boat length). I was way off.
When I approached St. Michael’s I called the one marina in town on my VHF radio to inquire about their transient rates. Their weekend transient rates (and it was a weekend) were $2.50/foot, with a 30 foot minimum. My boat was 27′, so I would have to pay $75 just to tie up for the night, and then there was also a charge for shore power on top of that! That’s a lot of money today, much less more than a decade ago.
I had all sorts of little things that I did to try to make my money last, to save it for important things like drinking beer and chasing women. Paying more than $75 to tie up my boat for one night was not in my budget.
Whenever I did rent a slip, I liked to find cheap places, hopefully about 50 cents/foot. Then instead of going there late in the day, I would stay the night at anchor, waiting until sometime the next morning to go to the marina. I’d start charging my batteries right away, then the next day I would try to hang out in my slip until early afternoon or so, that way I would get more than 24 hours of charging on my batteries for about 15 bucks.
The high dockage rates meant that I was going to be staying at anchor while at St. Michael’s. No big deal! I had a good little dinghy and I would be able to tie it up for free along the seawall at the maritime museum. It was not the most protected of anchorages if the weather got nasty, but the forecast was good.
After a quick trip ashore on the evening that I arrived, I called it an early night after a nice day of sailing. I got up Saturday ready to explore the town. I started rowing to the museum, which was on a good bit of land on a peninsula, and it was packed with people. Not just inside the building, but the grounds too. There were lots of outdoor exhibits and vendors – a regular festival. And that’s what it was, a Blue Crab Festival.
So I landed my dinghy and started checking things out – it was very cool. Then they start dumping crabs on picnic tables covered with newspapers – true Chesapeake Bay style. I was told to start digging in. Steamed crabs, corn on the cob, hush puppies – it was great. All I had to pay for were my drinks. This place was great. The friendliest little town in the world!
I got my fill of good food, and then some – you don’t always eat so good living on a little boat. Now I was ready to head into town and do some exploring. They kinda had the area roped off for extra parking, so I had to look for the exit. When I found it and started to leave, a lady working the gate told me that I needed my hand stamped so I could get back in without paying “again”. You see, there was a $20 admission fee, which included all you could eat crabs. I know I must have turned as red as the steamed crabs that I had just feasted on, but I let her stamp my hand. It’s not that I wanted to get back in so that I could eat more without paying, but that’s where my dingy was tied up. If I had the money, I would have paid it, but I just didn’t have $20 to spare. Besides,  it really was an honest mistake. I did not sneak in, I just rowed to shore like I had been doing all over the bay. Obviously, looking back on it, I should have known that there was a charge to eat all that good food, but I was in an ignorant bliss. There had been other times, in other places when I came ashore and was fed by the locals, so this wasn’t without precedent. I didn’t even give it any thought when I was told to grab a plate and help myself. I was just a scurvy dog who found a bone.
When I got into town, it was a very neat place. I remember one shop in particular, a Christmas store that had the coolest nautical tree ornaments such as tiny life preservers. I also recall reading a historical marker saying that Fredrick Douglass was from St. Michael’s.
Unfortunately I left a good leather hat there. I know exactly where I left it – at the graveyard. I wasn’t doing anything demonic, just reading a novel, digesting crabs. It was hot – too hot to be roasting on my boat, and the cemetery was right there in town. It had an area (clear of graves) of lush green grass and big shade trees that was a perfect spot to read and relax. I still remember taking my hat off and leaving without it, but, unfortunately I did not realize it until the next day when I was hours away in my boat. Oh, well, it’s just one of those things.
However, if anybody in St. Michael’s remembers finding a leather hat at the cemetery many years ago, please donate it to the maritime museum for me. True Chesepeake lore lies within its fibers.

By Sullivan Family

One comment on “Gunkholing

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