The air-conditioning was working and pumping out marvelous cold air. To lie in my bed under a blanket during the Chesapeake June was purely a luxury, something that I genuinely considered the night before when the air-conditioning was clogged with various sea-gooisms and the dead weight of the humid night pressed down on my chest.
My alarm chimed vaguely against the background of whirling fans. Feeling slightly queasy and disoriented, I fumbled with my phone to silence the whimsical harp and wondered where we were.
“If you want to sleep in,” Alison said the night before, “I’m fine with it.” She stood in our narrow galley – an area that Alison had managed to stuff with seven weeks’ worth of provisions for three people. She was giving me permission to scrub the big trip. We both knew that if Caprica didn’t leave her slip the next morning, we weren’t going anywhere.
Next year Caprica will spend the summer on the hard after living previously in the water for five years. The hull will need some significant work and a few months to dry out. Initially, we toyed with the idea of Bermuda this summer or next, but maintenance, upgrades and merely keeping up with replacing worn equipment killed the cruising kitty for any real offshore preparations – a life raft and storm anchor were trumped this year by a tuition bill.
Understanding that not leaving this summer and the refit scheduled for next sailing season would put us in 2021 without doing any real sailing. That meant that Caprica would likely be at a brokerage, and our liveaboard life would end. So the next morning wasn’t just about sleeping in. It would signal the beginning of a transition to a different lifestyle.
I chose to get out of bed. In the dark cabin, I sighed. Lit were the red lights we used at night or offshore. The electrical panel stared at me with its dozens of red LED eyes. My fingertips settled on a series of levers that with a slight pressure would shut off the 30 amp shore power supply that ran the air conditioning – we’d leave behind popsicles, streaming internet and a few smooth “adventures.” Not clicking that switch meant leaving the safety and comfort of civilized slip living as well as sleep deprivation, heat, hypothermia, demanding watch schedules, weather windows, storms and equipment failure.
I reached out and my finger rested on the switch.
“You’ve seen what air-condition and smartphones have done to society.” The words fluttered through my subconscious. The root word for travel is from old French. It means to work strenuously. The Middle English term travail is defined by painful effort. Living, working on and traveling by sailboat includes these concepts.
The air-conditioning shut down, and I went on deck to start the diesel engine. The night before, the NAM 5K forecast showed light air filling in from the south with severe weather in the afternoon. I thumbed through the updated forecast models, and everything agreed that big storms were going to move through the region. Everywhere to our north was going to get hammered and we would be in the middle of it.
Fifteen minutes after the engine was turned on, Mother Nature gave me a perfect reason to delay yet another day. If we blasted up the Chesapeake, through the C&D Canal and down the Delaware, we’d be in a great position to catch a weather window north to Block Island. Delaying a day would mean that the weather window would close and I’d probably find an excellent reason to resort back to a summer with air-conditioning, popsicles and streaming internet.
Alison arrived on deck with two coffees. “Storms today?” She asked as I was undoing a bow line.
“Storms today,” I said and moved to a breast line.
“Okay,” she said and began uniting and stowing the rest of the lines.
We reversed out of the slip, careful not to catch the anchors on a piling.
“Clear!” Alison yelled, aft from the bow. I cranked the wheel hard over and shifted into forward. We glided by two new friends enjoying the morning views from S/V Jessie’s Girl.
“We’ll see you in two months or later today, depending on what happens!” I yelled.
We settled into old routines quickly, monitoring the instruments, listening to the VHF, and taking in the surroundings. The early morning Chesapeake air was still cool and laden with dew. The light breeze began to freshen from the south, and Caprica’s cockpit was filled with a rush of salt air that saturated my pores. I inhaled sharply and held my breath.
We rounded Pt. Lookout and entered the Chesapeake. “How are you?” Alison asked and handed me my large mug full of coffee.
It was still morning when we put Point No Point light astern and then the Patuxent River and the massive liquid natural gas depot. We settled in for the long slog to Annapolis. Eleanor sat quietly in the cockpit under the shade canopy admiring the scenery.
A quick check of the charts put us in the upper Chesapeake by early evening. It was going to be a long day, but we were on track for our weather window departure. I trimmed the forward sail and sat. The sky around us began to take on a hazy blue, the weight and smell of the air slowly changed. The waves morphed to take a taller steeper posture, and our speed picked up. The mathematical formula in my mind changed with the variables. “Okay. We’ll be in the Northern Chesapeake a little sooner.” The wind speed slowly crept into the low teens, and Caprica leaned into her shoulders.
I pulled up the weather radar. Little green blobs formed to our west but to our north, a line of storms was coming together that resembled what I previously saw on the NAM 5K forecast. The front was in western Pennsylvania and exploding across the region. In a few blinks, the thunderstorms were fully developed and had matured into a magnificent line of deep yellows, reds, and purples.
Caprica was humming up the Chesapeake with the occasional breaking wave that slapped our stern. Around us, the skies grew darker and ominous. The further north we sailed, the thicker the boat traffic; the result of a much narrower bay and large population centers. Packs of modern sloops under full sail lay over on their sides to our west. To our east, fleets of sport fishing boats, bay built and center consoles bobbed near channel markers or blasted off leaving frothing towering wakes to slam against the growing sea state. An occasional jet ski hummed by.
The skies continued to grow darker.
I looked at the charts again and compared them to the weather radar. Bummer, I thought. It looked like the bulk of the building thunderstorms would pass to our north or south but the line moving through Pennsylvania was headed right for us.
I imagined an enormous tanker headed for us amidships. They are large, fast, and appear as looming grey buildings on the horizon. They are also incredibly dangerous in tight quarters. Their drafts, in some cases 40 feet restrict them to narrow channels. Large tankers can take a mile to turn and three miles to stop. In the North Atlantic, there is plenty of room to avoid tankers, but in the Northern Chesapeake, room wasn’t a luxury.
It looked like the storms would meet us around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge where currents eddy, where traffic is heavy and massive ships, including tankers, power through.
After a quick consult with the chart, we decided to go into the Eastern Bay towards Saint Michaels and shelter in an area identified as Shipping Creek or go deep into Cox Creek. Both looked like ideal places to weather the storm.
Caprica surged forward under jib sail alone as the wind to our stern continued to build into the low 20s. Tiny white triangles filled our west and zipped against a darkening background. The VHF suddenly sounded a severe weather alert, then another and another. The storms to our west were exploding after ripping across populated areas loaded with blacktop roads and asphalt roofs. To our south, a massive cell hung over the Chesapeake and filled the sky with shades of gunmetal. The little white triangles to our west disappeared under the curtain of a torrential downpour. The wind ticked up to the low 30s gusting to the mid-40s. I trimmed the jib as we rounded the northern tip of Poplar Island. Between NOAA weather radio warning bursts and frantic calls to the Coast Guard, we listened to horror stories and tragedies unfold on the water as we held a steady course towards sheltered waters.
The sailing vessel Woodwind II stood on station at a channel marker where two kayaks capsized under the fury of a thunderstorm that sunk fishing boats and overturned a 33-foot sailboat. Moments later, the harbor master was there, and Woodwind II moved to safe harbor. The radio chatter was calm, deliberate, and professional, punctuated by rapid-fire bursts of static caused by powerful lightning strikes.
“Coast Guard, be advised that we are returning to base for divers and sonar gear.” The tone was somber.
Seconds later, the Coast Guard responded with a simple “Roger,” but a pang of sadness was transmitted across the entire listening area.
The wind sustained at 34 knots to our stern as we rounded Poplar Island. The VHF continued to scream weather alerts as a fleet of sailboats doused sail ahead of us. Behind us, Poplar Island was hidden beneath a curtain of blowing sand under an ever darkening sky.
Caprica leaned hard into her shoulder, bearing down under a 45-knot gust and the weight of a forward sail. We surged ahead through breaking waves and passed a wallowing sailboat trying to keep the course as we approached the first channel markers.
Most sailboats are built to sail, especially in heavy conditions where their hull shapes would have them lean and cut through the waves, whereas under motor the boats pound. Everything aboard shutters. Cracks open up, seals fail, and connections chafe. We elected to sail.
As we entered the Eastern Bay, it quickly became apparent that we weren’t going to approach our original harbors of refuge. The visibility was poor, the waves were big, and I’d never been in either of the creeks before. It was a simple recipe for losing the boat.
We enjoyed the freshening breeze, the cooling temperatures and we watched the lines of white water downpours rip across the Eastern Bay. “Let’s go to Saint Michaels,” I said. “It’s good holding, and we can hit the museum.”
“Yeah!” Alison called from the companionway enthusiastically. “Eleanor loved the lighthouse.” We’d been there before with the Rayman in 2016 and with Maggie last year. It’s a beautiful town at the bend of a lovely river.
Alison moved below with Eleanor as we rounded up the river. The fleet of sailboats ahead of bashed headlong into high winds, blinded by sheets of rain and negotiated channel markers. The small boats pitched and rolled violently as their skippers sat wedged in the cockpit, just trying to follow the boats in front.
We sailed to the far end of the Eastern Bay and turned into the Miles River just as the wind made a dramatic shift. 40 knots on the nose – something a sailboat does not agree with. We peeled off, blew the jib and furled as fast as possible while we listened to the thunderous flogging of lines against Dacron sail material. Within seconds, the forward sail was rolled tightly and securely. I pushed the engine to 90% of max power and I threaded the channel markers as Caprica narrowly missed a floating log 30 feet long with a circumference of an off-road tire.
“We almost just lost the boat!” I yelled to Alison as she, too, spotted the hull buster that sped past us in the opposite direction. A log that size would’ve sunk the boat; a collision would’ve ended Caprica and the summer ahead of us.
Alison positioned herself for log watch ahead as Caprica’s decks were power washed by a bombardment of thumb size raindrops strafing us at a rapid-fire pace. The air smelled like a boutique candle labeled thunderstorm, and the temperature plummeted. We rounded the last mark, dropped the anchor and rigged for hurricane conditions. The radar indicated red blobs of madness were still a few minutes out, and we needed to be ready.
The river, the town and most the boats around us disappeared in the deluge. I sat on deck sheltered behind the dodger but was still pelted by spray as it jetted through seams and zippers. Around us, boats swayed, veered, hobby-horsed violently and dragged anchors as the tempo of the wind continued to increase. I watched as the wind tore across the river and foaming clouds of white water spray transformed our surroundings into a thrashing madness.
After a steady twenty minutes, the storm faded, and I listened to VHF channel 16 – to the people out there missing, people lost or afraid. Down below, Alison whipped up a pot of bacon, green beans and sausages that we ate as the cool breeze filtered through our hatches. We somberly ate and reflected on our day, the storm and that final “Roger” from the young Coast Guard watch stander as the harbor master said he was heading in for divers and sonar gear.
We spent the next day touring the Chesapeake Maritime Museum which included visiting the Maryland Dove and the lighthouse. The thought of another lost weather window crossed my mind but just briefly. As I watched Eleanor and two new friends role play captain and crew on a model work boat, I realized that our summer would be made in the moments like these and so far, the summer was shaping up to be a good one.
The following morning we heard from sailing friends Matt and Joe as they prepared to jump offshore towards Cape Cod, and ultimately Maine, from Cape May – where we had hoped to be. The forecast indicated another weather window approaching from the south which would be one we could make if we pushed hard for two days – first up to the Sassafras River then the next day down the Delaware Bay. “It would be a hard slog, but worth it,” I told Alison.
Somewhere north past Baltimore and headed towards our next anchorage, my VHF crackled to life. “Caprica, Caprica, Caprica. This is Ketch Ya Later.”
“Ray!” Alison said. “It’s Ray!”
We were excited, and I quickly responded.
We met Ray in the boatyard one hot summer day as he was scraping the paint from his boat. We chatted, shared a story, and became friends. A year later, Ray was helping me install my now defunct diesel heater, and I asked him, “Hey, you want to sail to Maine with us?”
He shrugged and said, “Sure,” then tightened a hose clamp. Ray did sail to Maine with us and over that trip became an uncle to Eleanor and a dear friend to us. Ray is family. He doesn’t own a phone but knew we would be in the vicinity so he called us on the VHF.
“Oh, I’m just headed down the river. Going to anchor behind Hart-Miller Island for the night,” he said. We chatted about the weather and cooler temperatures as I scanned the chart. We were two hours from the Sassafras River and two hours north of Hart-Miller Island.
Turning around would mean missing another weather window and further delaying the schedule. “It’d be nice to see you guys,” Ray said, “but I understand if you can’t.”
I watched a tug boat pound past us to our south. We rocked in her wake, I decreased our speed and I executed a reversal of course. “We’ll meet you there, Rayman!”
“Alright!” was his response.
Two hours later, we were rafted, sharing a meal and stories. It was like old times, and we valued every second of it. By midafternoon the following day, we said our goodbyes and Caprica resumed our course. We never even made it to the Sassafras, but I it wasn’t a big deal. We anchored in a serene cove named Still Pond, we swam and inside we weathered another tremendous storm. At Chesapeake City, where we refilled our water and fuel tanks, we learned that there would be a fireworks show a few days later.
If we pushed on, by evening we could have been in the North Atlantic and in a few days we’d arrive at Block Island. Or we could chill out in Chesapeake City and stay in this neat little town for a bit.
We opted to stay, rest, and enjoy the town. The tight anchorage filled up and we met some super cool people, including a couple and a dog named Milo who are on their way to Panama.
Every year I have to learn the same lessons again. We get stuck in the rut of a busy, fast-paced lifestyle built around to-do lists, obligations and the trials of a summer sail seem daunting. I have to remind myself of what all of the sleep deprivation, demanding watch schedules, weather windows, storms, and equipment failures bring. These hardships are where connections are made, how our stories are created, and when we build bonds with people who we will never forget – in hindsight, all things way more valuable than air-conditioning, popsicles, and streaming internet.