Ship Shape

Get on board and take a seat - you don't need to own a boat to enjoy the area's waterways

September 15, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,sun reporter

Go. Get out on the water - because a day on the water can be better than a day on land. As Kenneth Grahame wrote a century ago in his famous children's classic, The Wind in the Willows, "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

From motoring around creeks and harbors in a water taxi to taking a quiet sunset cruise to the Bay Bridge to watching your kids play buccaneers on a pirate cruise, the Baltimore-Annapolis area offers plenty of opportunities to mess about in boats. If you're not a sailor (no shame in that) and not a boater (a little shame), if, in fact, you want nothing to do with the responsibility of owning, caring for or operating a watercraft, then maritime solutions are available.

Although the summer season is winding down, many cruises still run through October. A mainstay in Annapolis, Watermark's fleet of 11 boats has been running cruises and charters out of the Annapolis City Dock for 35 years. Apparently, the only thing better than being on the water is working on the water.

"I look to the left, look to the right, and when no one is looking, I bust out in a snicker. They are paying me to do this," says Dean F. Scarborough, who for 11 years has been piloting Watermark's fleet. "You can create memories on water you can't on land."

Maybe so. But this is certainly a fact: No two days are alike on the water.

"That's what makes me do this every day, 12 hours a day," says Jennifer Brest, a boat captain. At Pusser's Landing at the Annapolis Marriott Waterfront Hotel, Brest and her parents own and operate the twin wooden schooners Woodwind and Woodwind II. On a clear or rainy day, the two-hour cruises sail daily (except Mondays) out of the City Dock.

"Being on the water is a mental vacation," Brest says.

As on other cruises, no boating skills are required onboard either Woodwind. This is good news for the unskilled boater. Guests can raise the sails or just raise their beer bottles. They can steer. Or they can do nothing. "The do nothing" aspect is attractive.

Earlier this month, the Woodwind went out for its usual 4 p.m.-6 p.m. cruise. The following is a ship's log from an unskilled sailor:

Clear skies, winds out of the southwest. Passengers sit where they like - except beyond the rope in the Woodwind's bow. The crew issues specific instructions regarding the limitations of the sailboat's electrical toilet. All take heed about the "head."

Leaving the dock now under power, then under sail.

"I always ask each group, `What's the best moment of sailing?' Drinking, they say," Brest says. "No, no. This is the best moment." She turns the engine off. There's no quiet like the quiet of a sailboat.

Reading the boat names while leaving Annapolis Harbor: Good Life, Slow Dancing, Destiny, Endless Summer. Collectively, these boats have another name: Boats We Will Never Afford. Life-jacketed sea dogs balance in the bows, just keeping an eye on things.

"Pull, pull, pull," commands a Woodwind crew member, as ersatz sailors help hoist the mainsail. Others notice the red and green tell-tales - those flapping or flaccid yarn pennants attached to both sides of a sail. Sailors want the tell-tales parallel to indicate equal pressure. If not, the captain might have to change direction or bring in the sail.

"Keep your head down!" a crewmember bellows. The aluminum boom jerks across overhead - just barely. Then, guests feel the hulking weight of the 74-foot schooner shift as it comes across the wind.

One can work up a mighty thirst watching others do the work onboard. There is free bottled water. There are $4 "Small Craft Warning" Maryland microbrews. Water. Beer. You pick.

Here's an observation: Sailors do like waving to each other. Waving all over the place at each other. They even talk to each other because there's no engine noise to drown them out.

An hour slides by on the water, just like that. Nearing the halfway mark of the tour. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is nearing - a hazy, phantom of spans.

Passengers look at a scrapbook of behind-the-scenes photographs of Wedding Crashers. Filmed in part on the Woodwind II, the 2005 comedy starred Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn and Christopher Walken, who, as one photograph proves, was not steering the schooner alone. A crew member had his hand on the wheel.

Now passing the "A" channel marker, where ospreys nest and whistle. Fleeting thought: a mutiny! Assume control of the Woodwind and sail her across the channel into Whitehall Bay, thread that narrow channel and dock at Cantler's Riverside Inn. Soft-shell crab, beer, the works. All nerve is lost, however.

The schooner is in proud company on the water today: midshipmen from nearby U.S. Naval Academy out on their sailboats. They don't wave as much; they appear to be concentrating. And there - the white sail fins of the Optimist junior racing fleet - young kids sailing solo in packs of these stable "Optis," as the boats are called.

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