Voice of Experience: Shoal Water and Thunder Squalls
I am a desert sailor. My wife, Noelle, and I live in New Mexico and normally sail the small inland lakes scattered around our very dry state. On arriving in Norfolk, Virginia, one sunny Thursday afternoon, we were looking very forward to sailing with our good friend Mike and his wife, Heather, on our first cruise on Chesapeake Bay. Though my wife was two months pregnant, we were eager to start our first uninstructed foray in salt water. Mike was stationed at Naval Station Norfolk at the southern tip of the bay, and he had arranged to rent a nearly new Catalina 310 from the Naval Station Sailing Center. We were delighted to have access to such a fine vessel.
At the sailing center, unfortunately, we were told the jib on the Catalina had been torn the day before and would not be fixed for a week. We explained we couldn’t wait a week, as we were only in town for five days and needed a boat to sail now. Instead we were offered a 32-foot Endeavour built in the 1970s. This wasn’t the shiny Catalina we were expecting, but we had come to sail and were determined to go out, so we accepted this nearly 40-year-old craft that was clearly showing her age.
We left the marina during a small craft advisory. We had flown all the way from New Mexico, and we sure weren’t going to let a little wind stop us from fulfilling our purpose. We had routinely sailed in high winds at home, but on our little 1,200-acre lake, as we soon learned, it’s quite a different experience.
Mike had met with a skipper from the sailing center a week earlier for a briefing on sailing conditions in this part of the bay. The skipper had described in great detail how it was necessary to keep the boat right in the channel while exiting the marina, and Mike had thought the guy was nuts. He paid little attention and wondered: “What’s the difference? It’s nearly four miles wide here.”
As we excitedly headed out of the marina, it soon became clear why the skipper had given Mike such explicit instructions. We were about a half-mile out of the marina, and the depthsounder was reading only 5 feet. With a 4-foot draft, we felt quite nervous, but weren’t sure which way to go to get in deeper water. Feeling humbler now, with frayed nerves, we finally made it into the shipping channel and passed the Hampton Roads Beltway. When we were about a mile offshore, we turned north up the bay.
The wind was strong, and the waves were steep, breaking over our bow. A quick glance at the depthsounder indicated that the water was again getting shallow. How could it be only 6 feet deep a mile offshore? Nervous about grounding, we continued sailing north at about 7 knots under a double-reefed main and furled jib.
We were getting increasingly anxious and began looking for a cove to duck into for the night. Mike is a naval aviator and is quite skilled at reading maps and taking headings, but the shoreline directly west of us was straight and unprotected. He found a cove on the map a few miles north of our position, but getting into it was another story. We dropped the sails and began motoring, but the breaking waves slowed us to a crawl. We crept along at a knot or two, making slow headway towards the cove, and the water got even shallower. Suddenly, the depthsounder was reading 3.8 feet. We lightly rubbed our keel in the mud a few times, but thankfully did not get stuck. Finally, we rounded a small peninsula and set our anchor in the tiny cove. Feeling very relieved, we spent a peaceful evening in the cockpit under the stars and enjoyed a delicious meal together.
The next day found us with gorgeous sunny weather, light winds and ideal sailing conditions. We made a quick stop at the Dare Marina to purchase provisions, then made our way back out into the bay. This time we made sure that we identified the marked navigation channels before heading out and consistently kept our bow pointed towards the next buoy. With the boat under full sail, we took turns bodysurfing from a rope ladder off the transom. We soaked up the sun and were grinning from ear to ear. As dusk approached, we landed in Yorktown and went ashore for a seafood dinner. My wife and I relished the rural coastal ambiance—such a contrast from our arid hometown. Afterwards we dropped the hook in an out-of-the-way spot and spent the rest of the evening sipping rum and talking about old times.
We woke to an overcast sky with light wind, and after a quick breakfast pulled up the anchor and began sailing back to the Naval Station marina. Conditions quickly began to deteriorate. We found ourselves once again in near-gale conditions, only this time there was rain, lightning and near-zero visibility. We cautiously motored south with the boat heeled at nearly 15 degrees under bare poles. Blue flashes lit up the fog around us, followed immediately by the crack of thunder. The lightning we knew was close—much too close for comfort—and we were terrified.
With rain stinging our eyes, we struggled to keep the bow pointed into the waves, and once again ended up in shallow water. This part of the bay was littered with crab pots, and we had only seconds to avoid them as they came into view. Things were getting scary, and we were very worried about wrapping a crab rig around our propeller. We were lost in a maelstrom of wind, rain, lightning, shoal water, fog, and hundreds of crab pots.
I thought about my wife and our yet-to-be-born daughter, and frightening thoughts coursed through my mind. Would we get struck by lightning? What if the motor went out? What if we wrapped a crab trap around the propeller? What if we ran aground, hit another boat, or worse? As we kept the compass pointing south, a darker side of sailing unveiled itself to us. After four hours of sheer terror, the weather finally began to break and we made it safely to the marina, a little wiser and never so happy to be on terra firma.
As I write this, we are expecting our second child. We’re still sailing our boat on Cochiti Lake in northern New Mexico and are dreaming of someday setting sail for more tropical destinations. While our Chesapeake experience was in no way ideal, we learned a lot during that cruise and are now more prepared than ever to continue on this lifelong lesson we call sailing.
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Todd Erenstein started sailing a Sunfish on
the desert lakes of New Mexico seven years ago
and currently sails a Macgregor 26 Classic
What We Did Right
Though we were very frightened, we successfully coped with the hazards that confronted us without getting into serious trouble, and this helped boost our confidence as sailors.
We did have one person onboard who was comfortable working with charts and maps to act as navigator.
We reduced sail as conditions deteriorated and were never over-canvassed.
We brought appropriate foul-weather gear and were properly dressed for the conditions.
What We Did Wrong
We did not pay appropriate attention to the guidance offered by the skipper at the sailing center.
We did not appreciate how shallow Chesapeake Bay can be. We should have paid closer attention to marked channels and charted soundings and should have plotted our courses accordingly.
We should have paid closer attention to the weather forecasts. Given our level of experience, it was probably unwise to set out during a small craft advisory. We also might have avoided the thunderstorm on the way home.
We could have maintained better speed by motorsailing up to the cove our first day out. It is easier to maintain headway in breaking waves with some sail up.