…One Giant Leap
New London was the perfect place to duck in, provision up, and sit out a powerful fall nor’easter that blew up the river Thames like nothing we’d ever seen before!
Humbling is a good word for it. The winds were well in excess of 40 knots for the worst part of that three day weather event and on the second night the waves rolling up the Thames were as fearsome as any ocean growlers we’ve seen on this coast! It was incredible, then it was over, and we sailed away.
The weather window was just about as perfect as any late-fall Long Island Sound weather could get, so we opted for a straight shot west down the Sound with no stops before Port Washington.
There was nothing for me (James) to take pictures of really, just wide open flat water with a mirage of land on either side of us. Our course throughout the day was just as uneventful, it took us straight down the middle of the Sound using the mighty currents to blast us west as much as possible before they turned around and fouled the ride and of course, that happened after sundown.
By 0230 we were shagged off a ball in Port Washington, New York.
For me (James), overnight passages are truly an incredible experience, the ships that pass through the night and how the wildlife seems to flee and the way the world changes all around you as the sun’s light circumnavigates away from you… And the sounds of the wind rising and dying through the rig hypnotized me into the rhythm of the world. Up and down, in and out, breathing without the fear of moving a 6 ton vessel through blackness.
We slept and ate good food and once again, got underway.
New York City
The next day we were out with the rising wind and tide. They flush you through the big city with an intensity that is so different every time that we’d be selling the experience short not to give a second by second report. We’ll try…
We made Hell Gate by 1500 at 8.5 knots with a fair current that blasted us down the East River just in time for the big “sunset at rush-hour in the Battery” event! And once again, the absolute sensory overload of the tip of the largest city in the U.S. at the end of its day is impossible to convey, you just have to feel it for yourself.
There were at least 6 Coast Guard inflatable gun boats with flashing blue lights a blarin’ taking the up-river end of the gauntlet and 3 of the NYPD’s version of the same barricading the river between the Battery and Governors Island. The helicopter traffic was non-stop in and out and the ferries all seemed to converge at the very same time right as we arrived for the party while the setting sun blinded us in the very direction of the chaos… And then, it was over, just like that, it looked like this…
…Off the stern, and this off the bow!
We ducked in behind the “Lady” for a couple of days taking care of our business stuff but really we’ve always loved to anchor behind the Statue of Liberty. A guy said to me the first time we anchored there, “Look where we are, it’s amazing!” And he was right, it’s a very cool place to anchor.
Our mailbox is in Jersey City and I (Dena) talked my publisher into donating 50 books to the LGBTQ community centers of my choice, but I forgot that I’d still need to sign, wrap, and send them myself. Whew. Between James and I, we got it half-done in a flurry of activity.
As cool as it is, it’s still a five mile round-trip walk to the train station. We gave Jersey City and the Lady two days before weighing anchor and sailing to Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn.
Sinclair Sexsmith has a new book out, Sweet and Rough, a collection of kinky, sexy short stories, and they invited me to be a part of their book release party at Bluestockings Books in the Lower East Side. I broke my reading cherry there in 2012 and have a real fondness for their collective, radical purpose. I had them in the palm of my hand, mwah-ha-ha!
That weekend, I volunteered at and attended BinderCon, where I met some great writers while itching to get going. We didn’t get to jet immediately, because there was a serious and enduring storm right after Bindercon was over. Whatever – a few extra days in NYC? We even used one of our “Big Weather” days to sneak in a few hours at the Met.
Our friend Garth is the first-chair horn player for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and was quite surprised by our nothing-less-than-intense reply to his offer for free tickets. They performed Beethoven’s Ninth with the Westminster Choral!
It was breathtaking!
It rained for most of the time we were in the City so on the days there wasn’t a bunch of cool-free-shit to do, I (James) mostly hung out on the boat. While Dena volunteered and went out and edited her second draft of Lysistrata Cove, I tried to make my way through Neil Stephenson’s 3000 page epic, the Baroque Cycle.
Yeah, yeah, New York City is great but by the time we’d been there for ten days we were both gnawing at the bit to get underway.
A Night Sea Journey
The 119 nautical miles from Sheepshead Bay, NY, to Cape May, NJ, is about as straight of a line as you can get being under sail. If you pick your weather window right you can take the prevailing westerlies all the way down, maintaining a comfortable 2 miles off the beach. We’ve done it now three times, twice on our boat (once up and once down) and once with the Schooner Mystic Whaler. We know the route well, you follow the Jersey Shore of the Atlantic Ocean south and in about 30 hours you’re there. But between drawing that line and the end of your 30 hour adventure, there’s the sailing in the Atlantic Ocean part, wow!
We motor-sailed for the first couple of hours but after clearing the New York Harbor entrance the winds and currents faired up so the yards went aloft and we sailed.
Staten Island Ferries don’t belong on the Atlantic Ocean – watching that thing come up on and pass us was eerie, even after I saw the tug. Making up stories for where it was going was endlessly entertaining, though.
It really was that perfect sailing experience for about five hours but after the sun went down the winds died out just enough to have to kick the engine back on. As much as we hate to start the “Iron Jib” it really was okay to me at that point. We had a long night of sailing ahead of us and not that much sunshine to fill our batteries over the previous ten days of dreary weather at anchor. The only problem we could see was the fact that we didn’t have enough fuel to make the entire trip. There was a real limit to the amount of motor-sailing we could do.
We did one hour watches during the day and switched to 3 hour watches for the overnight portion. James took the first big watch and I tried to sleep…failed. When I came up for my watch, we were at the safe limit of our motoring while maintaining a reserve to get us into Cape May. About midway through my watch, I jibed the main and reset the Monitor windvane. There was a light but workable wind, while the seas were a little too strong and confused from the previous storms.
We sailed the rest of the way under double reefed main and just a sliver of jib, perfect until the winds came up just after my (James) watch began. I kept thinking that I would have to do all this sail trim and Monitor adjustment while on my watch but Flow just drove the boat on Dena’s course at the perfect angle to the wind and waves all through the night at a steady clip ranging from 5.5 knots to well over 7 knots.
The only scary thing about the whole offshore thing was the possibility of broaching – sliding sideways to the following waves and being rolled. Flow, the Monitor, worked hard and never allowed that to be an imminent danger. At the end of my last watch, we released the Monitor and faired the boat to the following seas on a straight line to the Cape May jetties. I got a hail on the VHF radio, but I was too busy to answer and they didn’t call a second time. That’s when Dena took over.
I (Dena) started the engine and set up the tiller pilot. That sucker couldn’t handle the conditions, unlike Flow, our plucky Monitor. It seemed to want us to broach and I took over steering by hand. By the time we got to the crucial part of the approach, I’d already warmed up (and somewhat worked out) my arm, shoulder, and back muscles.
A Coast Guard inflatable gunboat came out of the channel as we got close, circled, and hovered a safe distance away, presumably to pull bodies out of the water if the whole maneuver went tits up. We ignored them.
We discussed the maneuver and then did it. Right as we passed the north jetty, James pulled the main in, against the wind. I revved up the engine to take a little pressure off the mainsheet and he got it well in before the wind picked up the boom and brought it and the sail over to the other side of the boat.
Then I was struggling to steer the boat in seas that were powerful, big, and complicated. The big waves we’d dealt with all night were hitting the jetty and curling around its end, so I had waves from behind, waves from the side, waves from ahead – basically, the boat bucked and soared and twisted like a bronc.
As the final big wave stabilized under our keel, it raised us above the jetties and we reached a speed of 12.7 knots, more than double our best speed under sail.
Just inside the jetties, with confused water still swirling but smaller, the Coast Guard boat roared up and past, then killed their momentum. “Should we pull them over?” “Nah. Those folks deserve a break after that heroic boat handling!” They sped up the channel without looking at us again.
We anchored safely, but not in a lee. Right, we’re in flatland again. Few cliffs, lots of sandy low land that breaks the waves but allows wind to howl right past. We made sure of the security of our anchor and slept. And slept.
Windblown but feeling better, we hauled the anchor and set off through the Cape May Canal. The fact that there’s a short little canal to get from the Atlantic Ocean to the Delaware Bay might hint at the common conditions at the bay’s entrance. Rough, rude, and dangerous.
We came out the other side in the protection of the cape and set the jib. With the wind off the starboard quarter, putting out only the jib gave us some lift and let us fly a bunch of canvas. Once again, Flow did a great job steering us up the bay, and this time, for the first time, the conditions thrilled us.
Enough wind to keep the sail filled taut, rolling waves (but from astern and not so uncomfortable a ride), and a peek-a-boo sun started us out at a spanking pace up the bay. We were about an hour and a half behind the max current, so we didn’t get too much boost, but it was exhilarating to move smoothly and powerfully through a body of water that has kicked our asses in the past.
The wind eased over the course of the afternoon, putting us in danger of hitting the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal after the tide turned around, so we started motor-sailing, hitting amazing speeds through the jib/engine combo. Once the sun went down, we were navigating by lights and found another occasion to be grateful for our Simrad chartplotter and VHF/AIS combo. Instead of thrusting ourselves into the path of an invisible 975′ cargo ship coming out of the canal, we knew they were coming and dawdled until they’d passed. We passed about 2/3 of the canal in the dark, reaching the anchorage in Chesapeake City around 2030 hours.
The entrance shoals to about 4 feet and we need more than that, so we took it carefully, circled around like sniffing dogs to find the best place to anchor in relation to the two other boats there, and settled in for the night.
Early the next morning, we got back underway. The rest of the canal was uneventful, and we were as glad to see open water as we were unhappy to see that old Chesapeake chop.
The coasts are well-settled, but mostly scenic.
We weren’t into pushing on to Baltimore in the dark, so we anchored in the cove outside Worton’s Creek. Protection from the three sides that the wind clocked around that night, and a fine, clear day to do the rest of this stage of our journey.
We’d debated the several anchorages in Baltimore and decided on the more-protected, less-expensive version. The Inner Harbor is hemmed in from most sides, but it’s $10 per day to go ashore in the dinghy. Canton is bigger and more open, with an explicitly free dinghy dock across the street from a Safeway, but it’s busy and we’ve seen that view too many times.
We put the boat in the angle where Fells Point meets Canton and we’re using the backside of the water taxi stop as a dinghy dock. It’s right on the Captain James Crab Shack – how could we resist? We feel invisible here, and that’s always our preference.
After anchoring, we put the boat to rights for a few days of staying put and doing projects, launched the dinghy (which rode on the bow for the ocean and Delaware Bay), and tried to cope with the idea of going ashore. It wasn’t warm, but it was sunny enough to have me pulling clothes on and off depending on the wind chill.
Being out for days on end changes a person. Everything about me (Dena) comes unstuck from land-concerns and I feel like I’m vibrating to a different song. Sometimes people ask why we do this, when it can be so hard and puts us contrary to the world around, but that’s easy. It’s because the song I hear underway is the one I want to live by. I want to be – I love being – the person I am while handling the sails and adjusting Flow and navigating obstacles or currents. I become the real me underway.
And then we arrive and we’re out of bread and we have plans and I want to sell some books. All of that means going ashore and mapping my vibration back onto the city-people vibe. There’s a physical component, the inner ear giving us land-sickness, making us feel like we’re lurching on solid land, but there’s also a profound mismatch of focus and attention that isn’t taken away, like land-sickness is, by a shot or two of rum.
James took an extra day to acclimatize, while I went out to a queer brunch that both highlighted how odd I felt and brought me back in good company. Kate is a great guide. Thanks, hon.