“The best things in life are free,” trumpeted an old, old popular tune, and for boaters who enjoy spending nights under the stars, being rocked to sleep by a gentle swell, the lyrics ring very true. “Gunkholing,” or finding just the right cove in just the right river or creek, is the practice of dropping anchor, being shaded by a bit of canvas, hooking a grill to the stern rail, popping a brew top and settling in. There’s swimming and fishing, or just relaxing. So, where do we find these idyllic spots within cruising range? Here are some of my favorites. –Jay Lloyd
CAPE MAY HARBOUR
If you’re cruising around the Jersey Shore on a summer day looking for a spot to drop anchor and spend a few nights at no cost, head for the U.S. Coast Guard base at Cape May. You’ll find good holding ground and a relatively protected anchorage right off the base. On weekends, it might get more than a bit busy, with fishing and commercial boats passing close by, but the advantages outweigh any inconvenience. It’s just a short dingy ride to the popular Lobster House eatery, and you can always hoof it into town for a little beach time. Enter the harbor either from the Atlantic side through the jetty, or through the Cape May Canal from the Delaware Bay. The canal route is crossed by a fixed bridge that bars sailboats with masts over 55 feet. Most boats have plenty of clearance.
The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal is a popular passage between the two waterways and is entered at Delaware City on the east side or from the Elk River and Back Creek on the west. An enticing stop to heave the anchor is in Engineer’s Cove (Back Creek Basin) at Chesapeake City. Just spend the night aboard, or dingy into town, where you’ll find a variety of restaurants and shops. Among my favorites are the Chesapeake Inn for a great bar scene, Bayard’s for upscale dining and the Tap Room for crabs. But be advised, the anchorage has limited space and fills up fast on weekends. During the week, there’s more room, and many of your anchorage neighbors will be boaters who are transiting between the two bays.
Most Philadelphia area cruisers are either based on or will visit the expansive Chesapeake Bay. With 6,000 miles of bay, river and creek coastline, it offers an abundance of sailing, powering, fishing and water sport activities. Worton Creek, below the Sassafras River on the Eastern Shore, is known as a quiet spot that combines seclusion with a few opportunities to wander ashore. Here’s the place to spend a night at anchor (Did I mention that’s free?) after going ashore near the Worton Creek Marina. Just climb the steps above the Marina to the Harbour House restaurant. The view is spectacular and includes your boat in the anchorage below. There’s always a compatible bar crowd, and the food is a pleasure. Just plug in a GPS waypoint and go!
Swan Creek outside of Rock Hall, Maryland is just minutes from my own home port. But on moonlit, cloudless nights with a gently breeze blowing through the boat from stem to stern, dropping anchor and rafting up with friends has produced many impromptu parties or just plain relaxation on a gently rising and falling stream. This broad anchorage is surrounded by duck blinds, spectacular homes and a pristine shoreline. It’s well protected and suggests no reason to head for shore–a weekend destination in itself. The water is clean for swimming, and on a recent weekend, we saw no sign of troublesome nettles. The entrance can be found east of the Swan Point Bar and just North of Rock Hall.
The Magothy River cuts into the western Chesapeake shore right between Baltimore and Annapolis, but it’s a world apart from the heavily traveled Patapsco and Severn rivers that serve the two vibrant cities. The Magothy is a broad avenue that offers enough room to sail on long reaches, water ski, fish, crab and enjoy a variety of anchorage lifestyles. The party crowd heads to the mainland side of Dobbins Island, which occupies a prominent spot in the river–you can’t miss it.
But to the right of Dobbins, toward Gibson Island, you’ll find one of the most pristine anchorages on the bay. You’ll drop the hook in the first of the two coves that are reached through a very narrow and short channel. The setting is a wooded landscape on one side, and an immaculately maintained estate and horse farm on the other. The only reason to go ashore here is to walk the dog, if you have one. The entrance to the Magothy River is just west of the Baltimore Light.
There are literally hundreds of wonderful anchorages within range of Philadelphia area cruising boaters, and most are on the Chesapeake Bay. In some creeks and coves, you may find yourself alone, while others will draw weekend crowds but offer weekday solitude. If you’re not familiar with a particular section of the bay, ask fellow boaters. The best book to have aboard is the Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay, published by Chesapeake Bay Magazine. You’ll also find helpful information online in the Waterway Guide here. And if you can get your hands on an old copy of Cruising the Chesapeake: A Gunkholer’s Guide, it’s a treasure.
Over the years, I’ve only found one guide for the Delaware Bay and River, but it is no longer published, and my copy of the Boating Almanac that covers New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware is badly outdated.
Then again, you can always explore, nose around the waterways, watch your soundings to find a new, perfect hole-in-the-water. Enjoy!