Passage to Block Island

I took a moment to tug at the green and white tracer line that secured the dink to six hard points on deck then braced slightly as a rolling powerboat wake slapped Capria’s hull. A towering baby blue sport fishing boat burbled by just at the edge of the Cape May channel. Behind it was a procession of whale watching, dolphin watching, fishing and parasailing boats entering the harbor. Caprica rolled and heaved in the wakes. Nothing bumped or clanged below; everything was stowed, and we were ready for a few nights offshore.

“It’s okay if we leave tomorrow morning,” Alison said as she braced against the grab bar that crowns our steering station. The blowers were running and our diesel engine settled into a hypotonic rhythm after warming up. The night before was a long one with a massive line of storms dragging boats through the anchorage, and I spent several hours on watch. Even after the wind calmed, I’d wake and take a few minutes looking out a window to orient myself to the shore lights to make sure we weren’t dragging. “You can get some real sleep, and then we can head out,” she said, focused on the sags at the corner of my eyes.

It was a tempting offer, but the small weather window ahead was the last opportunity north for us this season. The forecast models showed a few days of southerlies, then a period of high pressure with zero wind and obscenely high temperatures to follow. Towards the end of the week, the European weather models showed, with high confidence, that an intense low-pressure system would move offshore and bring storm conditions to the region. We’ve been in that type of weather before, and it’s hard on the boat and hard on us. Our mistakes turned into lessons that we remember well and sailing into heavy weather to make distance, schedules, or time tables is how boats get into trouble.

 “We could go to Baltimore, get a slip and do the aquarium. Or, head south to Tangier, Onancock and see a few other places on the bay.” Alison suggested.

I ran the logistics, felt the appeal but then circled back. “No, it’s going to be hot. Too hot to do anything. Even if we get a slip, we’ll be stuck inside.” I paused and listened to the diesel engine, knowing that this was another point in the trip where we would have to call it a wrap if we didn’t keep going. “Let’s go tonight,” I said, feeling confident in the weather window, the decision and the regret that would haunt me if Cape May was the end of our trip.

Around 6:30 PM we left Cape May astern and sailed into the North Atlantic on a northeast heading at 60 degrees magnetic, easting offshore at a comfortable 7 knots. A large ocean-going tug boat eased along to the north of us towing a barge almost 1,500 feet behind him with what I imagined to be a cable as thick as my little Volkswagen Golf. As the sun set to our west, our course kept us a few miles offshore. Close enough to see the metamorphosis of Atlantic City, the civilization circus and the buildings transform with dusk into a brilliant cacophony of lights. Another large ocean-going tug emerged at sunset on the horizon to our stern, and through my binoculars, I could see white water breaking on the bow of the barge it towed.

Below, the soothing sound of water rushing under our hull and the gentle downwind motion of Caprica planted Eleanor face down in her berth, hard asleep. “I’ll come up at midnight for a few hours,” Alison said. She was tired, and her face was long with fatigue. She disappeared into Eleanor’s berth, the prime sleeping spot for an offshore passage.

On the radar screen, two little triangle icons representing Automatic Information System (AIS) transceivers poked along to the north and south of us. Like airline transponders, AIS gives routinely updated information to vessels with transceivers or receivers within VHF (Very High Frequency) radio range.  With a tap on the screen, I pulled up the icons’ information: weight, destination, speed, distance course, vessel name, and most importantly, the closest point of approach (CPA). 

The big addition to Caprica last year was the radar arch and Simrad radar. For years we sailed without radar because our boat wasn’t equipped with the required mounts or infrastructure to support the energy requirements of the systems, and it was just expensive.  But, after sailing in the fog, in the blackest of nights and through shipping channels, where massive freighters loomed under just a few little dim lights, we decided it was time. The Simrad radar was a total game-changer to our situational awareness, giving us the ability to see through the weather, through the darkness, and over the horizon. Little lights on the horizon could be plotted, tracked, and vectored. This year, I installed two mammoth solar panels, a new battery charger and an AIS receiver giving us the ability to sustain our off-grid power needs and put a name to red blobs on the radar.

I tapped the screen again and cycled through a few menus. The tug to my north was vectoring west towards an inlet heavy with fishing vessels. The tug smashing through the waves at my stern would start vectoring west in a few miles, following the lead of the boat ahead. I ran my finger down the listed information: speed, destination, tonnage to CPA, or closest point of approach. Both tugs would be at least a mile from us at all times.

It’s hard to translate how close a mile can feel to non-sailors. I want you to imagine that you are in a small cockpit by yourself. The night around you has completely enveloped the sea, and the land is a low strip of twinkling lights on the western horizon. Your boat heaves, shifts, dips, and rolls as the ocean waves start to white cap and then break. You stand behind the steering wheel, gently correcting your course trying to keep the numbers on the compass from ripping past 60 degrees magnetic. The only light within reach is a dim red glow that emanates from the compass, your solitary guide. A wave lifts your boat, and the numbers begin to slide past 60, to 70 then 80. You correct the wheel, the course goes back to 60, then repeat.  After 15 minutes of helm time, you engage the autopilot for a much-needed break. The boat begins to jerk and swerve as the autopilot tries to play catch up with the course, never able to anticipate the motion of the boat or a hard pull to starboard because of a breaking wave. You adjust your coat, zipping it to your face in a futile attempt to hide from the salt-laden chill. It’s mid-July, and onshore the temps are in the mid 80s but offshore in the Atlantic, it’s much cooler. You shiver slightly and move your tether, the short leash that will keep you with the boat if you go overboard.

The lights to the west have disappeared, and the rolling ocean around you takes on a mercurial shimmer with the moon rising to port. You’ve lucked out – the moon is almost full and will be up for hours, possibly even to sunrise. The features of the cockpit and deck begin to emerge from the darkness. Out of chance, you stand, stretch, and turn to the stern. That’s when you see them for the first time. Rising over the horizon is a dull white light flanked by a red, then a green. You know that freighters routinely travel at 20 knots and in minutes the ship will be on you. Grabbing the radio, you depress the transmit button, but what do you say? “Freighter at approximate coordinates …” Consider that the crew member on watch may not even speak English and that your little sailboat might not yet register on their radar.

On deck, I watched the tug to my north begin to vector across my heading, showing her red port lights. I scanned the horizon, finally turned to the stern where the red and green lights of the tug were pointed towards us. Last year, this would have been nerve-racking. I would have altered course and sat transfixed on the tug, hanging on any course change. With AIS and radar, I could see what the tug was planning to do, but I still kept a watchful eye on her course without the traditional gut-churning anxiety that usually would have accompanied the experience. Checking the radar, the compass, and the AIS, I scanned the dark horizon with my binoculars again and again.

A faint green light lifted out of the horizon on my port bow, “That’s funny,” I thought, not remembering anything on the radar or AIS from the heading. Down below, I toggled the radar settings, the range waiting for a little red blip to appear. “Nothing.”

Back on deck, I glued my binoculars to the green light that grew in intensity as our range decreased. Occasionally both red and green navigation lights appeared, a signal that the vessel was heading directly at Caprica. “Amazing,” I thought. “Boats are just like magnets.” I decided to maintain course and watched through the binoculars as the red and green lights slowly turned to just green. It was a signal that the other vessel had altered course. At just outside a mile, the vessel appeared as a faint return on the radar. Under the rising moon, and at less than 400 yards, I watched the sloop pass our starboard side heading south against the wind and into a growing swell.

True to the AIS, the tug moved across our stern and vectored inland just a knot faster than our own boat speed. I sat in the cockpit watching its lights slowly overtake, then pass us as other little triangles appeared on the AIS screen.

“Fishing vessel Cap’n Ted, this is the Tug Mayfield.” On AIS, I could see that the two boats shared the same course as the tug began moving through a fleet of giant offshore fishing trawlers. These are boats equipped with towering outriggers, huge dragnets, massive machinery, blinding deck lights and notoriously do not answer the radio.

“Tug Mayfield to Capt’n Ted.” There was a pause. The transmitter on the Tug Mayfield was powerful, and the signal ripped through a Coast Guard transmission with the Mayfield’s surly indifference.

“Capt’n Ted here.” The skipper was tired, probably at the end of several sleepless nights and hundreds of miles.

I expected the captains to agree to shift their radio channel away from 16, the international hailing and distress. Typically after a short conversation on 16, the Coast Guard cuts through with a scripted message “Channel 16 is for hailing and distress only. To make passing arrangements ….” The young voice on the other side of the VHF speaker essentially scolds you. We were several miles offshore, possibly out of radio reach of the Coast Guard – one layer of society’s security blanket was gone.

“Yeah, Captain, I’m gonna need you to come to starboard about 40 degrees in the next few minutes.” They continued on 16. The tug boat needed the fishing trawler to make a dramatic course change and quickly – something not easily accomplished while dragging nets.

“Can you slow down?” The captain of the fishing trawler sighed. “Let us get across your bow?”

“No. I’m towing a barge with 1500 feet of cable. Got to keep it tight.” The tug’s captain was direct and clear.

“Ok.”

I watched the triangle icon of Capt’n Ted veer just moments between two triangles would have briefly occupied the same space.

Alison emerged from below dressed in foul weather gear and hooked up with life jacket and harness ready to stand a watch. Ahead, the star-like glow of fishing trawlers dotted the horizon with the occasional freighter bound for New York. Scanning the AIS, an assortment of motor, sailing and commercial traffic littered the area. There’d be a good chance that things could get a little complicated. I was awake, alert, and comfortable with standing her watch, knowing that there might be a radio conversation and course change soon.

Alison reluctantly disappeared below with the promise of returning in the pre-dawn hours, but we both knew that sleep now meant energy for when Eleanor was awake later. I comfortably settled in for a long night as conditions freshened and the wind picked up. The nearly full moon rose in a low arc across the sky, and a fishing vessel appeared off our starboard bow. The AIS CPA proximity alarm chimed, letting me know that a boat was within an exclusion zone that I set. The boat was 3 miles out and would pass dangerously close to Caprica. We were sailing close to the wind, and only able to vector to port by 10 degrees.  I scrolled through the AIS data and called the fishing vessel expecting no response.

“This is sailing vessel Caprica to fishing vessel Endurance.” I paused for a moment and then repeated my transmission.

“Endurance here.”

I was surprised and relieved to get an answer. Now for the big ask. “Endurance, we’re the sailing vessel on your starboard bow at two miles. Can you give me a little room, Captain?”

“You sailing or motoring?” His voice had a Jersey accent.

“Under sail. I can give you maybe 10 degrees to my port.” I said with a conciliatory tone knowing that I was asking a 95-foot working fishing vessel to alter course.

“I can give you 10 degrees,” the captain said, and I watched on AIS our CPA slowly grow to half a mile.

The night progressed with miniature bursts of drama on the VHF between working, research and cruising vessels. 

Alison arrived back on deck at 4 AM, clad in her foul weather gear and equipped with a smoldering cup of coffee. The aroma was alluring, but I curled into a ball at the edge of the cockpit and drifted into a fitful sleep. The AIS CPA alarm blared, and I was suddenly upright scanning the horizon looking for our impending disaster. Checking the status bars on our monitors, I could see that several vessels were working in our area. My morning would be spent on the radio or making minor course alterations.

By mid-morning, we were 40 miles offshore threading through shipping traffic bound for New York City and spotting small center console fishing boats. We sat in the safety of Caprica amazed and sometimes aghast at what people chose to head out to sea in. Some fishing boats were built for punishing ocean conditions, but the majority of the motley assortment of vessels that we came across were fresh from the salvage yard yet still quickly zoomed out over the horizon.

Turtle

With Alison on watch on deck, I catnapped in the sun, enjoying the warmth of the morning glow on my legs and the cool ocean breeze over my face. The AIS CPA alarmed came to life, and again, I scanned the horizon. Three miles away, the giant chemical tanker CHEM POLARIS stood off of our bow. She hovered over the horizon like an out of place office building slowly growing in size, shape, mass, and definition as the distance between our vessels closed.

CHEM POLARIS at 1 Mile

Holding the VHF, I paused to clear my voice. “CHEM POLARIS, CHEM POLARIS, CHEM POLARIS, this is sailing vessel Caprica two miles off your bow, over.” I waited a moment, then repeated the transmission. Seconds later, we were greeted by the master of the 800-foot tanker. His calm, gentle voice was laced with a heavy East Indian Accent.

“Yes, Caprica you are the sailboat off of the bow, over.”

I took a moment to translate, then responded. “Yes sir, I just wanted to make sure that you saw us. Please advise.”

“Yes, we have you. We will give you room.” The captain had knowledge of sailing vessels and to my amazement made a dramatic course alteration to our windward. We watched from the cockpit as the massive chemical tanker stood off at over a mile, and then returned to its previous course. Within ten minutes, the ship disappeared to the south.

This guy measured between 8 and 10 inches.

We spent the day off shore in the cockpit enjoying the sun, the southerly, and the occasional critter that wandered by us. As we moved further offshore and into the evening hours, boat traffic was seen on the radar and AIS miles away, and we settled into a comfortable routine. The wind began to build, and I reduced sail, slowing Caprica’s speed and moving our calculated ETA to Block Island from 1 in the morning to around 0800.  I didn’t want to be in a position where we were running an inlet and trying to find a parking space in a crowded anchorage in the dark.

As we neared Long Island, the moon hung in full glory well above the horizon bathing the world around me in a majestic orange shimmer. The night was long but easy, with few radar contacts to worry about. I could just enjoy sailing. A few hours before dawn, the moon set, leaving my surroundings in total darkness. The transformation of the sea was complete, and she, for some unknown reason, grew large and restless. Waves built, changed, and stood tall, square-like, and hammered our stern. Caprica lifted, rolled and fell in into the troughs while her sails clanged against the rigging without the wind to fill them. We were caught in a current that rounded the tip of Long Island and then whirled to be lost in the ocean.

Sunrise

I changed course, adjusted sail to move us away from the sudden turbulence and as conditions calmed a blue haze appeared on the eastern horizon. It was amazing to watch a thin sliver of a red line appear through the mist and fill my world with warmth and light.  Hidden in haze and through the bleak fog, Block Island eventually emerged as a grey line. We quietly motored into ­­­the Great Salt Pond through the boat choked channel, and the island came to life around us.

As I vectored Caprica into the anchorage, and as I later watched Eleanor laugh as she raced in and out of the ocean waves, I felt and heard myself say, “This was absolutely the right decision.”

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