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A Day Sail On The Severn

Apr 01, 2018 07:00AM
By Gary Johnson
Photography by Michael Audick

On our way back to the harbor after a recent Annapolis Yacht Club frostbite series sailboat race, my fellow crew, Peter Trogdon and Margaret Podlich, remarked that they would like to go sailing on my 32-foot daysailer, Whirlwind. A month later on a breezy, cool, clear spring day we went for a sail. We had a simple plan to head north up the Severn River and return. There is always great anticipation any time you are heading out onto the water. I have been sailing now for 62 years, and even after all this time, without exception, every sail provides some new experience. This day would be no different. 

We added another crew, Mike Audick, an award-winning cameraman who has crossed the Atlantic, rounded Cape Horn, filmed Antarctica three times, broadcast the Olympics for
NBC, the America’s Cup for ESPN, and raced on several major offshore races. Audick called me the day before our sail, to say that he had a brand new, super-duper high definition K4 camera that he wanted to test on the water. “Well, how about tomorrow?” I suggested. He signed on. 

My usual routine before any sail is to hold a crew meeting. This ritual is important so that everyone knows the game plan. It’s a time to review safety, and make sure that all our equipment is in order. The four of us sat in the cockpit of Whirlwind for a quick discussion about our sailing plan over a sandwich. There was a gnarly piece of lettuce in my sandwich that I slipped over the side. Margaret watched me in great horror. She said, “You can’t do that!” The scolding became a teachable moment. “Any time you put food in the water, it takes oxygen out of the water that hurts the fish,” she explained. Good point. I told her the message would be included in my article. And that, I won’t do that again. We agreed that life jackets would be worn. The crew meeting ended.

Soon we pushed off the dock. The first destination was a sail up Ego Alley. It is always an exhilarating ride up the narrow waterway. Lucky for us, a brisk breeze blew down the Alley and we tacked up wind. Whirlwind is a beautiful classic dark blue boat. People applauded as we passed. I laugh thinking that Ego Alley is well-named. My ego was inflated with the accolades by the City Dock crowd. At the head of the Alley we turned and headed downwind. There were about 50 people hanging around including some youngsters in strollers accompanied by their mothers, a few romantic couples, some kids feeding ducks, a couple of guys in suits having what looked like an intense business discussion, two policemen strolling by, and several individuals drinking out of Starbucks cups. A typical afternoon. I had a feeling that everyone thought about being aboard Whirlwind with us. (Like I said, Ego Alley is well-named).

Our next passage was along the Naval Academy seawall. What a beautiful campus with the French architecture of Bancroft Hall, the sports fields, the granite rocks, the Chapel Dome, and countless Midshipmen walking briskly in their crisp, dark uniforms. Within two minutes we rounded Trident Point at the eastern end of the Academy. The puffy wind created sparkling white caps. We quickly adjusted our sail’s shape for the stronger winds and worked to windward. The Navy’s yard patrol boats were out in force going through training maneuvers. We were careful to stay out of their way. The wind on the Severn presents fascinating patterns. At one moment, the wind’s direction was out of the North and seconds later it shifted to the West. The velocity ranged from eight knots up to 18 knots. The changing wind kept us on our toes. 

Remember, we were not racing, yet Podlich kept calling out the puffs and wind shifts. I asked her about it: “There was some racing [against another boat that was also daysailing]. I look at a breeze and make sure we are going as fast as we can. I noticed Peter pulled out an instrument [an iPhone] to see how fast we were going.” Our top speed was 7.6 knots.

A large flock of birds passed overhead. They seemed to be looking down at us as they flew by. I wondered if they related the shape of their wings with the shape of our sails? I particularly liked seeing a few Loons on our voyage. The black birds have a business-like profile with their peak extending toward the sky. One Loon never moved as we sailed within a few feet. Well over head, an endless series of Southwest Airlines jets flew by. I never tire of seeing jets fly. They are so business like and purposeful as they aimed for the runway about 15 miles away. In makes me appreciate that sailing and aviation are very similar. I also noticed that the water of the river was pretty clear. The Chesapeake Bay is in far better shape than it was 40 years ago when I first moved to Annapolis. We discussed the improved water quality on the bay. Happily, there is a lot of good environmental work going on these days. All sailors are the beneficiary of that. You can be sure I won’t drop lettuce in the water again.

Like Audick and I, Trogdon and Podlich are very engaged with the water in their professional careers. Trogdon is the owner of Weems & Plath, a venerable company based in Eastport that makes a wide variety of navigational equipment and other marine related gear. He brought along a prototype man-overboard instrument to test. We would do this at the end of the day and it worked well. We used a milk bottle to simulate someone actually in the water. The attached device that was two inches long, and about one inch wide sent a signal to Trogdon’s iPhone with a constant bearing and distance to the milk bottle.  

Podlich grew up sailing. Her father, the late Captain John Bonds, USN, was one of the most knowledgeable and respected sailors in America. Capt. Bonds was one of the key drivers of the Safety at Sea Seminars that were established in the early 1980s. Capt. Bonds was the Director of Sailing at the academy and served as commander of the U.S. Naval Station on the Severn while he was on active duty. Podlich spent many years at Boat US, a membership organization for boaters, and eventually became the CEO. She recently retired from Boat US.

"Sailing is very focused, it’s functional, and it fills my soul with peace. After a day on the water I feel like I have completed a Yoga class."

 As our sail continued, a sinister-looking Naval Patrol boat passed by. I counted at least five mounted machine guns scattered around the 30-foot, black vessel. Their crew all waved at us.I wondered how fast the “swift boat” could get going if needed? Our next milestone was passing under the Severn River Bridge. Podlich let out a loud yell to hear her echo. Trogdon seemed a little confused by the routine. Podlich explained, “You always yell when you go under a bridge.” I wondered if Capt. Bonds had inspired the practice? I asked about her Dad, and she told me, “He taught me to always be prepared. We did a lot of adventure sailing growing up. He knew he did not have best crew with young kids on the boat. We talked through maneuvers and evolutions, and made sure we had the right equipment, and that we knew how to use it, to be prepared.”

Trogdon was philosophical about his sailing, “When I am on the water I feel connected with everything. We are substantially water biologically. I get great peace and joy in my life when we are on the water. I like all kinds of boating. My wife, Cathy and I, spend time cruising on our 36-foot powerboat, and I like paddle boarding. I was a Boy Scout and did a lot of rowing.” Podlich added, “It’s so peaceful. You get away from the regular rigors of life. Sailing is very focused, it’s functional, and it fills my soul with peace. After a day on the water I feel like I have completed a Yoga class.”

As we passed under the next bridge Trogdon let out a good yell. Yep, we heard the echo. I bet he yells as he goes through bridges in the future. Trogdon is a regular competitor in the popular Harbor 20 fleet at Annapolis Yacht Club. I asked him about racing and he explained, “I love competing. The one design Harbor 20s all go about the same speed. It is a joy to get to the finish line first. It gives you a real purpose, and builds leadership and team spirit.” He went on, “The Harbor 20 (named Shimmer) is my first racing boat. I like that we are learning from each other in this class. There are some really good sailors in the group that are happy to share their knowledge. In Annapolis, it is easy to recruit great sailors to teach you.”

Names of boats always intrigue me. Why does someone give their boat a name? We don’t name our cars or houses, but boats seem to require a name. The Hood 32 that I had built in 2015 is named Whirlwind. This is the fourth boat I have owned that I call Whirlwind. It is a tribute to L. Francis Herreshoff who was a great yacht designer. In 1930, he designed a J Class sloop for the America’s Cup named Whirlwind. It was a beautiful 120-foot double ender, but unfortunately she was no match for the other three J boats in the New York Yacht Club defense trials. The other J boats were named Yankee, Enterprise, and Weetamoe. Whirlwind had a 1-18 record but the crew never gave in. I have enjoyed reading about their fighting spirit, hence, Whirlwind. The name also describes by lifestyle. In the four weeks between our frostbite race and our day sail I made separate trips to South Africa, England, and Thailand. For me, it is such a pleasure going for a sail on home waters. Our sail was filmed by Audick which I am sure will win an Emmy someday.

As the breeze built it was time to head home. We set a new spinnaker for the ride. It is a roller furling sail that I copied from the America’s Cup and around-the-world racing yachts. Podlich and I had to work for a few minutes to get all the right settings in place, but once the balloon like sail was set, the boat took off at flank speed. Trogdon was at the helm, and had a big smile all the way back down the river. Before our sleigh ride ended, Podlich took a turn at the helm. As we passed the Robert Crown Sailing Center at the academy, I could see several coaches looking out the windows. I am sure we made a nice sight. In three short hours we had seen a lot on our sail. Many new houses lined the high banks of the Severn River, birds were everywhere, and the traffic on the bridges seemed like a world away compared with our vantage point on the water. The best part was simple…sharing some time with good friends who just love being on the water.

 What is a Burgee?

A burgee is a flag used to demonstrate membership in a yacht club, boating organization, or a private signal by the owner of the vessel. It is usually flown from the top of a mast. The flag is most often in the shape of a triangle or swallow tale. Flag etiquette is taken very seriously. Experts in flag protocol are known as vexillologists.

Places where you can arrange to go sailing

Visit Annapolis &
Anne Arundel County 
This website has a good overview of
boating opportunities in the Annapolis area.

The Schooner
The vessel boards alongside the
Chart House restaurant in Eastport.
The crew is great fun.

J World Annapolis,
The Performance Sailing School
Anyone wanting to go racing this
company will help improve your skills.

The Maryland School
of Sailing & Seamanship
410-639 7030
Essential for anyone aspiring to
sail long distances.

Cruise Annapolis
Features lessons, charter, and
ownership of cruising catamarans.

Sail Time
An efficient way to get on the water
when you have limited available time.

Annapolis Sailing School
Decades of experience of introducing
new sailors to the water.

Kidship Sailing School
A good way to get the youngsters sailing.

The Sailing Academy
South of Annapolis in Tracy’s Landing,
Deale, on a nice part of the bay. 

Schooner Woodwind
Sails from the Annapolis Waterfront Hotel.

Navigating the Severn River

From the vantage point of sailing on the Chesapeake Bay, it is easy to pass by the Severn River. This 14-mile-long hidden gem of a river provides endless opportunities for exploration. I have sailed up and down the river many times over the 40 years I have lived in Annapolis, and there is always something new to see. There are many shallow areas along the shoreline, but they are well marked. (A word of caution, however, is do not cut inside shoal markers).

I keep my sailboat, Whirlwind, on Spa Creek. One of my favorite sights is an osprey nest on the east side of the creek just off the Point Condominiums. Once past the Spa Creek Bridge for our sail up the Severn, there endless points of interest. Here are a few of my favorites:

United States Naval Academy
: water and land activities are always going on, you can see patrol boat maneuvers, sailing team practice, soccer games, football practice, or just enjoy the architecture. I like to sail right alongside the sea wall.

Severn River Bridges
: always a nice sight from the water, and a reward for passing underneath.I ask young sailors, “will the mast hit?”

Weems Creek
 is a refuge in between the bridges. It is fun to look at the houses on the shore. On the north side of the river sits the imposing white Atria Manresa. It is now a senior living community. I like to think that the residents are watching us sail past.

Luce Creek
: just past the bridges is another nice spot to explore. Clements Creek, and Brewer Creek are just beyond and have water deep enough for any sailboat.

Round Bay
 is a wide-open area with St. Helena Island on the south side. A circumnavigation of the island is always in order. Hidden behind the island is the entrance to Maynadier Creek. Several huge homes can be seen through the tall trees. 

Cedar Point
 is the next landmark on the sail up the River. The shoreline narrows, and you now feel you might be discovering a new part of the world, since the bay is no longer in sight. Many birds seem to fly around this point of land.

The Narrows
 is tricky sailing, but there is deep water in the middle of the passage. You feel like you are sailing through a fjord with the high hills on either side.

Indian Landing
 is about the end of the line for a sailboat. It is hard to believe that Interstate 97 is just a  few hundred yards beyond the trees. When you sail to this point there is a great sense of accomplishment. If the wind is out of the west it is time to 
head downwind, and set a spinnaker. Sailing with the wind over your shoulder is one of the great joys in life.