Monday, December 27, 2010

East River, Chesapeake Bay to the ICW

After relaxing for an evening in Portsmouth we set off at 0800 for the intra-coastal waterway. It had been over a year since we had traveled its picturesque, wandering waters. It felt odd to be so excited to pass ICW marker #1, after emphatically swearing off the ICW only a year ago. But we had gained so much confidence over the last year that re-entering the ICW brought only feelings of happy anticipation. We even decided to take the shallower but more scenic dismal swamp route south, rather than the virginia cut we had taken previously. A choice well rewarded! The dismal swamp was a place of tranquil beauty, boasting unusually high water and not a single navigational challenge aside from occasional floating debris.

We went through several locks and bridges that were actually rather enjoyable. I derived so much pleasure hailing bridge tenders on the VHF radio again. I can't emphasize enough, that I was back in my element. I love radio protocol. I wish phone conversations were as formal. The only hiccup throughout our two day leisurely jaunt to Elizabeth City, North Carolina was a brief confrontation with--you guessed it!!--a power boater.

He had anchored in front of a lock waiting for it to open, whereas we timed our arrival perfectly with its opening. I hailed the lock operator and he gave me the go ahead so we motored straight into the lock. Meanwhile the power boat (who hadn't even hailed the lock operator to announce his arrival!) was frantically trying to get his anchor up. As we passed him, he angrily motored his anchor up and drove right at us trying to cut us off. Being a sailboat, we can't stop or turn that easily so we just held our course and he used his bow thrusters to back down. He ran to the bow and started shouting at us, "You must be really anxious to make that lock! Are you scared? You had to cut in front of me, huh? Well go ahead if you're in such a hurry!" I was really confused at this point. The lock was open, his anchor was down, so we just went on in. I didn't really know what else we were supposed to do, motor around in circles waiting for him to get ready saying, "oh no, after you, sir." We've never been in a situation where you are allowed to anchor in front of a lock or bridge, so we didn't know what protocol was. I yelled from the cockpit a sincere and confused apology and he shouted back, "oh no you're not! You're not sorry at all." I responded, "um...I actually am sorry, we didn't mean to be rude." But by this point Patrick had heard enough and called him an asshole, very loudly. This really undermined my apology so then I started yelling at Patrick, while he yelled at the power boater, while the power boater yelled at me. Then we entered the lock, tied up RIGHT next to each other and awkwardly travelled in tandem, through every lock and bridge all the way to Elizabeth City together. SOOO weird.

(inside the lock, they raised the water 10 feet!)
He never looked at us or spoke to us again, even when in the next lock, all the other boats were introducing themselves to each other and cracking jokes, this guy acted like we didn't exist. That will teach you, always be nice on the ICW!!! There's no escaping each other.

All in all, the trip was a dream! We left Swift Ranger looking like a dapper dandy, putting all the other boats to shame (except of course Pearl of Eastport, elegant as ever!) at the Pelican Marina. I felt like we were handing our pride and joy over to a foster care program. We still feel like bad parents and plan on moving her somewhere else no later than March.

I will leave you with a short, sloppily done video we threw together of the last couple days of our trip.
Amateur camera work: Alaina
Amateur editing: Patrick
Original score recorded on an old 4-track: Tennis (Patrick and Alaina)

Friday, November 12, 2010


We had to wait one day for a massive cold front to pass through. A severe thunderstorm pummeled northern Virginia with tornados, violent wind, and lightning. Swift Ranger rolled so hard at the dock we kept watch, worried she might be ripped from the pilings.

By Thursday morning the storm had passed and left fog, and rainsqualls in its wake. At 0900 we traded goodbyes with Colin as he caught a returning flight to Denver and we set off for Deltaville, an easy thirty-mile jaunt south of Reedville. The wind was brisk and off the beam and reached a long at six and half knots for three hours. Lingering fog blotted out most of the horizon, slowly dissipating only to be succeeded by squalls.

Soon we were met with that familiar wall of white, the leading edge of a squall that looks like an ominous vanishing curtain, devouring any vessel or creature that enters. It took only a few minutes to reef the main, douse the jib, clear the decks and don our foul weather gear. It felt good to have our old rhythm back!

Ten minutes later we were still waiting for the first squall to hit. They were moving so fast that would form, advance before us and then vanish before we were near. An hour later the weather had cleared and not a drop of rain had hit the boat, we were a little disappointed.

At 1200 we were abeam of Deltaville. We were making incredible time, and the wind was still good so we altered course for Mobjack Bay, twenty miles further south. This would reduce our travel time the next day to Portsmouth from sixty miles to forty.

The wind veered later in the day and I got pretty wet hoisting and dousing sails while we beat into the wind. At some point in the day we passed through a strange stretch of coastal water where flies abound. I went below to prepare some lunch and was greeted by approximately thirty flies. They were swarming around the cabin in clusters. I hate flies. I hate any insect on the boat because there are too many hidden places where they can nest that I will never find. It disgusts me to think of various species colonizing deep in the bilge and crawling around while I sleep. Somehow the fly debacle escalated into full blown debauchery when I discovered most of them where mating. Somehow Swift Ranger had devolved into an ocean going brothel. Fortunately, the flies disappeared on their own after we had passed far enough south.

We rounded into Mobjack bay with two more hours of daylight. We had six miles of reaching left before we could tack into Eastern River and find an anchorage. The sun was just slipping below the horizon when we dropped the main, and then the anchor in the lee of the northern shore in anticipation of NW winds forecasted to pick up that night. The anchorage was so quiet we could hear the moving water of the ebb tide fluttering along the hull and little fish frolicking near the surface.

(entering Eastern River)
(sunset at anchor!)

By midnight the Northwesterly wind freshened to twenty-five knots. We weren’t used to the howling, a sound that perfectly casts doubt on your security. It’s like trying to go to sleep with the theme song from Jaws playing all night. Dear Patrick, ever vigilante, was up all night increasing scope and inspecting our holding. We were swinging so abominably we felt like we were back in the Bahamas with its raging counter currents. Suddenly Patrick remembered we had forgotten to lash the tiller and the rudder, open to the force of the current, had been steering us in circles for hours. After remedying our mistake, Swift Ranger rode much more comfortably to her anchor and we got a few hours of sleep.

We were up with the sun and casting off within fifteen minutes. Everything was carefully stowed, we confirmed the forecast (thirty knots from the north!), changed the fuel filter, rigged a second reef in the main and hauled anchor.

As soon as we left the shelter of Eastern River the wind descended with unmitigated force that increased but never diminished. It had been blowing thirty knots for over twelve hours by then and the Bay was a real shit show. I had never seen such big waves in only twenty feet of water! Suddenly routine tasks like tacking or dousing sails were an incredible challenge. I wasn’t nearly strong enough to reef the jib without Patrick’s assistance, thus making the day very tedious.

The course we had planned would have us running dead down wind. Swift Ranger doesn’t sail wing and wing very well in rough seas, and always feels like she might broach (although she never has—we are just worriers). The wind wasn’t consistent enough to keep the jib full anyway, and without a spinnaker pole it would have been a nightmare. We decided to broad reach on a port tack far out into the bay (way off course unfortunately) until we could broad reach on a starboard tack all the way to the Hampton Roads channel. We went fifteen miles off course in order to sail more comfortably with lots of sea room, and it was well worth it. Between the heavy winds and surfing down following seas we averaged over seven knots for six hours! A record for Swift Ranger! Patrick and I were rusty and nervous, but we marveled at the seaworthiness of our little boat. She rode the steep, closely spaced waves that are the bane of the Chesapeake with perfect ease. She felt light as a feather and seemed to skim over the tops of the waves with each gust.

I hate steering when we are broad reaching because I am terrified of an accidental jibe so Patrick was at the helm all day. I managed all the sails, and navigated the whole passage as a sort of apology for forcing him to labor with the tiller for hours. By late afternoon Patrick pointed out a small brown ball rocketing over the water. As it neared us we could see little wings—it was the tiniest bird, only a little larger than a hummingbird blown far out over the bay, completely powerless to fly back to land! Suddenly the bird landed on our bow to rest itself, but even then the wind threatened to blow him off the deck. I watched as he hopped between gusts towards the cockpit, clearly looking for more adequate shelter. He came to a stop below my armpit and huddled in the crook of my arm which was resting on the side deck. So tired and so fluffy. I wanted to scoop him up and put him in the cabin but I knew he would be scared away. He ended up riding on our boat for several hours until we were near enough to Norfolk for him to brave the wind again. Patrick and I felt like heroes for transporting a weary bird to safety! (video footage of this will come later!)

Sailing into Portsmouth/Norfolk is always a nightmare because of the naval traffic. We joke about the constant Naval and Coast Guard broadcasts over the marine radio, “Pon Pon Pon Pon” or “Securite, Securite” and then spouting off some horrible warning of danger like “navigational aid destroyed” or “now engaging in open fire.” Patrick was terrified of colliding with one of the many destroyers zipping in and out of the inlet at easily twenty knots. We still couldn’t use our engine and were intimidated having to sail around them, but we made it unscathed to the channel that cuts between Norfolk and Portsmouth.

We know about free docks in Portsmouth, and without a dinghy we had no hope of getting ashore without them. Unfortunately the docks only fit a few boats and we watched boat after boat enter the channel headed in the same direction. Patrick was determined not to let a boat take our spot, so we motored at full throttle with all the sails up until we were directly abeam of the dock. There was room for one more boat and another faster boat was catching up to us. In one perfectly pre-planned motion Patrick released the mainsheet, threw the tiller hard over, and in the time it took Swift Ranger to spin one full circle we had doused both sails and I was ready with the dock lines while he powered into the basin. A few minutes later we were snugly tied to the dock and heading into downtown Portsmouth for dinner and cocktails. We went over a hundred nautical miles in two days, one day in gale force winds. We were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves.

(docked at Portsmouth)

Back to Swift Ranger

My return to Swift Ranger was long over due. In the year and a half I had spent away I had already forgotten the subtle curve of her up-turned forepeak, her cheeky bow and cozy teak interior. I had forgotten the way she rises stoutly to any wave, her gentle rocking at anchor, the clanging of the halyards lifted by the breeze.

(Reedville Marina at night)

Propped up on stilts in a boatyard for the last year had taken its toll on her. She was covered in a thick layer of dead vegetation, blown in by the woods that border the yard. Her teak had grayed and lost its luster. Her decks were grimy, her interior moldy. Heavily cob-webbed, bee-hived, and nested by cockroaches was our Cape Dory. It nearly broke our hearts to see our girl in such a state of disrepair.

(PJ hard at work)

Everything above and below deck was taken apart, sanded, scrubbed, sterilized, rinsed, painted and then reassembled. If it wasn’t for Colin’s help, we never would have finished in the two weeks had given ourselves for the job. It took the three of us every minute of daylight for five days to return her to her former glory. It took three days to return her to the water. Even then, almost nothing on board was functional. We had no water, no head, the v-berth cushions were too molded to be slept on, everything electric needed to be rewired.

The reward for our filthy exhausting work--work plagued by bees, hornets, horse flies, and no-see-ums, was sailing Swift Ranger again. We had two days of perfect sailing. We reached into the Chesapeake in a fresh breeze at a brisk six-knot pace. Swift Ranger leapt playfully through the little two-foot waves. The salty spray cleansed her decks and her water line, and she tacked back to the Reedville docks topsides glistening.

We spent two beautiful days sailing with our friend Ian. Inspired by Jean du Sud we shot some film footage of Swift Ranger on the water. I made lunch on our two-burner alcohol stove while underway. I had missed the challenge of cooking for three boys while heeled over twenty-five degrees!

After spending three days with us Ian returned to Brooklyn, and the first of several cold fronts settled over the Chesapeake. Colin, Patrick and I had wanted to sail to Annapolis but the weather was inhospitable so we opted to drive. We spent the whole evening with our old cruising friend Kevin Brooks bar hopping, swapping “and there we were” stories and catching up on our Eastport gossip.

(Kevin giving us a tour of Eastport)

It is always hard to leave Annapolis and our friends behind! We feel at home surrounded by boats, water, and feeling a part of the extensive maritime history.

(Kevin sharing fatherly/sailorly advice)

While visiting, Kevin advised us of a small marina in North Carolina that is well protected, fairly safe from winter freezes and inexpensive. It was a four to five day sail from Reedville, and if we left immediately we would have just enough to time to move Swift Ranger and make necessary preparations to leave her behind for another six months. This time though she would stay in the water, no more stilts for her. We longed for the excitement of a voyage, even if we never had to leave inland waters or go more than a few hundred miles!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Baltimore to night sailing with no lights

It had been over 3 months since the last time I had stepped aboard Swift Ranger. It was mostly unfamiliar at first. The wood was sun bleached from the summer, the smell of old bilge water was almost unbearable, and lastly, there was no Alaina. I was about to move our boat 150 miles to "someplace cheaper, chesapeake bay."

A few friends from Denver happily joined me to help with the trip. Colin, an old friend that I have known from 100's of concerts and Brian, a relatively new friend that I met through my wife. Both great people. Both like beer.

We quickly got the boat back to its proper standing and purchased enough food and drink for the ext 4 days. We wouldn't have that much time to go shopping again. Turning on the VHF radio for the first time in sometime, I was overwhelmed with the familiar voice of the NOAA robot broadcaster. He feels like a father. "Don't go to sea today, it will be a shit-storm sonny." Just our luck, he announced in his usual monotone that there would be no wind for 4 days.

We cast the lines and motored out of our dock, looking out over the glass-like water, we sat back and relaxed as we steered by pinky. Nothing could be more lackadaisical.

We pulled into my nostalgic homeland euphoria - Annapolis - and rafted up to an old friends boat: Kevin and Jan on Pearl of Eastport. Two ducks in a row. The very second we stepped off the boat we were greeted with frosted "Natty Bo" and a warm smile. Kevin was preparing to show us the town a little more than Alaina and I previously were able to. The town tour consisted mostly of drinking at various locations. Thank you Kevin.

And of course, Clams

The next few days can be summed up very shortly: no wind. We motored our way to Solomon's Island and had a quiet night on the boat. Here Brian had to make his way out to the airport for a flight back to Denver, it was just Colin and I from here on out.

The daddy robot voice came on later that night, "Cold front moving in on Friday night, winds 30 gusting to 40 knots." We should be fine we thought, it's Wednesday. Only one more day to Deltaville, our final destination for this trip.

Again no wind. We motored and motored and made very little progress toward Deltaville. The current from the Rappahannock is absolutely terrible. Six o'clock quickly came upon us and we were still 4 hours out. "Should we just motor through the night?" Of Course.

The very second the sun went down the wind somehow increased and I proceeded to scare the shit out of my wife. We were motor sailing with a full job and full main and in seconds the leeward rail was in the water. In a few more seconds a wave came over the bow and knocked our crappy electrical out - my fault - and sure enough we are without navigation lights. The sun is down.

The wind continues to increase. I tell Colin to turn on the radio and check the weather. "Cold front has sped up and will be affecting the bay area tonight, winds 35 knots with gusts to 40" And this is how we are greeted. The bay is no place to sail with high winds. Between the current and the shallows, the waves become really short and sharp. Nothing like on the ocean side and by all means I would have rather been on the ocean side that night if we didn't haphazardly find an emergency anchorage.

Colin and I found a spot in the lee on Fleets Bay and we sat in shifts making sure our unplanned anchoring didn't fail. The morning came with another weather forecast. "Winds sustained at 35 knots throughout the day." We would have to sail straight into the wind for another 35 miles to make our final destination. This was not going to happen. With a little VHF talk and some chart study, we found a small cove in Reedville that hopefully would accommodate us. Sure enough, not only could they accommodate us, but there haul out fees and monthly rates were half the price of the marina in Deltaville. Perfect trip.

The Journey Ends...for now

From North Carolina on it was non-stop traveling. Our goal was to reach Baltimore by June 1st, and somehow we did just that. Our dear friends Kevin and Jan on their Cape Dory "Pearl of Eastport" became our traveling companions from North Carolina to their homeport Annapolis. Sailing in the Chesapeake Bay was an unimaginable treat after all those days eeking through the shoaly channels of the ICW. For the first time in weeks hauling anchor and setting the sails became a laid-back endeavor, where I no longer needed to pour over charts and cruising guides for hours ever day. Only the occasional squall or naval zone could cause us any concern.

My ability to relax and enjoy myself undoubtedly made for a better experience for my sister Ashley, who was beginning to see sailing as one catastrophe after another including Patrick nearly biting his tongue off, constant squalls, and boats that anchor too close to us and then accuse us of hitting them. But from Norfolk on that all changed. We stopped in many beautiful anchorages, and Annapolis itself was as mecca-like as we dreamed it would be. I felt John Rousmanier's spirit guiding us into Spa Creek for the first time. I toasted him and the Annapolis Book of Seamanship for their invaluable assistance throughout our voyaging.

The morning we sailed into Baltimore's inner-harbor was surreal. Even though the last month of cruising was spent working towards this goal, it had never seemed obtainable. We never spoke of it, but Patrick and I had secret fears that our engine would just explode or we would run aground and do serious damage before our trip came to an end. I am happy to say, no calamity of the sort ever befell us. Our sail through inner-harbor was calm and beautiful, and the city towered before us, beckoning and majestic. Neither of us had ever seen Baltimore before so it was fitting that our first experience was from the water.

Unfortunately Baltimore had just experienced a massive fish kill due to an out of control algae bloom that spring. It smelled like absolute shit. As we motored into our marina the bow was literally parting through heaps of fish carcasses. It was so foul we could hardly stand to cook dinner and eat onboard Swift Ranger that night.

We thoroughly enjoyed being stationary for longer than a few days in so many months, and our marina quickly became home to us. Early on we befriended an incredible couple, Sean and Meredith who were Baltimore natives and planning their own cruising adventure in the next few years. We also began making wedding plans. Having survived so many months on a 30 footer together and still being on speaking terms with each other really confirmed this long debated option. We kept it as simple as possible, immediate family only, ceremony on a boat. We didn't even bother with invitations! Sailing taught us so many valuable lessons...(ie: cheapness)

One thing sailing didn't prepare us for was the unemployment rate in Baltimore. Desperate searching for over a month and a half didn't result in as much as a single interview between the two of us. Our college degrees and our can-do attitudes didn't give us any advantage over native East-coasters. We are just too mid-west for our own good. After 8 months of living off our savings we were completely desperate. We had no patience to continue job-hunting in a strange city for another month, so with much sadness, we left Swift Ranger behind and journeyed back to Denver, nearly a year after we had left.

We were both rehired at our old jobs within weeks of our return, and moved back into our old apartment, resuming our old lives as if we had never left. Even today, it sometimes feels like none of it ever happened. We have a series of photographs taken at various anchorages framed on our living room wall as a constant reminder of our accomplishments...but it's a strange ending to a strange journey for us. The greatest reward was undoubtedly the discovery that Patrick and I were meant to be together--that anyone else on the boat with us for more than a week started to grate on our nerves and wear down our patience, but no amount of time alone together on that boat made us wish we were apart.

I certainly lost some weight, but I gained a husband.