It was to have been our last day at sea on a 10-day, 1,500-mile voyage from Antigua in the West Indies to Harrington Harbor South just south of Annapolis in the Chesapeake. I say, was to have been, because just as success was within grasp, it was snatched away.
The delivery opportunity presented itself last April. A newly acquired, pre-owned 2006 Tayana 48DS sloop needed to be out of the Tropics before hurricane season kicked in on the first of June. The new owner had minimal offshore experience and his insurance company insisted he have a professional captain on board. That turned out to be me.
I was in English Harbor covering the Antigua Classic Regatta and Sailing Week and the boat was in Jolly Harbor on the other side of the island. Mark, the new owner, and I struck a deal. I asked my 23-year old daughter, Renaissance (Ren for short) to join us. She’s a recent grad of Maine Maritime Academy and a professional merchant mariner who’s mate on a 1,891-ton research vessel that’s been operating in the Chesapeake. Mark would bring along a friend to fill out the crew of four.
It took us two weeks to prepare the boat for sea, learn its systems and idiosyncrasies, buy provisions and fishing tackle, top off the water and fuel tanks, strap down four spare fuel tanks, hoist aboard and secure the dinghy. Before leaving we all spent a few hours anchored off Jolly Harbor scraping barnacles off the bottom.
“Are we going to a have a shakedown before leaving?” Ren asked, ever the professional.
“We’ll be sailing within a few miles of St. Martin on our way north,” I told her. “It’s 90 miles and will take half a day. If anything is amiss, we’ll duck in there to fix it.”
High pressure block
PredictWeather showed a high pressure cell extending from just north of the islands for 600 miles across our route. We’d be motoring for half the 1,500 miles. Mark and I consulted the engine manual for information on fuel consumption. It was a daily discussion enroute.
Most of the voyage was without much fuss. The in-the-boom furling system needed fixing, the starboard running light fixture needed a bulb replacement. We fished, read, dumped buckets of sea water over ourselves, and shied away from any political discussions. We each stood two three-hour solo watches, on a fixed routine, thus giving each of us nine hours off between watches. Some skippers prefer a rotating schedule so no one has to stand the same night watch every night. My body likes a fixed routine while at sea. I’ll gladly take the 12 to 3, or the 3 to 6 watches.
We ran out of the trade winds a day north of the BVI. The seas fell flat, and within a day even the lazy swells had disappeared. For the next six days, the drone of the engine was our companion. The sea was tranquil, flat as a lake. Sunrise and sunset marked the passage of the hours.
Mid-way, I asked Mark if we could shut down the engine to check the oil and coolant. I wanted to fly the drone and capture Oasis drifting alone on the flat sea. The only trouble was getting the drone back aboard. Its anti-collision sensors would not allow me bring it close enough. Ren resourcefully grabbed the fishing net on the aft pushpin and snagged the drone out of the air.
Mark, a retired electrical engineer, and his friend, Dave, a retired mechanical engineer, found plenty to keep their problem-solving minds busy finding and fixing things. My daughter did the navigation and I did the cooking.
This mentoring role on a delivery is not new to me. I’ve done it on numerous other deliveries. Inexperienced owners, with a new or previously owned boat, especially those going offshore for the first time, are advised to have an experienced professional along. This is often more for insurance and a mentoring situation than a delivery. My role is to let the new owner bond with his or her boat and practice sail handling, navigation, and making decisions. If I agree, I just smile and nod. I help out, stand watch, do the cooking and show them how and when to rig a preventer, run wing-and-wing, etc. The owners will learn more and be better prepared to handle their new boat by themselves if they do the physical work. My job is to ensure the boat and its crew get safely to its destination with no gear broken and everyone still on board.
We crossed the Gulf Stream without knowing it the night of May 22nd, eight days out of Antigua. The wind filled in from the southeast pushing us northwest along the Hatteras Outer Banks. We sailed close by Cape Henry that morning, and by midday were were just south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel channel. All of a sudden things became complicated.
“Are you guys on watch?” Ren came into the cockpit none too happy. “Can’t you see there is an 800-foot loaded LNG tanker up ahead. Didn’t you hear him calling us on 16?” She steps behind the wheel, turns off the autopilot, keys the mike and says, “This is Oasis. We are turning to port and will clear the channel on the green.” She starts the engine, and swings us to port, out of the channel. “You guys get the jib in,” she says in an authoritative voice. The Academy has turned my daughter into a real pro. She’s calm but assertive. It’s the first time I’ve heard her in command. I’m as surprised as I am proud. The massive LNG ship slips past us in minutes and is gone in the haze astern.
Ren brings us back on course through the narrow channel.
“The target was right there on the AIS,” she scolds us. “Weren’t you two paying attention?” A week offshore with no traffic had lulled us into complacency.
No sooner had we slipped through the narrows than the wind began to back, building out of the northeast. That night, a low had developed and deepened off the cape, and was moving slowly up along the Delmarva Coast.
Wind and seas build
The winds quickly built to 20 to 25, gusting higher. It would be a tight squeeze to sail north up the bay with wind on the bow, but the waves were a bigger problem. Though the fetch from shore was only a few miles, the shallow bay turned the wind-driven waves into steep, sharp, angry seas. We soldiered on.
I didn’t like the look of this. Crouched in the cockpit under the dodger, I scanned the Navionics chart on my iPhone. I was looking for a protected anchorage, some creek or harbor into which we could duck if these conditions took a turn for the worse, or some piece of gear broke.
The western and eastern shores of the bay are a wilderness, with vast stretches of low land with little or no evidence of civilization. There were few harbors and those were for smaller boats than us. Cape Charles Harbor on the Eastern shore, was 10 miles directly up-wind. Mark had been there and admitted the entrance was a narrow, dogleg channel.
With Ren at the helm, we were now pounding into the waves under power with a reefed main and working jib and making barely three knots toward Annapolis. We had to do something. I briefed the crew under the protection of cockpit dodger.
“These northeast winds and waves will last for at least another 24 hours. We’ll be making only a few knots in these conditions. We have just doubled our time underway. It will be an uncomfortable voyage. No one will be getting any sleep. As the wind continues in this direction, the waves will continue to build. There’s the possibility of something breaking. The boat’s movement will slosh fuel around in the tank, possibly stirring up crud from the bottom which could foul the fuel filters and we could lose the engine. We need to get out of this and park the boat for a day.”
“We can make it into Cape Charles Harbor,” Mark said. “I’ve been in there. It’s a tricky channel, but nice inside.”
Harbor of refuge
“That is a possibility,” I said. “It’s six miles to the northeast, directly into the wind and waves. But let me lay out another option. There is a ‘harbor of refuge’ for yachts waiting out the weather, back there,” I pointed astern. “It’s Willoughby Bay, just off the entrance to Norfolk Harbor, adjacent to the huge US Navy base. It’s only two hours away, perfectly protected, easy to enter, even at night, and the anchoring is good. But it means turning around and going in the opposite direction.” I knew this was going to be a hard sell, as the others in the crew were anxious to get to port and end this voyage. Turning back, adding another day or more to a ten-day voyage, was not on their minds.
“We can’t continue in this direction in these conditions,” I said. “And these conditions will last another day. What do you want to do?”
They all looked at each other, then back at me, as if they wanted me to tell them. I am, after all, supposed to be the one who knows.
“If you want to try and reach Cape Charles Harbor, go for it. See if we can make any progress. It’s only six miles, 20 degrees to starboard.” Ren brought the boat around, now directly into the wind and waves while the two men rolled in the jib. The waves were now steep and deep. Each time the boat rose up over one wave, and came down the backside, the bow ran right into the front of the next wave. The boat stopped, the wave washed over the bow, over the coachtop, smashed into the dodger and spray whipped past the cockpit. Ren, standing at the wheel in her foulies, was drenched and looking none too happy. I knew what she was thinking. How did I get myself into this? I’m used to a nice warm and dry bridge on my ship.
As the third set of waves washed over us, the decision was made. We turned around and hightailed it to Willoughby Bay. On this course the wind and waves were behind us and we were making eight knots with a little bit of jib and a quarter of the main unfurled. It wasn’t a jog in the park as the steep and breaking waves continued to harass us, but they were from astern.
We entered Willoughby Bay that evening at 6 pm, dropped the hook, cleaned up the cockpit and after a hot dinner, had a good night’s sleep in a quiet harbor. We sat there all the next day as the NE winds howled overhead. We cleaned the boat, siphoned the spare fuel into the main tank and put the boat to rights. Saturday morning, with the winds down to 10 knots, we pulled the anchor and left Willoughby Bay, heading north up the Chesapeake. It wasn’t long before the chart plotter screen was filled with two dozen AIS targets all headed in the same direction. The Snowbirds, returning from their winter in Florida, had also been waiting out the blow and were now also steaming north.
We motored all that day and into the night in a light breeze, arriving at Harrington Harbor South, south of Annapolis, at 3 am. We slid into our slip, tied up, and grabbed a few hours of sleep before packing up and renting a car for the drive home to Maine.
David H. Lyman is a pro skipper, author and photojournalist. He’s owned (or been owned by!) four different sailboats from a 34-foot wooden Alden sloop to a Bowman 57 ketch. Read more of his stories at www.DHLyman.com.