Friday, February 6, 2009


PDQ Altair Classic, Shoal Survivor
(the hat was a Christmas gag gift from my daughter)

We're not new sailors. I’ve sailed a Prindle 16 for eight years and a Stiletto 27 for 16 years. My daughter, now 13, has been sharing my longer adventures on our Stiletto for some years now—trips over a week long ranging throughout the Chesapeake Bay and along the Delmarva Coast. But we're small boat sailors. I had only touched a winch on three occasions: sailing on a friend of a friend’s Kirby 24, on a test sail of a Gemini 105 MC, and during the sea trial of my PDQ. I had never touched a roller furler or a windlass or a marine head. They only existed, for me, in the West Marine catalog. What I know of larger boats I've learned from reading and observing during a one-hour sea trial. Now I’ve leapt in with both feet.

I couldn't very well leave my new lady languishing in a marina 4 hours from my house. Never mind that she could happily rest through the winter in Deltaville, a tiny hamlet on the lower Chesapeake Bay, waiting for spring’s temperate breezes. We closed on her in mid-December and I really wanted her back home, in Deale, where I have kept my Stiletto these many years. I wanted to be able to visit her, to play with her, to make her my own. I couldn’t let 110 miles of winter sailing keep us apart.

The previous two weeks had found me assembling a huge mound of essentials required to bring her home. Most of this came from our prior boat; kitchen wares, tools, safety equipment, navigation equipment, anchors, and rope; the 500 bits and pieces necessary to make a boat function. I was less than certain of what the prior owner would leave for us and of what lurked deep in the recesses of the many cabinets. Then there were blankets, sleeping bags, warm clothes, and food for the 3-4 days the trip might take. A camp stove against the eventuality that the propane system might fail. Flashlights. I just managed to force the trunk closed on our SUV and much had over flowed into the back seat.

The plan required a weather window between Christmas and New Years, and between December 28th and December 30th we got our wish—3 day of temperatures over 40° and winds from the south and west at less than 15 knots. My wife drove us 4 hours south from our home to Deltaville, whereupon we hustled to stash and stow all that we had brought, and I ran about the boat like a madman, familiarizing myself with the systems and making certain I had the nominal minimums to get up the road. Regardless the forecast, this time of year a few small craft advisories are an expected minimum and far worse is probable. You expect wind on the nose as you head north up the Bay.

We enjoyed Cars on the DVD player, read, and toddled off to bed.

Deltaville, VA to Solomons Island, MD, 65 miles.
Up at dawn, the temperature dramatically cooler. My first significant project has got to be a heater. With Jessica on hand to help collect fenders and dock lines, we wiggled our way out of an awkward tie up. Oh, what a luxury it is to have twin engines, to be able to spin on a dime—it’s like cheating. The wind was light from the northwest and we began to weave our way out the wire passage that leads from Deltaville to the Bay. The channel markers themselves are set in only about 2 feet of water, scant feet away from the real channel, and a visitor can only thread the passage by observing shadows that hint at the depth of the water—the shoaling is far too abrupt for depth sounder to help. This morning, with the sun just peeking over the horizon and sparkling on the wavelets, there was no hope seeing anything useful. I tasked Jessica with the bow watch, but she had no better luck, and at about 4 knots (I was expecting to find a bottom at just about that spot) I ran the starboard keel onto the sand. Thankfully, she backed off in moments without incident. Safely in deeper water we hoisted the main and 150% genoa and began close hauled up the Bay, bumbling and making mistakes, all of them painless. Wheel steering is unfamiliar to me, and I was all over the place for an hour, over steering and over correcting, until gradually it started to make sense and muscle memory developed. I'm used to a tiller and am compelled to do everything backwards.

Eventually the wind died to 5 knots and it was time to furl sail; we had 65 miles to cover and only 10 hours of daylight. I knew the motoring drill well from our many long trips on our Stiletto; set the autopilot and fight boredom as you maintain a watch of sorts; yet staring straight ahead for the long hours the remaining passage would take be mind numbing. We wouldn’t see other boats this trip; only 2 waterman and no pleasure boats over the entire 2 days. I would read a book and look up each page turn. I would get Jessica to stand watch for short periods. Engines are efficient in lulls and headwinds, and maybe some find the drone comforting. It's boring… until suddenly an engine revs up, unbidden. I immediately shut her down, raised her up to see that the prop was still there and that nothing was wrapped around it, and started it briefly to see if shifted easily and turned. It did. I lowered it back down. Speed with just the starboard engine—4.7 kn. Speed with just the port engine—1 knot. I was fairly confident that the hub had spun, even though I had not heard a collision; I spun a prop on my Stiletto while trying to pull another sailor off a bar in a winter storm, the strain being too much. Unfortunately it's impossible to reach the propeller through the lid, since a change is a simple job, but I didn’t have a spare anyway. We would have a long day, running on one engine, but there was no good reason we couldn't proceed to Solomons Island as we were; it has a wide-open entrance, we have visited many times, and was sure I could manage in the dark if need be. We went on, with a 5-knot wind on the nose for another four hours, anchoring just moments before Sunset.

The evening forecast was revised; instead of the gentle westerly winds we had been promised, NOAA announced a small craft advisory with gusts up to 35 knots for the next day, and a full gale warning for the following day. Though the boat seemed very sound, she was untested in my hands. We anchored with all deliberate speed and set about changing from 150% Genoa to self-tacking jib in preparation for a blow. I had never changed a sail on a roller furler, never seen the self tacking jib that was rumored to be in the locker, and had all of 10 minutes daylight to figure this out. Unbelievably, everything went as smoothly as possible, my daughter and I working as a well-oiled team to lower, fold, re-hoist, and re-tension everything in little more than five minutes. I was thrilled.
No heat—I’ve mentioned that already, haven’t I—but the cold was not intolerable once I started cooking dinner. We brought excess food and good a variety of ingredients and I set about assembling a hearty stew and rice. I never really enjoyed cooking until I began taking longer trips and realized that it's a pleasant way to pass time and the only way to be certain you’ll be well fed. The galley on the Altair is wonderfully efficient; everything at your fingertips and no pacing about is required. When a course is prepared, you pass it up to waiting mouths.

We began watching another movie, The Music Man, and about two hours into it realized our batteries weren’t holding. We had turned off all electrical equipment at the start of the movie, except for the anchor light and inverter, but a quick check revealed the batteries were down to 11.4 V. Concern. We were parked near the channel, so an anchor light for the evening was obligatory, and yet I would have to start the engines in the morning. Technically it is possible to hand crank them; practically, given the geometry and the difficulty I had experienced in starting them with the key, I doubted this was a realistic alternative.

Solomons Island, MD to Deale, MD. 45 miles.

No heat—we had sleeping bags, but still, it was well below freezing this second night. The obligatory midnight trip to the head—a portable toilet I brought along knowing that the marine head had been winterized—was sufficient to get the blood pumping. Nights are long in the winter and there's nothing to do but wait until dawn. I suppose I could've started predawn, but it's not that far from Solomons Island to Deale. How certain was I that I wanted to face the Chesapeake Bay during a small craft advisory in a boat that I can hardly consider my own? It had blown hard during the night—30 knots anyway. I had placed 2 anchors spread roughly 120° in order to address the range of probable strong winds, and had guessed well. Both were deeply buried. The wind had diminished as one front past and the next approach, and we ease your way out of the harbor and began sailing north. However, wasn't long before I chickened out and furled sails as the wind reached 20 knots; both predictions and buoy reports from further north agreed that 35+ knot winds would be upon us within the hour.

The boat handled the rising wind well enough, but with only one engine she often slowed from our baseline 5-knot speed to no more than 2 knots. The ride was drowsy when compared to the Stiletto’s antics in these conditions. I wasn't overly concerned, as the weather forecast was clear that the stronger wind should only last an hour, to be followed by lighter westerly winds that would make for good sailing. Within the hour sails were up and we sailed the remaining distance to Deale, for the first time truly enjoying the motion of the boat and the feel of her under sail. Steering by wheel had become natural, I had learned to trim the sails to my satisfaction, and the wind was delightfully steady at about 15 knots and with waves limited by a nearby windward shore. Delightful. Too soon, we reach our home port and it was time to re-start our lone engine. Groan, click. Groan… start. I've been watching the battery voltage the entire day, hoping that the engine would provide some charging. It didn't. In the morning we had about 9.8 V, by noon perhaps 9.4 V, and by now about 9.2 V. Additionally, the engine had not been running very well, the idle was far too low, and it was prone to stalling when shifting gears. I had learned to be very careful and throttle up rather quickly through the engine’s flat spot. Sure enough, as we approached our slip and idled down, the engine died. Click. Click. “Jessica, quickly, drop the anchor. Just push the forward button until I ask you to stop.” Nothing from the windlass. We had a second anchor available to go fairly quickly in the stern locker, but it occurred to me that the wind was appropriate in direction and strength, and with the roller furler I could maneuver the self-tacking jib very quickly if I left the jammers open and stood on the trampoline. I directed Jessica to steer for our slip and I pulled the jib in and out, and moved the clew this way and that, and directed Jessica to steer this way and that as we moved closer. And a miracle occurred; we ghosted in the slip and about ½ knot, dock lines at the ready, and tied up pretty as a picture. I felt unworthy. I have made docking look so ugly so many times, I gather I had earned a break. Perhaps years of practice with the Stiletto helped as well—at only 1300 pounds and no rub rails, she blew around quickly and challenged her crew ruthlessly to keep her off barnacle-encrusted pilings. We had learned the craft.

We spent the afternoon searching through the bowels of the many compartments, sorting trash from treasure, and discovering what had conveyed: 20 stubby pieces of old rope, a pile of paper bags, the horribly weather remains of the original cockpit enclosure, 45 half used containers of every wax, polish, and lubricant known to the marine industry, frightening PFDs, 3 old mops, and on and on. After hours of searching 2 propellers materialized from the most remote corner: one brand-new in the box, one used (the prior owner tells me that there is nothing wrong with the used prop, but I think I spy some evidence the hub has slipped a little bit and I’ll have it re-hubbed).

I am home now, but the horizon is calling. My daughter has made me promise to take her around the Delmarva again. I’ll ignore them both until spring. There are so many harbors and coves and beaches on the Chesapeake it takes a life time to visit them all, and when you have seen them all, you can start over at the beginning, as faded memory renders them new again.

1 comment:

  1. hey dad, just read this.. you gave me too much credit. You couldv'e done the trip by yourself and still have made it. Although, we did have quite a few laughs. any way.. see you when you get home from your trip to Texas..... Don't bring the swine flu home with you!!!
    ~jessica ( from Hannah's computer)