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)

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