Boating on The Chesapeake: Potomac River


 Boating has never been less expensive to get into in decades as it is now and a cruise through the internet will show literally thousands of boats to choose from, with lots of fine boats available for a fraction of their value.

By Ken Rossignol
The Chesapeake Today

For boaters in the Southern Maryland region a visit to local marinas will find ‘for sale’ signs galore and whether shopping on the internet or in boatyards, the term ‘buyer beware’ is the chief phrase to remember in addition to the old cliché about a boat being a hole in the water surrounded by wood into which one throws money.

While that money is not likely to be seen again, having a boat allows a tremendous amount of freedom and fun and the Southern Maryland area is wide open for boaters.

Those who have spent warm weather months on the middle or upper Chesapeake will be astounded to see so few boats out on the local rivers and Bay.

It’s hard to imagine that there are likely 100 million people who live within a four hour drive of the middle of the Potomac River. One can travel for an hour on the Potomac and if its late afternoon on a Sunday, nary a vessel will pass.

Aside from shopping for great deals on used boats and even new ones, as many boat dealers have gone out of business and the banks who own their former inventory are anxious to find buyers to bail them out of their reacquired merchandise, good deals can be found on bulletin boards at grocery stores, tackle shops or in the workplace.

Families who have lost part of the family income are often looking to divest themselves of a boat for which they have no ability to keep up the payments and the down payments they have made may have reduced the equity and lowered the payoff. Some lenders will allow a new buyer to assume the loan after passing credit checks.

Other boats have been paid off and are being sold to rid an estate of an unwanted expense as many boats have to be kept in marinas and even when stored on land, monthly storage fees add up. All of these factors tend to motivate sellers and the deals around the marketplace now are astounding.

Therefore, while many homeowners in the country are ‘underwater’ on their mortgages, the same applies to boat owners with hefty payments.

If you see a boat you like, make a ridiculous offer and you will likely end up as the owner.

Some larger sailboats and cabin cruisers lend themselves to be ‘live-aboards’, but be sure the marina which is housing the boat you are interested will allow ‘live-aboards’. Check this out before buying that great boat you intend on making your home.

But with the dismal economy rocking marinas as well, expect more flexibility from the marina owners. Even though a boat may seem solid, the best assurance for a new buyer is to haul it out of the water and take a look at the bottom. For novice boaters, the employment of a marine surveyor could make an investment in a pricey cruiser, trawler or sailboat well worth the fee.

In many cases, insurance companies will require an inspection from a surveyor and if you buy the boat, it might be a good time to go ahead and paint the bottom and replace the zincs while it’s out of the water.

Living aboard a boat can be a really fun life when compared to the cost of condos in the Washington area and marinas near and in the District have many live-aboard opportunities while those in the Southern Maryland area tend to discourage them.

Marinas with septic systems on public sewer usually are more receptive and once again the rule book may be tossed aside in this current market as marinas are eager for any income.

Even those marinas which do not allow full time residency still make your boat your weekend and vacation retreat which many boaters remember fondly as some of the best times of their lives.

Unscrupulous marina owners and managers can be tough to deal with after you have already signed up for a slip rental and it’s a good idea to walk around the docks and chat with folks in a marina before you make up your mind to rent a slip. Most boat owners will be diplomatic about the marina but will still give clues as to what to expect.

Many marinas do not allow boat owners to bring in outside vendors to work on their boats and these marinas are usually forthright about their policy. In most cases, those mechanics can be pretty good ones and the policy might be doing you a favor.

But there are still boatyards around which will allow you to do any of the work yourself.

Again, ‘buyer beware’ and before having a boatyard do work for you, check out their customer satisfaction level.

The more expensive boatyards and marinas usually have their rules prominently available and have been around the barn a few times, thus tend to have worked out how to run the yard in order to make a profit and yet at the same time make their customers happy.

What size boat you buy and what kind to buy depends on your abilities and your wallet.

Some folks can handle an old wooden skiff but they tend to be heavy and require a lot of bailing to keep them from sinking. That means being around after a heavy rain or if you don’t bail them, you may soon own a submarine.

Trailing a boat works fine for many folks, and in St. Mary’s County there are nearly two dozen boat ramps for the estimated 10,000 registered small boats on trailers.

The Point Lookout boat launching ramp at the State Park and the Solomon’s boat launching ramp are two of the biggest in the area. The ramp at the Hallowing Point across from Benedict is a great ramp and the Abell’s Wharf, Chaptico Wharf, Bushwood Wharf and Piney Point ramps are all popular with local residents and visitors who manage to learn where they are located.

The options for those who live on the water are more plentiful including piers with boat lifts and slips or even private ramps.

Canoes can be launched at the Macintosh Run in Leonardtown and at the Great Mills launching ramp on the upper St. Mary’s River at Great Mills. Both of these locations are on Rt. 5. At Leonardtown, there is now a vendor who will rent canoes and kayaks.

These two launching areas allow for parking and canoes can be paddled for a remarkable trip down scenic vistas.

Most weekends will see Amish and Mennonite youths and families pulling canoes on wagons behind their buggies, loaded down with coolers and fishing gear for overnight camping.

Even on windy days when the open rivers are too rough for small boats, these launching areas can propel the paddlers into miles of calmer waters for exercise and touring that one would never see from larger boats that cannot navigate the shallower waters of the St. Mary’s River headwaters or Macintosh Run on its trip down to Breton Bay.

Water skiing and tubing abound on the larger bays like St. Clements and Breton Bay as well as the open stretches of the Patuxent, the Potomac, St. Mary’s and Wicomico.

Speed limits in creeks prohibit water skiing even when common sense doesn’t slow speed boats down.

On the Potomac, a private island, known as Sharks Tooth Island sells memberships by the year. A sign is prominently displayed on the island with phone number to call for paying the membership fee. There are reports of the island being an excellent place to push the boat close to shore and anchor for swimming and picnicking.

Many of those who become members of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs, and perhaps most remote, pitch canopies for shade and watch as their children play on the beach.

Others water-ski from the island and memberships are mandatory as the owner enforces the no-trespassing for non-members, although it has been reported that one-day passes can be had in exchange for a bottle of whisky.

Sailing is an art and requires skill, training and patience. Those who enjoy sailing are the original budget boaters as the wind blows free, but finicky as to when it appears.

Still, those who enjoy sailing have their favorite vessels and there have been many folks in Southern Maryland who have circumnavigated the world after leaving their own dock, as long-time resident and sailor Jack Witten did about 25 years ago.

Catamaran owners Larry and Clare Whitbeck dream about such a trip and are gradually gaining the skills need to carry them to distant islands.

The sailing associations in the area which sponsor weekly races and regattas offer an entirely different dimension to boating from those who fish, paddle and water ski.

Boaters who fail to exercise due caution when buying a boat, falling in love with the concept and failing to consider the consequences, can still reap enough pleasure from some of the biggest mistakes to make it all worthwhile.

One soul who spotted a great deal on a wooden 1957 Owens cabin cruiser with twin slant six Dodge engines for a mere $2,000, which ran like a charm, and he forgot about the ‘old check the bottom deal’. That boat owner got lots of fun for two seasons before rough weather revealed the flaws in the keel and the old girl was soon put up on land for a bonfire and its engines salvaged. To this day, the handsome Owens wheel is in the pilothouse of that boat owner’s fiberglass cabin cruiser.

The region is host to the venerable Corinthian Yacht Club, formed in 1903, with a 20 acre facility rooted in a fine location near Wynne on Jutland Creek after moving from Washington, D.C. more than 50 years ago. Corinthian offers its members a fine layout of covered and uncovered slips in a protected cove with easy access out to the best fishing grounds. With a clubhouse, swimming pool and rental cabins, along with monthly activities, the club’s mostly power boat owners organize various cruises during the course of the season.

Colton’s Point Marina and Point Lookout Marina are two of the biggest such facilities for service and slip rentals in St. Mary’s County, while there are several large marinas that have mechanics on staff at Solomons, Chesapeake Beach and Herrington Harbor.

Trips up and down the Bay and the rivers are as varied as anyone’s interests and this column will explore adventures on the water, dining at Southern Maryland’s great waterfront seafood joints and all aspects of boating life.

  • The historic buyboat 'Prop Wash'. THE CHESAPEAKE photo
This novella is available in eBook, paperback and audio book.

This novella is available in eBook, paperback and audio book.
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