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Embark on the D.C. Commute: A 100-Mile Sail Up the Potomac River to Washington

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We called it the “D.C. Commute,” a knock-off name for our 100-mile cruise up the Potomac River to the Nation’s Capital. From the 12 mile wide mouth of the river to the D.C. basin anchorage took our small fleet of sailboats about five days.

A River Divided: Three Sections of the Potomac

The Potomac is best considered in three parts: the entrance with often challenging weather and wave conditions; the undeveloped middle section; and the Washington, D.C. urban environment.

The wind in the river is fickle, so prepare for a lot of motoring. As you progress up the river, the landscape is surprisingly rural with very few marinas and services until you get to Washington, D.C. It’s best in the late spring or early summer, before the famous heat sets in.

Photo by Vicki Lathom and Jim Davis
Photo by Vicki Lathom and Jim Davis

Sample Itinerary: Your Route to Adventure

The first good anchorage is in the Coan River, which has lots of crab pots and is mostly rural. After a peaceful night, take a day trip to Colonial Beach, a classic Chesapeake Bay beach town and a popular and convenient destination for local vacationers.

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The Colonial Beach Yacht Center, right inside the entrance, has transient slips, fuel and a good restaurant on site. This is one of the few chances on this trip to tie up and get services. Also be prepared for a very strong current as you try to dock.

From Colonial Beach, skirt the edge of the Navy’s Dahlgren weapons testing area. Since they are active weekdays, cruisers should call Dahlgren Range Control on VHF 16 for instructions. The earlier you leave Colonial Beach, the less likely you’ll have to deal with the testing activities.

Mattawoman Creek, with a state park, some facilities and a nice anchorage in good depths, is the next destination for overnight.

Next you pass Mount Vernon, almost surreal because most people have only seen pictures of it in history books. Sailing by June 9 – 12, you will see either at Mt. Vernon or Alexandria, the replica of General Lafayette’s 18th century ship, Hermoine, currently on an ambassadorial tour.

Photo by Vicki Lathom and Jim Davis
Mount Vernon – Photo by Vicki Lathom and Jim Davis

The Ultimate Destination: Washington D.C.

The southwest waterfront is undergoing a $2 billion redevelopment project,to be completed in 2017. Called The Wharf, the project will make the southwest waterfront an urban destination, mixing marine activity, businesses and housing.

During construction, the Channel anchorage is busy with barges and under the helicopter path to the White House and Pentagon – overall a scene quite different from the lazy 100-mile trip from the mouth of the Potomac. It is still a place to be visited at least once in a lifetime. Anchoring in the shadow of the Washington Monument is a humbling and exhilarating experience.

As a result of the reconstruction, docks jut a little further into the anchorage area, narrowing it, but leaving room for about 16 boats. You may need two anchors, since the depth is 20 feet to a soft bottom.

The Capital Yacht Club is a great base of operations. It has moved down the channel and taken up temporary residence at the location of the Old Channel Inn. The club offers a warm reception to transients, with a clubhouse and bar, a galley providing complimentary coffee, a new bath house and large laundry room. Cruisers can drop anchor and use the dinghy dock for $16 a day or take a transient slip at one of the 98 new floating concrete slips for $2.50/ft. per day, plus electric hookup and complementary pump out.

Gangplank Marina next door has about six transient slips. If you anchor, use of the dinghy dock is $10 day.

Within walking or bicycle distance there are Safeway, CVS drugstore and several restaurants. The D.C. Metro or new UBER service is also available for transport to all the National Capital’s famous sites, including the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian, the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall and Capitol Hill. This is truly why boaters make this journey.

Definitely make reservations for any slips. This is a popular destination with many local boats already docked here. No one wants to go 100 miles to find no room at the inn.

James Creek Marina on the Anacostia is a good location to refuel before heading back down the Potomac.

The return trip is usually a bit faster, because the river’s ebb current is much stronger than the flood. A good next anchorage is the Port Tobacco River. From there, it’s an easy run to Cobb Island at the entrance of the Wicomico where you can visit Captain John’s Restaurant in the marina, serving all you can eat crabs and seafood.

Next day, visit Leonardtown on Breton Bay and the Morris Point Restaurant on Clement’s Bay, and tie up overnight for free if you dine there. Or, choose St. Mary’s or Smith Creek-Jutland Creek, an hour further, with a narrow channel which should never be attempted after sundown, especially in heavy weather.

Photo by Vicki Lathom and Jim Davis
Photo by Vicki Lathom and Jim Davis

The Journey Beats the Destination

The D.C. Commute is a unique voyage that offers an escape from the conventional commute by car. It’s a trip that truly combines adventure with the exploration of America’s historic and political heartland.

For those interested in taking on this unique journey, reservations are strongly advised due to the area’s popularity.

This article offers a peek into the beauty, serenity, and excitement of navigating the Potomac River up to Washington D.C. So why drive when you can sail?

Also see: God Gave Sailors Wind, Satan gave them 12 Volts D.C.

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Vicki Lathom
Vicki Lathom
Vicki lives in Annapolis, MD, where she and partner, Barry Miller, cruise the Chesapeake and the Intercoastal Waterway to the Bahamas or Florida. They cruise in a 36-foot Albine Express trawler named, Balboita.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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