Just about the time most people are preparing their boats for winter storage—stowing sails, putting on tarps, filling their systems with antifreeze—my wife, Ann Marie, and I are getting ready to go see the Cape May Jazz Festival, one of the best-kept sailing secrets on the Jersey Shore. What could be better than cruising 40 miles from our homeport of Atlantic City for a weekend of jazz, good friends and great seafood?
Our marina neighbors, Dave and Kathy Sharp, came up with the idea a few years ago. This past year Dave and his dog, rudy, made the trip aboard Dave’s Hunter 37, Stolen Moments, while Ann and I sailed with him in company aboard our Pearson 323, Alma. Kathy would go down by car and meet us in Cape May.
Although we’ve been socked in by the weather in the past, this time it looked like we’d have a big, windy sleigh ride down the coast. Long-range forecasts indicated there’d be sunny skies and a strong northwest breeze directly on our starboard beam the Friday we planned to leave. The air would be chilly, but the ocean would still be warm.
The two sailors on the balcony at the Coast Guard Station in Atlantic City must have thought we were nuts heading out to sea with two red pennants flying from the station’s flag pole, indicting gale conditions, between 34-47 knots. Our marina is protected from the wind by high-rise hotels, like the Trump Marina Hotel and Harrah’s Atlantic City. But out in the Absecon Inlet, which runs northwest to southeast, the wind was howling. I told myself the wind was fighting a foul current, and the square waves we were smashing into would subside once we got offshore, but it was still intimidating. The plan was to put a single reef in the main and fly our heavy, high-cut 100 percent jib. Sailing on a southwesterly heading close to shore, we expected to enjoy a romp along the coast with little or no seas.
We hadn’t had Alma’s rail in the water for years. it was like old times, seeing green water sluicing down the wide side decks and through the scuppers. Back then we had no idea how to sail and thought “rail under” was faster.
We knew we would see stronger than forecast winds funneling through the casinos lining the inlet, but I had never before seen such roiling waves. If we’d had masthead instruments, I’m sure Ann would have nixed our adventure, and we’d either be aboard Stolen Moments with Dave or in the car driving down to Cape May while Alma stayed in the marina.
With the helm hard over Ann gunned the engine to help steer us back into the wind so I could roll up the jib and tie another reef in the main. I will never again lament Alma’s huge skeg-hung rudder after seeing how it allowed us to maneuver under those conditions.
After I’d further reduced our sail, Ann eased Alma off the wind, and the boat took off. Throw me the water skis, I thought, as I saw 5, 6 and 7 knots on the knotmeter. I was just wondering what speed the GPS was indicating when Ann said the helm needed some balance and we should try a little jib. A little jib, you say? Why not!
Tensioning the furling line, I released the drum lock on Alma’s Reef-Rite furler to ease out a little sailcloth. “Good enough!” Ann called out after I’d let out half the sail, and I locked the furling drum again. Although we only picked up half a knot of boatspeed—7.5 knots!—the helm was now much better balanced. We quickly settled into an exhilarating downhill rhumbline romp to the bell buoy off the channel to Cape May Harbor, about 34 miles south-southwest.
Meanwhile, aboard Stolen Moments, Dave was now entering the area we had just come through. Motoring with only his dog, Rudy, for crew, Dave unfurled the blade jib on his boat’s B&R rig and motorsailed behind us. Even without his huge main, Dave was strolling. Sunny, high temperatures in the 50s, a strong breeze on the beam, no sea: things were just about perfect for November in New Jersey. Should there be a gear failure, we’d have the wind on the beam for the trip back to Atlantic City as well. With little chance of an accidental gybe, we were set.
What followed was a tremendous sail: fast and dry, more like a huge day sail than a passage. At one point we hit 8.3 knots. Ann slept below while I steered. I was having so much fun at the wheel I never set the autopilot. We shaved an hour off our best time and arrived at Cape May well before sunset, surprisingly rested. Although we’ve sailed the Jersey Coast for 20 years, Ann and I still don’t like entering the Cape May inlet at night. The lights along the shore make picking up the dimly lit navigational aids a challenge. We’re spoiled by our own Absecon Inlet, which is like sailing down the Las Vegas strip.
In the Groove
Dave had friends in Cape May whose slips were available to us, and a protected berth with city water and shore power was just the thing for our mini vacation. Without these berths, we could have either anchored beside the Cape May Coast Guard station or picked up a mooring at the local Corinthian Yacht Club. Another option would have been a transient slip at Utsch’s Marina. The folks there are a friendly group and Utsch’s is close enough to cab over to the center of town. The Canyon Club has transient slips as well.
Dave had dropped off a minivan at our slips so we had transportation from our boats to downtown. One of the highlights of this trip is Dave’s favorite restaurant, The Lobster House, which is known for great seafood and until recently had its own fleet of fishing boats berthed next door. A little known fact is that The Lobster House has take-out, and it’s become a tradition that we order a seafood dinner to go and have it on the boats whenever we are in town. This year was no exception, and my seafood combination was the best I can remember.
After we finished dinner, we drove out of town about five miles to the Lower Regional High School, the venue for the Cape May Jazz Festival’s biggest concerts. We had a set of all-event weekend passes and were going to see the Count Basie Orchestra. Dave, Kathy, Ann, Brad and I are all musicians, and we couldn’t wait to see the Count’s band. I was floored when our usher kept walking past seat after seat until Ann and I were in the very first row, a special gift from Dave. I was mesmerized by the musicianship and dynamics of this band. I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra and Count Basie, but seeing Count Basie live was really something special. If you ever get a chance to see this band, don’t miss it. The count’s legacy lives on.
We stayed until the last note and then drove back into town to get some cocktails. Ritchie Cole was playing at Carney’s “other room,” and I wanted to hear some bebop. We had a car, but if you arrive by boat and don’t have a car it’s no problem. There are shuttle busses that drive around all night to the different venues so no one has to worry about DUIs or parking. Most of the venues are also within walking distance, making the festival a kind of jazz pub crawl.
We wrapped up our long day and headed back to our cozy bunks. Nothing beats having your own boat with shore power, heat and hot water waiting for you. a quick nightcap, and we were off to sleep.
Saturday morning, Kathy cooked a delicious breakfast onboard Stolen Moments, and Brad and Megan from Atlantic City arrived aboard Emma Marie, their Bertram 37 powerboat.
Once we had Emma Marie tied up next to us, it was time to start our day, so we walked to a local pub for lunch and a round of drinks. After that it was back to Lower Regional High School where saxophonist Ravi Coltrane was playing. Once again our seats were perfect. Ravi, the son of famed tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, had one of my favorite drummers, Jeff Tain Watts, onboard. The band was great, the dynamics incredible. Jeff played with such grace and feel, I was bowled over. Ravi was smokin’. It could not have been better.
After the concert we checked out the different bands at Carney’s main room and my favorite venue, the Victorian Gardens at the Marquis de Lafayette Hotel. The Lafayette is an underground lounge, and when you’re there, it doesn’t take much imagination to feel transported to another place and time. The exposed boulder foundation of this underground heaven was mixed with textures of real jazz. These guys were taking no prisoners! Musicianship was sharp as knives, and the sidemen were showing their chops. I would not have dared to sit in with these lions.
There were also some local bands in the mix. Back at Carney’s “other room,” Edgardo Cintron and the band Inca played their jazzy permutation of Carlos Santana’s famous tunes. I love the music of Carlos Santana, and Edgardo didn’t disappoint. Roosevelt Walker Jr. was great on guitar— what a great band. Hook up a few electric cables and Edgardo’s Inca could power the whole East Coast.
Cape May had truly reached its stride. We were at the jazziest spot on the planet and felt lucky to be there. We wrapped up Saturday with a short stroll into the Lafayette, then back to the boats. We’d had a great night and still had the last big sail of the sea- son ahead of us Sunday.
Sunday morning came early, and with a forecast for light southerly winds, I wanted to get out and on our way. We took off with Brad and Megan still sleeping in their Bertram. We knew we’d see them roar past us later in the day, so we cast off quietly and let them sleep. Once we were offshore, I dropped the jib and unrolled the genoa. Luckily the wind clocked slightly, so we had some beam breeze to help our 30-year-old Atomic Four push us quietly back home.
Will there ever again be such a perfect jazz weekend? It doesn’t seem possible. After all, we’d touched 8-plus knots under sail and heard some red-hot music. Never a creak or a groan the entire way. I guess our old Pearson has a few jazz festivals left. Newport, anybody?