Escape from Super Storm Sandy

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Kerry Pears

The author steers Folly out of Great Kills, heading south for the winter

Something’s wrong. Something doesn’t sound right. What had jolted me out of my on-watch daydreams? I listened carefully; the steady rhythm of the engine faltered again. I was alone in the cockpit, in the darkest part of the night, and our engine sounded as if it was about to die. We had been battered by Superstorm Sandy, dismasted by the crane that righted us, and now, off the New Jersey shore with the wind rising and the seas steepening, the last thing we needed was for our aging Nissan diesel to withdraw its vital services.

Just 12 hours earlier, our 40ft aluminum sloop, Folly, had been launched at Staten Island on a bitterly cold December day. An English cruising boat, 3,000 miles from home, we had been held by financial ransom by the hurricane-hit marina at which we had been washed ashore during Sandy, and were vastly relieved to be afloat. We were convinced that our weeks of work in freezing temperatures had made Folly seaworthy enough to head south to a warmer winter, where we would step a new rig.

Adjusting to being back on the water, we hastily checked for leaks, and satisfied that all was well, looked at one another: “How would the weather and tide look if we left now instead of tomorrow morning as planned?” John pondered aloud. “We really need to get out of here”.

A quick review of the information confirmed that we were good to go, at least for the worst part of the passage ahead of us—an open-water overnighter along the blighted New Jersey shore. If we didn’t head south as soon as possible, we would be weatherbound in Staten Island for the rest of the winter.

Folly

Folly goes back into the water after her dramatic brush with Sandy

“We’ll see how she goes on the eight miles across protected Raritan Bay to Sandy Hook Channel,” John said. “It will give us a chance to make sure the self-steering and engine are OK. If we have any problems, we’ll just have to anchor off the Coast Guard station behind the shelter of Sandy Hook and decide what to do next. Atlantic Highlands is out of the question. They were as badly damaged as this place.”

Slipping the buoy line, we negotiated our way out of Great Kills Harbour, passing wrecked yachts and powerboats languishing where Sandy had thrown them. The Corps of Engineers was still clearing the harbor of sunken wrecks, and we followed the buoyed channel carefully, confirming that it had been cleared of debris as reported.

Afterward, setting course for Sandy Hook late on the gray winter’s day, we had a light following breeze from the west—not very helpful without a mast, but so much better than a headwind. We motored past the storm-swept base of Old Orchard Shoal lighthouse, which had stood for nearly 120 years until Sandy’s surge and battering waves had destroyed it.

Satisfied that Folly’s systems were working well, we left Sandy Hook astern as darkness fell and headed out onto the open ocean. We had prepared as thoroughly as possible for this risky trip south, replacing the broken stanchions and guardrails to make sure we stayed on board, and ensuring the liferaft and grab bag were ready to deploy. We had also made the usual preparations for an overnight passage—navigation lights and torches working, lifejackets ready to grab, harnesses on and a meal prepared. We couldn’t expect tow-boats or other rescue craft to be easily launched, if they were operating at all. We wondered how Folly was going to behave without the mast and rigging to stabilize her.

Shipping was easy to track as the sky cleared, and a calm sea eased us into the passage. Our plan was to reach the Chesapeake Bay if weather, and Folly, allowed. Delighted to be moving on from what had been a nightmare after Hurricane Sandy, we settled into our watch system. A great deal of work lay ahead for many months, but this felt like real progress, the next step on our recovery.

Overnight the winds clocked to the north and northeast, strengthening enough to pick up a chop, and gave us an indication of Folly’s new motion—a twitchy, quick correction of roll as the seas built up.

And now, hours later, our worst fear was being realised. Was our engine about to die? John appeared in the cockpit, woken by the change in engine note. Anxiously, I gently put on more power—the engine didn’t pick up, but neither did it stall. After that, I opened the throttle still further, alternately coaxing our precious engine with tender words and threatening it with curses. Ever-so-slowly the engine picked up speed as we held our breath, waiting for what seemed like the inevitable—for it to stop. The revs, however, stayed normal, and the engine resumed the reliable Swiss-watch running that we expected. Oh, relief!

“Probably had a small amount of air trapped in the system,” John said, knowing the problem couldn’t be dirty fuel since we had strained it and cleaned the tank before launching. We had also tested the engine briefly before setting out to make absolutely sure it was working properly. Still, could we feel sure of its continued cooperation?

While we were up we also reconsidered our passage plan. The latest weather reports indicated that if we carried on through the next night to try to reach Cape Charles to enter the Chesapeake Bay, we could expect a steady 20 knots from the northeast with seas to match. Given this forecast, much nearer Cape May and the Delaware River was the sensible choice.

By daylight, we were about 20 miles northeast of Cape May, but our timing was lousy for an approach to the inlet since the tide would be at its maximum ebb against onshore wind and seas—not a situation we relished. Our best option, therefore, was to keep offshore and head south, staying out of the worst of it until we could turn in toward Cape Henlopen as the ebb eased.

With the swell increasing from the east, we carried on south until we decided that despite the conditions, we had to attempt to make the river if we didn’t want to have to spend another night at sea in deteriorating weather. Gradually we brought Folly’s head round toward the land, careful not to get beam-to in the big seas, and then pushed into the weakening ebb current. White cresting waves reared up on top of gray sediment-rich water against the backdrop of a crisp blue sky. A container ship exited the river, and we willed it to turn to port—to the northeast—and away from us so that we wouldn’t have to lose a lot of hard-won ground against the current. Tethered in the cockpit by our harnesses, we held on tight as Folly snatch-rolled to port and then swung quickly back to starboard, riding the waves rolling in from just abaft the starboard beam. She rode well, up and over, as each sea subsided meekly beneath her keel, as little by little, we brought her round to starboard to clear the shallows off the Cape. We missed our mast and sails so badly!

The Harbor of Refuge west of Cape Henlopen proved to be just that, a calm anchorage behind a solid breakwater, which we made just before dark. Our mammoth job of getting Folly to cruising spec was still a long way from being achieved, but we had done it—we had escaped Staten Island, six and a half weeks after Folly had been thrown ashore by Superstorm Sandy. The safe, protected waters of the Delaware River, Chesapeake Bay, and the Intracoastal Waterway awaited us for our journey south, where we would install a replacement mast and make more permanent repairs.

And the engine never did miss another beat…

Photos courtesy of Kerry Pears

January 2017

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