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Choptank Tacking Adventure, and the Fores’l Sits One Out

Pride of Baltimore II
Pos: At Anchor off Horn Point, Choptank River
Wx: SE F 3, 6/8 Cumulus, Rain on the way

Autumn Sailing on the Chesapeake Bay is about the finest way to wrap up a season aboard Pride of Baltimore II, and today was a picture perfect example of why that is. After a generous festive cook out at the home of Captain Aram Nersesian of the Schooner Heron last night, we departed our dock at the Solomon’s Island Yacht Club, briefly motoring out to the Patuxent River before we set sail in the company of at least six other Schooners, all bound back up the Bay after the Schooner Race. With a Southeasterly breeze, we all had a leisurely downwind course on a warm and clear October afternoon. Under the easy combination of Fore, Foretops’l, Stays’l and Jib, Pride II needed to wear ship just two times in the twenty miles between the Patuxent and Choptank Rivers. All around us our sister schooners did much the same, darting across the shimmering Bay in nearly perfect conditions.

But with an easterly slant on the wind, a trip to the Eastern Shore couldn’t ALL be downwind. At the mouth of the Choptank, we sharpened up the yards, trimmed in the fore and aft, and then set the Main, gathering speed and preparing for what looked to be considerable upwind work. Cambridge, Maryland lies at the end of the navigable section of the Choptank – at least for vessels over 50’ tall – and just before the route 213 Bridge. Along the way, the seemingly open waters of the river disguise steep sided shoals where the depth can change from 85’ to 3’ in as little as 200 yards. And, with the southeasterly, Cambridge is also directly up wind from the Bay. Approaching the narrows off Castle Haven Point, I mustered the crew and told them to stretch and warm up because we were looking at 17 tacks to our anchorage.

Anchoring was the plan because Dorchester County is also prone to minor flooding in a southeasterly, which means the dock could go “Awash” at high tide, while the same wind blows straight onto the dock. Being pushed onto a dock that might go underwater is never good, so anchoring just outside town would keep us in easy striking distance for our education program tomorrow morning, and allow the wind to shift to southerly and make the dock a better landing.

But still, we had to get up the river. As anyone who’s been aboard her, or read this blog, can attest to, Pride II is a handful to tack. Heads’ls and tops’l must be wrestled around, and the dance of swapping running main stays and fores’l requires seemingly endless cranking on crank-hauls, while the fores’l hangs aback, stalling out Pride II’s speed and keeping her from pointing into the wind as high as she might. With a well oiled crew of 35, all the necessary steps might happen at once, but with 11 crew aboard, step by step is the only way to handle all the heavy gear.

In order to keep the tacks sharper, and keep the wear and tear on the crew to a minimum, I implemented the unorthodox strategy of taking in the fores’l, and sailing “split rigged.” We don’t often do this aboard Pride II, except in special circumstances. The combination of hull shape and sail plan mean the fore is our hardest working sail, usually set first and taken in last as it is gives the maximum drive to balance ratio. But today, I gave it the afternoon off. After 12 years of hard service, it deserves a holiday now and again.

Fortune favored our plan, and the breeze shifted to South just as we entered the narrow section of river, allowing us to shave a whole seven predicted tacks off our route. It came back southeast as we cleared Lecompte Bay, shifting as we were coming about, nearly causing us to miss stays. We salvaged the tack by shifting the helm while we made a boat length of sternway, tacking more like a square-rigger than a Baltimore Privateer, but still making it through.

A mere three tacks later and we rounded up to drop the port bower, squaring the foretops’l to “put on the brakes” just around the corner from Cambridge. Rain is in the forecast. Even now clouds are thickening to the South. But for now, we’re a dry and happy crew with a little glow from the paces we just put our gorgeous schooner through.

All best,

Captain Jamie Trost and the (for today only) “spit-rigged” crew of Pride of Baltimore II