Cruising

Voice of Experience: Cold Front on the Chesapeake

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“Wake up! Wake up! I think we’re dragging anchor!”

Peg’s words pierced my sleep like a needle popping a balloon. In an instant I was standing in the cockpit, face to face with the bowsprit of a large Island Packet that had been anchored three football fields away the night before.

I knew immediately it wasn’t the Island Packet that had dragged. Our seemingly well-set anchor and the extra rode we’d put out had failed us; fortunately Peg felt the boat moving at daybreak before any harm was done. I quickly tugged the starter cord on our Sailmaster outboard and snapped it into gear. I then handed Peg the tiller and told her to motor into the wind while I gathered in the anchor rode and our impotent mud-clogged Danforth.

NOAA’s weekend forecast for the upper Chesapeake Bay that Friday had called for sunny, warm conditions with southwesterly winds at 5 to 10 knots and seas of less than a foot. Perfect conditions, I thought, to sail Tackful, our 25-foot Catalina Capri, from our home port of Havre de Grace, Maryland, down the bay for an overnight at Worten Creek, a round trip of about 45 miles.

Saturday was not disappointing. With 10 knots of wind on her starboard beam, Tackful sliced through the almost-flat water at hull speed. Riding an outgoing tide, we arrived at our destination hours ahead of schedule, so we continued sailing on the bay before heading back to Worten Creek for a special meal ashore—medium rare tenderloins, baked potatoes and the best homemade coleslaw on the Chesapeake (an old Delmarva recipe).

After a couple of sundowners in the cockpit, Peg and I were ready to turn in, but first we listened to the latest weather. Surprisingly, NOAA had changed its forecast for Sunday and was now predicting the wind would rise to 20 knots as a weak, fast-moving cold front passed through the area late Sunday afternoon.

While not overly concerned, I promised Peg we’d get an early start for home and that I’d reduce sail before the stronger winds hit. With that reassurance, we both fell fast asleep in minutes.

Then came my abrupt awakening on Sunday morning. “Let’s go anchor where we were,” I called back to Peg after I’d washed the last remnants of mud from the flukes of our Danforth.

“Why don’t we just start for home now?” she yelled back. “We don’t want to get caught in those stronger winds this afternoon. Okay?”

“We can, I guess, but we don’t have to rush that much!”

“Please!” she cried. “We can eat some cereal after we get started.”

Giving in to my wife’s pleading, as I had so often done before, I stowed the anchor, took over the helm and waited for my heart rate to return to normal.

What greeted us as we nosed out into the bay was a westerly breeze that seemed every bit as strong as the 20 knots that NOAA had predicted. Since we both needed to get back for work on Monday and the sky was clear, I convinced myself the wind would hold steady or decrease as we headed northeast toward home.

I raised the main, took in a reef and elected not to hoist a jib, as I thought even our smallest, a 110, would be hard to manage if the wind increased. Better to fight the weather helm from the main, I thought, than to have to go up on the foredeck and haul down an angry headsail.

As we sailed northwest toward Worten Point, we began to encounter whitecaps, but they were not steep. After rounding the point, we had to turn northeast, which would put the wind on our port beam. I expected this would be a little wet, but not overly demanding. How little I knew.

After we made our turn, the sustained wind held steady, but was punctuated by strong gusts that required constant vigilance. Cleating the mainsheet was no longer an option. With our feet braced to starboard, I kept my right hand wrapped around the tiller and my left on the mainsheet as we sailed off to the northeast.

After about two hours, the wind increased yet again, the seas grew larger, and our spirits fell. We donned lifejackets, reluctantly reviewed our man-overboard drill, and said a heartfelt prayer.

Once we had Still Pond Creek, an anchorage on the eastern shore, about a mile to leeward, I considered dropping the main and running for it under bare poles. But the seas had grown too large. In these conditions Tackful’s low freeboard and light displacement (barely 3,000 pounds with just 900 pounds of ballast) were a recipe for disaster. A broach or following wave might easily swamp or capsize us. “Better the devil you know,” I told myself as we pressed on.

It was now clear that Peg and I were committed to a harrowing sail home. I considered calling the Coast Guard to alert them to our plight, but decided against it. I was concerned they would feel a rescue was in order, and since we were still making headway, I still felt in control of the situation.

As we plunged onward—sometimes moving as slowly as 1.5 knots, taking water over the bow and weather rail—I briefly considered trying to start the outboard to help cut through the waves. But I was worried the seas would drown the motor in short order. Even if it did keep running, I wanted to keep it in reserve in case all else failed. Though the wind gusts were unpredictable, I felt I’d developed a rhythm that helped me spill wind from the sail in concert with the swells—a rhythm that allowed us to keep moving. 

Soaking wet and weary to the bone, we continued sailing northeast. After what seemed an eternity, we reached the halfway point of our journey, with two familiar landmarks, Betterton, Maryland, and the mouth of the Sassafras River, two miles to starboard. Our next goal was a not-yet-visible yellow can, YC “L”, which marked the restricted boundary of the Aberdeen Proving Grounds on the bay’s western shore.

At this point we needed to turn north, which would put us hard on the wind, a point of sail I dreaded. We had so far avoided a knockdown while reaching, but with the increased heeling and apparent wind of sailing closehauled, I was afraid anything could happen.

Fortunately, as we approached the western shore and YC “L” came into view, the seas fell dramatically, thanks to the reduced fetch. Even though the wind continued blowing at gale force, for the first time in eight hours I began to relax—just a little. Sailing north was not nearly as threatening as I feared, and for the first time since rounding Worten Point, Tackful began sailing at over 3 knots. Our next goal, green #3, lay just two miles ahead. 

Green #3 marks the entrance to the 4-mile-long Susquehanna Channel and has always represented home to us. If we could just make it there without a knockdown or rig failure, I thought, we’d be safe. As we continued north, skirting Aberdeen’s restricted area, we saw a large cruising sailboat making its way out the channel toward the open bay. It was the first boat—sail, power, commercial or recreational—we’d seen since leaving Worten Creek almost eight hours earlier. 

Apparently recognizing that the bay was now most inhospitable, the cruiser turned around and attempted, with little success, to motor back up the channel into the teeth of the wind. The arrival of a towboat (the second boat we had seen in eight hours) confirmed our suspicions that the cruiser’s motor was overpowered.

Fortunately, we were able to sail up the channel. After rounding green #3 and making five or six short tacks, the wind suddenly and completely died. I raised my cold, stiff, hungry body, started the motor, dropped the main and then looked into the tear-filled eyes of my first (and best) mate. We had somehow survived. Our prayers for each other’s safety had been answered.

Illustration by Steve Sanford

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