Ho-Hum, then Blammo!

We started the morning off perfectly with percolated coffee in the Bohemia River.  Got the last blog post written and stowed everything.  In the last blog post, I forgot to say that I went swimming the night before – fresh water baths are rare and precious.

Hauled the anchor, laying the line out so that I could clean it before sending it into the anchor locker.  It was pretty muddy, so I felt good about that.

We motored out of the Bohemia River and up the Elk River to the C&D Canal.  There was very little traffic because of the weather system that was blowing in.  The one we were to wish we had avoided.  Some great bridges, though.

We did get to see a great big Japanese cargo ship, passing port to port in the very tight quarters.

Several fishing boats sent their wakes at us as they passed, all going the same direction – Chesapeake to Delaware.

We made the Delaware Bay by 1pm and talked about our options.  We could duck in between the peninsula and Reedy Island.  It wouldn’t protect us from wind at all and the chop was coming from the south, so we wouldn’t get much protection there.  People said it was good holding, but that sounded rather nerve wracking.  Besides, it was only 1:30!

The other option was the Cohansey River on the northeast shore of the Delaware Bay, right before the bay opens up.  A tricky entrance and a winding river, but plenty of depth inside and good holding.  Since it was winding, we hoped to find shelter from the wind.  We were sure there would be shelter from the chop.

We were motoring at 6+ knots and it looked like, “at this pace,” we could make the Cohansey in only an  hour.  That would get us in before the big weather started, so…

We raised the main and started hauling down the bay, motorsailing at 7.2 knots. Nice!

That big weather we were talking about?  That was what was left of Tropical Storm Beryl.  She fizzled out officially, but her remains were headed our way.  The weather files – GRIB files – said we wouldn’t get a lot of wind from her but that it would rain heavily all night.

They lied.  That’s why we now call them FIB files.

As soon as we came clear of the first point south of the island – a point that sports a nuclear power plant – the wind started picking up.  So did the size of the waves.

Our 7.2 knots turned into 2.1 knots every time we hit a wave square on.  The seas were confused enough that being set up to ride over most waves still left us with the occasional on-the-bow monster.  It was a growling chop, barreling straight up the bay from the ocean.

The currents were heading out and the wind was heading in, so the opposing forces caused the seas to break violently.  Looking at the Beaufort Scale, we were beating against 30+ knots of wind.  (The FIB files called for 5-10.)  Why use the low tech Beaufort Scale?  Why, because our $139.99 handheld wind speed meter crapped out!

We had decided to do 2 hour watches, since we wouldn’t be doing any overnight shifts.  James started us down the bay, but I took over just about the time we hit the big stuff.  Boy howdy, was I loving the hard dodger!  I needed to be on the upwind side to keep an eye on the waves, though the Navico tiller pilot was in charge of steering.  I had to be ready to pop it off and hand steer for any big odd sets.  Didn’t have to do too much of that, but I spent an inordinate amount of time ducking behind the dodger.  Each wave that hit would send up a spray that the wind would carry back to the cockpit.  We always knew it would be a bit of a wet ride…and we were right.

By the time I (James) took the helm, the tiller pilot wasn’t really working that well.  It’s a decent piece of equipment, but it’s definitely not built for the kind of seas that had built up around us.  I remember every set, a perfect curl as the wind blew the top right off.  That was not registered in seconds.  Ocean waves come in sets that are defined in seconds that a person can comprehend and prepare for, if only psychologically.  But these were all around us all the time.  They were definitely passing by us but the waves seemed to be violent flickering tongues of fire.  Only it was cold.

We were geared up and had the right clothing.  The water Is 20 degrees warmer than we got used to on the Pacific Coast.  But when you get soaked to the bone and the wind Is blowing 30 knots, you’re cold!

Second system failure.  The pounding waves and punishing winds had the effect of slipping one of the slip knots holding the solar panel on top of the overturned dinghy, which we store on the bow.  The wind sent it sideways, bouncing on the dinghy, slapping it with the braces we built of Azek.  Dena noticed immediately and informed me that the solar panel had broken free and she was going forward.  She released her tether from the ring in the cockpit and headed forward on the leeward side.

My (Dena’s) handholds were solid and the stanchions and lifelines we worked so hard on kept me on deck.  I clipped onto a stanchion base and struggled to get the second windward line loose.  When it came, I managed the fall so that it lay against the stanchions, held there by the wind.  This is a 65 watt solar panel of an era when that meant huge.  It’s not heavy, but it’s truly unwieldy.

Within moments of clipping in, the boat dived in a trough and sliced into the next wave.  In an instant, I was inundated.  This drenching had the strangest effect of putting me into a calm and accepting frame of mind.  I focused on the task.

In that mindspace, I yelled back to James that we needed to tack, to put the wind on the side of the solar panel that was still attached.  I would shove it into place, the wind would hold it there, and I would reattach the port side.

And that’s what we did.

It was calm and competent on both our parts.  I crawled when I couldn’t walk and knelt when I couldn’t stand.  I used my shoulders and knees as braces to free my hands for making knots in the tiny little high-tech Amsteel lines.  They’re super strong but slippery and need very stable knots.

Back to the cockpit.  Job done.  And by the way, thumbs up on the Tevas.

Watching her from the cockpit perform another act of profound heroism and driving the boat in a growling chop is not only humbling, to say the least, it was beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

I (James) brought us to the Cohansey River entrance after 2 hours of crab walking.  I carefully wove through the waves, using the leeward drift to bring us north while heading almost directly east.  The reason that maneuver was so dramatic was because between the outer bay and the entrance to the Cohansey, there’s the Dunks Bar, a 3 foot shoal that goes awash at low tide.  It is roughly 300 yards north of the entrance proper.  It was nerve wracking because it took 30 minutes to get around that bar moving between 0.9 and 1.5 knots against a howling wind.  Another 10 knots of wind would have pushed us right onto that shoal.

As soon as we made the bar, the clock struck end of watch and I (Dena) took the helm.  James was hammered and I was glad to take over to drive into the river itself.  I had stretched my muscles and worked on relaxing so that I would be physically prepared.  I had studied James’ technique in managing the waves.  I was ready.

We had the good luck of following a fishing boat into the river.  Though the Active Captain review says stay within 10 feet of the green marker, he swung wide and I followed suit.  James called off our depths so I could keep an eye on the land and water.  The lowest it got was about 11 feet.  As soon as we were through the bar at the entrance, it opened up to 20-35 feet all along the river.  I couldn’t throttle back the engine, because the terrain is flat and gives no protection from wind.  At least the water was flat.  We sped up the river through 5 curves before settling behind a lonely stand of trees in 15 feet of water.  James dropped the anchor, the wind blew us backward to set it, and he let out a bunch of rode.

Whew.

More or less safe, we unwound slowly.  The tension wasn’t fast to dissipate, but the anchor held and the bridle went on the rode.  We toasted our safe landfall with a bit of Glenfiddich, made a meal, and watched X-Files.  Normal life.

Rain started to fall and became a torrent.  That tropical water hit us hard, but we were snug.  Everything in the boat felt a bit damp from humidity, but that’s boat life for you.

By the end of dinner (and the episode), we were almost asleep.  It was 8pm.  I set an alarm for the change of current and we went to bed.

When the current – up to 2 knots in here – swung around, I woke and babysat the swing.  A few odd noises were investigated and silenced and I read from J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K.  What a laborious life and what strange times.  It made me feel, even exhausted and watching our anchor in the middle of the night, like the privileged person I am.  I love this life.

I slept on the settee, starting awake at any sound that might presage the anchor dragging or the rode being caught on something.  All was well, though, and at 4am, I woke James to take the next anchor watch.

I (James) knocked around down below for a few minutes before going on deck to check the anchor. The wind was still blustery out of the North West but the in-coming tide had swung us to shore, I mean about 3 feet from the grass line and I heard a little grass rubbing the bottom. Just in case I had to start the engine I woke Dena then went back out to pull some rode in on the anchor. That pulled us off the weeds and settled us back in on our ground tackle. We held firm on our 22lb. Bruce anchor with about 60 feet of rode still paid out.

As the sun turned the sky the vibrant colors of the pre-dawn morning a single Bald Eagle landed on an old dead branch leaning out over the water. All I could do was bask in that moment and that was enough, for that moment.

Hand-ground, percolated coffee in hand, we’re enjoying a long, relaxing morning.  We can’t leave until the incoming current slows, so it seemed like a good idea to write this all down.  We don’t have internet, so you’ll be reading this at least a day later, but we have another big day ahead of us and it seemed best to get the details down before we headed out.  Strange how even a brutal ride like yesterday’s can fade after a fabulous day of downwind sailing with the outgoing tide…

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4 comments

  1. And you guys are so hard core I’m sure you actually slept when off watch. More adventures added to the growing list relating to a life well spent—and everyone else says, “I’ve thought about doing that, living that way, sailing into the sunset, sunrise”, but they don’t do it.
    dean/dad

  2. Thrilling. Terrifying. It would be a grand adventure story, so well told, except that I’m so nervous for you! Amazing, what you can do. Amazing.

  3. Kate, I reread this piece while underway the following day and even I was freaked out by it… I mean we were both still in the storm while writing about it like we were just hanging out at the dock in Fells Point. It must be true that the best inspiration is a profound event.

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