Another Weather Window

I turned just as the 102 foot Marshall Island flagged yacht Tsalta rounded a gentle bend in the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (C&D), then focused my attention on the bridge ahead. Around us, the engineered contours of the canal started giving way to a natural setting where the touch of man was less noticeable. Tall marsh grasses sat on a low undulating shoreline and waved in the easterly wind, occasionally bending in the whistling gusts. The day was grey, overcast, with a low-pressure system stalled to our west. It was the same low-pressure system that dumped a month’s worth of rain on the District of Columbia and surrounding areas in just a few hours. We watched the weather pattern and decided the storms would slide to our south and it would be safe to move to an anchorage in the Delaware Bay, putting us in a position to catapult to Cape May the next day.

We approached the British flagged twin masted sailing vessel Sundowner that cruised ahead of us. Aboard were two new friends with whom we shared a dock and meals the previous day. During our pre-departure morning confab, we stood clad in foul weather gear as the gentle grey rain cooled us. “We’re just going to tuck around Reedy Island and tomorrow will be an absolutely beautiful day,” Mike said with absolute confidence.

The currents in the Delaware Bay are swift, relentless and can be dangerous. The chart shows the Delaware to be shallow, strewn with shoals and divided by a series of heavily-trafficked shipping lanes with few places to tuck into. Within an hour of exiting the C & D Canal, according to the forecast, the Delaware’s power would have turned against Caprica, leaving us to cover approximately 60 nautical miles with a current on our bow. We’d be facing a long day and even longer night with Alison at the radar calling out positions for crab pot floats that can easily disable a vessel and inbound freighters that have little room to maneuver.

But still, there was the promise of a strong easterly wind that could gift us with a magnificent night of sailing. Ignoring the potential for large waves built from the collision of wind and current in opposing directions, I declared, “I think we’ll get out there and see what conditions are like.”

The crew of Sundowner made arrangements with the only marina in Cape May that can accommodate sailing vessels. The marina is a premier facility and hosts multimillion-dollar yachts and gleaming offshore sport fishing boats but is also at the end of a narrow canal where the current is intensified by the close quarters and just rips. Sailboats have to time their approach through the sometimes daunting Cape May inlet, between the colossal stone jetties, down the crowded channel, past an impressive commercial fishing fleet and by a popular restaurant where dozens of dinning spectators watch you maneuver in tight quarters where the genuine possibility of crashing into a multimillion-dollar yacht greatly exists.  

I made this trek once for fuel and managed to come through unscathed, but no one should ever have to experience that amount of gut-churning stress.

As we came to half a mile of Sundowner’s stern, I throttled back and enjoyed the free canal boost current carrying us towards the Delaware. The weather radar was clearing and the day promised us blue skies and a cool evening.

Behind us, the Tsalta maintained 15 knots and began to overtake Caprica. I watched with horror the high steep waves that rolled out from the massive power yacht’s stern.

“Tsalta, Tsalta, Tsalta, this is sailing vessel Caprica,” I called on the radio.

And then again, “Tsalta, Tsalta, Tsalta, this is sailing vessel Capria.” After a minute, I repeated the hail. After a third attempt, I gave up.

She thundered passed us on our port side, and through the heavily tinted bridge window, I saw a person manning the helm. He appeared to look forward without consideration for his wake nor our two sailboats that would be hit.

Alison called down into the cabin for Eleanor to hold on, and we all braced as the wake slammed into us, which lifted Caprica then turned her hard over. Steering was gone, and water threatened to inundate the cockpit. Down below, secured items were hurled across the saloon as Eleanor yelled out. Caprica turned, then wallowed with little helm control and for a moment I thought our rudder cable had parted. As Tsalta’s wake moved passed us and smashed into the shore, we regained control and took an inventory of our situation.

 “Tsalta, Tsalta, Tsalta, this is sailing vessel Caprica,” I called on the radio.

And then again, “Tsalta, Tsalta, Tsalta, this is sailing vessel Caprica.”

A maternal voice filled my radio speaker. “To the vessel calling the Tsalta, try hailing them on 13.” It was canal control.

I thumbed over to 13, knowing that the Tsalta was monitoring 16. They would be forced to answer now that Canal control acknowledged us.

“Tsalta, Tsalta, Tsalta, this is sailing vessel Caprica,” I called on the radio.

And then again, “Tsalta, Tsalta, Tsalta, this is sailing vessel Caprica.”

I was full of dangerous thoughtless rage.

A disembodied voice from the Tsalta returned my hail. I had the presence of mind to understand that these communications were wide open for the world to hear and that it was time to enter some level of emotional sobriety.

“A little consideration when you passed would have been appreciated. You guys blew by us and your wake nearly knocked us over.” That was it. That was all I could manage to say without facing criminal prosecution.

A second passed. “Okay, we’ll take it easy on you next time,” he said.

Defeated, I exhaled. There was no recourse, no justice for this assault by the ultra-wealthy. There was nothing that I could do except recognize my status as a peasant.  The Tsalta is registered under the maritime mobile service identities number (MMSI) as 538070059 and using the MarineTraffic app, we can see that they are currently headed to Nantucket.

We watched the Tsalta steam away, with no change in speed, and turn south into the Delaware. Alison began to clean up the cockpit and the cabin below.

The wind continued to build, and I recovered from my childlike state of rage with the hope of a night sail as Sundowner made a gentle southerly turn to follow a narrow channel that would ultimately lead them to the backside of Reedy Island. I unfurled the forward sail and felt Caprica’s character change under the lift created by the genoa. With a trimmed sail, we quieted the diesel engine and began the long march down the Delaware. We watched Sundowner in the channel unfurl their own forward sail and glide in the calm waters against a low marsh landscape. Her gleaming blue and white hull disappeared behind the tall waving grasses of Reedy Island. Only the terminus of her mast and filled forward sail appeared over the stunted island trees. We watched their mast drift by the church steeple of a small town then out of view as we sailed south. I said a silent farewell to our friends and focused on the water ahead.

As our course took us near the shipping channels and next to a massive power plant, the command of the Delaware finally turned against our bow. The current swirled around channel markers and left small foaming and bubbling whirlpools as evidence of the underwater turbulence. Our speed slowed as Caprica rounded the last bit of the underwater Reedy Island sea wall that extends almost three miles to the south where a narrow and shoaling passageway leads north to the one anchorage in our vicinity. The wind funneled from the south and then faded with a hiss. My hope of a night sail was over, and we threaded Caprica between a rock pile, shallows and the Reedy Island sea wall back towards the north.

Taking bearings from warning beacons, the occasional pole and a distant channel marker, we moved into deeper water with the low marsh islands to our starboard. With the current under our keel, we were propelled past the quietly anchored Sundowner who stood proudly against a carpet of green marsh grasses and a sleepy town ashore.  Giving them room to enjoy the anchorage, we drifted past their perfect spot to our own area of self-imposed seclusion. With the current rushing past us, we dropped the anchor and settled in after setting alarms for the tide change. I wanted to be on deck when the current reversed to make sure that the anchor reset and to ensure our 130 feet of chain wouldn’t wrap around the keel.

On deck, we watched a steady line of enormous ships thread the channel, amazed that humanity can build such monstrous and hulking machines. Blue skies emerged, the temperature dipped, and we were treated to the silence of the marshlands. The town seemed desolate, a stark contrast to the tremendous power plant across the river that created an extended cloud that drifted east.

As the midafternoon progressed, a dark hulled sailboat fought valiantly against the current towards our tranquil anchorage. With the binoculars, I watched a mountain of water pile against the brown stained bow as evidence of the increasing current.

“Full power!” The owner of the Canadian flagged sloop Lady K yelled over the diesel engine as he pounded past us. I snapped a quick picture and sent it to the Facebook page for LadyKsailing.com; the website address was written across the boom. We watched him anchor in the vicinity of Sundowner then I returned to enjoying the nature around us. Towards sunset, thousands of barn swallows emerged from the mainland and swarmed the channel, dipping, diving, and chirping. They massed over Reedy Island, patrolling the marsh grasses in a feeding exuberance.  I watched in awe, never seeing so many swallows and I admired their dog fight like aerial acrobatics.

As the current shifted, I watched Lady K raise anchor and head south. We later learned that he snagged three crab pots in the night and was forced to anchor dangerously close to the shipping channels while waiting for a towboat to rescue him.

As the sun set, we sat on the deck in the fresh night air and felt the mammoth freighter engines reverberating through the stillness as they approached. Their lights stood over us and filled the backdrop to our north with a distance cityscape.

Again, the Sundowner was ahead of us in the morning as we careened down the Delaware under sunny skies and coolish conditions. We stayed closer to the shipping channel, a result of the crab pot fields to our west and stayed clear of the large freighters and tugs pounding north towards the industrial ports. Threading shoals, we ventured into the Atlantic where the water changed to a light aqua green blue – “My favorite water, mama!” Eleanor said – and the fresh salt air filled my being with a sense of calm. Large dolphins fed in frenetic currents, shoals and among the breaking waves around us. Eleanor pointed, as she spotted dolphins from the cover of the shade canopy as I maintained heading against a strong side current that threatened to drag us towards a series of foaming breakers.

We were on schedule for the Cape May inlet channel so we rounded markers, dodged a few fishing boats that drifted and then dropped the hook after almost 70 nautical miles. Friends from Chesapeake City aboard a beautiful and well cared for blue water cruiser waved from where they anchored nearby. They left a day before us and found refuge in the snaking thirty miles long Cohansey River in southern New Jersey – the second option of three for sailing vessels looking for a respite along the Delaware.  We chatted, compared notes, and shared ideas about the weather.

For days the weather models showed an excellent opportunity to jump offshore from Cape May to Block Island or even further. A strong southerly would fill in, gain strength and sustain itself, giving Caprica the promise of a magnificent ride with the wind at our aft quarter for the two sleepless overnights ahead. With every weather model update, we hovered over the various incarnations of data feeling the tug north towards cooler temperatures and perpetual outside living. We took on a few gallons of fuel and secured the dinghy on deck for ocean conditions, including a possible squall line from the west.  We were braced for weather, so I started the engine while Alison finished prepping the cabin. We were ready to go.

Then the phone pinged.

We received a text from our friends aboard the blue water cruiser parked next to us. Both were sailing veterans fresh from a season in the islands with thousands of miles under their keels. Their text warned us of the weather building in the east and of rough conditions.  Alison and I took their warning to heart and poured over the various weather models again – the hourly predictions taking us through the time we anticipated arriving at Block Island. We reviewed and discussed the squall line, the waves, the gusts, and shared our interpretations with each other.

“Let’s delay to the next update and make a call then,” Alison suggested. We had the Cape May inlet and the tides to consider, but we felt that the delay was worth it. Two hours after our departure time, the wind offshore was freshening, and I thought about how it would have been a beautiful night to be sailing under the moonlight that now filled the harbor. Yet again, the models showed the weather front intensifying to the east far too much for my comfort level. We decided to wait another day, risking our weather window but ensuring that we would be safe.

The next morning, the updated models confirmed our concerns the night before and validated our final decision. With gusts across our course that would build up to 30 knots and a line of storms producing wind over 40 knots, it would have been a hard night for sure.

2 thoughts on “Another Weather Window

  1. Dan Bryant says:

    Sounds like it was a good call to stay hunkered down in Cape May. We really enjoyed the sail through NYC and LI Sound, if you decide to bypass the off-shore route.

    1. S/V Caprica says:

      Hi Dan! Yes, we made a good call. Really bad weather the next day in Cape May and we ended up having a smooth and enjoyable sail to Block Island. More to come on that. Hope to see you out there!

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