THEY'RE GAME Boat trip to the bllpark wasn't all smooth sailing, but bay commuters are eager to take another swing at it

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Trevor was worried. When the 11-year-old from the Eastern Shore heard we were going to Baltimore, he thought he would have to wear a coat and tie. Fear not, we told him: We're only going to a ballgame, and besides, we're going by boat. Trevor brightened, and the glorious day approached.

What better way to visit Oriole Park at Camden Yards from Kent County than to go by water? Almost a beeline from the mouth of the Patapsco River, we are some 40 miles from the Inner Harbor (and a dreary 70 highway miles).

With the opening of the new ballpark right near Baltimore's revitalized waterfront, we would have the wonderful opportunity to indulge in two of America's summer passions -- boating and big-league baseball -- in a single day. We'd take the speedboat, a 22-foot Mako that heretofore had only towed small skiers around languid Langford Creek. We'd test the Mako, with its twin 70-horsepower outboards, and, in a way, we'd test ourselves.

We decided to travel light. There was no radio, certainly no head; we hadn't an awning, nor a compass we could trust. We did have a nifty, new portable telephone, which would come in handy. We would be in an open boat on the open bay. An unspoken worry of Ralph (our skipper and Trevor's dad) and me was the Chesapeake's propensity to throw up sudden, violent thunderstorms on a summer afternoon.

But we had tickets awaiting us, and the Inner Harbor dockmaster's assurance of space on a weekday (first-come, first-served), at a finger pier, or, better still, on the west sea wall beside the promenade. From there, it would be just a 10-minute walk to the stadium. We'd saunter up Conway Street to Camden Yards for one of the few weekday afternoon games (my favorite time to see a game). And we'd be home by supper. Or so we thought.

We set out at around 8:30 a.m. We wanted to give ourselves plenty of time before the 12:15 game, for the unexpected, or for exploring a little bit of an unfamiliar urban harbor.

The morning broke hazy and hot; at last, a typical bay day. We raced down the east fork of Langford Creek between trot liners and river-edge farms, and shortly joined the Chester River, where we soared along at 25 knots, our tandem engines almost synchronous.

In half an hour, at Love Point, we entered the bay. Not a breeze stirred the heavy haze; the bay was an eerily still millpond. With low visibility, we ran up the Eastern Neck shore. I held the charts on my knees, reading minuscule buoy numbers as we bounced along. Buoys made sudden appearances. I longed for binoculars, another item left behind. Trevor sat quietly on the bow and peered through the haze. Ralph had counted on just following the smudge to Baltimore (a navigational aid that had never before failed him), but today's haze was so thick it even obscured the smog. Our compass was harebrained, erratic. At Tolchester Beach, above Rock Hall (having overshot somewhat our more direct route), we veered to port. The sun fell between our shoulder blades. We headed west.

At 9:50, off North Point, at the mouth of the Patapsco, I smelled Baltimore. We chugged up the Brewerton Channel, an empty Monrovian tanker the only other traffic. We passed Sparrows Point, and lonely, vacant Fort Carroll. Under the Key Bridge, some six miles from the Inner Harbor, we still couldn't see the skyline. But we were there. An Army Corps of Engineers craft plowed the river's surface for litter. By 10:15, we reached Fort McHenry. The haze began to lift, and the sun burned with an ominous intensity.

We refueled upon our arrival, at a marina on the south side of the harbor, then puttered (at 6 knots) in to the West Wall, where, under the watchful eye of Joanne Aiello-Ditch, the dockmaster, we sidled up to the promenade. We paid our $5 fee (for four hours), and learned that we were among a handful of boaters that had come just for the game.

Astern was a powerful 30-footer that had made it from Cambridge in two hours (or so its four-man crew boasted). Two women had trundled up in a tiny speedboat from Gibson Island. We joined the swarm (my assumption about a small weekday crowd was way off) marching up Conway Street. It was just noon, and an oppressive 91 degrees. This was thunderstorm weather, but Trevor wasn't worried. The awesome Camden Yards stood before us.

It was my first look at the new park. Ralph had described it as breathtaking, and he hadn't exaggerated. This monumental structure, nestled in the heart of the city, opened up to a greensward of such intimacy and, well, felicity, that you felt it had always been there, that the city had grown up around this vibrant green heart.

From our seats behind home plate (just under the press box) we saw unimpeded the asymmetrical field, with its tight foul lines, irregular fences and beautiful checkerboard grass. We saw the ornate clock and those crazy oriole weather vanes, motionless in the torpid afternoon. And marvel of marvels, we saw plenty of sky. For what is baseball, after all, but a game of the air? We were in a park that matched hand-in-glove the exhilaration of the sport. It took my breath away.

We saw a great game. Billy Ripken got four hits in the Orioles' 7-4 victory over the not-unimpressive Brewers. Fans held signs urging "Sign, Cal!" Trevor was galvanized through the heat and haze. Ralph and I kept an eye on all that sky. At 3, the big aluminum birds started whirling. The sky turned black. A lightning bolt descended somewhere past center field. The stadium lights went on. It was the top of the ninth. We headed back for the boat, and the sky opened in torrents.

Those bay storms. We thought we'd sit it out, over crab soup at Harborplace. We had plenty of time to make our crossing while it was still light. Ralph called Chestertown on his portable phone. The storm had not yet reached the shore. We would wait a little longer. By 5 the weather had lightened. There was still a drizzle, but we had rain gear (and the beach towels dispensed to all who entered the stadium that afternoon). We decided to depart.

Past Fort McHenry, and Dundalk. The wind kicked up east-northeast and there were seas. Our plastic boat pounded hard against 4-foot waves and what became a biting rain. Trevor bounced all over the boat; Ralph and I gritted our teeth. The storm had apparently stalled over the bay. Lightning fractured the sky. The only marine traffic was hurrying to harbor.

"If it were just myself," Ralph said, "I'd do it. But I've got you and Trevor. Let's find a place to put in for the night."

I struggled with the chart in the opaque afternoon while lightning danced around us. South of the Key Bridge, we found a cove, Stoney Creek, and under its drawbridge, a little marina. Calm waters, safe harbor. But we didn't know, precisely, where we were. Ah, the limitations of nautical charts!

After what seemed like hours of questions, we learned that we were not far from Ritchie Highway. Civilization! We called a taxi company, and we three Eastern Shoremen soon were ensconced for the night in a hotel in Glen Burnie. A novelty. We took an elevator (another novelty), ordered room service and a movie. We dried our clothes on the hotel's heat unit. It's funny, we didn't talk about the game at all. The bay had upstaged Baltimore's finest summer attraction. But we were safe and snug.

The following day was beautiful, so clear that from the mouth of Stoney Creek we could finally see the Baltimore skyline. We had the sun in our faces and a brisk northeast blow when we left the Patapsco and rolled toward Love Point. It was easier, somehow, going home. Our crazy compass was immaterial. We could see everything: The buoys with their tiny numbers, the Bay Bridge, Kent Narrows, the lamentable condos.

We had left Stoney Creek at 9:30; one hour later, with Ralph expertly negotiating the thicket of crab pots, we were in the Chester River. The mimosas were in bloom. Farms unfolded to the water's edge. The chop diminished as we headed north up the Chester to Langford Creek. A sharp whistle brought Kramer, our retriever, bounding down to the dock to greet us.

By noon, Trevor was on his bike, heading for his job cutting grass. Ralph and I asked ourselves, would we do it again? There are so few weekday games . . . we wouldn't have to go until next year. So yes, I think we would. We might next time take binoculars, and some kind of rain cover for the boat. A lightning rod, perhaps. But didn't we have it all, the summer bay in its glory and ferocity; the friendly, accessible Inner Harbor, and the fabulous Camden Yards? Yes, we'd do it again.

But wait: Shouldn't we ask Trevor?

LAURA FORTENBAUGH is a free-lance writer from Oxford.

BEFORE YOU TAKE TO THE WATER . . .

Yachtsmen have one more chance this season to see a weekday afternoon baseball game at Camden Yards -- Aug. 20 at 12:15. The Orioles vs. the Seattle Mariners. Call the Orioles' ticket office at (410) 685-9800 or the Ticketmaster outlet in your area. At press time, roughly 1,000 seats were still available. Of course, night games are an option for boaters already holding tickets or those willing to accept the few remaining tickets for scattered seats. (You might want to make a hotel reservation in the city in case of foul weather.)

There are a number of mooring options in the Inner Harbor. We used the city facility, which charges $5 for four hours before 6 p.m., or $1 per foot per night (anchorage is free). Call the dockmaster's office at (410) 396-3174, or use your radio: VHF Channel 68.

There has been talk about special baseball rates at some of the marinas. Here are two you might try: Inner Harbor Marina, (410) 837-5339, or Harbor View Marina, (410) 752-1122. Once ashore, pick up a free publication called "Baltimore by Boat"; it's available at the marinas, the city visitor's center, the dockmaster's office, and the information kiosks at the Inner Harbor.

If the idea of boating to the ballpark appeals but you have no boat, consider taking the Chesapeake Flyer, the commuting catamaran that makes frequent trips to the Inner Harbor from Rock Hall. Call (800) 473-3779 for more information.

--Laura Fortenbaugh

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