I (James) have said to quite a few people in my life that the reason I truly love to live this way, this sailing around the world in a fifty year old boat way, is, it is everything. It is the quintessential moment of beauty in a following sea at sunset and in the same breath it is the feeling of absolute powerlessness when confronted with a lighting storm at sea.
We were clipping along perfectly fine, raising Atlantic City for most of the morning doing between 5.5 and 6.1 knots on a broad reach in slicing seas that felt like long, slow radar reflections coming off the shore that was only 2.5 to 3 nautical miles to our port-side beam. After sailing in the Pacific Northwest, where the weather only comes from the Pacific Ocean so you never, I mean fucking never, sail on a lee shore, this took some getting used to. The sun was hot, the clothes were few, and the sailing was perfect… Then the wind died and we started the fucking diesel.
We had sailed so well up to that point. Right outside the Cape May Inlet, we put up the sails. So when you see “fucking diesel,” as you did above, please know that we appreciate and hate/adore that fucking engine. But starting it up only 6 hours into the trip…not best case.
We didn’t strike the main because the motorsailing was smoother. The main gave us a little heel, which makes for a longer waterline and faster top speed. It also gives us a bit of lift over the waves, making the action a comfortable glide rather than a bounce or jiggle. That only lasted about 45 minutes, though, before the wind came up again and we shut down the engine.
Several hours later, about ten minutes before I (Dena) took the helm for my 2 hour watch, James hollered down. “We got a squall coming, with lightning!” We discussed turning off all electronics and decided we needed to know how far offshore we were more than the security of protecting them in case of lightning strike. How likely was that, anyway? (Gulp.)
He was watching on the radar as the storm advanced from New Jersey. There were multiple systems marching across the sky. They were moving fast, so we could hope for quick passage. On the other hand, wonder what kind of winds they’ll bring?
Well, we found out almost immediately. Before I was fully geared up to join James in the cockpit, it started raining little hard drops. Within moments, winds buffeted the boat and torrents blew across the suddenly choppy water. James turned away from the action, managing helm and mainsail in the excitement. I joined him in the cockpit, but huddled under the hard dodger. I didn’t want to get soaked if I could help it – I would be out there for another 2 hours, while James was about to head below deck.
After exchanging our mandatory shift-change kiss, James disappeared, shivering, into the boat. I settled on the upwind side so I could keep a weather eye on the wave action. The boat was struggling through the chop and I wanted more control, so I pushed the throttle a little farther forward than ever before. That gave me roughly 2.5 knots – enough to give the rudder something to bite into.
The rain modulated between downpour and a hard, sparse rain that felt like pebbles on my face. I discovered almost immediately that my 6 year old rain pants for biking had given up any pretense of shedding water. The sweat pants under them and the thermal underwear below that were both soaked all the way through in the first few moments of my watch. At least my jacket worked as advertised. It’s only 2 years old.
I learned that my ass would warm my pants and thus a section of cockpit cushion but that moving meant giving up that heat. Standing became something I did grudgingly, but with the rain filling the radar screen, I was on visual watch for other boats.
And boy, was it a busy day for the Coast Guard radio operator.
Channel 16, the hailing and distress frequency on marine band VHF, was rocking with the hits. (That’s James’.) Non-stop entertainment for us. The distress calls started early in the morning in fabulous weather, with mostly fishing boats going aground. They often hailed SeaTow. As the storm hit, a series of frightened “small-boat enthusiasts” called the Coasties for information about the size of the storm cell. We shook our heads as one special soul proceeded to reveal his ignorance to the world on the VHF radio by asking the CG radio operator how to drive his boat into a narrow inlet while in treacherous seas (with his family aboard and without PFDs, otherwise known as life-jackets, as he openly told the CG guy). I’m telling you – pure entertainment.
Once we were in the thick of it, his panic made more sense. If he was a twice-a-year boater in a very small vessel (without life jackets!?!), I’m glad he was scared. That means he wasn’t totally stupid.
I (Dena) was scared alert, the only useful way to respond to being at the helm of a bucking vessel in explosive seas with wind just forward of the beam. Hand-driving parts of my shift, when the tiller pilot couldn’t keep up, wore me out but warmed me up a little. I was willing to tack closer to and farther from shore, if it would help keep the wind and waves at favorable angles, but the only good course turned out to be right up our planned route. A more-or-less straight line is what I navigated, keeping the Jersey shore near the 3-mile ring on the radar screen.
More-or-less straight because the wind varied a bit and the main needed to be tended. Letting the main out farther gives less pressure to come up into the wind, while pulling it in gives an extra push. This, combined with the actual tiller, is how I steered. Waves pushing me off to lee? Pull in the main a little. Wind farther back now? Let it out a bit.
It’s quite the dance, and one of my great joys in life. In storm conditions, it’s essential. A too-tight main could result in a knock-down, which would be no laughing matter in seas that would pound us and try to keep the weight of the keel from righting us.
When I didn’t see James stirring below, I yelled down to give him a ten-minute warning that his shift was approaching. I didn’t hold out much hope that I’d actually dry out on my off shift, but I was looking forward to trying.
Barnegat Inlet seemed to be the epicenter of all the severe natural activity for the day and just before I (James) dragged my drenched meat below decks to enjoy some absolutely unconscious down time I remembered that I was actually entertaining the idea of stopping there for the night. I’m glad we didn’t. The storms were moving over the inlet in massive cells that were punctuated by breathless vistas of high pressure between them. A cell would hit and the boat would shudder and surge and just before I faded off into my one hour of glorious un-sleep the rain hit like gravel on a tin roof.
I woke to Dena’s voice telling me that I was on watch in ten minutes. I donned my still very wet, but now very cold light-foul weather gear and stepped out on deck to a kiss and a full moon peering out of the last of our storms that night. I eased some jib out, got my heel on and we picked up to 6.1 knots. By the end of that watch I had resigned myself to breaking out my Mustang Survival suit and when I went to mention my idea to Dena, she was already dressed in hers.
Bacon Sails wasn’t the everything mecca we had hoped for, but we made some great scores there. The “gumby” suits have positive floatation built in, are insulated for heat, and mine has a built-in harness. All this padding is great on a level unrelated to weather – no bruising! We bounce right off corners in those suits.
Anyway, I (Dena) came up for my shift to see the moon shining brightly over the aft port quarter. This and the suit cheered me up and I settled in (after the kiss) for my watch. The waves started out lively but things mellowed out over the course of those two hours.
By the way – those two hours were midnight to 2am.
My suit worked so well that I wasn’t aware of a light, momentary shower until I turned my face into it, looking for any boats nearby. The whole shift was easy work compared to the previous one. Still, the long day and evening wore at me and the somewhat-more-peaceful conditions made it harder to remain alert. I blinked hard, over and over, and stood, stretched, did my visual checks. Anything to keep from falling asleep. The most dangerous moments were sitting on the cockpit cushion, back against a stanchion, head back to check the main sail. It would have been a short step from there to dozing, but I shook it off each time. Literally.
James’ next shift was all about following the lights. He did the approach to the Sandy Point channel lights and watched the increasing traffic. I finished the approach and brought us into Horseshoe Cove, which is no longer shaped as such because its spit eroded away. It’s plenty of cover in a north wind, though (which we now have), and we were hook down and happy before 6am. It took no time to clean up above decks, since we were well stowed for weather anyway. Just coiled some lines to give ourselves time on the hook before we trusted it had a good hold. It did.
About 4 hours of sleep saw us warm, spooned tightly together in our v-berth. We woke slowly and didn’t rise until coffee sounded better than cuddling. A good meal of eggs, soysauge, and biscuits, and all is right in our world. Only 14.5 nautical miles south of the Brooklyn Bridge.
…You see, Everything!