Thursday, July 23, 2015

Annapolis to Norfolk on the Chesapeake

When we last left our heroes, they were up a creek in Annapolis, MD having escaped the buzzing of the  Sailing Capitol of the U.S.A. After a peaceful night in Weems Creek, beyond the Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard Bridge, it was up and at 'em. Breakfast and coffee and hoist the anchor. This was, after all, a delivery, not a cruise. The sun languished in a purpley-pink sunrise as we got back into the bay.

We were in the middle part of the Chesapeake, between Annapolis and Norfolk. The winds were against us so we were motoring. Even more ships in this part of the bay, but with so much open water it seemed like less traffic. More annoying than the ships were the fisherman. It was the weekend and we figured that they were fishing for pleasure rather than scraping the bay for a living, though there were likely some working fishermen out there too.

I don't know if they were fishing Rock Fish or Stripers(striped bass) but all the boats were trailing
Wide Planer Board Trolling Rig
these annoying planer boards to spread out their trolling jigs. The planer boards ran out wide and behind like little toy boats. Trolling requires dragging at a particular, constant speed, back and forth over the shoals, shallows and depth contours. Apparently, the best contours are those that are right at the edge of the channel. So as we sallied our way south, fishing boats were lazily cutting in and out of the channel to cross and recross these magic spaces. As they concentrated on their specific, probably secret, speeds, depths and fishing spots, the fishermen got really uptight when we thought we had the right of way in the channel. One guy bellowed that he was going to report us for making him alter his route. At least, that's what it sounded like he said. We were a bit too far apart for communicating and the right of way was, in fact, ours.

Damn thing, anyway ...
Though we were motoring against the wind and not sailing, the sun was shining and the salt air, like a cool salve, soothed every spiritual cell and opened every dirty pore, sloughing away the crust of civilization. I stood on the back bench of the cockpit minding the autopilot and soaking up the universe. Every foot of boat and bowsprit spread out before me as I leaned and swayed with the rocking of the deck. It was as if I were on a forty two foot long paddleboard. We were working hard and traveling long miles each day getting Eleanor closer and closer to her new home, and yet it was so relaxing and soul enriching. I had struck this bargain, quit my job and joined this voyage exactly for moments like this. I've learned so much about sailing and about myself already that I can't imagine having not done this; having missed this … this right here.

We dodged the trolls, er I mean, the trolling fishermen and apparently didn't get reported. It was a great day of voyaging. Just beyond the mouth of the Potomac River, Alex had picked out an anchorage for us. We were using Active Captain in addition to perusing the charts both on OpenCPN and on the chartplotter. Off Fleeton Point in Virginia, it looked like enough water for us to cut behind the Great Wicomico River Light and up into Ingram Bay at the mouth of the river. All shortcuts being equally ill conceived, we were soon surrounded by crab pot buoys and had to jump to attention. One of us at the wheel and the other amidships keeping an eye out for buoys that mark where a trap for crab or fish had been dropped. Buoys float above the trap connected by wire rope. Running over a float means getting that wire rope dangerously close to the propeller and shaft. Wrapping any line around the prop and shaft can cause serious damage to the transmission. At the very least, the engine must be shut down and the rope cut away. This is bad enough with run-of-the-mill rope or fishing line, but the uncuttable wire rope would be a disaster.

Nevertheless, we made it through the maze and back into open water. At the mouth, the Great Wicomico River is a wide bay with several creeks on either side. Gradually, it narrows and turns hard to port where a large cove, like a burl on a tree branch, awaited us. Just past a nice park on the tip of yet another 'Sandy Point' and around the #9 day marker, we entered the quiet rounded cove and dropped anchor. Despite the million dollar vacation homes on the beach arcing around us, we each took a turn in the not-so-private cockpit for a bucket shower. We would make Norfolk easily the next day.

The next day was glorious as we made our way down the lower Chesapeake to the Thimble Shoals Light and turned into the Hampton Roads. It was a pleasure to pass another bridge I'd crossed a few
Thimble Shoals Light
times in a semi truck; this one with a twist. The Hampton Roads Tunnel is both a bridge and a tunnel. A long causeway leads to the tunnel entrance from the Norfolk side. The bridge ends at a little island where the road dives under the Roads to allow Navy ships uninhibited access to the Norfolk bases. Beyond the tunnel where many berths with aircraft carriers and all assortment other ships. There were yards repairing ships and lots of other activity in support of the Navy.

At the confluence of the James, Nansemond and Elizabeth Rivers, we headed toward the downtowns of Norfolk and Portsmouth down the Elizabeth. We rounded Hospital Point on the Portsmouth side and passed Red Bouy #36, the official start – mile zero – of the Intracoastal Waterway(ICW). Not only a milestone for our trip, but a stop where we were treated by one of Alex's Project Bluesphere fans. Marty had arranged for us to have two nights at the Waterside Marina, downtown Norfolk. Not only that, Marty drove down from Richmond two days in a row; first to take us to lunch and arrange the berth at Waterside and the next day to grab us and go pick up Joe, Alex's father, at the airport. Joe was joining us for the trip down the ICW to Florida. But since we had arrived a day early, we motored past the Tidewater Marina to check out the free city dock at Portsmouth.

We peered into the small basin as Eleanor crossed the opening. Already inside were four or five boats, snowbirds surely, and the north landing of the ferry that runs between Portsmouth and Norfolk. It looked mighty crowded to me, but Alex was game to try. I cringed as we headed deep into the basin for the last spot on an angled dock at the back. With a flawlessly executed turn to back into the corner and some help from fellow boaters to catch our dock lines, we were in for the night. Downtown Portsmouth was a delightful spot with nice restrooms at the tourist information office and a little lunch counter right across the street. We settled in for the evening. The next morning we had time to have a little breakfast and wait to cross the river to Norfolk before Marty was to arrive.

In Norfolk, we wandered into town for a nice lunch with Marty, did some caulking on the outside of the cap rail around the boat, did some laundry, had real(!) showers and reprovisioned. After getting Joe at the airport, thanking and saying goodbye to Marty, we were ready to hit the ditch, the Intracoastal Waterway. The ICW runs all the way to Miami, but we were likely to make another offshore jump before then. Our story continues …  

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The C&D and beyond.

Northern Chesapeake
I am, in fact, home already. It was a beautiful, indelible, life changing experience, but the trip is over. Here, I pick up where I had left off - on the Delaware River, just south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

The sun was going down as we arrived just off Port Penn, Delaware and the locals were swarming at the end of opening day for Rock Fish. We had come off the river and gone behind the underwater dike and dropped anchor near Reedy Island. Fishermen and fisherwomen, young and old, in all manner of boats, shouted back and forth checking on each other's haul. Everyone seemed to know everyone else and
Port Penn Sunset
many greeted us warmly as well. By the time we had made some supper, the fishing boats had gone home leaving us alone in the quiet backwater with a beautiful sunset splashing over the quaint town.  The haunting silence of a gigantic nuclear plant on the New Jersey side of the river belied the actual peace and quiet.

As was our habit, we woke with the freshening dawn and hoisted the anchor. And as usual we were greeted with an amazing sunrise. Eleanor glided back
Delaware Sunrise
past the bizarre dike, now partially visible at low tide, and re-entered the Delaware River. Even the nuclear power plant looked less daunting in the soft morning light. We knew it would be some time before we raised any sail again. And even though we were way north of "Mile Zero," we had begun the first canal slog of many to come.

The C&D Canal connects the Chesapeake and the Delaware Rivers; hence the name. We entered at the eastern end, and it was marsh to the south and woods to the north, for miles straddling the dead straight canal. It was beautiful in its own way but not overly inspiring just the same. The wilderness was broken occasionally by a fixed span bridge looming out of the trees. We passed a marina hidden back in an oxbow created by the canal cutting off what was a bend in the river. Chesapeake City, DE is a charming river town with an inviting marina on the north shore and a couple interesting looking restaurants in town to the south. We passed rambled down homesteads, fabulous vacation homes and a boatyard with tugs and barges in varying states of repair or neglect. We were moving toward our destination and it was a beautiful, if slightly overcast day.

Through the canal, we reached the relatively open water of the Elk River. We
Open Water again.
had crossed over into the Chesapeake Watershed, a huge body of water with hundreds of rivers, creeks, bays and coves. Rivers that feed the watershed extend well into the Allegheny Mountains of Central Pennsylvania. With one eye on the depth sounder and the other on the increasing boat traffic, we crashed through the waves and kept close to the marked channel. The sun was out but the wind opposed the current stirring up the chop. The new open expanse of water gave us the false sense that we had lots of water below us as well, but we had to be wary for there were many small shoals and shifting bars. The captain's philosophy is that there are fewer surprises in the channel than out of it. I smiled and scribbled that in my journal.

As we got further into the upper Chesapeake, the commercial traffic increased. There were barges and tugs with strange assortments of cargo and gear. We passed by the mouths of the Bush River, the Gunpowder River and the Back River. At the confluence with the Patapsco River, came much more traffic and
The Ugly Side of Consumerism
bigger ships, including container freighters headed for the City of Baltimore, just upriver from there. We eased by the Belvidere Shoals, yet another "Sandy Point" and headed for the Governor William Preston Lane, Jr. Memorial Bridge. After a delay caused by World War II, Gov. Lane had been instrumental in getting construction started on the bridge, affectionately called the "Bay Bridge."

Just under the bridge and off to the west, we got out of the ship traffic and smack into the cacophony of America's Sailing Capital - Annapolis, MD. We dodged a group of dinghy racers, stayed out of the way of buzzing launches, tried to interpret where the anchorage actually was and which boats were actually anchored. Beyond the anchorage into town, the mooring balls were all occupied and the whole space thrummed with activity. Much had changed since the captain was last here. Alex gave me the wheel and I kept Eleanor in a slow circle as he went below and poured over the chart.

Alex emerged, as captains do, with a plan. We could just fit under the Baltimore Annapolis Blvd Bridge. Beyond it, Skipper Bob's ICW Anchorage List promised a quiet anchorage in a creek where the Navy had some hurricane moorings. We strained our necks watching the massive concrete bridge beams flirt with Eleanor's masthead antenna, but we made it under - just. Beyond the bridge and a little farther upriver, we found the peaceful creek and dropped anchor between a beautiful old trawler and a little sailboat. Eight or ten other boats gently
Sunrise over the Bay Bridge
tugged at their anchors between the banks of neighborhood docks and patios. We were deeper into the heart of Annapolis, but it was much quieter.  We made a simple supper and sacked out, never leaving the boat. The next morning we would start all over again with the dawning light.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Jersey Coast

Atlantic Highlands Sunset
We were stuck for 10 days at Atlantic Highlands, NJ as Sub Tropical Storm Ana decided what she was doing. We didn't have much weather there, but where we were headed lacked any good spot to hide if the storm took aim at us. The last two days at anchor, the wind made it too rough to row ashore in the dinghy.

Once we got underway and out into the Atlantic, Eleanor sailed for the first time in a decade. Boat and crew settled into a rhythm and I took the first watch. The captain went below to rest up for his coming watch. We made our way toward Cape May on a nice beam reach as the wind blew from the coast of New Jersey. Fresh wind was in the forecast so we had raised the mainsail with two reefs and rolled out just a bit of the jib. It was a gloriously contradictory sight, to starboard the beach condos of the Jersey Shore; to port the global expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

Alex, the captain, took over about 8:00 pm and got a sleigh ride! In the strengthening breeze, Eleanor picked up her skirts to run. She topped 9 knots a few times during the night; under shortened sail. Down below, the roar of the ocean passing the hull was deafening. I knew we were flying but my job was to try and sleep. It would be my turn at the wheel again soon enough.

When the Captain woke me at 2:00 the next morning, to starboard were the beautifully ugly casino lights of Atlantic City. I had just recently been there with Ed and Ben, my cousin Sherry's husband and son. I knew the tired city that hid under the garish lights. "Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City."

The casino glare made a grey dome in the sky like a gigantic bandshell obscuring the stars above the city. Further down the coast, the stars began to regain control of the heavens. Untold numbers twinkled in the night sky interrupted only by swaths of the Milky Way and the occasional wispy cloud.

Eventually the moon came up behind me, chased soon after by the sunrise. Slowly the horizon lightened to grey, then yellows and oranges bled in from the other side of the globe. The sun took over and just as the day began, we had arrived at Cape May. Eleanor is a gracefully swift lady and we had made our way faster than we had planned. At the Delaware River, the tide was against us as we had arrived early. Eleanor bucked enthusiastically at the square waves of wind against current, but continuing would have been brutal, if not futile. We decided to stop for a nap and let the tide turn.

We ducked into Cape May and dropped an anchor just off the Coast Guard Station. Two hours later, we hoisted the anchor with renewed swagger and began the strange but important detour up the Delaware and over to the Chesapeake on the C&D Canal. This route was extra miles, but we were out of the ocean swell that Ana had left us.  Thirty some hours after departing the Highlands, we dropped anchor behind Reedy Island just below the eastern entrance to the C&D canal.


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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Max's Hill

Atlantic Highlands Anchorage
We were up at 4:30, had our coffee and were underway before 6:00. We needed to make time and would be motoring most of the day. Leaving Atlantic Highlands in nearly calm conditions, we followed our previous GPS track back out past Sandy Hook and into the ship channel. The towers of the Verrazano Bridge and the Freedom Tower just poked above the fog behind us. The Atlantic! I have never sailed in the Atlantic.

We followed the channel for a time and then cut south along the coast of New Jersey. In perfect contradiction, to starboard the beach and all its condos were a couple miles off, plain as day; to port the endless Atlantic Horizon and the early morning sun. It was glorious.

The Captain had been ambivalent for a couple days about our leaving and the storm brewing off the Carolinas. We had to wait for a part to arrive that was needed in the engine room. The original plan was an overnight offshore passage to Cape May, but we were keeping a weather eye. After the part arrived and was installed, the next plan was to just hop down to Atlantic City on a long day's cruise.
Sunrise this morning

A couple hours into our jaunt, Alex got a text. A concerned weather geek friend informed us of the storm's strengthening and the changing track predictions. Another friend sailing north was thinking of skipping Cape May to join us in Atlantic City. His weather had changed and not for the better. He pulled into Cape May to discover the anchorage was closed for dredging. After leaving, he turned back in deteriorating weather to find marina.

On board Eleanor, the winds were oddly fickle and did not match the forecast. Things were changing but clues were elusive. Yet another friend called and reminded us that the Atlantic City anchorage was subject to a lot of current. The ever changing winds of an approaching storm will eventually oppose the current setting up a rough ride.

We faced the following problems: Barnegat Bay was likely too shallow for us to get in far enough to be safe, Atlantic City was going to be rough and Cape May was closed. Beyond Cape May, Delaware Bay has no protected anchorages. The few anchorages on the C&D Canal are shallow. After the C&D is the Chesapeake which was on the border of the storm's track.

Vagabond sailing can be a lonely endeavor, but trusting your gut and sticking to it is lonelier yet. The captain paced about. He sighed and scratched his head.

"That's it," he said slowly, "we're going back."

Eleanor is going to be Alex and Carla's home. And while he is missing his wife and motivated to get moving south back to Panama, it is more important to be as prudent as he can stand. Carla has yet to see Eleanor in person. This beautiful boat will carry them wherever they wish to go for as long as they are going. It is an honor and a privilege to be helping Alex bring Eleanor to Carla. I think I am nearly as frustrated that we had to turn back.

At the same time, I visited the Atlantic! It was a beautiful morning which only served to make it more frustrating. The weather here was still fine all afternoon. Tonight we watched a movie after supper with the wind howling over our heads. We are in a protected spot from all but wind straight out of the east. South of us is a good hill. We've heard that Max Weinberg, E Street Band Drummer, lives in the big house looking down on us. The wind is out of the south, so Max and his hill are protecting us right now. We may be stuck here for a few days, but it was the right decision.


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