(15-foot Whirlwind Runabout–1970)
Sometimes I fall into a pit of remembering.
It happened today.
I came across an online image of a painting by an artist friend, Jerry Spangler, who now lives and paints prolifically in Florida. The scene featured a deadrise workboat passing a channel marker, presumably returning to port. So well executed was it that I could hear the screech of the gulls, the pounding surf, and even the sound of the boat’s engine.
I closed my eyes and fell into the pit. I could smell the salt air and feel the sun against my face as the wind cut smile wrinkles in the corners of my eyes. I could feel the deck swaying with the rolling swells. It was a step back in time, out of urban culture, into the mystique of fresh air and sea foam.
My experiences living in a coastal area began in 1968 when I finished seminary and sought a pastoral appointment. I’d been raised in Cincinnati, spent my teenage years in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and then served in the US Army overseas. My only up close and personal acquaintance with the sea had been aboard a troop ship sailing through an Atlantic Ocean hurricane. I was ripe for a fresh experience.
That’s exactly what I got when I was assigned to a church in Colonial Beach, Virginia. I spent four years there, then three in Gloucester Point. During those seven years I learned to love saltwater fishing. A retired man at the beach taught me about bait, steel leaders, casting and playing my line–and about cleaning and cooking what I caught. He also taught me what great parking lot paving material oyster shells make!
My coastal appetite grew quickly. Someone in the church ran a marine supply store and also sold small used boats. I bought a 12-foot Old Towne Canoe with a 25 hp outboard motor, and rented a slip for it on Monroe Bay. I soon learned that the boat leaked and I had to install a bilge pump. I always took someone with me when I went fishing, supposing two heads to be better than one in a crisis.
No crises occurred, but I did give everybody a scare one evening when I went out alone. I pulled in off Church Point to do some fishing. The sky began to change as dark clouds formed and a stiff breeze picked up. I pulled anchor, stowed my gear, turned the pump on and headed for the bay. Unfortunately I was moving windward which slowed me down. Darkness fell and I wasn’t sure my small running lights made my boat visible. I felt relieved and gratified when I crossed the sand bar and found my family, neighbors and friends on the lookout for me. I never went out alone again.
That winter I put the boat up on saw horses in the back yard and covered it. On cold fall and winter mornings I would sometimes walk across from the house to sit on the shore and watch oyster tongers lined up across the river, harvesting their bivalve mollusks. My fascination with the water and fishing grew. In the spring I refinished the wood hull on my boat, fiberglassing the bottom and repainting it. Then I sold it. I replaced it with a 15-foot Whirlwind runabout with a slightly larger motor. Now I was ready for some serious fishing.
I got the chance for that in a manner I would never have expected. Colonial Beach is located on a seven-mile-wide section of the Potomac River. It is downstream from the Dahlgren Naval Weapons Station. This was during the Vietnam War and they test-fired sixteen-inch guns down the river, which was marked off as a range area whenever firing was active. This particular day a new man in my church and I went fishing off Bluff Point. We put out our lines and enjoyed fishing and getting acquainted.
When we decided it was time to go in I stowed the fishing gear, pulled the anchor, and started the motor…only it wouldn’t start! We tried over and over with no results. Meanwhile we drifted into the range area as it became active and we could hear the report of the guns and the shells passing overhead. I pulled out my emergency horn and blasted away, but no one was near enough to hear. We accepted the fact that our only recourse was to drift across the river to the Maryland side and seek help there.
That being decided, I pulled out the fishing gear, cut bait and started fishing. My friend declined, spending his time praying instead. Eventually we were rescued by a coast guard vessel that towed us across to Monroe Bay…and lectured us about staying out of the range area. I had caught quite a few fish which I shared with my buddy at the pier. He thanked me for the fish, and I thanked him for the prayers. Soon after that he bought a larger boat of his own. He never fished with me again.
Stepping back out of the pit of remembering now, I want to thank Jerry Spangler for sharing his painting online. And thanks to you my readers for going along with me in this adventure. Hope you enjoyed the trip!