When your cruise starts with a tornado warning, you can pretty much take it as a given that some ugly surprises lay ahead. And that’s just what I heard during our pre-charter weather check. Suddenly there were warnings for the Chesapeake Bay all along the western shore from Herrington Harbor South, our starting point, right up past Annapolis.
Our family has a motto we apply in such situations: “Wherever we are is exactly where we are supposed to be.” This has served us well on many occasions when we’ve been marooned or befuddled by circumstances beyond our control. We applied it again that day, and again it served us well as my wife, Patti, our adult son, Jad, and I whiled away the hours snug aboard our chartered Swan 43 Aisling as she lay tight in her slip.
The next morning the threat of tornados was replaced with a perfect September sailing day, with temperatures in the 70s and a spanking breeze in the high teens. We polished off our breakfast and headed out of the marina to find ourselves in heaven, breezing around the bay until late afternoon, when we entered Annapolis harbor and secured Aisling in a slip for the evening. We enjoyed sushi and wine ashore before settling in for a long, sound sleep.
Our slumber was disrupted at daybreak by the sound of a shrieking 25-35 knot wind whipping through our rigging. The weather forecast reassured us that there were no tornados in the offing, but we were told to expect howling winds all day from the northwest, with seas building to four feet or more.
We eased into the open bay, where we were soon broad reaching at 8-10 knots under reduced sail. Steering was a demanding job, and we traded turns at the helm, with Jad doing most of the driving. We bashed our way around the bay for hours. The wind never fell below 20 knots and often gusted into the high 30s, with friendly whitecaps flying everywhere. It was a total joyride.
Eventually, we made our way back toward Herrington Harbor South, headed up and dropped the mainsail outside the marina entrance. We then motored toward the channel leading into the marina proper, which is several hundred yards long and is bordered on either side by two parallel rock jetties. This passage has a charted depth of 10 feet, and obviously had been deep enough for Aisling’s 7-foot keel when we departed from the marina the day before. Approaching the entrance, I now watched in disbelief as the numbers on our depthsounder got lower and lower. Nine feet. Eight and a half. Eight. Seven. Six and a half. Our forward motion slowed dramatically. Six. Then it stopped. We were stuck in the mouth of the channel, barely protected from the high waves coming in off the open bay, with 20-25 knot winds still blowing across the deck.
A call to the marina office elicited only empathy: “Well, this happens sometimes when there’s an unusually low tide made worse by strong winds driving the water down the bay. Don’t worry. It’s almost dead low now. Hang on for a while, and you’ll float off.”
Family motto notwithstanding, this didn’t seem to be exactly where we were supposed to be, blocking a heavily trafficked channel in rough weather. So rather than wait for Mother Nature to rescue us, I tried rocking the boat free with the engine, switching repeatedly back and forth from forward to reverse. No luck. We didn’t have enough power to break free.
What else to do? The wind was directly abeam, so we discussed setting the gigantic jib to see if we could get Aisling heeled over enough to free her keel and drive us forward.
I’ve been sailing for 60 years, and I can tell you the last thing I ever thought I’d want to do was to sail a big boat in strong wind inside a narrow channel framed by jagged rock jetties. But we took a deep breath, unrolled the jib, sheeted in tight and, bingo! Aisling heeled sharply, broke loose from the hump at the mouth of the channel and slipped into deeper water. We quickly furled the jib again before exiting the channel and entered the huge 625-boat marina under power.
We were happy to be in sheltered water, though the wind was still blowing 20 knots. Now I just needed to make a tight three-point turn to get into the corridor where our slip lay. I swung Aisling’s bow into a niche, but when I put her in reverse to back her around, she seemed only to lunge forward.
Wait, that can’t be. I pulled the control lever farther into reverse. Yet the boat continued to drive forward. Was it the powerful wind at our stern? Jad sprinted forward to deal with the dock and pilings dead ahead. We banged the lip of the dock just enough to wedge our anchor under it, with the wind holding us tight in place.
I increased power in reverse again, but Jad hollered back that I was only driving her harder into the dock, so I put it in neutral instead. Then Jad was able to dislodge the anchor and push the bow clear of the dock so that we were floating free. But we were still being pressed back toward the dock without enough turning room to swing toward the corridor where Aisling belonged. I tried reverse again, and again it seemed the boat was propelled forward.
We were now in deep trouble, with the boat headed for the stern of a huge catamaran at the end of a row of slips. I swung the wheel to starboard as hard as I could to aim us down the next corridor between the boats on either side. We missed the stern of the big cat by a couple of inches, barely grazed a piling, and began gliding down the corridor toward a very unforgiving bulkhead wall about 70 yards ahead, with the wind still pushing us along.
The corridor was much too narrow to make a U-turn, so, still unable to believe that reverse really meant forward, I tried reverse once more and got the same perverse effect: acceleration ahead. Now we were going maybe 3 or 4 knots, with no control except for steering. Damn. Only a collision could stop us. I put the engine in neutral again and realized I had about 20 seconds to decide exactly where and how to crash somebody else’s beautiful Swan 43.
Then I spotted my best hope. Down at the end of the corridor there was a dinghy dock floating at the end of a ramp. It was the only thing around that wasn’t A) a half-million-dollar yacht, B) a piling, C) a heavy dock, or D) the very forbidding bulkhead.
I formed my plan in an instant. As we approached the bulkhead, I’d cut the wheel hard, turn 90 degrees and drive Aisling up onto the floating dinghy dock, which was only a foot or so above water level. Hopefully, the boat would slow down as the forward end of the hull slid onto the dock, then stop as we hit it with the leading edge of the keel—before the bow rode up into the massive beams of the fixed dock beyond.
When the bulkhead was just 30 or 40 feet and a couple of seconds away, I spun the wheel fast, got her aimed right at the dinghy dock—and then a miracle happened.
We went aground. Softly. Smoothly. Safely. The super-low tide and the muddy bottom saved us, catching Aisling’s keel in a soft, shallow cushion and holding us in place. Fifteen feet ahead lay the dinghy dock. Fifteen feet off our port side was the brutish bulkhead. Fifteen feet astern there was nothing but boats. We were suspended amidst them all and had neither caused nor suffered any damage.
The marina launch tugged us to our slip where, firmly secured, we confirmed the problem with the transmission. It turned out the shift linkage had come uncoupled, probably while I was rocking the boat back and forth at the mouth of the channel. Although the engine was locked into forward gear, the throttle control still worked in both directions, increasing engine speed even when with the shift lever pulled into the reverse position.
In retrospect, maybe we should have just sailed out into the tornadoes in the first place.