Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Cape May to Cohansey River, NJ

35.7 nm
Wind: NE 10-20 knots, sustained gusts of at least 25 in Lower Delaware Bay
Seas: 4-6 feet, extremely choppy
Maximum speed: 5.5 knots
Average speed: 3.7 knots
Latitude: 39°20.72’N
Longitude: 075°21.75’W

We had a bunch of firsts today. We double-reefed the main for the first time, and we were out of sight of land for the first time. Not exactly things you want to do on the same day. But we did them. We had been warned about the nastiness of Delaware Bay, but thought that it had been exaggerated, that it was probably no worse than Buzzards Bay, which we grew up on. But it was, a lot worse. At least a lot bigger. Halfway through the morning we looked out to realize that we were completely out of sight of land, even though we were surrounded by it. It was a creepy feeling, especially given the weather we had.

We woke up early to catch slack tide through the three-mile Cape May Canal, and on our way out past the last buoys, a guy in a huge sailboat came past us going the other direction. We were trailing Tinkerbell, our dinghy, behind us, like we always do. “Better pull that dinghy up,” he said. “It’s choppy out there.” At the same moment, we noticed two fishermen, who had made fun of our matching yellow foul-weather gear on their way out, before leaving a wake that nearly washed us into the rocks, came back the opposite direction. Hmm, we thought to ourselves. Maybe it’s bad out there.

And it was. As soon as we got out into the bay proper, waves were hitting our bow so hard that it was being driven underwater. Everything in the boat fell out of place—drawers were banging open, stuff we had neglected to tie down was falling out on the floor, coffee cups spilling all over the table. Karl had the helm at this point, I was below trying to control the chaos, and we both thought that we had gotten in over our heads.

There’s a huge storm coming in tomorrow, allegedly, and everyone else in the harbor had chosen to wait it out in Cape May. This wind was the vanguard to the storm, and it was coming from the opposite direction as the current, which makes the chop almost unbearable. Starting this afternoon, winds were supposed to gust to 25. Our brilliant plan was to head north during the relatively good weather today and get into the protection of Upper Delaware Bay, where the storm isn’t supposed to hit so hard.

But coming out into that wind, and those waves, made us almost want to turn around. Karl proposed putting two reefs in the main, which we hadn’t raised yet, and I agreed enthusiastically. I don’t even know if I would have bothered to try to sail if he hadn’t suggested it, but I’m so glad he did. Every time we start using the boat as she’s designed to be used, as a sailboat, our motion eases out, she takes the waves better, and we all relax.

It took about an hour to put the reefs in the main—we were both in full raingear, Karl was clipped in to his harness, up by the mast, I was making plans for what I would do when he fell over, or cracked his skull open and started bleeding all over the deck. But once we did, and reefed the main, and curled out a handkerchief jib to balance the helm, we were sailing pretty, at about five knots, and Secret was doing just fine. Because of the cold, we decided to take shifts of an hour on, an hour off, and I took the first hour. I just kept talking to her, especially when the waves would hit us broadside and nearly knock us flat. I knew she could handle it—we know someone who made it through 60 knots of wind in the Pacific with a triple-reefed main and a handkerchief jib. Knowing that made me a lot more confident, as did thinking about the racers who, God bless them, would have said we needed more sail out.

Karl, while reefing the main, was praying. A lot. He told me later that he had a crazy dream last night in which a sign on the wall read, “The way out is through God,” and he thought that could have been an omen. This could be it. But the minute he took the helm, the waves started to smooth out, the sky cleared, and even though the wind was still blowing us over, it was a beautiful day for a sail. I looked out at him and he had a euphoric smile on his face. “This, this is beautiful,” he said.

The wind and the seas calmed down in the afternoon, and we were even able to unfurl a little more jib, although we kept both reefs in our main for safety’s sake. We could see the line of building clouds on the horizon behind us—we just prayed that our boat could move faster than the storm. We ended up sailing almost right into the river where we’re anchored tonight.

We both felt ecstatic all day. To take our boat, to take ourselves, and push them to the limit, to realize that our limit can be stretched just that much more. It makes you truly alive. One day like that is worth a hundred ordinary days.

I leave you with a quote from Brion Toss, the author of the Rigger’s Apprentice, taken from the Pardeys’ Storm Tactics Handbook:

“If you spend any time at sea, you’ll spend sometime wishing you were someplace else. But the truth is that those times can be some of the best of your life, a tempering process that nourishes and confirms the resilience of the human spirit.”

May you always sleep as well as I will tonight.

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