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While we tacked and tacked again, the afternoon air became a silver haze, smoky from burning leaves. A slight film of cloud slid across the sky, so it, too, was silvery. Yet somehow colors were intensified: the massed trees turning russet and copper, cornstalks drying in the fields, the contrast of white barns and silos against evergreens.
Birds were everywhere, reminiscent of an earlier America. There were Canada geese in the hundreds. They flew overhead in long trailing echelons, receding in perspective until the most distant were faint plumes on the horizon; they lifted from fields in waves; they floated in rafts on the water, watched over by wise old ganders, heads high and swiveling. Among the black and gray of the geese was the pure white of wild swans, rare elsewhere, plentiful on the Chester. And shuttling through and over these great birds were flights of lesser ones—ducks, coots, even gulls and fish hawks, eying patches of roiled water.
We had drifted by Grays Inn Creek, where Eugene du Pont has a shooting lodge, and on into the Corsica River, past the home built by John J. Raskob, financier and political leader of another generation. In the faint chill breeze Finisterre ghosted through gently rolling countryside in which sleek cattle browsed behind rail fences finally to anchor where the river narrowed to a creek, the creek to a pond. After the sails came down with a rattle of slides there was only the sound of birds, wing beats and voices by the thousand, like the hum of a bumblebee's nest. The sun was low, and already the breeze had stilled, trees reflected, inverted, under the shore. Bill and I walked the deck, wordlessly, hands in pockets, and leaned against the rigging to watch.
Fall and spring—these are the magic times to cruise Chesapeake Bay. I have been under sail from the first warm days of late March to Christmas. When the New England coast, the Great Lakes, the Pacific Northwest and even Long Island Sound are too frigid for pleasant cruising the Chesapeake enjoys an additional month to six weeks on each side of summer. A boat brought down for winter lay-up, or en route to Florida, can cash in on both. During these interim periods days are likely to be warm and the nights cool, breezes are fresh and reasonably constant. There are few squalls. The water is clear and bracing for swimming. Air and waterborne pests—insects and jellyfish—are rare.
Summer has a different quality. Then, in the heat, there is a sense of almost voluptuous indolence, tempered always by the threat of squalls gathering over the western land. Crews laze under awnings, and screens are fitted at sundown. The water lies opaque and tepid. Fishermen sit in rowboats, long cane poles extending like the antennae of insects; their cork bobbers float immobile. The tempo of life slows. Some like it better.
Next morning it was still sunny, although a high haze softened shadows. Treetops waved, and a faint growl came from the upper rigging. The pen of the barograph traced a steady decline. We took our time over breakfast, for it was not the day for an open-water passage. Finally hoisting sails, we drifted from our anchorage, feeling the breeze increase as the river widened, to find a wet beam reach across the bay to the shelter of the Magothy River. Anchoring in the lee behind Mountain Point, we had lunch, then reset sails for a brief afternoon of exploration of the headwaters. Gradually during the day the clouds thickened and lowered, and well before sunset we swung on a mooring off the clubhouse of the Gibson Island Yacht Squadron.
Now I had my harbors-can-be-so-nice feeling, one of the best parts of cruising. There was a chill edge to the wind on deck, but when I went below I felt the snug coziness that exists only in the cabins of small boats. A coal fire burned in the bulkhead stove, a kettle simmered, oil lamp and candles shed a soft glow over books and polished mahogany. We settled on the cushions to listen to the hi-fi system, beginning with Heifetz playing Bach's concerto in E major for the violin, "the one with the bounce," as Bill put it. Sometime before dawn I was awakened by the patter of rain on deck. Finisterre shook to strong gusts of wind. Pulling the blanket tighter around my neck, I reflected again on the joys of cruising, especially the Chesapeake. Tonight others could struggle with flogging sails somewhere offshore: for us the squall was a lullaby.
We came on deck to find sky and earth scrubbed clean by the broom of a fresh nor'wester, clear cold air flooding down from Canada. Finisterre responded to the call of the wind, and soon we were past Mountain Point and into the bay.
It was a fall and spring day, both together: fall in the heft of the breeze, spring in the warmth of the sun. Wing and wing we skirted the beach to Sandy Point, speed diminishing as the Magothy dropped astern. As often happens, the wind had funneled down the river—a local phenomenon sought in light weather, especially by racing skippers, but to be remembered with caution in heavy weather or when squall clouds gather.
A midsummer bay squall is not to be underrated. Three centuries ago John Smith wrote of the first one encountered by a European sailor: "The winde and waters so much increased with thunder, lightning and raine, that our mast and sayle blew overbord and such mighty waves overwracked us in that small barge it was with great labour we kept her from sinking by freeing out the water."