14 January 2011

Going For It

"It is easy to acquire the art of sailing a boat under favourable circumstances; but it is only after considerable experience that the sailor is able to do the right thing promptly in the various emergencies which he is sure to encounter. The tyro will soon discover that the more he knows the more he has left to learn, and if once he commences to acquire this knowledge of seamanship, he will be thirsty for more; and he will never weary of his favorite sport all the days of his life."
E.F. Knight -- Sailing
E.F. Knight's "Sailing" is one of my favorite sailing books. It's the book that John Walker consulted when, as a young lad, he had to sail the Goblin across the North Sea to Holland in a gale (in "We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea"), and it's probably the book Arthur Ransome learned to sail with.

Knight says the science of sailing is "practically infinite", and I agree -- particularly when it comes to weather. After many months of studying weather forecasts, and comparing them with the weather that actually showed up, all I can do is quote the ancient weather proverb: "Believe it when you see it."

Oh, and "Take it with a grain of salt."

So when the forecast said, "S WINDS 5-10 KT... BECOMING 10-15 KT IN THE AFTERNOON. SEAS 2-3 FT.", I was naturally excited, but also prepared for disappointment. I knew how fast a forecast could change.

But for the last few days, I'd watched anxiously from home as the wind veered around from the North to the East, and finally to the South. This seemed a sure sign of favorable change. At the same time, the wind -- and more importantly the seas -- had dropped from the frightening 35 knots/5-6 ft of just a couple days before, to numbers that seemed much more friendly.

So, once again, Helena and I packed up and made the trip down to Manasquan, hoping this would finally be the day.

I had Helena drive us straight to the inlet so that I could climb up onto the stone ramparts, and see the enemy with my own two eyes. I half-expected to see Boreas with his mighty army of the North still gathered at the gates, still assaulting the walls with their mighty battering rams; so it was almost a shock to see that the enemy were gone, withdrawn to their chilly fortress, far in the north.

Boreas -- god of the north wind and winter --
with, clearly, the coast of NJ in the bottom of the picture.
wikimedia commons
At least, they were gone for the moment. There was no time to lose. We drove on to the marina.

There, we quickly threw aboard stores for 4 days -- all I'd need to get home, even in the worst case scenario, I hoped. While I started to unlash the Blue Moon from her berth, Helena found a marina guy to top up my gas tanks.

Clearly, she had been telling him about my voyage on the way down the dock.

"You sailed up from Florida in that little boat?" he asked, handing me the gas hose.

"Sure did."

He shook his head. "Tougher than me."

"What do you think of the weather today, for heading up to New York?"

"Gonna blow hard from the south, later this afternoon."

I didn't like the sound of that, but I'd been thinking the same thing. But by the afternoon, I hoped to be in sight of New York Harbor -- one of the easiest harbors in the world to enter. It was late November. Boreas was taking a short break with his new girl friend. I wouldn't have a better chance than this.

"She's a tough little boat," I said.

"Looks it. You'll do all right."

Meanwhile, I could see that Helena had been decoding this grunting man-talk, and didn't like what she'd been reading.

"Is this safe?" she asked, with one of those don't-even-try-to-lie-to-me looks.

And this is the main point I've been coming to. All a sailor can do in this type of situation is gather all the information available: from the weather service, from local knowledge, and -- most importantly -- from his or her own two eyes. Then, based on his own experience, he has to make a judgement that he can live with.

I had no experience with this particular bit of water, so I'd been very careful about picking my time to make the hop up the coast. 'Prudent' is probably the right, old-fashioned word that Knight would have used. I'd probably missed a few marginal days when the hop might have been possible. Who knows? Might wasn't good enough for me. On this particular day, I was sure we'd make it. And that's what I told Helena.

The Blue Moon and I, with faithful Cabin Boy trailing behind, backed out of the slip and cruised past the fuel dock. My sweetheart waved from the dock, looking beautiful in that early morning light. I waved back, then pointed the Blue Moon's bow towards the Manasquan Inlet, and the broad Atlantic beyond.

What more could you ask for?

As we approached the inlet, I took stock of the situation. It was sunny, and almost balmy at 55°F. The monster swells that had rolled through the inlet a few days ago were gone. The Blue Moon was ready for sea and several hundred pounds lighter than she had been, since I'd trucked a lot of stuff home. She glided quickly over the near-flat water in the inlet, almost as if she were eager to meet her mother again.

Since I fully expected some heavy following seas later in the afternoon, I'd tied Cabin Boy to the stern using a trick I'd read in Knight's Sailing. I had been using a long painter to keep Cabin Boy well behind the Blue Moon when I'd crossed Abelmarle Sound, and when going down the Delaware. The problem is, with big following seas, you don't want your dingy to surf down a wave and ram you. This had happened to me twice before, and I didn't like the experience. It didn't seem to bother Cabin Boy, with his stout oaken stem, but it made quite a ding in the Blue Moon's transom, and an even bigger ding in my nerves.

Knight's idea, based on his own sailing in the North Sea, was this: "to tow the dinghy with two very short painters, one to either quarter of the yacht, while an iron half-hundred weight was lashed to the floor of the dinghy close to her stern. This weight steadied her so that she steered straight, did not yaw about, and did not run down upon the yacht. The short painters kept her nose right out of the water so that she could not be swamped. If a sea had filled her -- it never did -- it would have almost all run out over her stern again."

I thought it was worth a try. I didn't have an iron half-hundred weight handy, so I'd substituted one of my 6 gal. water jugs, which weighed about the same. I had the 'short painters' tied inboard, so I could adjust them as necessary. And one of them was very long. If it didn't work, I'd just put Cabin Boy back on a long leash.

So my companions were ready. And how about the Captain? He had the usual butterflies that always seem to come when heading out to sea. But, mainly, he was happy to be heading home.

Manasquan Inlet to Monmouth Beach
click for larger image
As we emerged from between the stone arms of the inlet, out into open water, I was able to get a better feel for the conditions. The wind was light, maybe 5 knots, and it was from the south as promised. The seas were running about 3 feet, but they were long and gentle swells from the south. Absolutely no problem.

I headed straight out towards the clanging #2M sea buoy. I wanted to get about two miles out, and then start my run up the coast. Being 2 miles out would let me avoid all the inshore shallows and fish traps along the coast, and would keep me well inside the Ambrose to Barnegat traffic lane. I didn't want to get anywhere near the big-boy traffic.

Once we turned north, I turned the steering over to Helmo, hoisted the main, foresail, and jib in anticipation of some better wind, and settled in for a long day's motor-sailing. It was about 32 miles to the anchorage I'd picked out for the night, just inside Sandy Hook. At least 6 hours, maybe less if the wind picked up. I hoped to have my anchor down with an hour or two of daylight to spare.

But meanwhile, there was the sea and sun, and the flat, low-lying Jersey shore looking quite close in the clear air. I kept a good lookout for sunken containers (my big fear when offshore), sent a few text messages to Helena and the kids ("So far, so good!"). I was the only boat in sight, except for a few hulking monsters far to the east, in the shipping lanes.

About an hour later, we passed the Shark River Inlet -- the last navigable inlet before Sandy Hook. The fishermen were out in force, and it was nice to have company for awhile, but we soon left them behind.

Gradually, as predicted, the wind picked up, until I finally killed the engine. It wasn't making us go any faster. The silence was fantastic.

The seas rose more slowly than the wind, and not as quickly as they do over shallow water (I was in 50' of water, most of the time), but still they rose. Actually, the wind layered new, shorter waves over the older, longer swells, but both came from the same direction, almost directly behind us. The GPS was showing 6.2 knots over the ground. It didn't get much better than that.

Again we found fishermen off Monmouth Beach. There's a long finger of relatively shallow water that sticks up to the NE, which is good for fishing, I guess, cause there sure were plenty of boats. I was glad to be in a stiff sailboat, with the wind keeping her relatively steady. Watching those fishermen roll around in the seas made me feel a bit queasy for them!

Speaking of which, I think I can now state unequivocally that I do not get sea sick. When I first set sail from the Steinhatchee River, I wasn't sure. My grandfather was famous for getting sick. But while watching those fishermen roll around in their big power boats, it suddenly occurred to me that I don't get sea sick. That made me happy.

Meanwhile, we were cruising up the nearly featureless coast of Sandy Hook, with the Atlantic Highlands (not really so high) rising up behind them. The wind was steady from the south, 10-15 knots as predicted, but feeling quite light as we ran with it. The seas had continued to rise, but weren't giving Helmo any problems, which was a good indication that they were mild. If anything, that last hour's run up Sandy Hook was a bit boring. After all my worrying and planning, was it really going to be this easy?

This is where my mother is saying, "Don't say those kind of things!" I really should have known better.

Monmouth Beach to Sandy Hook
click for larger image
It started almost as soon as we started running along the green side of Sandy Hook Channel (I wanted to stay outside the main shipping channel.) Rather quickly, the depth sounder changed from reading 50 ft, to 25 ft, and then 17 ft.

At the same time, those long, placid swells that had been rolling gently under our keel all day, seemed to rise angrily out of the sea. Shallow water! Again! The sailor's bane! I swore if I ever made it to the lovely and deep Long Island Sound, that I would never sail in shallow water again. But meanwhile, I had to deal with it. Again.

The first thing I did was to relieve Helmo of duty. Knights words on the "Management of a Yacht in a Rough Sea" were still in my mind, since I had read them the day before.

"When sailing a small yacht in a rough sea, certain precautions must be observed which we will describe as briefly as possible, for to handle a vessel properly under these circumstances requires a skill that cannot be imparted by books."

Luckily, I'd had a bit of experience with rough seas, by now.

"To run before a high sea is dangerous, especially if the vessel is a short and beamy one, for a sea may strike the stern on one side and cause her to broach to; or again the vessel may be pooped, that is, a sea may break on board over the stern, filling the well and even swamping her."

I looked around at the tall, peaky waves that now seemed to tower over the little Blue Moon.

"While running before the sea, steer with great care, so that every dangerous sea strike the vessel right aft, and not on the side, and be ready to meet promptly with the tiller any tendency to broach to."

These were no doubt the very words that John Walker read when running before his North Sea gale from Harwich to Holland. And though his Goblin was a bigger boat, I guessed his seas were also higher. I concentrated on my steering.

I nearly forgot Cabin Boy, which was a good thing. These kind of following high seas were just the sort to send him careening into the Blue Moon's stern. Glancing over my shoulder, I could see him riding high and dry in our wake, keeping as steady a course as could be desired.

I expected to see lots of large ship traffic in the Sandy Hook Channel, but we didn't pass a single ship coming in or out. I wasn't complaining.

Though it was only 4 miles or so from the mouth of the Channel to the tip of Sandy Hook, it seemed like the longest leg of the trip. The Blue Moon was in her element, racing on a broad reach towards home, but I had to continually watch out for really large waves, bearing away to meet them stern on, and then turning back to the northwest. How had John Walker put it? So and back... So and back.

"So and back... So and back... He sat there swaying with the tiller. Sea after sea rolled up astern, lifted the Goblin with a noise of churning foam, dropped her, and rolled on. Now and then in the darkness he could see the crest of a wave like a grey ghost as it passed close by. Once or twice he lit the big electric torch and flashed it over the side to get an idea of how fast the little Goblin was racing through the water. But mostly he was content to keep up that easy, rhythmical steering, to know by the feel of the wind that there was no danger of a jibe, and to look far ahead for that winking light..." [Arthur Ransome -- We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea]

And then, just as suddenly as the waves had come, they were gone. I'd rounded Sandy Hook into Sandy Hook Bay. I headed south because there is no good anchorage in New York City, and the only marina I could reach before dark wasn't answering their phone. Closed for the winter, I guess!

So I headed south across Sandy Hook Bay, heading for the secure anchorage behind the Atlantic Highlands breakwater.  I was already thinking of the next challenge: New York's infamous Hell Gate -- swallower of hundreds of ships.

An hour later, I sailed in behind the breakwater with a dying wind, maneuvered my way slowly through the empty mooring field, and dropped my anchor a hundred yards off the beach.

I'd done it. I'd made 'the hop'.

>>> Next Episode: Harrowing Hell Gate

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  1. good to hear you have made it I have been following you since you started to build cabin boy. I was worried at first when you were towing her. Especially about her surfing down on you in big seas, but was relieved that mos of your route appeared to be mostly in closed waters. The solution using 2 short painters seems to be a sensible solution. we all learn something new te longer we sail.
    Ransome is certainly an author for all ages not just for children. In 2005 we wento the UK and visited the Lake District and visited Coniston Water. Wild Cat island looked exactly as described in Swallos and Amazons.

  2. Well, I didn't have much choice. There's certainly not enough room on the BM's deck for a dinghy. But I'm glad to have discovered this 'new' (circa 1890) way of towing one.

  3. Just a bow shot south of the statue of liberty is a channel that runs east west. A spoil bank serves as breakwater to the south, statue of libery and liberty park are the breakwaters to the north and at the west end is a fully enclosed but small lagoon and tiny boat ramp. Greatest little anchorage for vessels to perhaps 7-8 ft draft and 60-70ft length.

  4. Congratulations on surviving the "hop." It reminds me of an attempt a friend and I made to circumnavigate Long Island in a fifteen foot outboard. Wind and sea made for a scary passage through Rockaway Inlet to the ocean and the sea miles to NY harbor. Coasties in a helicopter watched over us during the worst of it.

    We approached Hell Gate at slack water with trepidation, but navigated the swirling currents easily with the help of the fairly powerful outboard.

    Three quarters of the way around the island high winds and seas foiled us in the bay between the north and south forks of eastern LI. Our old engine (this was over fifty years ago) was drowned out and, at great risk, was pulled into the boat and replaced with a small auxiliary outboard. We motored to Sag Harbor, abandoned the "voyage," and waited for a parent to come to our rescue with a trailer.

    The experience provided a memory for a lifetime.

    Best of luck on the completion of your long journey and thank you for sharing the experience.

  5. I know this seems a little... distant. But if you can find a copy, read Krakauer's "Eiger Dreams." In particular, read "The Devil's Thumb." I sail up in Maine, and I fly for a living, and this little short story gives the perfect definition of the sort of judgement you are talking about. I've enjoyed your posts, and am currently building a Joel White Pooduck. Swallows and Amazons forever!

  6. Nick: sounds like a great trip. Would love to do that some day... During the summer!

  7. I've read some Krakauer before. I'll check it out.

    Just wish there were more S&W books!

  8. Ug... Darn keyboard. I meant S&A books, of course.

  9. John buddy - you're almost there!!! My old sailing grounds. I've anchored right there in Atlantic Highlands. Can't wait to read about your strategy for Hell Gate - I fully expect it to come off without a hitch. Loved the Boreas pic!

  10. Hey Bruce. That was a great anchorage... though it must be packed during the summer. Where are you these days? Some where warmer than NY, I hope.

  11. Hi John, its Edward from the UK again. Glad you've made it home safe. Interesting point about towing the dinghy on a short painter. Learnt the same on the Norfolk Broads last year. Just been to see an S&A musical that has only just been written. Magical.
    Whilst we are recommending books, may I suggest 'The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow' about a jouney from England to Romania in an 8' dinghy.

  12. Edward: still got one episode to go -- going through NYC to Long Island Sound. Lots of good pics of that leg.

    Which book(s) is the musical based on? That sound interesting. The old S&A movie is available in several segments on utube.

    I've read Mackinnon's book twice. Terrific, especially the first 2/3rds of it, before he gets to Eastern Europe.

    I'd have toss in all the John MacGregor books, all of which are available for free in various electronic formats. Not funny like Mackinnon, but he covered a lot of the same ground, and it's interesting to compare them.

  13. Hey John: Hope you enjoyed the hot shower at the state marina in Forked River that day in November. I was intrigued by your story and thought it might be cool if you had a blog! Good to see you got out of there okay. These are a few images of my trip up to Cedar Creek that day after we spoke. Did you ever have sushi that evening? Dave


  14. Hi Dave,

    I did, indeed. My wife deserved a little treat after driving through NYC traffic to pick me up. Nice pictures on your blog!

  15. I breathed a sigh of relief when you hit calm water! I have to follow you on Google Earth, being unfamiliar with the geography of the colonies ;-) Sounded like a nice day's sail though, and in before dark - that's always a bonus (even though you plan it that way, it just rarely works out!).


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