How I Became a Gunkholer


Some sailors are natural-born gunkholers.

Others acquire this status, and still others myself included-stumble upon it, I am not complaining, but in the beginning the idea of singlehanded gunk holing never occurred to me.

I thought my sailing days were ended- that I would be forever in close orbit around adequate medical facilities. Certainly my career in the American Foreign Service was over-medically retired was my fate.

Hypertension was the reason.

Useless it seemed was the knowledge and lore of blue water sailing garnered during the last four years in a landlocked post in Africa where, to compensate for the lack of sailing opportunities, I completed refresher courses in celestial navigation and meteorology.

I also researched by mail every aspect of blue water sailing I could think of. Because of my research I formed opinions on almost everything relating to ocean cruising ranging from which windlass to buy, to specific arrays of photovoltaic cells to charge the batteries powering my tape deck and ham radio rig.

I even researched the possibility of having the auxiliary, the gimbaled stove with oven and the cabin heater all work on diesel fuel. (It is possible!)

I even learned to bake bread in preparation for what I hoped would be an extensive, distinguished cruising career among the fabled islands of the Pacific and the Caribbean-just like the legendary sailors whose books I had read and reread.

Such cruising was now beyond my reach forever I thought, but I still had a 24-foot sloop, Rover, bought years earlier to entertain my three teenage children.

Rover was destined to change my life by converting me from a disappointed would-be blue water sailor into a devoted gunkholer.

I found there was a spirit of community among sailors on the Chesapeake Bay.

Initially I did not like the idea of cruising alone. I reasoned (I now think, stupidly) that if I could not cruise as I had planned I would not cruise at all.

I made plans to sell Rover as soon as possible but, more or less on a whim. I decided to take a final cruise on the Chesapeake Bay to give myself a quiet time to reflect on what to do in my early retirement.

My doctor encouraged me to go sailing saying that such “non-stressful” activity was just what was needed to lower my high blood pressure. He was right! I will always be grateful to him.

I was unaware that my conversion to avid gunkholism had begun. Looking back now it’s not possible to say at just what point I stopped being a disillusioned world cruiser and became a happy gunkholer.

No single event made me into a gunkholer, but the overall impact of “my last cruise” on the Bay was enough.

My attitude on singlehanded gunkholing began to change when I discovered that the solitude of anchoring in remote, beautiful spots allowed me to enjoy my hobbies better than I had ever enjoyed them before. (I have several hobbies of long standing that require quietude.)

For example, I like to solve math problems ( I am an incurable would-be-mathematician who aspires someday to learn calculus); I play the clarinet (I am basically a classicist but I’m also enthusiastic about jazz); I make wooden ship models (mostly tall ships); I hook rugs (I use this for those times when I want to do something constructive but do not want to think); I play chess (battery powered computerized chess boards are marvelous.)

All these things were important, but the biggy for me was that I could read without interruption.

On this “final cruise” I revived another hobby, astronomy, or more accurately for me, star gazing. On still clear nights I studied the stars and relearned what I had first learned as a boy; the night sky is indescribably beautiful and serene. (I also relearned to star gaze while flat on my back to avoid getting a crick in my neck.)

Early in the cruise I found that there was a spirit of community among sailors on the Chesapeake Bay. My first experience with this spirit of community was on Broad Creek near Mulberry Point on Maryland’s Eastern Shore when I went hard aground. The tide was ebbing and I feared that I would be there until the flood tide, but an elderly lady in a small open power boat pulled me off just minutes after I had gone aground.

She had specially rigged her boat to assist grounded vessels. She lived in a large brick house complete with white railed widow’s walk that overlooked a long stretch of Broad Creek. She told me she had assisted more than a dozen grounded vessels that summer.

At Norfolk, Virginia a young couple invited me aboard their ketch for fresh steamed crabs. Those crabs were the freshest possible.

We caught our dinner by dangling chicken necks on a line on the bottom then gently pulling up the clinging crabs and popping them into the spicy steamer. Dinner was delicious and it was largely responsible for my current love of catching and cooking seafood while gunkholing.

Because of this impromptu crab dinner I bought a crab steamer and a seafood cook book at a garage sale in nearby Portsmouth. The next day en route to Solomons Island I caught a small bluefish on a chrome lure I trolled.

The resulting fish dinner prepared from a recipe from my new cook book and cooked in my new steamer was good-and inexpensive. I was hooked. I have since learned to cook four seafood dishes reasonably well. Today when I gunkhole about one meal in four or five is prepared from seafood I have caught myself.

Another example of the Bay’s spirit of community was the recipe for flounder Bonaparte. This recipe was given to me by an anonymous donor who taped it to Rover’s hatch boards while I was slipped at Oxford. A note accompanying the recipe stated there was “definitely something fishy” about the recipe, and that the donor’s identity must remain a secret until the stars were right to avoid “a universal calamity”. It was a joke of course. I think the culinary donor was one of a small group of sailors with whom I discussed celestial navigation and seafood cooking at the Robert Morris Inn.


1 lb. Fillet of flounder (cod or sole also work)

½ tsp. salt

1/8 tsp pepper

1/8tsp. garlic powder (I prefer a little less)

½ cup chopped mushrooms

1/4cup chicken bouillon

2 tsp. parsley flakes

1 medium sized tomato

Place fish in baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and garlic powder. Add mushrooms. Combine bouillon and parsley flakes and pour down side of baking dish. Bake at 375 degrees (moderately hot oven) for 15 minutes or until fish flakes easily with fork. Serve each portion topped with half diced tomato.

Note: I prepare this dish when I’m tied up because I use an electric oven. I tried both bluefish and catfish with this recipe. It was awful.

I am grateful, because flounder Bonaparte is delicious. It is the best of the four seafood dishes I know how to cook.

There were two mysteries during this “farewell-to-sailing” cruise. The first was the package. I spotted it just east of the estuary of the Rappahannock River. The package was a large cube (about three feet long on each edge) neatly wrapped as a gift in white plastic complete with a large black bow. With difficulty I overtook and brought aboard the surprisingly light weight package. Inside I found 27 identical Styrofoam cubes. Not wanting to litter the Bay I was obliged to keep these cumbersome cubes aboard until I could dispose of them properly. I suppose all of this was someone’s idea of a joke. Why? What was the point?

The second mystery was musical. I was playing the clarinet one still evening while anchored at Solomons Island. Every tune I played was answered from shore by a hidden trumpeter. The trumpeter was an excellent musician who waited for the conclusion of my selection of music before echoing back a beautifully embroidered rendition of what I had just played, whether classical or jazz. We alternated solos for about an hour, and then as the sun was setting the trumpeter played taps and ceased playing.

The next morning I explored the shore where the trumpet music had come from. I found nothing, not even a house where a trumpeter might live. I remained at Solomons a day longer than planned hoping to meet the mysterious musician. As far as I know the trumpeter did not return. Certainly there was no more trumpet music while I was there. I hope we will meet some day. We played well together.


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