Drifting for Drinks: The Boat-In Bars of Furnace Branch Make for a Fine Day’s Outing

by Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 18, 2011

Arriving at a bar by boat seems to make the subsequent drink more rewarding. The adventure of getting there, of steering a vessel according to the liberal rules of the road that boaters get to enjoy, of having the sky above and the water below as you glide across the surface, soaking in the sights along the shore—somehow, enjoying these freedoms, though they are their own reward, calls for a toast. You worked for it, even if the work itself was really recreation.

Baltimore City’s waterfront has opportunities for this: a few, select places where you can tie up your boat, disembark, try to pay the harbor master, and head for the closest watering hole. You can go for a boat-in drink at, say, the Inner Harbor’s Rusty Scupper, Harborview’s Tiki Barge, or Bo Brooks and the Bay Café in Canton. But if you’re departing from the Patapsco River’s Northwest Branch—the harbor’s geographic name—these don’t really qualify as destinations. To get to them, you don’t even leave the harbor and its 6 mph, no-wake speed limit inside Fort McHenry.

Beyond the harbor, you can dock to get a drink at Nick’s Fish House and Grill, next to the Hanover Street Bridge on the Patapsco’s Middle Branch. It’s a dandy place to boat to, with a mile or two of fast boating along the way, but it’s not quite enough of a voyage to feel you’ve earned much reward. You’re still in the city, and all you’ve done to get there is hug the Locust Point shoreline.

To claim a trophy drink, you need to go some distance. You need to head out over open, unrestricted waters, get a little wet at a high rate of speed. You need to build your thirst, see some new sights, gain your sea legs.

Some local old salts who know the lay of the land suggested this: Glen Burnie’s Furnace Branch, about eight miles over water from Fells Point. Along its sandy shore, there’s a biker bar called Reckless Ric’s, in a neighborhood known as Point Pleasant. There, you can dock your boat, take a table perched on sand among palm trees, have your drinks and grub brought to you by barely clad waitresses while you listen to 98Rock-style jukebox music, and look out over the water you came in over.

If that sounds like a worthy outing, rustle up some friends, board a willing vessel, and head out of the harbor past Fort McHenry. Keep to the Patapsco’s south shore, giving the industrial peninsula of Fairfield a wide berth until you reach the mouth of Curtis Bay, just shy of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Hawkins Point, with the W.R. Grace and Co. chemical plant and the Quarantine Road Landfill, looms in the background.

As you go upstream, Curtis Bay gives way to Curtis Creek. Along the way, remaining vestiges of Baltimore’s industrial past still show some muscle, though its ghosts—partially submerged wooden barges and an old tugboat, rotting slowly in the shallows—also haunt the scene. Further along, the very active U.S. Coast Guard’s Curtis Bay Yard comes into view, across the creek from the old U.S. Army Depot, largely abandoned as authorities try to clean up its contamination.

Here, where Curtis Creek forks to become Marley Creek and Furnace Branch, the industrial shoreline gives way to woodlands and, on the Point Pleasant peninsula, a special kind of suburbia where nearly everyone’s backyard has a dock. And here, along Furnace Branch, is where you’ll find Reckless Ric’s dock, with enough room for maybe six small boats.

If you enter Reckless Ric’s the way most people do—from its parking lot, generally packed with motorcycles and muscle cars—it seems like just another biker bar. But if you enter from its dock, you can pretend you’re in Key West. Next door is an old-fashioned, family-style joint called Duke’s Tavern, with its own dock (in disrepair during a recent visit) and, rather than palm trees and sand, a giant oak tree and a grass lawn with a horseshoe pit and picnic tables.

After hitting Reckless Ric’s and Duke’s, you can re-dock downstream at the Point Pleasant Beach Tavern, maybe shoot some pool and get one more for the road—or the river. You’ve earned it.

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