“Sean! It’s Mike from Sundowner.” His voice was full of usual cheer and carried a thick British accent. We met Mike and Esta of S/V Sundowner a few nights before while in Chesapeake City after they magnificently parked their double masted sailboat ahead of our sloop on a small floating dock against the hard pull of the C&D canal. A day later, we anchored behind them at Reedy Island and then made the trek together down the shallow, shoal strewn Delaware Bay. Dodging ensnarling crab trap float lines and freighter traffic, we vectored towards Cape May where S/V Sundowner grabbed a slip at the powerboat mecca of South Jersey Marina.
We parked Caprica among the other cruising sailboats in the narrow anchorage just off of the coast guard base where she was rolled and slapped by the regular wakes from whale watching, parasailing, and sportfishing boats. With no easy place to park the dingy and a long walk into town, we settled in for a few days of boat dwelling. The cool Atlantic breeze filled our cabins with damp salt air, and at night, we were serenaded by young coastguard recruits at the Cape May training facility chanting cadences with the occasional interruption of a loud whistle blast.
We planned on Cape May being a quick stopover to top of fuel tanks and take on a few gallons of water but our weather window offshore abruptly closed with a strengthening weather system that demonstrated the potential for a storm-filled passage. Although Caprica was prepped for heavy weather, a precaution we take when making an offshore passage, we decided to delay again betting that the weather models the next day would show a strengthening storm front exactly where we planned to be.
“It’s ugly,” Alison said as she handed me the phone. It was the next morning, and we were both anxious to see if we blew the weather window or made the right call. An extensive line of storms developed to our west, and the weather models moved in line with our initial predictions. The sector we would have been in out in the Atlantic was going to get hammered by multiple squall lines, 40 knots of wind, massive amounts of lightning and torrential rain.
“We made a good call,” I said feeling reassured but also worried that Cape May would be the northern terminus of our trip. We started looking at the weather models again, predicting and forecasting our next offshore window, simultaneously considering our calendar and the number of summer weeks remaining.
It felt good to hear Mike’s voice and know that they were still around in Cape May.
“Mike!” I said, feeling a grin grow across my face. I accepted his invite over to Sundowner that evening, and I considered the logistics of getting there.
The dingy was stowed on deck, secured at six attachment points with two lines. To lift the dinghy off Caprica required us to rig a lifting line back through a series of pulleys to a number 48 primary winch where I cranked the nine-foot tender off of the deck. While this happened, Alison guided the boat over the scarred nonskid of the forward deck and across the lifelines. We then traded positions, and she moved aft to the number 48 and gently lowered the boat into the water next to Caprica. At some point, I lifted the bow and unhooked the harness and secured the towing line. We’ve done this hundreds of times over the last few years and have developed a reliable technique but have never quite figured out the easiest way to mount the outboard engine.
We use a small 6 horsepower Yamaha for the tender. It’s big enough to move us and some gear at five miles per hour through a calm anchorage, and it’s little enough that I can physically lift its awkward 60 pounds from a tethered dinghy jerking against its line in a choppy anchorage. We attach a line from the radar arch to assist in the mounting or dismounting of the outboard engine, but I’m still stuck trying to manhandle the top-heavy machine with lots of pointy segments that occasionally rotate from an unstable platform and onto Caprica or vice versa. Add powerboat traffic throwing wakes, the dink tugging against her line, or Caprica swinging in the wind and this makes things a little interesting.
After we managed to get the engine mounted, I realized that the trip into South Jersey Marina was just over a mile and my gasoline tank was feeling a little light. We attached the oars for those “just in case” moments, a bag of life jackets and my portable VHF in thinking that I might have to announce my presence to another boat at some point. Leaving Alison and Eleanor on Caprica, I ventured across the busy channel to a small marina tucked behind the perimeter of a tired sea wall. On the floating fuel dock, I found a spray-painted red gasoline nozzle attached to thick green fuel hose that snaked back and forth the length of the pier like a gigantic pasta noodle.
Two middle school-aged kids clad in pastel shades of sherbet polo shirts lounged in the twin captain chairs of a gleaming blue-hulled offshore fishing machine. Relaxing under a shade canopy, the kids thumbed through their screens, oblivious to my presence. This powerboat, relaxing at the fuel dock, had a pair of 250 horsepower outboards, the latest electronics, and massive radar.
Once the dinghy was tied off, I followed the snaking fuel hoses to the base of a metal grime stained ramp, then to a small shack that resembled a tin-roofed shanty house perched at the top of a boardwalk. A man with perfect jet black hair, aviator sunglasses, and carefully manicured nails sat in the only seat under a shade canopy. He, like the kids in the powerboat, wore a pastel polo shirt but had unbuttoned it, exposing a thick gold crucifix perched on a tuft of curly chest hair.
“Back in 5!” the sign on the fuel shanty said.
When we first dropped the hook in Cape May, I ventured inshore to that same marina to fill a few diesel jugs and drop off a load of trash. From the fuel shanty, a powerfully built senior citizen with a bulbous red nose and a collage of faded blue tattoos inked into his meaty forearms arrived. “Diesel!” He declared.
“Just a few gallons, Sir, if that’s okay.” I pointed to my two fuel jugs.
He gave a short nod and hit some form of an improvised switch on the side of the shanty. In the distance and buried under a plywood wall, an electric motor whirled to life. “Okay,” he said, then disappeared.
Carefully I filled my jugs worried about blowing fuel all over the dock.
“Just put the nozzle on the dock,” the hoarse voice declared.
He was sitting under an improvised shade canopy tethered to the shanty, a Coke machine, and a railing in the same chair that Mr. Hair was relaxing in.
“Sir, I was here last year about this time, and you gave me some excellent advice about the channel.” I paused for a second.
He stood never taking his grey eyes from me. Something made an audible click in his leg, and the man’s lip curled slightly. “Yeah. You’re on a sailboat, right?”
“Yeah.” I smiled. “I want to get my kid off the boat for a bit, maybe take the family to a decent lunch. Is the place across the canal any good?”
“Oh yeah,” his mood lightened, and for a moment, the claw-like hands relaxed. “It’s good. A little pricy but good. Tell Jerry I said you can park your boat at their dock.”
We moved into the shanty and stole a few minutes to chat about weather windows, offshore passages, and Eleanor.
“That’s 15 dollars.” He said.
I paused to do a quick calculation. Two jugs filled to capacity at six gallons each with marina pricing should put the total near thirty dollars. “Is there a fee for water or dumping trash?”
“No problem, Captain,” he said with a smile as he followed me down the ramp to the dinghy. “I’ll take that for you.” He reached for my weeks’ worth of boat living trash. As I motored away, he waved, “Safe trip. We’ll see ya when you come back!”
On this trip, I said “Good Morning,” to Mr. Hair and checked my watch to make sure it was before noon.
Mr. Hair looked up from his phone and adjusted his aviator sunglasses, then back at his screen. Mr. Hair appraised and quickly dismissed me. Another assault from the affluent, but unlike the gigantic yacht that nearly drove Caprica aground in the C&D Canal, Mr. Hair was right in front of me.
I could rupture his eardrum then speed off in my dinghy, I thought; then exhaled understanding that I needed a few gallons of fuel to go see Mike and Esta. Mr. Hair would get away with the insult, and I wasn’t comfortable telling Alison why I came home without any gasoline.
Mr. Hair maneuvered out of the plush beach chair and then down the metal ramp toward the powerboat. The twin outboards on the powerboat came to life with a powerful purr, and I watched from under the makeshift canopy as they left the channel.
Knowing how I feel about the specific unassigned parking space at work that I leave my car in, I chose not to sit in the plush beach chair. Instead, I tried my luck with a bench that had seen several decades and was adorned with splotches of peeling paint. A minute passed, and the door to the shanty opened.
“That guy’s a jerk,” the attendee said casually throwing a thumb towards the harbor. Then he looked back at me. His face was serious. “Saw that you took your family across the canal yesterday. How was the restaurant?”
“Great! They had conch fritters. Delicious. The kid loved them.”
“Good,” he smiled. “Few gallons of gas?”
I nodded with appreciation.
That evening, we motored the 1.2 miles from Caprica, past the Coast Guard base, by the commercial fishing fleet and into South Jersey Marina where we boarded S/V Sundowner for the first time. I climbed up the stern ladder and threaded my way to the cockpit and took stock of the heavy-duty equipment and the gleaming gel coat. The boat was older, strong, elegant, comfortable, and was a stout blue water cruiser. Eleanor munched on a carrot, toured the boat and played with a small stuffed tiger named Elsa while we laughed, compared music preferences, told stories and kept an eye on an inbound line of storms. We could have stayed for hours with our new friends, but the approach of night and the trek back to Caprica made me weary. With handshakes and the hope for future encounters, we reluctantly departed. As we motored home, past the Coast Guard base towards the anchorage, Eleanor announced with tears that she had forgotten her sunglasses. “No problem,” I reassured her. “We’ll see them again tomorrow.”
Back on Caprica, we watched night surround us and the weather radar screen fill with a line of red and yellow hate. On deck, the gentle breeze was saturated with the smell of fresh rain as sheets of lighting raked and forked across the western horizon. For a moment, I considered letting out more chain then moved on to secure the dinghy. Below, Alison listened to the VHF traffic and turned on our GPS track so we could monitor Caprica’s position relative to the shoreline. On deck, I took stock of the boats around us as the storm approached.
With the first gust, Caprica turned hard against the current into the wind and tugged at the anchor. It was dark, and the harbor was lit by the blue lights that adorned Coast Guard Cutters and the brilliant floodlights that are mounted on the close shoreline buildings. With the first cannon shot of thunder, a blast of heavy air and a cascade of torrential rain, I retreated to the cockpit. The wind continued to build, and boats pulled hard against their anchors, swinging wildly. The gusts gained strength and intensity until at last they were sustained while the deck endured a deluge. Below, we watched the radar, the little red blobs, and the shoreline. Suddenly the closest red blob began sliding on the screen. I raced on deck and watched our neighbor, the Lady K, turn sideways against the wind and drag almost two hundred feet, narrowly missing another sailboat. She then settled in front of a massive trawler.
I returned to the radar and the radio. “Lady K, Lady K, Lady K, Sailing Vessel Caprica, over.” I repeated that radio transmission three times, trying to warn him about his unknown predicament.
On watch from our companionway, I watched the cockpit of three large sailboats come to life with screens and monitors. Crews were on deck and worked in the wind trying to stop their boats from dragging down on each other or on the shoreline.
Then suddenly, the storm was over. The violence receded into a steady westerly punctuated by the occasional gust. Even so, I slept fitfully through the night, often waking to check our position on the GPS and against shore lights. Even with the drag alarm on, the violence of the weather made me suspect that at any moment, our anchor would release us, and like the Lady K, Caprica would drift into trouble. As the current moved us sideways against the wind and waves, I stood anchor watch on deck until an early twilight graced the harbor.
Exhausted, I relaxed in the forward cabin most of the morning and neglected my boat chores. My phone rang, “Sean! It’s Mike from Sundowner.” They left the marina at the end of the tide with enough time to sneak out of the Cape May Channel before the current turned against them and they wanted to drop off Eleanor’s sunglasses. On deck, I watched Sundowner move out of the channel and through the anchorage with a stiff breeze on her stern. Wondering what Mike would do, I thought about how we would approach a boat anchored in a narrow area, stern to shallow water and a stiff breeze on her bow. Cautiously, slowly and with great hesitation, was the answer.
I stood at amidships, then moved forward as Sundowner commenced a sweeping turn and began to move toward my bow. Nibley and with the grace of a trapeze artist, Esta hung from the side of Sundowner with Eleanor’s sunglasses in hand and vectored towards Caprica.
Woah, I thought.
I moved forward as Mike brought Sundowner within arm’s reach and Esta planted Eleanor’s polka- dotted sunglasses firmly in my hand. In horror, I watched Sundowner’s beam approach my secondary anchor. All of this for an $18 pair of sunglasses, I thought.
Casual and relaxed, Mike had the vector, velocity, and wind accounted for. “Man! You can drive a boat,” I called out as Sundowner moved into the channel. They sailed through the day and night to anchor in the Atlantic Highlands in preparation for their New York City adventure.
Feeling a little more motivated and with the pressure of Eleanor’s pleas to go to the beach, we began preparations for our offshore passage.
It was time to lift the outboard motor and lash the dinghy to the deck.