Little boat, big water: Local man circumnavigates Delmarva by pontoon

Date Published: 
July 8, 2014

Coastal Point • Submitted : Alex Daly navigated his pontoon boat in Virginia’s inland waterways from Assateague, Md., to Cape Charles, Va.Coastal Point • Submitted : Alex Daly navigated his pontoon boat in Virginia’s inland waterways from Assateague, Md., to Cape Charles, Va.Pontoon boats were made for balmy days on the bay. But for one Fenwick Islander, they were made for adventure.

Alex Daly dreamed of a 10-day Delmarva cruise. He said sailors typically circumnavigate Delmarva Peninsula by sea, cutting down the Atlantic, around to the Chesapeake. But he wanted to use an old “intricate” system — the Virginia inland waterways, winding from Assateague, Md., to Cape Charles, Va.

“It’s been there quite a while. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard’s going to stop maintaining it this year,” Daly said. “That’s one of my incentives to do it this year, before they pull the markers.”

Daly needed a shallower vessel to float over the inland maze: his pontoon boat.

“The pontoon is the only thing that goes through the Assawoman Canal, pretty much. There’s spots that are less than 2 feet.”

Although he didn’t touch the Atlantic, he still needed perfect sailing conditions on the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay.

“A pontoon boat can’t have heavy seas,” he said. “They’re made mostly for lakes and the bay behind Rehoboth and Ocean City, without a lot of waves. They don’t go through water — they sit on top of it. Easily, they’re party boats.”

After some last-minute repairs, he launched on July 7, aboard the 20-foot 2005 Harris Super Sunliner Pontoon, named “Miss Phyl” for his late wife, Phyllis.

As the newest commodore of Fenwick Island Yacht Club, Daly still had help from Buddy Bell navigating Virginia for several days, before heading clockwise to Crisfield, St. Michaels and Annapolis, Md.

After a few days solo, Daly’s grandson joined the voyage. William Alexander “Zan” Wills is only 14, but his Delaware boating license says he’s old enough to man the helm.

Originally planning a solo trip, Daly didn’t want to endanger anyone. But he was glad to have company.

“It was good to have someone else for when things didn’t go as planned,” Daly admitted. “The best part was the people who helped me along the way and helped me out of the predicaments I got in.”

That includes the strangers who detoured to help fix his boat or drove him to bed-and-breakfasts.

“The people I met were the best part.”

He also met some old watermen.

“They kinda looked at me when I was told ’em what I was doing,” Daly said. But “Everybody down there was very helpful.”

He usually rose and sailed early, reaching port before the wind whipped up the waves, typically by noon or 1 p.m.

That allowed time to explore his destinations.

Behind Barren Island, Daly slept his first night ever on the boat, dropping anchor and cooking hotdogs and beans on a tiny grill attached to the rail. Specially-made curtains kept out moisture and bugs.

In the Chesapeake, monstrous freight ships were no problem, in contrast to the thousands of crab pots that littered the Eastern Shore, sometimes two miles from land. But Daly had calm water.

“It’s a good experience to go under the [Chesapeake] Bay Bridge in a little boat,” Daly said.

He navigated with GPS and buoy markers, visiting Baltimore, Sassafras River, Chesapeake City and the C&D Canal.

A heart-stopping moment came in his last few hours on the Delaware Bay. A 4-foot swell “lifted our stern and drove us forcefully into the wave in front, swamping our bow past the forward seats,” Daly wrote. “Our forward seats were under water! The boat came to an abrupt stop as water and supplies floated everywhere. The boat righted herself, and Zan and I could start to breathe again. It was a tense, long 10 seconds until we knew we were OK.”

Afterward, Daly said, “You learn how to drive the boat in those kinds of conditions. It’s my first experience with swamping a pontoon boat, but they do come back.”

Done with sightseeing, that evening, July 16, they continued home, where Daly was amazed to find a “welcome home” party on his home dock.

“It was so good — No. 1 that I was able to complete the trip, and, second, to have someone to share it with when we got home.”

Daly said Zan already wants to do another trip.

“I think that’s good, when the crew signs on for another trip,” Daly said. “It was exciting. It was a great adventure. I’m glad I did it.”

Daly’s travel log can be found online at www.alexdalycruise.wordpress.com.

With this taste of sailing, he definitely encourages others in Fenwick “to explore, have their own adventure … but check the tides before they leave!”