Entering the Chesapeake

Sunrise at Sea
Sunrise at sea off the coast of New Jersey

After leaving Martha’s Vineyard, Idle Queen’s bowsprit pointed across a glassy, starlit sea toward the Block Island Light, and later the powerful beacon at Montauk.  After a couple of days spent waiting for strong headwinds to blow themselves out, we were left with nothing to stir the sea or fill the sails.  Hourly trips to turn the grease cup that lubricates the drive shaft bearing provided a means to mark time on this passage as the engine droned away noisily.  How since we passed Cuttyhunk Island?  5 turns of the grease cup I noted at one point.  There were a few brilliant shooting stars that night, providing some excitement when they left trails glowing in the sky where they cut into the atmosphere.  We carried a fair tide all the way to the Race, thanks to having picked a good departure time and to the engine for keeping the boat moving.

A meaningful amount of wind did not cross the deck until we were on Long Island Sound. I had decided to head up the Sound because a strong cold front was forecast to sweep southward before there was any chance of making it to shelter if we had headed to the south of Long Island, and there was no reason to be caught offshore in the forecast gale that was to follow.

We were hit by the first blast of southwest wind when we were just short of Oyster Bay.  I had really hoped to make it to Port Washington, as it would have left us in a favorable position for continuing with a fair wind later.  Once the wind built enough to leave Idle Queen overpowered with just a double-reefed mainsail and the staysail, I began to have second thoughts about making it to Port Washington.  It’s only 15 miles.  We have a fair current.  We can make it.

It was not to be.  Rain came with curtain of fog and blotted out an overtaking tow that I had been watching that was only at that point about a mile astern.  We have no radar, and it wouldn’t have done us any good as we pitched and heeled anyway.  If I couldn’t see the tugboat’s powerful running lights, they sure couldn’t see the feeble glow from mine.  I estimated visibility at about 50 yards.  Idle Queen may have been lost in the rain and sea clutter on the tugboat’s radar.  Even though they should have passed almost a mile to our north, I didn’t want them worrying about where that sailboat went, so I tacked away to the south, putting us perpendicular to their course and any danger of collision.  With visibility so bad, it was time to seek shelter, so I made for Oyster Bay, where we sheltered for an entire day from the howling wind.

When we headed out the next morning to try to make it through the East River and out to the Atlantic in order to continue south, the wind was down to about 30 knots out of the northwest.  That, however, was enough to make it painfully slow to make it out of Oyster Bay.  Idle Queen is not a powerful sailer to windward–her keel is shallow; she has high freeboard to hold her back; and her sails have assumed a very relaxed shape when compared to the nice foil shapes they had when they were new.  We can’t power very quickly into a blow, either.  The engine is reliable and in good condition, but it is small–we have less than 1.5 hp per ton of boat.  Take a headwind and add a short chop, and the result is slow going for Idle Queen.  It took almost four hours to claw the three miles to windward so that we could make the turn to continue west on Long Island Sound toward the East River.  That put us way behind the tide, so we anchored near City Island to wait for the next ebb to flush us through the East River and down New York Harbor.  We would do that leg at night.

After breaking the anchor out of the thick, oyster-studded mire at City Island, I stood in the cockpit and motored toward the Throgs Neck Bridge.  My hands went numb after just a few minutes, despite doing my best to avoid exposing them to the below-freezing might air.  I needed to frequently pull out my flashlight to check my position and verify the upcoming lights, and the switch on the flashlight was too small to push when my hands were in gloves.  With the exception of a moment’s confusion near Riker’s Island (where a few channels come together), the trip went smoothly.  With a fast-running fair current and many rocks lurking in the dark, it only takes a moment’s confusion for the boat to end up against something solid.  Fortunately, I figured the marks out and avoided getting into shallow water.

We ran the gauntlet between ships, tows, ferries, and patrol craft and made it down New York Harbor to where it meets the sea at Ambrose Channel.  There, I enjoyed the wide, well-marked channel with few background lights to confuse after the hectic hours in the East River and New York Harbor.  The wind was fair and whipping, so I set the staysail.  We sailed into the Atlantic and turned right, making 5 knots with very little canvas set.

Dawn found us well past Sandy Hook.  As the wind lightened, I set first a double-reefed, and later the full mainsail.  Progress was good, but the ride was bumpy, with Idle Queen bouncing uncomfortably down the 4-6 foot swells.  We were moving well and my spirits were high, despite an uneasy stomach.  Maybe it was that can of peaches I ate earlier.  I shouldn’t have felt so queasy given the conditions.

Late that night, with the incredibly huge video screen of Atlantic City still visible, I finally had to give in to my body and void my stomach.  I am not sure what caused me to get sick, but it took a few hours to get over.  Probably something that I ate.  Feeling a bit weak, and with the forecast calling for headwinds the next day, I decided to turn in to Cape May and head up the Delaware Bay.

We fueled up at Utsch’s Marina, where I spent a short while chatting with the owner about the weather and the declining state of the pleasure boating business.  “Ten years ago, all of these marinas had more transients than they could handle,” he said, sweeping his hand through an arc past at least three other big marinas.  “Now, we don’t have half the business we were doing back then.”  He knew that he was part of a dwindling number of family-run marinas, and seemed to indicate that he could already imagine the day when he couldn’t make it pay anymore.  I was thankful to have given him my business, though it was just a small fuel sale.  We continued on our way with some helpful tips about the Delaware Bay and a free cup of coffee.

The fair tide carried us to the Upper Bay, where we anchored not far from a nuclear power plant.  We were completely exposed, with miles of fetch in every direction, but the water was calm by this point.  The whole trip from Cape May had, at the most, about 10 knots of wind, which was on the nose, of course.  After the sun set, the water was glassy.  It was wonderful to be able to catch a couple of hours of sleep before the tide turned once again and we continued on through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal at night.

Daybreak brought more headwinds.  Fortunately, they were light and we were able to motor the rest of the way to Annapolis without ever having our speed over the ground fall much below 3 knots.  Yeah,  I am happy as long as the boat is at least moving at a good walking speed.  We worked the shallows to avoid the flood tide, and stayed in deep water to get a push from the ebb.  It was about 3 in the afternoon when we motored under the drawbridge to enter Spa Creek.  It was time to take a break…  The forecast called for freezing temperatures and gale-force winds.

Spa Creek
Idle Queen anchored in Spa Creek, Annapolis, MD

It blew hard all day today, but the wind is tapering off now.  With a couple of days rest and freshly-laundered clothes, we are again ready to continue our journey south.  The current plan is to leave tomorrow morning and see how far we make it before the wind turns on us again.

A few photos from Marthas Vineyard follow:

Moon path
Idle Queen’s mast is touching the moon!
Gannon and Benjamin
Gannon and Benjamin
Packet ship sign
Packet ship sign

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