In The Shallows

We took a couple of days this week to cruise up the Potomac River.  Our upriver destination was Alexandria, Va. (under the approach to Reagan Airport – been THERE a few times) and within sight of the Capitol Building.  There, we were to have lunch with a group of my high school classmates.  We were a very small class and have tried to keep in touch over the years.  We were happily surprised to have an alum join us for the first time in 50 years!  But I digress…

I submit these observations on a river we all recognize but few, I think, have ever traveled.  The mouth of the river (where it empties into Chesapeake Bay) is broad, deep and inviting. Maryland’s first capital was located on the deep and well-protected St. Mary’s River, the first of many tributaries that feed this watershed.  It’s a beautiful river with old-growth trees right down to a (relatively) deep shore.  Six miles upriver we found St. Mary’s College and anchored in a deep bend of the river there.  St. Mary’s has a notable sailing program and we spent time watching their teams practice nearby.  On the opposite (Virginia) shore of the Potomac  is the Yeocomico River, reputed to be just as scenic with many deep and secure anchorages.  But we had an appointment in Alexandria and  will have to save that exploration for our next trip.

For the first forty miles or so up the River to Colonial Beach (summer excursion boat stop for vacationers escaping downriver from Washington) the Potomac remains broad and deep.  The shores are sparsely populated.  But from Colonial Beach upriver, the river changes significantly.  The channel narrows down to a few hundred yards in places, but flanked by broad expanses of shallow water.  Here the river has left outcroppings of rock that further confine the navigable channel.  But “shallow” is a relative term.  Millions of fishermen and shallow draft (say 2 feet) pleasure boaters see a wide-open river with multitudes of creeks in which to explore or anchor securely overnight.  Deeper draft vessels like Mosey On and most commercial or naval vessels must stick to the channel.  Alexandria was once a thriving seaport, but as ships got larger and with deeper draft, they went elsewhere…In fact, James Madison’s military advisers were counting on that in the War of 1812.  They correctly presumed that the British Fleet would not chance the shallows of the upper Potomac….so the British deployed up the Patuxet and to Baltimore.  There is a way, however, that we can slip Mosey On into and out of the shallower tributaries and anchorages.  Some have deeper water – ‘holes’ inside the shoals at their mouths.  If the water level in these ‘holes’ is sufficient to float our boat at Low Tide, and at High tide we have sufficient water beneath us to clear the shoals, then we should be able to duck into a secluded anchorage otherwise unavailable to us.  The whalers of Nantucket actually developed a raft to lift their ships up across the bar and into the lagoon anchorage on the island.  Mosey On rode a High Tide into a place called Mattawoman Creek.  We were successful by mere inches under our keel!  And were rewarded with a secure nights sleep in a beautiful anchorage.  Then we waited for the next high tide for our opportunity to leave.  Sailors have been doing this since man invented boats…but it gives meaning to the phrase “time and tide wait for no one!”

The other notable thing about this river is just how much of a military presence lines its shores.  There are the facilities at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren, the Quantico Marine Base and the Army’s Ft. Belvoir.  But for the many times I’ve flown over or driven down its shores and across its bridges, I had no idea of the extent of other facilities: antenna farms, test ranges, auxiliary airfields, etc.  From the water, at seven knots, you notice these things.  There are signs and postings on the nautical charts warning that if the sirens are whaling and the lights are flashing…you may not proceed.  Fair enough.  What’s surprising is its proximity to populated areas.  The US Navy apparently has no issue with shallow water…


One thought on “In The Shallows

  1. Your narrative helps us to appreciate our beautiful continent. I need to read this again with Map in hand.

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