06 November, 2009

Sailing on the Eastern Shore

One of my favorite sailing areas around Virginia are the barrier islands of the Eastern Shore. It has been several years since I have been there. So when my wife proposed to go shelling on the Eastern Shore I jumped on the opportunity. The access to the barrier islands is limited. Many have certain seasonal restrictions and are owned by the Nature Conservancy or are state or federal refuges. A great place to launch from is the public ramp in Oyster. Oyster is only 13 miles from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. The town has changed little in the 10 years that I have been going there. Some of the fishing boats are gone, replaced by few sailboats. UVA has a marine research station there.
Leaving Oyster you wind past oyster beds and cross the Intracoastal Waterway at the 231 mile marker. From there it is almost a due East course down the Sand Shoal Channel. When in the channel look back and see where you came from. The low topography begins to look all the same once you get out a few miles. A large white house and a cell tower are good references. After G “9” marker the marsh grass is replaced by what looks like a large bay. Stay in the channel !!! The flats are very shallow. I have crossed them, but only at high tide. Cobb Island is very low. You will not see it until you are almost there. A lot has changed on these islands in the past few years. The south point of Cobb has extended and Wreck island has moved south. The chart is not up to date. The old Coast Guard station will be visible.
Getting to the Coast Guard station can be tricky. You have two OPTIONS.

1) Sail behind Little Cobb Island: The deep draft (+4’) pass is not very clear and is partially blocked at the north end by some small islands. Hug close to the island.

2) Sail in front of Little Cobb Island: This area changes a lot due to the ocean waves that roll into the inlet. Cut too close to little Cobb and you will run aground. Go too far out in the channel and you will be stuck on the wrong side of the breaking waves that extend south of Cobb.

On our day the wind was blowing from SSE. The waves were rolling in. As I came around Little Cobb I noticed that the waves were breaking all across the front of the island. I had to deviate from my GPS track and sail out into the mouth of the inlet. The time of year can play a big difference. The only people around for miles was a waterman’s boat on the marsh. Once I turned toward Cobb Island I was running with the wind and it was getting close to low tide. I ran the slot with 4’ of water under the boat at the shallowest point. Once past the tip of Cobb things settled out quickly. Current was still running out strong so I looped toward the beach.
The Sand Shoal Cast Guard Station is a fragment of what it was 10 years ago. There use to be a large building that is gone now. I heard someone moved it to make a Restaurant out of it. The beaches are always loaded with sea shells. For some reason this time the shells were not that good. It appears that waves were washing over the island. There have been other times that I have collected a 5 gallon bucket of sand dollars. This time there were only five that were keepers.
I took the time to walk to the Ocean side of the island. The wide beach runs north as far as you can see. It is moments like these that I realize why I like coming here. This island is about as far from civilization as you can get in eastern Virginia. There are a few reminders like the plastic that washes up on the shore. In the end the wind and sand eventually reclaims it all.
A cold front was moving in. It was Halloween day and my wife wanted to be back in time to hand out candy to the neighborhood children. We ate our lunch and weighed the anchor. The wind was picking up and the breakers at the tip of Cobb were getting bigger. For the return trip I decided to cut behind Little Cobb. As we rounded the north end of Little Cobb I tried to cut between the fist little island and ran aground even with the board partially up. I never fully retract the center board. The board acts like a grounding gage, run aground, pull the board up and sail off into a new direction. I cleared the Loon Channel past the next island. The problem was that now I was over the marsh sand banks and the draft was 4 feet or less. By pulling up the centerboard I could not make way back toward the main channel. The wind was blowing directly from the south and it was pushing me further into the shallows. Running the outboard I was afraid that I would loose the plastic propeller if I struck an oyster bed. For some time things got a little hectic and we bounced off the bottom. You have no time to check the chart to see if you are in one of the smaller channels. My little GPS with S-Map does not have the detail required. The water looks all the same in all directions. I had my wife reading out the depth readings as I tried to claw my way back up wind.
The Red “4” marker and R”4A” Nun mark the south tip of a sand shoal. I could see the waves brake on the bank to my port side. I pinched as close as the boat would go to make the mark. It was a relief to be back in deep water. I wondered if I did any damage to the boat bouncing through the marsh. Heading back in the Sand Shoal Channel I reversed my GPS course. While passing a old abandoned chimney in the marsh grass a Waterman’s boat passed us with the day’s catch of Conch. A nice broad reach and a boost from the returning tide gave us a respectable 4-5 knots coming back in. The same white house acts as a target to aim for. Due to the low tide the last part of the channel was narrow and the banks were high. You realize why you need to stay in the channel.
Back in Oyster we pulled into the center ramp. I figured out why the locals all were going into the right ramp. I had a hard time guiding the boat on to the trailer with the angle of the wind and current. The boat wanted to turn under the walk ramp. My wife struck a conversation with the Watermen about the location of the best sand dollars. Their secret was Wreck Island, “buckets full”. She got so excited that she promptly told me that we have to go back next weekend. This is very unusual for her. As I am sitting here typing this blog it looks like the weather will not allow us to do that. This Oyster to Cobb Island trip might be the last big adventure for the Lucky Dog for 2009…

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