Cruising

Barnegat Bay

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A gentle west wind rippled the placid waters of Silver Bay, glistening in the light of a full moon that truly did make the bay look silvery. I was sitting alone in the cockpit, a cold beer in hand. Beads of condensation from the bottle dampened my palm. It was after Labor Day and the anchorage was deserted, except for me and my two Elizabeths.

A flash of light caught my eye. I glanced to the west and saw another flash, an explosion of green orbs with wispy tails. “Fireworks! Liz, they’re shooting off fireworks!” I called to my wife, who was reading below.

We stood together on the foredeck of Elizabeth, our Bristol 24, watching the distant display and wondering who was launching it and why. We could only see the highest of the fireworks above the trees; the bangs and pops were so distant we couldn’t hear them.

That night in Silver Bay was the first of an early autumn cruise down the 30-mile length of New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay, a shallow body of water tucked behind barrier islands to the east and bordered to the west by marshes, rivers, and the vast forests of the Pine Barrens. Wildlife refuges and state parks on the barrier islands and on the mainland provide habitat for birds of all sorts—ospreys, peregrine falcons, herons, ducks, and, of course, the ever-present seagulls. The winter migration was under way, and the sky was punctuated with chevrons of honking geese.

With water depths averaging about six feet or less, Barnegat Bay is no place for deep-draft sailboats. When the weather turns foul out in the Atlantic, cruisers sometimes seek shelter here by running to Manasquan Inlet, one of the three safest on New Jersey’s 127-mile coastline (Absecon and Cape May are the other two). From the inlet you can thread the twisty channel of the Manasquan River, negotiate the swift currents in the Point Pleasant Canal, and anchor in Bay Head Harbor in good holding and depths from 4 to 9 feet, just north of Mile 5 on the New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway. But first you have to pass under three lift bridges to get there.

Once at Bay Head, cruisers in shoal-draft boats can enjoy a trek down Barnegat Bay, taking time to linger in protected waters before exiting the bay through Barnegat Inlet, which should not be taken lightly, or backtracking to return to the Atlantic through Manasquan Inlet. The ICW south of Barnegat Inlet is too shallow for sailboats of any size, but to the north there are secure anchorages in rivers, creeks, and behind the barrier islands. There are full-service marinas, dock-and-dine restaurants, and plenty of good sailing, especially on the south end of the bay.

On summer weekends the bay is crowded and the powerboat wakes can be annoying. When these were our home cruising grounds, we often let the weekend warriors run wild while we stayed put at our slip in Point Pleasant, or we waited until Happy Hour and went for late afternoon sails on the nearby Metedeconk River, occasionally anchoring out. The bay quiets down on weekdays, and it was then that we enjoyed it best.

That feeling returned as I raised the mainsail the following morning in Silver Bay, retrieved the anchor from the muddy bottom (water depths average 4 to 5 feet here), and ghosted out under sail in the quiet solitude. The beauty of Barnegat Bay is distinctly Southern, much like Chesapeake Bay. The bay is a sort of borderland, a demarcation zone with a mellower ethos, when you have it mostly to yourself.

Blessed with what was left of the west wind, I rolled out the genoa and we sailed an easy beam reach south, following the ICW. The bay began to widen, but on this stretch looks can deceive because there are shoals on either side of the channel. The spans of the adjacent J. Stanley Tunney Bridge (fixed, vertical clearance 60 feet) and the Thomas A. Mathis Bridge (bascule, closed vertical clearance 30 feet) loomed ahead, connecting Island Beach to the mainland.

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