Friday, November 16, 2007

Fickle Winds and Shallow Waters

Logan left us in Marion, Massachusetts (as planned) so it's been just the 2 of us for the last ten days. We departed Marion the morning of the 10th, vaguely aiming for Newport, Rhode Island. Once out in Buzzards Bay though, we decided the wind was not in our favor, and perhaps it's be more interesting to head out to Martha's Vineyard. So we did. We managed to pass through a tricky little area known as Woods Hole at the proper tide (finally!) and we sailed into Vineyard Haven just before sunset. Upon going ashore, we were both shocked and dismayed when we discovered that America has these places known as 'dry towns'. We were told it was 3 miles to Oak Bluffs, where we would find both the nearest bars and liquor stores. It was a nice walk.

Our stay was short and uneventful.

We sailed the following morning for Block Island, Rhode Island. We're quite determined these days to motor as little as possible, so despite the passage from the Vineyard to Block Island being only 30 miles, it took us 24hrs. We were tired and very cold at sunrise as we wrapped around the north of the island to approach the harbour on the west side, but we felt very privileged by the nighttime sights, which daysailors would know nothing of. The dolphins had come out to play, and the phosphorescent wake they left as they danced around the boat was surreal. We also got to practise our ability to recognize various lights on the shipping traffic in the area, tugs, barges, pilot boats.

We almost managed to sail the whole way through the very narrow channel, but then the wind came around and we had to fire up the engine for a few minutes, to avoid landing on the beach about 15 feet to our right. We eyed up a dock in the inner harbour and decided to go alongside, rather than anchor. Ed was up in the rig, keeping an eye on the water depths. The water was very clear, and the bottom was sandy and white, and at times it looked like there shouldn't be enough water beneath us to float the boat. Oh well, we said, it's only sand. So when we felt the little nudge, and she came to a halt about 50 ft from the dock, we just laughed. Ed suggested setting a sail to heel us over, and the wind was favourable to drag us off the underwater beach. But before we could do anything, the windage of the hull itself was sufficient to do the job. We slipped off the beach, and then cast our lines onto the wharf.

We're considering writing a cruising guide to 'sailing out-of-season'. Everywhere we've gone seems to be all packed-up and dismantled for the winter. Block Island was no exception, it was rather desolate. It's covered with expensive summer homes, owned mostly by folks who seem to enjoy sunsets rather than sunrises, as the west side of the island is freckled with hundreds of these New England style shingled cottages. There is only one town, on the east side, where all the tourist shops were closed, the post office was open from 10am until 1pm, and the grocery store closed at 6pm. There was one main road that circled the island, and it took me a little less than 2 hrs to do a full circumnavigation, and visit some of the centuries old lighthouses.

We waited out a nasty nor'easter, then one morning, we bit the bullet and motored out into high seas, with the forecast promising things to diminish throughout the day. We struggled a bit with the decision of whether to go inside of Long Island Sound, or just go directly to Cape May, New Jersey. Dave W.'s advice was to go outside the sound, avoid the shipping traffic and hassles of the Coast Guard when passing New York City. He's never steered me wrong with any of his suggestions thus far and I quite respect the way he goes about things with his own boat, so naturally I was inclined to take his advice. Adding to that argument was the fact that I didn't have the charts for the Sound. My only hesitation with going outside was knowing that Ed and I would be very tired after what would likely be 2 full days at sea. It would be nice to have more crew for an extended passage. But we decided we could do it. So off we went, passing Montauk Point at the eastern tip of Long Island around noontime. We had great wind for the first 12 hrs, and we estimated that at this rate, we would be in Cape May the following evening. Unfortunately, the wind died on day 2, and we were well over 100 miles from land. We had gotten the forecast periodically over the VHF radio, and we knew there were strong southwesterly winds approaching. Nothing too nasty, 30kts, 7 ft seas. So we sat in the cockpit, becalmed, flat seas, knowing that conditions would change fast when the wind started to pick up. Night fell, and the seas began to build, and the rain set in. We found ourselves in the New York traffic lanes with reduced visibility from the rain and mist (for the non-sailors among you, yes, there are designated traffic lanes on the ocean, generally at the entrance to any busy harbour, which commercial traffic is required to follow). We don't have a radar, and despite having a radar reflector, a little wooden boat still isn't the ideal vessel to be on if you want to be clearly visible on another ships radar. The boat was feeling over pressed with the amount of sail we had up, so I grabbed my harness and went forward to take the mainsail down. While doing this, a little green light appeared ahead of us. It can be very confusing in the dark and in high seas, trying to identify what exactly you might be looking at. The way another ship is lit tells you which way they're going, and can give some indication of the size of the vessel. But it's often difficult to tell how far away it is, and how fast it's going. After studying the bobbing green light for about 10 seconds, I determined it was a sailboat, and was very close by. I went back and grabbed our bright spotlight, and shone it on them, then shone it on our rig, so they would have a better idea of what they were encountering too. They shone their spotlight back, in acknowledgment, and I determined then had the right-of-way, and we altered course. It's funny to be 100 miles offshore, with so much ocean around, then to pass within 100 ft of another vessel. Ed and I both agreed that it was somewhat uplifting to see another sailboat out, experiencing exactly what we were experiencing, probably just as cold, wet, tired and seasick as we were.

Later the following evening, the winds and waves had subsided, and once again, we found ourselves becalmed. What should have been a 24 hour passage became 4 days and 3 nights. It's nice to experience being out of sight of land for a while. The days feel completely different. Your mind is not cluttered with the worries of navigating around shoals and rocks and shoreline. The water out there is at least 200ft deep, so I really do breath a sigh of relief when we in open water. Instead of running up and down the companionway, plotting positions and whatnot, we sit in the cockpit, reading books, writing letters, working on making 'baggy wrinkles' for chafe gear, to prevent any more wear on the sails where they lay on the stays and shrouds. When the weather is fine, a lot of this time is quiet time, though we do talk as well. Ed talks about Louise and what she's up to and plans for the future in Scotia. I mostly just think about what's going to happen next, short term and long term. I think of scenarios... and what I would do in various emergency (or otherwise) situations on the boat. Then sometimes situations present themselves and you have to spring into action.

One such situation occurred on our last morning out on our 4-day trip to Cape May. I had laid down at 5am after taking the bulk of the night watch. It was rough once again, and I was so cozy to be down below in my sleeping bag, warm and dry. I could hear the sound of water sloshing along the hull, it sounded like we were making good speed. It crossed my mind that the sloshing sound seemed a bit more... what's the word... distinct, perhaps. I wondered if the ocean had been sneaky in the night, and had crawled into the wrong side of the boat. Nah, I'm just slightly paranoid, worry too much about things. Then the boat heeled over, and my eyes were drawn to the corner of the ice box where water was bubbling up from beneath the floor!

It could have been a number of things. I do have an automatic pump on board, and it could have been the case that it was pumping like mad and there was still a large amount of water aboard from a large leak somewhere. I may have panicked if that thought had crossed my mind, but I didn't think about that scenario until later. I assumed the bilge pump had burned out, because it had been making unusual noises the day before, which I had chosen to ignore I guess. This turned out to be the case. It took us a little while to pump out using the manual pump in the cockpit, because it was well clogged as well. Once we got it cleaned out, we were able to pump the bilge dry, and later take the automatic pump apart and clear out the gunk that had caused it to blow its fuse.

After dealing with that, I decided I would look at the detailed chart of the approaches to Cape May. It didn't take me long to figure out that I actually didn't have it. We were about 5 miles off Atlantic City, with 18 miles left to go. I was considering winging it, assuming that any hazards to navigation would probably be well marked. What other choice did I really have? Well, perhaps call someone on the VHF for some advice, why not? I wasn't too proud. And perhaps it would serve to avoid a later search and rescue operation. I called the Cape May Coast Guard station on channel 16, and requested advice. Channel 16 being the international distress channel, it's acceptable to establish contact with another station, then you're supposed to switch over to a 'working' channel. I don't understand it, but we tried a few other channels, but the transmission was broken and unreadable. So we had to carry out the conversation on 16, which all vessels underway are required to monitor, so I think we provided a bit of entertainment to some of the local sportsfishers. I explained that we were a Canadian vessel just west of buoy R2, approaching Cape May without proper charts, and were there any hazards I should be aware of. I gave him my co-ordinates, and my true course, and he said he'd plot it and get back to me. A few minutes later he called back to say there were no shoals or wrecks, and our course would give us a safe approach to the breakwater. He added to this statement, "That said, ma'am, you are soley responsible for the safe navigation of your vessel". I acknowledged and thanked him, which he followed up with, "But, you know, if you have any other questions or concerns, please contact us again". Ed likes to imagine his name is Gil, and I agree. He sounded quite striking.

The breakwater at the entrance provided a daunting approach, with 2kts of tidal current opposing us. Steering was tricky, and the channel was very narrow. The night seemed darker than usual somehow, and the light from the spotlight seemed to fall dead before lighting what we wanted to avoid. We had a cruising guide that detailed the inner harbour, though not to scale. We used the spotlight to find our marks, many of them un-lit, and we just hoped not to run aground, as the cruising guide talks about the necessity of frequent dredging to keep the waterways navigable. But was managed to find a dock and tie up safe and sound by about 8pm. We hardly had the opportunity to shut the engine down when we were greeted by another Canadian heading south with his boat. Jean-Paul invited us over for wine, and we learned about his goodwill mission to Haiti. The top deck of his boat is loaded with bicycles to give away, and if I spoke french, I might know more about his journey. Ed was able to converse more extensively with him, being somewhat proficient in the language.

We quietly left the dock bright and early yesterday, and lucked out when we found ourselves in a mooring field, and a couple who had just hauled their boat out for the winter kindly offered us their mooring. So it's here in Cape May where we will stay for another day or two, make sure the bilge is clean and the pump is working, fix a few other odds and ends. Next stop, somewhere in the Delaware Bay.