Fair Winds and Following Seas is a Popular Saying But What Does it Actually Mean?

Like most things, sailboats are often victims of physics. The undeniable forces of nature that we can ignore in our air-conditioned cars, houses or offices are unmitigated and sometimes unimaginable at sea. Boats cannot sail directly into the wind. The sails don’t push the boat, but work with the keel to create lift like a wing. If a boat is pointed into the wind or within a certain degree of the wind, the lift is stalled and so is your forward motion. When a boat is sailing close to the wind, the ride can be uncomfortable and dangerous as people get sick and equipment fails. The term fair winds and following seas refers to an easy point of sail with a comfortable motion. That is exactly what we did not have on our first leg.

I don’t think we were ambitious at the planning meeting with S/V Satisfaction. For a week, between upgrades, repairs and provisioning, we were glued to the weather reports. The weather rules all when you are underway. Based on the reports and predictions, we decided to head south where there was wind.

There are two ways out of the Chesapeake Bay – North, through the C&D Canal and into the Delaware or simply South. We prefer south because you can get run over by a ship in the C&D Canal. The Delaware is loaded with shipping traffic, is shallow, and has a decent current. So we headed south.

We poked out of Smith Creek around 0730, and the wind greeted us from the south west at 15 to 20 knots. We raised the forward sail only and began our voyage. Caprica handled well as the wind surged from 18 to 25 then back down again. We sat in the cockpit and enjoyed the freshening breeze and watched the diving pelicans. Suddenly we were through the crab pot fields and into the Potomac, keeping a southerly course just north of Smith Point Lighthouse to avoid the extensive shoaling. As we left Maryland behind us, the large steep swells of the Chesapeake, driven by 20 plus knots of breeze, met us head on. Water broke over the bow and ran down the decks or crashed into the air as the sharp waves thundered into our hull. The wind began to build, freshening to the low 20’s and gusting to the mid 20’s at times. The ropes that controlled the forward sail groaned in protest against the load.

We rounded Smith Point Light as a large cargo vessel appeared on the horizon trailed by a tugboat pushing a large barge. We pointed Caprica into the wind as far as possible in an attempt to duck or sail behind the cargo vessel. It thundered by us but it was obvious that we weren’t going to clear the tugboat. I headed away from the wind and Caprica pitched into the growing waves as we throttled through the shipping lanes. I watched enviously at the sailboats heading north, easing by us with a good wind and following seas. We, however, headed south with our partner S/V Satisfaction at our stern, into the un-forecasted ugliness as the sea state continued to steepen. Caprica pounded into the large steep Chesapeake waves, her hull enduring the abuse as water smashed over the bow, breaking across the dodger. The wind continued to build as we continued to go airborne off of the ever increasing and steepening waves. A set of large square breaking waves engulfed their lesser siblings. They had come from Norfolk to greet us. I wanted to yell BRACE, but it was futile. Alison and Eleanor were wedged safely down below while Chance sat watching the sea state. Caprica pounded into the waves and again, the wind increased.

The goal was Deltaville, but that was still half a day away through the ugly side of the Chesapeake. I took a look at the guidebooks and charts looking for something with a deep enough creek that would accommodate our draft. We were close to the Eastern Shore, and with a quick turn from 180 to 77 we could head towards Onancock, a channel that I knew and an anchorage that was safe. I kept thinking, something is going to break, and I knew that this beating was taking a toll on the crew. The sign that reinforced that thought was the 3 helicopters making large swoops over the area. One (Natural1 – as in the natural resources police – radioed a coast guard boat in the vicinity of Watts Island and asked if they needed assistance locating …)

I radioed the Satisfaction and they agreed to anchor in Onancock. The turn was swift, and suddenly we had a fair wind and following sea. We could recover and relax some, but only after we navigated a miles long twisting channel with protruding shoals. We anchored and dropped the “toaster” (the dinghy or tender, but the name goes with the theme of the boat). Unfortunately, I had to adjust the throttle idle cable but the engine ran like a champion (Thanks Area Man!). We toured the town and chowed on some pub grub. However, we are now once again obsessing over the weather for the next few days as I am certain that we missed our weather window.

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