13 December 2010

Run Aground Slowly!

Like lots of other sailors, I've been reading Jessica Watson's True Spirit: The True Story of a 16-Year-Old Australian Who Sailed Solo, Nonstop, and Unassisted Around the World.

In the past, I've been delighted to discover that this real adventurer and I have shared many experiences. I don't mean little things like knockdowns in the Southern Ocean, or rounding Cape Horn. No, I mean really significant things like sore hands and dropping whipping needles overboard.

Now I've discovered something else we have in common: Not blogging about some of the more 'interesting' parts of our voyages, so as not to scare the bejesus out of certain people. In my case, my dear old mum & Helena.

In fact, now that I've been reviewing my log and outlining the book I want to write (before I forget everything!), I'm amazed at how little of this very long voyage I've had a chance to write about. That's another thing I'm noticing in Jessica's book: how much more there was to her voyage than she could fit into her blog.

Anyway, a great read and a truly amazing young woman. (But I bet I'm a better cook than you, Jessica. Ha! Got you there!)

I face a similar problem when I sit down to blog about New Jersey. Which, out of the 147 miserable experiences, should I write about? I can't possibly fit all 147 into my blog. Even if I could, you'd think I made half of them up. So I will have to pick one or two of the more believable incidents, and hope you can imagine the rest.

For example, I now have a new rule. It's a lot like another rule that I made up while building Cabin Boy. The old rule was "Make Mistakes Slowly". Briefly, it stated that since mistakes are inevitable when building a boat, it's better to make them in slow motion (with hand tools) than at full speed (with power tools.)

My new rule is "Run Aground Slowly". I discovered this rule by doing the opposite, several times my first full day in the infamous NJ ICW.

Until I got to Cape May, I prided myself on only touching ground 3 times in the 1700 miles or so from Steinhatchee, FL. All three times, I did something wrong, like cutting a corner or trusting Helmo too much.

No mistakes on the sailor's part are required to run aground in the NJ ICW -- except for the primary mistake of believing it is a navigable waterway!

My first grounding was typical: It was a rainy day, cold, windy and miserable, but I was on my way home and making good time, 5 or 5 1/2 knots. The ICW was straight and well marked. I was headed right down the center line, as best I could. My depth sounder was showing 6' to 8', with the occasional deep patch. Plenty of water for the 4' deep Blue Moon.

All of a sudden, I felt the telltale bump that every sailor dreads, and before my hand could move to the throttle, I bounced another half-dozen times, finally coming to a rather abrupt stop.


Luckily, I'd read the cruising guide, which was unequivocal in saying that prudent sailors, in boats drawing 4' or less, should travel on a rising tide. (There is a sign over the entrance of the NJ ICW that reads "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here in boats drawing more than 4 feet." The sign has a 35' vertical clearance, by the way.)

So, 20 minutes later, I'd floated off and was on my way again, but more gingerly, this time.

After running aground 2 more times, I gave up counting. Clearly, the game was different in NJ. It wasn't if you were going to run aground, but when and for how long.

With a bit of experience, I learned to keep a sharp eye on the sounder, and on the signs that are often visible if you are watching for them: a certain kind of ripple, just below the surface, or the finger of marsh that points to a shallow spot.

If the sounder suddenly started showing 5' then 4' something, I'd slow the boat down to a crawl until I'd cleared the shoal. Sometimes I'd be lucky and glide over the shallow spot. But if there wasn't enough depth, I'd just nudge the shoal and be able to back off and try a different spot.

Usually, there was a deeper part of the channel I could get through in 2 or 3 tries. Except for one really bad place where I just had to anchor and wait for the tide to rise another foot.

This made for very slow progress, as you can imagine. But I didn't complain. The weather was miserable, with hard winds from the N or NW. It would have been impossible to travel off-shore, as the bigger boats had to do. I would have been stuck in Cape May, waiting for a turn in the weather.

A turn that, in fact, only came days later, when I really needed it.

Next Episode: Trapped!

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