January 1, 2004
Mill Creek, Arnold, Maryland
Chesapeake Bay
39° 03.836 North
076° 30.577 West

The Forgiveness of Mud and Time -

 By Douglas Bernon 

Beyond other places we’ve returned to on our trip north, the Chesapeake Bay resonates powerfully. All day as we sailed north from Solomon’s Island, I recalled not just favorite anchorages but also absurdities, victories and crises, and I entertained Bernadette with a burnished account of my life in this area 25 and 30 years ago.

We turned left at the Sandy Point Light, one of the dramatic lighthouses that grace the Chesapeake Bay, and made our way into the wide Magothy River.
As Ithaka passed beneath the Bay Bridge, I thought of house-mates from three decades back, when we lived in a communal manor just outside Annapolis, on an unpaved path through the woods, aptly named Fiddler’s Hill Road. Our castle was a down-at-the-heels dowager, a once regal home fallen on hard times and rented to those least reliable of custodians — youth. She was perched on the crest of a rise, vigilant over 30 acres of evergreens and hardwoods. Had any of the five of us possessed a dollop of sense, we’d have begged, borrowed, and come to own the old girl for a song, and in the fullness of time been made rich beyond anyone’s wants.

But that was the early 70s, when Cheech and Chong seemed like better models than Warren Buffet. We were more interested in organizing mid-winter dog races on the frozen pond than in planning for any tomorrows. At Fiddler’s Hill I fell in love for the first time, made friends whom I still cherish, and found a base from which to explore Annapolis, the Chesapeake, and the beginnings of adulthood.

Our first anchorage in the Magothy was right behind Dobbins Island, where this picturesque home stands sentinel.
When Bernadette and I arrived in Annapolis this week, Fiddler’s Hill was one of the places I wanted us to see together, even though I knew the current reality would be at odds with my memories, but after a point, what isn’t? We had a foolishly long list of tasks we thought we’d get done right away, but we also had time and looked forward to making Mill Creek (an exquisite gunk hole off the Magothy River) our base of operations, having discovered last time that being tied up there, in the back yard of dear friends, Jim and Lori, was to know a hospitality and cuisine available only to those who make it into heaven.

Lori and Jim
We’d been in touch with Jim by telephone and figured to arrive on Sunday, but made good time coming up the bay, and on Saturday afternoon, turned west northwest at Sandy Point light, sailed the last few miles to the mouth of the Magothy, and tickled in behind Dobbins Island, dropping the hook, as always, it seems, in the middle of a squall. The rains were brief but dramatic, and we decided to hang there for the evening. We were on the ebb tide, and had vivid memories of once running aground so hard in Mill Creek that it took a professional towing boat 90 minutes to yank us down from the underwater mountain we’d ascended.

Just before dusk, Jim called on the cell phone, asked where we were, and upon learning we were only three miles away wouldn’t accept mañana as an ETA. Proclaiming we should be daunted neither by the low tide nor past experience, he insisted we’d be immune from shallows if we were to follow him carefully into the creek. “Raise your anchor,” he told us. “I’m on my way.”

In 20 minutes, we spotted Sea Worthy, a Grand Banks 42, with Lori and Jim on the fly bridge, making her away toward Dobbins. Effortlessly, she rotated a 180 degree turn (I do envy twin screws!). Jim motioned for us to fall in behind. With gracious — and, no doubt, painful — restraint, Sea Worthy crawled slowly up the Magothy while we unrolled all our canvas and cranked up the RPMs so not to lollygag too far back. At the entrance to their Creek, they stopped completely, we caught up with them, and positioned ourselves right behind them.

Seaworthy, which Jim and Lori took down to the Bahamas for a vacation this past year, is a Grand Banks 42.
As both boats motored slowly now, I took off my hat to Captain Jim. That man knows his way. Despite a lower tide than we ever would have attempted, he snaked this way and that, dodged sub-marine menaces, arched some graceful mid-creek corrections, and managed to get us within 10 feet of his dock before the mud and sludge enveloped our six-foot keel, and ground us to dead stop. Fortunately, Chesapeake Bay mud is often thin and soft enough for the first foot or so that with a little bit of luck, you can manage to gun your way forward through it ever so slowly. With our depth sounder reading 0.00 (unnecessary data when you can feel the earth beneath you), Bernadette inched us artfully through the last few feet of muck, and up to the dock. When you’re trudging your keel through mud, there’s no need to use reverse as a brake. There wasn’t even much use for tying up. We were in solid. Going nowhere. Still, I hopped ashore with our dock lines, and was eagerly greeted by Chuckles The Wonder Dog, a shameless optimist who had zero idea who I was but offers an energetic and wanton hello to anyone whom he hopes might rub his belly.

Mr. Chuckles The Wonder Dog
We stayed long enough at Jim and Lori’s dock that we probably should have signed up for a local Post Office box, but the friendships were so warm, the food so good, and the comforts so sweet that we struggled to tear ourselves away even for weekend jaunts. Snug in Mill Creek, we caught up with what Jim and Lori had been up to since we’d been gone, we worked on yet another iteration of the slideshow we’ve been presenting at boat shows and yacht clubs – and tried it out on them a few times. We hung out with friends who drove out every few days or so, and of course we worked on Ithaka.

In what may have been, but probably isn’t, a series of directly-related events (except in so far as they all happened to us), our tachometer had gone silent on the way up the Chesapeake, as did the alternator on our engine, and our top-of-the-mast wind indicator. It was like Ithaka had been holding things together long enough to get us to Mill Creek, and now that we were here, she was letting things rip. We have both a high-output alternator, belted to a power take-off at the front of the engine, and our regular, smaller alternator, which charges the start battery. By rerouting the power, we can use either one to charge both the house bank and start bank, which is what we’d resorted to.

We’ve had one high-output alternator die on us in the past several years, but this was the first fatality for our smaller alternator, an event for which, I pre-maturely complimented myself, we were entirely prepared because I’d bought a spare from another boat back in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala, thinking it fit perfectly. Now that I was paying real attention, and trying to make it work, I discovered the fit wasn’t close enough. So, we ended up trading in the one that didn’t fit, and buying a rebuilt alternator in Annapolis, which worked just fine, but the lessons learned and doses of humility in this little tale were many.

Looking forward down Mill Creek from Ithakas snug berth at the Ellis dock

In addition to the tach, wind-indicator, and alternator, one of the electrical relays in our 110-220 volt charging system was refusing to do its job, so there was no way we could plug in to shore-power. Not a big deal, because we rarely do plug in, and now we were joyfully suckling at the bounty of the Ellis’s fridge. Not using much juice aboard, we only had to run the engine every four or five days, which is what we did for the several weeks we lingered at Mill Creek, until I could find and install a replacement relay and add one to our spares kit.

I’d love to state that I diagnosed all these problems on my own, proceeded calmly, and before you could say picofarad, made good all the repairs, but in fact that’s not so. Perplexed by some of the power problems, eventually I dinghied down the creek to Peninsula Yacht Services and got help from Mark, the electrician there.

I also got remembered.

As I’m explaining my various problems to Dean, Peninsula’s owner, who was sitting in his office, I watched his eyes glaze over, and his focus leave the room. He was looking inside, watching some previous movie, which is, I guess, how he so clearly recalled the scene.

Still waters inside the creek make mirror-like reflections

“Hey,” he said. “Aren’t you the guy I pulled down off that shallow a few years back? No one gets stuck there. You were hung up bad, right?”


“Ummm, yeah,” I admitted. “That would be me.” So much for one’s delusions about accomplishments. In the real world, at the end of the day, we’re remembered best for our screw-ups.

“Well, welcome back,” he added. “Whacha need this time?”

I continued my explanations about alternators and tachs and got the help I sought. As I dinghied back to Ithaka, I thought of how clueless I generally felt when I first moved to Annapolis as a young man, and how over-my-head I felt when we were here several years back, just starting this cruise. I laughed at how familiar both feelings remain today. What we’re doing and where we’re doing it doesn’t much matter. Neither does how clever we might imagine ourselves to be at any given moment, because the more we all push our envelopes, the more fresh opportunities there are to demonstrate how little we know.

Ithaka and Seaworthy
Which brings me back to Mill Creek. In the event you ever run aground in an obviously real-dumb spot there, or if you only need electrical repairs and a daily ration of anti-hubris, the guys at Peninsula Yacht Services are talented and droll, a mixture I appreciate. And, if you’re a couple of cruisers coming back to the United States after being away for a few years, and your head is spinning at the thought of all that’s happened since you’ve been away, and at all that lies ahead, it makes all the difference in the world to have generous friends like Jim and Lori to make you feel welcome, and so happy to be home.