Reflections on Downrigging by Jamie Kirkpatrick


The tall ships have come and gone. Sultana sits in her home berth like a forlorn child whose best friends have all just gone home after the birthday party. Her mast is stepped, her sails securely stowed for winter. Another sailing season has come and gone.

Chestertown’s first Downrigging Weekend took place in 2001 with only two ships in port: our very own Sultana and the Pride of Baltimore visiting from across the Bay. This year, I counted more than 25 vessels of all shapes and sizes; I guess good ideas grow as quickly as summer grass. While Downrigging Weekend is surely a celebration of graceful tall ships, small wooden boats lovingly built or restored, and all things nautical, it’s also a celebration of who we are: our history, our river, our town. We love it here and Downrigging is our gift to ourselves.

The weekend officially started on Wednesday with the arrival of the first tall ship. (This year, that honor went to the Kalmar Nykel out of Wilmington). However, to be honest, my personal version of Downrigging Weekend began a day or two before when I first looked down river toward Devil’s Reach, then drove out to Quaker Neck Landing hoping to catch a glimpse of that first incoming topsail. By Thursday morning, I was in Wilmer Park cataloging the ships as they sailed in: Lynx (out of Nantucket), Pride of Baltimore, Lady Maryland, Sigsbee, and the Muriel Eileen (a restored Chesapeake buy boat). Sultana flew back upriver from her afternoon sail to join the party and suddenly I was a kid again, transported back in time, wondering what it must have been like for my seven-times-great grandfather when he dared to cross the Atlantic in 1760 on a ship like one of these. (Good thing there wasn’t a wall back then! I mean, after all, none of us—or at least no one I know—walked over here. But I digress…)

On Friday morning there were a few last-minute arrivals to welcome. In the afternoon, two of my mates and I headed down to the deck of the Fish Whistle to watch the maritime parade over a beer or two. It was good to see the Marina a) dry and b) buzzing with people marveling at our living display of nautical history. That’s the way the marina supposed to be—dry and lively—right?

By the time the spotlights blazed on Friday night, it was hard not to swoon at the sight of the assembled fleet. The controlled chaos of rigging and lines, the towering crow’s nests, all the pulpits and bows with their finely carved figureheads—it was a spectacular evening show often enhanced by a generous captain’s measure of grog. Fireworks added plenty of excitement to the festivities and this year’s grand finale awed the crowd on land and out on the river.

Saturday’s sails were another delight—a silent nautical ballet of canvas, wind, and light. (Well, maybe not quite silent; all the rata-tat-tat of that toy PT boat is a silly distraction.) I got in an early round of golf out at the club and the sight of all the tall ships on a downriver parade behind the 15th green provided a magnificent backdrop to golf on a bluebird day. Back in town, there was plenty of good music and food to add fuel to the celebration.

Sunday’s change of weather did little to dampen the town’s spirits. Weather is, after all, part and parcel of the magic of sailing; not every day can be sunny with a light southwesterly breeze. But there was also a certain bittersweet quality to Downrigging Sunday: the show was winding down, weekend visitors were heading home, crews were preparing to depart for distant ports (Lynx is on her way to her winter home in St. Petersburg, Florida for example), and as for those of us who remain in port, we knew in our bones that colder weather is a comin’. I guess we’ve learned to take our collective cue from the tall ships sailing away and set about some personal down rigging of our own: we begin to repair and stow our own gear for the few months before we all go sailing again in the spring.

See you at Tea Party.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is





Letters to Editor

  1. Gary Gill says:

    Jamie- Good morning. I just got back from a week away from the “pile” of work that seems to always be docked here. I saw your amusing and told myself to read it later. But happily, I told myself to read it now. After all, I’ve been working for an hour and a half! Glad I did-kind of like a coffee break, and now I am fueled for the rest of the day. You are a superb writer (keep in mind that comes from an ok writer), and you write about superb things. Thanks-GG

  2. Pamela Hastings says:

    Jamie, I met your beautiful wife in Chestertown’s Best and only Natural Food store. She immediately asked me to come to your home for any First Friday porch party. Said you have a swinging good time going on. I would love to come meet you this first Friday of November. Is the invitation still in order? I am an avid reader of your column; particularly love the Downrigging One. You make C-Town ROCK. Your Mt. Vernon Ave neighbor, Pam

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