Our Last Journey South in 2016
Leaving Herring Bay was both a blessing and a curse. We no longer were being bounced up and down at anchor far from our destination. (Destination = my grandparents’ house along the bay between the York and James Rivers.) But at the same time, we were facing a long, hot night ahead with a seasick cat and our first night sail. At 2000 hours, Damian and I both felt confident enough to traverse on to Solomons, but boy was that a story!
The morning heat
The impending morning heat woke us up after only a few hours of sleep from our early-dawn docking saga. We had plugged Gem&I into the AC outlets on the docks at Harbor Inn Marina when we first arrived. Enjoying the relief of cool air pumping through the boat, enabled us to get comfortable for a good night’s sleep. But that temporary relief did not last long!
The air quit working. When we awoke, we were drenched in sweat. The rising sun’s burning rays poured through the port holes, making the interior of our boat stifling. We were out of our air conditioner’s “miracle elixir,” Barnacle Buster. So, Damian put his fold-up bike together and cycled to the nearest West Marine, about a mile or so away in hopes to purchase a gallon or two.
But they were all out. One WM employee told Damian that Barnacle Buster was a hot item this summer. Many boaters had discovered its “healing powers” to fix their on-board air conditioners. And because of this, their store was constantly running out within hours of each new shipment. We’d either have to wait a couple days until the next shipment or decide to do something else.
Damian returned back to the marina. Meanwhile, I had befriended one of our dock neighbors, a friendly red-headed teenage girl, who spent her morning catching crabs with her crab pots laid strategically off the bow and stern of her stepdad’s sailboat. We had both commiserated about the heat. Kindly enough, her stepdad offered to loan Damian his manual oil extractor. With it, he drained about a quart of engine oil and change the air filter. Both issues Damian felt were necessary for our engine maintenance at this time.
Stay and bake or venture on?
After lunch, Damian and I both looked at each other under the unbearable heat. Were we going to just sit here aboard Gem&I docked at Solomon’s and bake all day? Or should we make a plan to do something else? (On another note: I had started to get nervous about our arrival in visiting my grandparents as many of our family members planned to be away for a wedding in Texas the next week.) Lesson: NEVER MAKE SAILING JOURNEY DECISIONS BASED ON LAND DWELLER PLANS.
Destination: Coan River
Our next charted destination was the Coan River, a tributary on the south side of the Potomac River, only a few miles up that looked promising in the Cruising Guide. Our logic went a little something like this: since we were going to sit out in the sun one way or another and bake (along with our over-heated, dehydrated cat), could we make some headway towards our intended destination by using the hours in the day to sail further south? We were getting about 5-10 knot winds, so even though it was hot, hot, hot, we could get a slow but decent sail in. Looking back at this logic, we should have chosen a different, more comfortable, less desperate option. Thus around 1500 on July 27, we set out once again.
Damian was exhausted from the extremely long night that we had had before. So I took the helm, and he went below to get some shut-eye. About an hour later, he came back up to see how we were doing. His “Ship’s Log” reads like this:
At 1700, I decided to check our progress. My first mate informed me that the current and the wind were against us. I looked to our stern, and noticed that we had barely been moving and had not made much progress. We were making roughly 2-3 knots. The waves were 1-3 feet, and the bow was constantly slamming against each wave. I noticed that the diesel fuel can was moving back and forth on the bow, so I went up forward to secure it better. Back in the cockpit, my first mate and I discussed a plan.
Our first attempt at gaining speed was to unfurl the jib, but we only gained 0.5 of a knot. Nothing really. The air temperature was 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Poor Booh-Bah (our cat Schnitzel) was hot and showing definite signs of dehydration. He was not drinking water and had begun to act lethargic. We removed his life jacket as this may be a factor causing his overheating, but he did not improve. I finally came up with the plan to shelter him with more direct shade with a blanket I had.
First change of plans: anchor in the Honga
Since we were all extremely tired, Damian and I talked about finding an anchorage for the night to get some much-needed rest. The closest river to us at this point was the Honga on the eastern shore. After scanning the charts, this seemed like a viable option. Hence, we pointed our boat in that direction and motor sailed as fast as our Gem&I would take us. But at 1830, the wind had died completely. The sea was calm and flat like glass. Beautiful but not what a sailor wants to see. Even though the sun was sinking in the sky, the temperature had not decreased. A night at anchor with no air conditioning seemed torturous—not only to us but also to our poor cat, who did not understand and needed some cool relief the most. In addition, the chart showed that the Honga did not offer a lot of deep-enough, protective anchorages. Gem&I bobbed up and down off of Hooper Island Lighthouse, visible in the distance. We were barely moving in the direction we were headed.
What should we do? That was the question going through our heat exhausted minds. Yes, it was that bad. I think the heat had penetrated every part of my being—including my mind at that point. We were grateful night was falling, because at least it would be dark.
Second change of plans: Coan River again
We made the decision to go back to the original plan on the Coan River. So we turned southwest again for the entrance of the Potomac. We passed Point No Point at 2300 hours. At this time, we were motoring with only the main up. The wind continued to be non-existent on this hot July night. Motoring with a current against you is not fun to say the least. Hours later (near midnight) the Coan River seemed so far off.
What about Deltaville?
The following thought went through our minds—should we just keep pressing south to Deltaville?
Now mind you: if we thought the Coan was a long way off, Deltaville was an even a longer way off (double or triple as far).
But on a roasting hot night, captain and first mate made the fateful decision to go for a second all-night sail. This time, the feat we had before us was further than the night before (Herring Bay to Solomons). Was our delusion from the heat, perhaps?
We just kept pressing south to Deltaville. At this point, the “Ship’s log” reads:
At 2330, my mate took the helm and I went down below to make a late dinner, which was a can of Brunswick stew and some bread. My crew was suffering from seasickness, so I told my first mate to watch over the crew and I would take the helm.
Our crew, the beloved cat, was not doing well. Despite our efforts, he was struggling. So I laid down in the cockpit and put him on my chest like a baby, and there we slept for the next few hours as our captain managed the ship alone. His log reads:
At 0200, the wind picked up, and we were about at the mouth of the Potomac River. The current wind and waves were against us again. We were almost to the shipping channel, outside the Rappahannock at 0330 hours. Bow was being lifted by 1-3 foot waves. It felt as though the boat was going to be in the shipping channel for quite a long time. While in the shipping channel, I saw many freighters, but the moon was on our side and the night was clear.
At 0430 hours, we were close to Wind Mill Point. At this point, a large freighter and average-size cruise ship was approaching off of our port bow. I looked through the binoculars several times and altered course twice to stay out of their way.
Cruise ship musings
Damian reflected later at the irony of the passing cruise ship, heading north up to Baltimore possibly coming back from a week-long cruise to the Caribbean or other exotic destination. He said that our sailboat got so close enough that he could see the people on board—dancing, partying, and having a grand ole time on their last night aboard. And yet, perhaps a few cruising guests had gotten a glimpse of our red, white, and green running lights as we motored passed and wondered or fantasized about manning their own sailing vessel on a riskier, more daring adventure than the cruise line had to offer. Night at sea offers a profound and peaceful place to do some deep—and sometimes dark—thinking.
The reality of amateur night sailing
Fatigued from two nights at the wheel of our vessel, Damian woke me around 0500 to take watch, so that he could rest—if only for an hour or two. The night sky was still the color of pitch and tar. Scanning the dark on the port side, the bow, the starboard side, and back at the glowing GPS was an endless cycle. Fact: you cannot see the shape or outline of boats at a distance at night, only their lights. Lights can mislead you. If you don’t have experience with it, it’s scary. In a way, it’s like sailing blindfolded.
And since we did not have radar aboard Gem&I, boats don’t show up on the GPS screen; thus you rely on what you can see with your eyes. When I took the helm, Damian explained that our course was pointed in the direction of a buoy I saw highlighted on the chart plotter. His directions to me were clear: continue to head for the buoy. But the closer I got, the more afraid I became. I couldn’t see the buoy with my eyes! And yet on the chart, we were approaching closer and closer. My fear was that we would run into it.
At last, I couldn’t take it anymore. I called down below for Damian to come up and assess the situation. He came up but was groggy and incoherent about my explanation of our whereabouts. Gem&I lifted up and sank down with each passing wave as it flowed against us. When we crested, our running lights shined just a few feet out towards what was truly in front of us, and then vanished as we entered each trough. Just as Damian took the helm, we saw the buoy straight in front of us! It was clanging like an ancient, swarthy ship of old. Whether it had a light or not, I still cannot remember. But seeing it silhouetted there in the night sky had stopped my heart from beating for a few seconds and had caught my breath with panicked fear. We had almost run into it—and on my watch! Damian swerved the boat’s direction so that we barely missed collision.
This, by far, was not one of my finest moments. But it gets worse.
Falling asleep at the helm
Damian re-assessed our location and position on the GPS. He set us up for our next length of sea to motor through on our trek. On to Deltaville, a spot we had both sworn never to return to because of its lack of interest to us both. And here we were, going there again. On toward Wind Mill Point. And he headed back down below to his bunk; he needed sleep, a half hour of sleep.
He asked me to man the helm for a half hour. I put a blanket around my shoulders and took back my watch.
Up. Scan the port side. Down. Scan the bow. Up. Scan the starboard side. Down. Run my eyes across the glowing GPS: still on course? Yes. Up. Scan the port side. Down. Scan the bow. Up. Scan the starboard side. Down. Repeat again.
The night sky and sea closed in around me. Was it the lull of the bobbing boat? Was it the drone of my repeated scanning cycle? My eyes were heavy. Keeping my weighted eyelids open became the impending battle.
“Hey, hey, wake up!” Damian said shaking me gently. “You fell asleep. Let me take it from here.”
I had done the unthinkable: I had fallen asleep at the helm. This is the part where my mind goes a little foggy, and I rely on Damian’s recollections for details.
As he moved into position behind the wheel, Damian tried to find out where we were using the chart plotter and paper charts. Finally, he realized that we were in Fleet’s Bay and not going west, up the Rappahannock towards Deltaville. My sleeping helmsman-ship had significantly altered our course.
Back on track
Damian turned Gem&I once again toward Wind Mill Point and on course for the last leg of the journey. Damian made the decision to go around the point rather than motor through the Rappahannock Spit, because of shallow depths. About a mile up the Rappahannock River, Damian noticed that our fuel was low. He got our jerry can and poured our emergency fuel into the tank to stretch our motoring capacity that much further. The “Ship’s log” reads:
From 0600 to 0800 en route to Deltaville, I was kept awake by a call to the coast guard about a found kayak with a life jacket. I am always impressed with the Coast Guard.
The morning sun shed light on our surroundings, the shoreline more and more visible. I awoke with the cat still nestled on top of my chest as we lay in the floor of the cockpit. Damian and I used the Cruising Guide to determine which marina would be open at this early hour. Sure enough when we radioed in, Norview Marina was the first to respond. Hence, Norview became our chosen location to dock. The harbor master guided us to a T-dock, and together we secured Gem&I with two bow lines, two stern lines, and a spring line. Little did we know then, that this would be Gem&I’s home for the next two and a half weeks as our lives took some unexpected twists and turns.
Have you ever night sailed before?
We would love to hear from you! What are your night sailing experiences? What tips or tricks would you give to sailors on late-night watches that help keep you awake and alert at sea? Share with us below!