Never sail to a schedule if you can possibly avoid it. Thus speaks conventional wisdom, and it is not wrong when applied to conventional offshore cruising. The pressure of a timescale can lead to decisions that might, in retrospect, be considered rash. In the context of a delivery voyage, though, you have to bend the rules some, as long as you don’t knowingly put your boat and crew in harm’s way. There are precious few guarantees in sailing, and fair winds and benign seas are not among them. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and set sail—which is what we did in mid-October.
The mission was clear-cut: deliver our Norlin 34 project boat from Marblehead, Massachusetts, to Hampton, Virginia, in time for the start of SAIL’s Snowbird Rally down the ICW on October 23. It had seemed an easy enough proposition back in the early summer—hey, let’s take the boat south for the winter, find a slip somewhere warm—but as September drew to a close, so did the opportunities for a quick voyage south. An ugly nor’easter immediately followed by the will-it-or-won’t-it-hit-us meanderings of Hurricane Joaquin put paid to our original departure date of September 26, and commitments at the Annapolis boat show, closely followed by magazine production deadlines, meant the following weekend was out of the question too. If a calendar could tick, mine would have sounded like something out of Poe.
Then, as such things sometimes do, it all came together. The long-term forecast for the week beginning Saturday, October 17 was for 10 to 15 knot winds from the north and northwest, ideal for a fast passage south, building to 20 knots before turning southwesterly off the Delmarva peninsula in the early hours of Tuesday morning. I plotted out two alternative passages, one from the western entrance of the Cape Cod Canal in Buzzards Bay direct to Hampton Roads, the other to Cape May, then up Delaware Bay and down the Chesapeake to Annapolis. Easy-peasy, right?
The first day’s run across Massachusetts Bay to the Cape Cod Canal certainly was easy enough. I had been joined by old shipmate Peter Cook (PC) and his friend Chet Bridgeman, and they relished the blustery northwesterly as Ostara, sheets eased, hit high 7s and 8s during her fastest passage yet to the canal. We hit the Sandwich entrance with a few hours of favorable tide left, and when we emerged onto Buzzards Bay at sunset our spirits were sky-high.
They did not remain so for long. Those who sail on Buzzards Bay will be smiling knowingly already. There followed a night as miserable as any I’ve known at sea. Darkness fell quickly and completely, leaving us to traverse the 25 miles of the bay in an inky blackness as the tide turned to the east and clashed with the strengthening northwesterly, which before long was blowing a solid 20 knots. The seas grew shorter and steeper, most passing harmlessly under the quarter, but the odd breaker slapped angrily against the topsides, sending showers of spray into the cockpit as the boat corkscrewed with each impact. Ostara’s IOR pedigree stands her in great stead when the wind is forward of the beam, but off the wind she can be a handful in these conditions. At the same time, the temperature dropped precipitously. Our breath steamed as we shivered in the cockpit. (Later, I dug up the local forecast for that night: “Partly cloudy, with a low around 34. Northwest wind around 13mph, with gusts as high as 24mph.” )
Before long both my shipmates had offered up their dinners to Neptune, and I was contemplating the same. To compound our misery, we were taking so much water on deck that several hitherto undetected and inconveniently located leaks were revealing themselves, one right over the nav table, another above my bunk in the saloon. I am here to tell you there is nothing, absolutely nothing, as unpleasant as going below in wet clothing and crawling into cold, damp bedding. Three consolations: we were reaching so the angle of heel was (mostly) mild, it wasn’t raining and we were going fast.
And so it went. The wind (though not the sea state) moderated some the following day as we sailed down the coast of Long Island, enough to sail under full genoa and single-reefed main in between intense gusts that moaned in the rigging to the accompaniment of despairing beeps from the autopilot’s off-course alarm. That night the wind increased yet again, blowing a steady 20 knots and frequently gusting into the 30s. PC had by now lost his voice and signaled he was incapable of arising from his leeward bunk (“I’ve never been that sick before,” he said later). He had not eaten for nearly 24 hours; the greenish tinge had left his face to be replaced by a ghostly pallor, making him the very picture of misery. I was beginning to be concerned.
Monday morning’s forecast called for the wind to go into the southwest off the Delmarva peninsula late that night, when—if we kept up our present speed and course—we would still be some 50 miles from Hampton. A 10-hour beat into 16 to 20 knots of wind with a cold, wet and partly incapacitated crew would not be a good idea. After all, we were supposed to be having fun. None of us had slept for more than an hour or two at a stretch, and we’d hardly eaten since entering Buzzards Bay 30 hours earlier. It was time to wave the white flag and head for calmer waters.
We were just a few miles off Cape May as the sun rose on Monday morning, and we all perked up as we crept across the shoals close by the beach and headed in to Delaware Bay. I won’t go into the tedious details of our slow passage up the bay—possibly the dullest stretch of water I have ever endured—much less the delay at Chesapeake City while we waited for TowBoat/US to pull us off a mudbank, or the tidal miscalculation followed by a torturous motorsail down the Chesapeake to Annapolis, where my stalwart, uncomplaining crew gratefully jumped ship and fled to their warm, dry beds. Nor the ensuing 120-mile overnight grind down the Chesapeake into a headwind, the little Yanmar clamoring away for all but an hour of it while my new shipmate, Brian Flanagan, a veteran of SAIL’s 2014 Snowbird Rally, stoically addressed the never-ending AIS alerts as a procession of ships and barges overhauled us. Already plotting to convert my slab-reefing boom to single-line reefing, I added engine-bay soundproofing to my upgrade list, and rebedding sheet tracks and stanchion bases to the maintenance list.
There was a sense of anticlimax to our arrival in Hampton, around noon on Thursday, the day before the rally start. In five days the little boat had covered 570 miles under sail and engine—more of the latter than I’d planned—and endured some pretty rough weather, with no more damage than a missing batten, shaken out of the main during a midnight squall, and some damp upholstery. It had been a good shakedown for the boat, but more of a beatdown for the crew. The trip north in the spring will be a different story ... no schedule, for one thing.
A coastal/offshore cruise such as this one, most of it sailed between 10 and 50 miles from shore, requires a little more preparation and forethought than a less ambitious shore-hugging cruise. Here’s what we did to get the boat ready.
I changed the engine oil and alternator belt, lubricated everything that needed it, and gave the installation a thorough cleaning followed by an affectionate squirt of WD40. I was confident in the little Yanmar 2GM20F’s integrity; I had replaced the exhaust elbow in 2014, and earlier this year I had changed out all the hoses, as they were becoming soft, a sign that they were past their prime. The water pump had been overhauled and I’d swapped out the air filter. The spares inventory included alternator and water-pump belts and three each of primary and secondary filters. Three quarts of diesel oil, one of transmission oil and a couple of gallons of premixed antifreeze rounded out the engine spares. The only thing that gave me trouble was the raw-water cooling pump’s drive belt, which I had neglected to change and which, of course, failed.
Sails and Rig:
We were single- or double-reefed for most of the 300 miles between the western end of the Cape Cod Canal and Cape May. We carry an ATN Gale Sail for a storm jib and that reposed under the V-berth along with the spinnaker, which is set on a furler and tacked to an extending sprit. We also have a trysail, not that I would ever carry that on a coastal voyage. In 35,000 miles I’ve never run into weather a triple-reefed main couldn’t deal with. Before leaving, I took down the genoa and checked the stitching. I did not go up the mast but inspected it though binoculars.
The boat has had AIS for several years, but this year I replaced the separate pole-mounted antenna with a Vesper Marine antenna splitter hooked up to the masthead VHF antenna. This gives us much greater range. I also installed a new ACR AISLink Class B transceiver, which I hooked up to the Vesper Watchmate display at the helm. This combo proved invaluable in judging the movements of shipping along the route, especially overnight down the Chesapeake Bay. For me, it reaffirmed AIS as an essential safety aid. Given the choice, I’ll never cruise without it.
There is a fixed Standard Horizon DSC VHF radio at the nav station, with a remote mic in the cockpit, something I consider essential for shorthanded sailing. We also carry a handheld VHF, and there were three cellphones between the crew. No satphone, as we wouldn’t be out of VHF range for very long. For the next offshore voyage I’ll add an SSB receiver.
Autopilot: Last summer I installed a new Raymarine EV-100 Wheelpilot, which proved reliable and extremely efficient. I did not expect it to cope as well as it did with big quartering seas, which the boat hates, thanks to its IOR heritage.
Ostara has always had three bilge pumps, one electric and two manual Whale pumps, and I installed a backup electric pump before this trip. If I were venturing farther offshore I would not hesitate to invest in one of the big gallon-a-stroke manual pumps from Edson or Whale. We also carry several buckets…
A liferaft was an unnecessary expense for a voyage along such a heavily trafficked coastline, never more than 40 miles from land. I carry a powerful electric pump on a long lead to inflate the dinghy, and in the event of power failure three scared guys would have that Avon ready to burst in no time. In a rare fit of responsibility I had rented an EPIRB from Boat/US, but sent it back when we initially postponed the trip. Instead, I purchased a PLB, figuring its limited transmit time would be more than adequate for these waters. I checked the fire extinguishers and flares.
We carry a Lifesling and a throwable inflatable lifebuoy clipped to the sternrail. For MOB retrieval, I use a tackle hoisted on the main halyard and led aft to a primary winch. Webbing jacklines were rigged from go to whoa, and each of us had an inflatable lifejacket/harness combo and tether, which were worn after dark and during the day as conditions dictated.
I borrowed paper charts for the New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland coasts from SAIL’s cruising editor, Charlie Doane. The Standard Horizon CP190 chartplotter at the helm carried a C-Map chip, and I had downloaded all the relevant charts via the Navionics app on my iPad, which gleans its GPS signal via Bluetooth from a Dual XGPS150 GPS antenna. As a last line of electronic defense we had a handheld Garmin GPSMAP 78 loaded with Garmin’s own Bluechart charts.