Thursday, April 14, 2011

You'll Get There When You Get There

(A Stowaway, one of many that were forcibly relocated)

Elizabeth City, NC to Solomon's Island, MD:

We left Elizabeth City in an irresponsible frenzy. To do lists were incomplete, tasks were unfinished. We needed to be on the move again. We retraced our trip up the dismal swamp without a hitch. It's still early in the season and we only saw one or two other boats before arriving in Portsmouth. The isolation was good for us and the only conversation aside from our own was with the occasional bridge tender.

We took a day off in Portsmouth for some repairs. Our GPS had broken the morning we pulled out of our slip in Elizabeth City. It seemed like a bad omen at first but it was actually really nice to get back into the habit of old-school navigation. Steering compass courses and using navigation aids is far superior to a screen that relays satellite transmissions. While in Portsmouth, I caught up with an old friend of mine who brought some friends over for cocktails on the boat. Unfortunately I didn't anticipate everyone else getting seasick from drinking alcohol on a rocking (albeit gently rocking) boat. I felt like a rather bad host, inviting friends over and making them ill. Next time we will just meet a bar like regular people.

I felt apprehensive about leaving Portsmouth for Deltaville the following day. It's a sixty nautical mile stretch and the forecast indicated heavy winds and a small-craft advisory warning for the lower Chesapeake Bay (although I am convinced those warnings are for flat-bottom fishing boats). We hadn't even raised the sails in over three months. Despite being forced to reef, double reef, shake out reefs and douse the sails entirely over and over, we had a fantastic day of sailing. The wind was too strong most of the time and scared the shit out of me a couple of times, but it was an exhilarating day all in all. We anchored in Deltaville, exhausted, only to discover that our alternator was broken and our batteries weren't charging.

The following day's forecast entailed a nasty cold front, so we decided to stay put and work on the engine. This meant hours of torment, with Patrick deep in the bilge of the boat, black with grease and nervously claustrophobic. I tried to be helpful, passing him tools, and then fishing them out of oily bilge-water when he would drop them. It made us really wish we weren't so reliant on our engine...but we are. We are no where near good enough to do without it.

The early morning was warm and clear. I made tea and we sat in the cockpit watching sparrows and hawks hunt over the water. We heard the shrimp running with the tide. Sparrows darted in and out of our rigging nipping at moths and flies while the hawks made dramatic grabs for fish the size of their bodies. They were nesting along the waterfront and we could see their little chicks peeking out to watch their mothers hunt. It was a perfect, yet incongruous prelude to a day full of thunder and rain squalls.

The forecast for the week was terrible for sailing to the north Chesapeake. Cold fronts swept through every other day, and the the high pressure systems that followed them boasted strong northerly winds that would make sailing impossible. We decided to take a risk and motor sail through moderate westerlies on a day that would at least be free of thunderstorms. We hoped for a close-reach, and planned to arrive at Solomon's Island, MD in 10 hours or less.

(view from a portlight)

The morning started easily enough. We motor sailed in a light breeze with favorable current and averaged 6 knots for the first two hours. The barometer had fallen but the weather seemed more benign than anything.

By 1100 we neared the Potomac River and conditions deteriorated in a matter of seconds. The wind increased and shifted to our exact heading. We had to drop our sails which decreased our speed to a pathetic three knots. The waves then built to a nasty chop with opposing wave patterns that collapsed in on each other. The Cape Dory was taking a serious beating. You could feel her lunge forward then collide with a wave and shudder to nearly a complete stop. Suddenly our ten thousand pound boat was catching air, flying off the top of one wave just as another would catch us on our beam. With no sails to stabilize us, the motion was terrifying. The sky was completely obscured by thick black clouds and I began to think we might be sailing into a thunderstorm after so carefully trying to avoid one.

I knew that the huge Potomac river was creating a counter-current and that conditions would likely improve north of the river. But the mouth of the Potomac is nearly ten miles wide, and we were barely making three knots. Patrick didn't think the engine could hold out. We started to wonder, would we make Solomon's before dark at this pace? Could we tack into strong headwinds, against the current all the way to an anchorage if the engine failed?

It took three hours to get north of the Potomac. We watched grumpily as bigger boats with more powerful engines passed us without a struggle. At Point Lookout the wind lessened but the wave action was still miserable. We considered falling back to another anchorage but the nearest one was almost as far south as Solomon's Island was north. Thanks to some encouragement from Kevin who knows the Chesapeake intimately, we decided to carry on and hope that some natural force would turn in our favor before nightfall.

Twelve and a half hours after setting off, we finally dropped anchor in one of Solomon's sheltered creeks. I felt like crying in relief, the day had been so wretched. We were frozen, our bones hurt from the jarring motion, and we had been seriously afraid that our boat couldn't handle the pounding. Rounding the spit into the sheltered Patuxent waters we were greeted with the happy sight of Sailboats racing with full-spinnakers. The sun emerged for the last half-hour of daylight and it's rays filtered over Solomon's Island as though lighting the way to refuge. I don't know why we put ourselves through that day, but it's over now, and we are only fifty miles from Annapolis. I don't know where we plan on leaving Swift Ranger for the summer, but I can guarantee it will not be on the other side of the Potomac, aka Little Gulf Stream Bitch.