Recollections Part 3-The Annapolis Years
THE CRAB CRUISE TO CANTLER'S RIVERSIDE INN - 1994-1998
Blue Crab’s restoration did not involve much more than adding a new dark blue top stripe, refurbishing the wood, buffing the hull and painting the bottom. The two-cylinder Volvo engine looked a little tired, but started right up when we launched at Gratitude that spring. Our 1994 maiden voyage was a short, pleasant sail to our new slip at Mears Marina in Annapolis. The boat handled surprisingly well, complemented with a colorful inventory of sails and plenty of room for guests to relax on the topside. All summer long, friends and family visited Annapolis, sailing, sight seeing, dining, and enjoying the Chesapeake lifestyle. By the end of the summer, I was ready to put the plan into action.
I sailed to Cantler’s crab house and fastened the Blue Crab to the slip closest to the restaurant. As I stepped onto the dock walking toward the stairs, I passed a bearded, weathered looking waterman hosing off his boat. I called over and asked him if he knew where I might find the owner of the restaurant. He looked up and replied, “That’s me! How can I help you?” My eyes opened wide as I stopped. I moved closer, and asked him, “Do you have a minute?
As far as watermen are concerned, Jimmy Cantler is the genuine article. He comes from a long line of crabbers and oystermen born and raised on the Chesapeake Bay. Besides the restaurant, his family owns a fleet of crab boats, not to mention a wholesale and retail crab business. The food at the crab house is always fresh. Jimmy Cantler has created a virtual gold mine on the banks of Mill Creek.
Over the years, Cantler’s has become a major western shore attraction. It is an inconvenient drive by car though, especially if you don’t know your way around the area. You must first drive through many confusing back roads until you finally reach a dead end on the Mill Creek. Here, you will usually encounter a line of cars waiting to get into the parking lot. Once parked, the hostess will put your name onto a list. They do not take reservations. Friday and Saturday nights can be especially crowded, but it is well worth the wait.
Jimmy Cantler looked mainly disinterested as I introduced myself, but he stopped what he was doing and turned off the hose to indulge me. I began right away with my story of the “threshold”. I described the scenery that he knew all too well and recounted my vision of the charter boat delivering customers from downtown Annapolis right to his door. I sensed that he liked my enthusiasm. He did not once look away as I made my very simple proposal. I assured him, he would have nothing to lose. However, there were a just few things I would need. I explained that I would want a waterfront table reserved for my guests, an open slip at the dock, and the ability to display a sign as well as my brochures at the restaurant. He was excited about the possibilities and suggested we go inside to meet Dan, the manager. After a friendly introduction, Jimmy Cantler shook my hand, bought me a drink, and then disappeared back to his boat, leaving Dan and me to work out the details. It was settled, Blue Crab Chesapeake Charters would open for business the following spring.
During the winter, I designed colorful brochures advertising the “Crab Cruise” to Cantler’s. I ordered business cards, I activated the “Crab Line” an 800 number that would be used for receiving messages, and I visited every bed and breakfast in Annapolis, pitching that I could provide their guests with a true Chesapeake adventure. Imagine, no traffic, no parking, no directions, no waiting; just sailing, relaxing, sightseeing and crabs; the ultimate getaway. Mickie and Don DeLine , from the charming Chez Ami bed and breakfast assured me that my idea would be a hit and by early May, six of their guests booked my first “Crab Cruise”.
The first trip was a dinner cruise. The group was from the Midwest and had never been to Annapolis before. They wanted to get as much activity into their short weekend as possible. I instructed them to meet me at the top of the dock, just a block from their bed and breakfast. It was 4:00 P.M. on a Saturday when I motored the boat around Horn Point alone from Mears Marina, just ten minutes away. The breeze was nice, about 12 knots. Approaching, I passed between the many yachts moored in the Spa Creek and followed a parade of motor and sailboats into City Dock. I throttled back to a slower speed as acoustic guitar music rang out from the crowded deck at Pusser’s Landing restaurant on my left. To starboard stretched a long row of public docks, completely full, with water taxis crammed with passengers, sliding in and out of their berths. Up ahead, about a hundred yards, Compromise Street signaled the end of the line. Here, lost among the swarm of tourists, my first official guests awaited my arrival. I was ready for them. I wore a bright Hawaiian shirt and made sure that the Blue Crab was spotless. The soothing instrumental music of Calido hung in the breeze. I had placed a bottle of Champagne on ice for celebration. I made up my mind; this would be their night.
Proceeding nicely, I was the next boat in line to make the turn to port. I would be pulling up alongside the concrete dock on the edge of Compromise Street just after the turn. I pushed hard on the helm, slipped her into reverse, gave a little wag on the tiller, and the Blue Crab eased to a perfect stop, up against the dock.
An excited group of three couples emerged from the crowd and I reached out my hand to assist them aboard.
As we exited the fairway, I explained that City Dock is also known as “Ego Alley” because all day and night boaters like to “show off their stuff”. On the hottest days the high performance powerboats steal the show as they parade up and down with their scantily clad girlfriends clinging to their transoms. My guests were fascinated by all the energy and excitement and they wanted to know more. They had never seen anything like Annapolis and the tour had just begun. The conversation was lively as we motored past the Naval Academy into the open waters of the Severn River. I moved forward, hoisted the mainsail and then the bright yellow, blue and black lightweight drifter that would become Blue Crab’s signature. I shut down the engine. And there, except for soft music and the gentle sound of wind and waves, remained the sweet sound of silence. Everyone stopped talking as the Blue Crab maneuvered between the familiar aids to navigation leading into the bay. Once past Greenbury Point, each guest took a turn at the helm. We sailed into Whitehall Bay, awestruck as we completed the dogleg “across the threshold” to Cantler’s Riverside Inn. It was working!
When we arrived at Cantler’s, the dock master waved us in. I had called ahead as instructed. I led the group up the stairs to the hostess who promptly led us straight to a perfect waterfront table. I made sure that everyone was comfortable and started back to the boat when someone called out,
“Captain Mark, will you join us for dinner, we don’t have a clue how to eat these things”. I stopped; I smiled and turned to take my seat.
The evening was unforgettable. We ordered crab cakes for appetizers and a main course of steamed crabs. I offered to pay my share but they would not allow it. It had worked!
The ride back was stunning. My shipmates and I exchanged our favorite stories and they seemed to be having the time of their lives. I felt as though I was making two dreams come true that night, theirs and mine. The sun was starting to set by the time we returned to the harbor. I will never forget the brilliant stripes of orange and red that fell across the State House dome nor the softly silhouetted Naval Academy chapel as we approached the city. Ego Alley was beating with life as we chased the parade back to the dock. I handed them business cards and they handed me cash, quid pro quo. I was sad to see my new friends waving goodbye as I pushed off the concrete seawall. But as I was leaving, I slipped below deck, turned on some music and motored off into the twilight, alone, feeling like a very rich man.