Pitch black in a narrow, unlit canal, my only two points of reference were a pair of red and green navigational buoys half a mile ahead. As I approached them, the water under the keel of my Bristol 40 yawl, Daydream, kept diminishing, now at 4ft, now at just 6in. Stuck! Twice I dragged Daydream back out of the muck, blessing her heavy three-bladed bronze prop and powerful diesel. To this day, when I awake in a cold sweat it’s because of New Jersey’s Cape May Canal.
This delivery was different from the others I had done. For one thing, there was its scope—a thousand-mile passage from the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay to Portland, Maine. For another, this would be a solo voyage. Finally, this delivery would be of my own boat, a boat I also soon planned on living aboard.
On November 1, with a glowing survey completed and payment arranged, I’d bought a one-way plane ticket to Norfolk, Virginia. Once there, I spent my first day stripping the boat of accumulated junk. Forty-two years worth of hoarding things that might someday be useful (like 8ft of frayed line, a floating mesh net and a pair of 10ft telescoping aluminum poles) had resulted in lazarettes and lockers all being packed to overflowing (though I did discover thousands of dollars worth of safety and sailing equipment as well, a nice surprise).
After that, I visited a nearby marine supply store, where I bought an inflatable dinghy (which would double as my life raft), a sleeping bag, enough fuel and oil filters to last me a year and various other sundries to carry me through the estimated 10-day trip. My final stop was a grocery store to provision, after which I settled in for my first night in my new home.
The following morning I cast off lines around 1000 and was underway. In retrospect, it seems insane. My maiden voyage was to be a full day of sailing down the Rappahannock River then north up the Chesapeake, all virgin territory for this New England boy.
Heading up the bay wearing shorts and a T-shirt exceeded my grandest expectations. I stayed that first night behind a sandbar in a small inlet just south of the Potomac River, surrounded by place names from the history books—now part of my personal sailing history as well—and pelicans, the latter a cruising companion I was soon to leave behind. That night over supper I took out a few minutes to choose two or three potential anchorages for the next day, a process that soon became a habit.
November 5 ended up requiring a truly heroic effort if I was to beat the bad weather that was now coming down the Jersey shore and make it to the other side of Cape May. The night before, I stayed in Fairlee Creek, a beautiful cove where the tide runs through a narrow outlet. I rose at 0330 to make the most of the day, knowing I had a 1730 sunset with another 45 minutes of ambient light after that. The current was running against me as I approached the gut, which made for a nerve-wracking moment or two. But I made it through no problem, thanks in no small part to a bright three-quarter moon that helped show me the way to go.
I was to transit two canals that day, the 14-mile Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and the canal at Cape May. I aced the C&D, hitting the tides right, making great time and was soon cruising down Delaware Bay. I was right on schedule, at 1600 I had six miles to go before the entrance to the two-mile Cape May Canal. It was then, though, that a freakish thing happened. The sun began to go down.
A trick when doing deliveries: one tends to lose touch with anything that is not related to the here and now. Current events lose their meaning as you spend your time listening to NOAA weather radio as opposed to the local oldies station, where the disc jockey reminds you 17 times an hour about the latest used-car deals and the fact that tonight you need to “fall back” on account of daylight savings. Failing to “fall back,” I had allowed myself to lose a crucial hour and would not be arriving until the very tail end of the day.
To my considerable glee, a ferry boat slipped past me into the breakwater entrance. I would have a guide! My elation, though, was short-lived, as my brightly lit chaperon slipped into a pier to port just as true darkness fell.
In the gloom, the narrow entrance to the canal intermingled with a line of trees to either side. I could make out a pair of green and red nav lights ahead of me, though, and decided to proceed, despite the touch-and-go status of the terra firma beneath my keel. Although I had a 50,000 candlepower spotlight with me, from aft all it did was illuminate the cabintrunk and foredeck, destroying whatever night vision I may have had, so I tried my best to do without it.
Creeping in closer to the two nav aids I’d identified, though, the green one suddenly seemed to fade to a dull yellow. Putting Daydream into neutral, I clipped the tether I was wearing to a lifeline and made my forward, where I clicked on the spotlight again. There, a hundred feet in front of me was my red nav aid, perched on the far side of a 20ft-wide concrete abutment toward which I was now headed. The green light I’d been following had, in fact, been some kind of lawn ornament.
The tide was now running a couple of knots on the nose as I snaked my way back to the main channel. Fortunately, the moon was now peeking up over the horizon, and as I neared the town of Cape May, houses also started appearing, which helped me see the channel. The excitement, however, was not over yet. Ever run through a 30ft-wide bridge opening at 5.5 knots against a 4-knot current in a boat with an 11ft beam? Thank goodness the total darkness—and that sensation of being truly and utterly alone as you literally have to feel your way along the bottom—was now past. Only after I’d safely arrived at my destination, and under the influence of a hot meal, some friendly faces at the marina and a couple of Manhattans I was finally able to relax.
The next morning, after a good night’s sleep, I topped off the fuel tank and at 0900 left Cape May Channel behind. As I did so, I headed straight out into a 20-knot southeasterly, which had blue water coming over my bow within moments of my leaving the shelter of the breakwater. This, though, was the kind of thing I was used to. Shorts and T-shirt’s were now replaced with wool and foulies. Nonetheless, I had a good boat under me and a snug harbor I knew was well within reach.
The rest of the trip would be hard, holing up in various ports to avoid a series of howling northeasterlies that would end up costing me an additional seven days. With short hops between ports, though, not to mention familiar places by land or sea, I knew the worst was behind me. The icy cold waters of the Atlantic could never chill me like that pitch-black passage through that awful canal!
Ed Note: When not transiting perilous canals, Winslow Furber is also a professional artist who specializes in marine landscapes and boat portraits painted on NOAA charts. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit winslowfurber.com
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