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Boating Offshore, Back in the Saddle

By Capt. Douglas Malat

"If anything could happen, Boating Offshore is usually where it happens." I find this true... it's the relentless motion from the sea on your vessel. Sure, I've been Offshore boating several times where it was flat and I mean flat... Had to do a lot of motoring with the sailboat. One time I was coming from Port Everglades Inlet (Fort Lauderdale) to Beaufort North Carolina. There was not even a ripple as far as the eye could see. We would swim off the boat and around it ....this was fun until someone mentioned shark watch. Then all stayed by the ladder ... that meant four people clamoring by the stern. Another time was a Bermuda run, Montauk to Bermuda in early June. Enough wind for the 150% Genoa and full Main to catch on a tight reach. Just beautiful, and that was a four and a half day Sailboat run. Even crossing the Gulf Stream was uneventful. Seeing the beautiful deep blue waters of the Gulf Stream was memorizing... it's a color you think can only be put on paper, yet all around you this color seems endless and unreal. We dragged along a thermometer to see if there would be a temperature change. I heard there would be one and to our astonishment it went from the mid 60 degrees to 80s. What a planet. The Gulf Stream keeping that warmth all the way from Florida and beyond. Here we are in the north and it still holds that kind of's just amazing.

Now I have to say I have been in some nasty stuff also. The worst was .... You're right .... In the Gulf Stream going Sailing North from Florida to Beaufort, North Carolina once again. This time for 2 1/2 days, winds from the south were 58 to 64 knots and peaked for about four hours at about 74 knots. The whistling in the Sailboat rigging was very intense, but as we slid down the waves the whistling went further and further up the mast till it was gone. Our mast was about 60 feet high, the wave behind us? You guess... But our sailboat rode well even though it looked like our cockpit canvas would explode at the seams.

This is what I was thinking about as my new crew members, Tom and Cathy, checked in on their approximate arrival at Summit Marina on the C & D Canal (Chesapeake & Delaware Canal) for the 2nd part of the trip. It started from Herrington Harbor, just south of Annapolis MD. I was told Delaware Bay, where it meets the C & D Canal could be treacherous with high waves do to contrary wind and tides. I reviewed all the marine charts and the boating chart books I could about this, but just felt we'd hit it at slack tide and light winds for no worries. What I did find was the rarity of marinas and harbors along the Delaware Bay. That's a 50-60 mile stretch. If the waves kick up along with the wind... we have plenty of Lee shore... Bad for sailboats.

I was stowing everything I could, yet leaving essential things at arms length in all compartments. I work all over the boat in no particular order but my final preparation is from bow to stern, inside and out. For example, the anchor is locked in with a pin on the anchor mount. Chain snugged up tight on the windless with a line on the anchor shackle to a cleat. I try to have three safeties. The inflatable dingy on deck is tied to stanchions, deck holds, and railings from the D rings on the dinghy. We also tie it over the top. Halyards not running to the cockpit are tied to and wedged to shrouds and tied again. Below in the forward head, all is secured with containers put away in locked cabinets. Anything lose is secured, everything gets a place. The ice box (refrigerator/freezer) tops are hinged so they won't go flying in a knockdown... books, coffeemaker, pots pans, all get their spot, but also can be readily available.

The Weather forecast says seas off Cape May to Chesapeake are 12 to 15 feet with winds 25 to 30 knots gusting to 35 from the northeast... very bad! But the additional forecast says winds switching to the southwest, 10-15 knots by tomorrow evening and southwest 5-10 knots thereafter. With winds coming in the opposite direction, the seas will quickly diminish... very good! It actually means one weather Front is moving out and another is taking it's place. That's the way you want it... Bad weather changing to good. Not to have good weather now, and rushing to beat the bad weather that's coming in. All things seem to be falling into place.

Tom is coming in this evening and we will pick up Cathy in the morning from the airport. Tom has been Offshore with me numerous times, well come to think of it... all the major trips for more years I care to remember. He has been on some that to say the least didn't go smoothly. On some trips the cabin below looked like scrambled eggs. Everyone was fine, but things would go wrong. As I mentioned before, "The Sea is Relentless". Tom would talk about "The Domino Effect". It seems when things go wrong it starts becoming a Domino Effect. In a Domino Effect, one thing goes wrong, than another, than another. Not good, especially when you're Offshore. How many spares do you have? Did you anticipate this or that? You are limited out there. With the Domino Effect, you must stop it cold, there is no harbor Offshore.

All below and above have been tightened up, fuel and water topped off, spares such as filters, solderless connectors, wiring, epoxy, and tools are made easily available. All that matters now is the weather and it seems to be cooperating very nicely.

Cathy has had many hours on the water, and by owning her own 18 foot run-about, she knew boat handling and inland navigation. Docking was no problem for her, it came easily. She has a sense of feel not all of us have. But this is her first time Offshore, with no land in sight. She was nervous but confident at the same time. I have known her for a few years and found her level headed and inquisitive. Not afraid to voice an opinion or an objection. I felt we could have used one more crew member, but I will figure out a good schedule that will suit us all. With the Watch Schedule, you can't have it feeling like work, it just has to flow.

It was late but Tom was excited when he arrived. He hadn't seen the boat yet, just pictures, and what I sent him he liked. When onboard he could not believe the room below. He looked into every compartment stunned by all the storage. I told him of the weather window that was happening as he checked out "Island Time". We spoke and listened to the weather reports over the VHF radio. The other Front was moving out. It had sat Offshore to the northeast up to New England for quite some time, throwing off those winds and seas. We talked of Cathy's arrival the next morning, made some coffee and also discussed how we'd round Cape May. We could take it down the shipping channel and out to the Atlantic, or if the weather was as nice as they were predicting... we could cut her close to shore and I mean close because of some shallow areas and make it out that way, saving miles and hours. But we'll see when we get there. Cape May canal is also a great route to go instead of rounding the cape, but in our case, being a sailboat, our mast is 60 feet and will not fit under the bridge. We turned in for the night. In the morning, we headed over to the Baltimore International Airport to pick up Cathy. She was all smiles as she jumped into the car all excited also. "I can't believe I'm here" she said... "I'm nervous about Offshore ... I know I'll be alright, but I can't believe I'm here". The excitement in the car was electric. We were all set to go. Arriving aboard, we went right for the VHF and listened to the weather report. There were still waves of 8 to 10 feet, but the winds had turned to the southwest at 10 knots. The predictions now were 5 to 7 feet tonight, 3 to 5 feet tomorrow, which made it easy to decide for an early AM departure tomorrow. We ended up having lunch in Chesapeake City and checking out the surrounding area.

The alarm clock sounded... it was still dark this early AM, but final checks have to be made like weather and final chart plotting. Tides and currents also need to be dealt with, plus I always give the crew plenty of time to get themselves together. And coffee helps! We untied her lines and pulled away from the dock. It was funny moving by a forest but the marina sat in one. Completely enveloped. I knew the current would be against us in the C & D canal. It had about an hour and a half until it turned with us. The marina sat right on the north side of the C & D canal so as you leave the marina you are in the C & D. I have a Tide Tracker unit from years ago that tells you the tides and currents from Nova Scotia to the Virgin Islands. It's a great little portable electronic item for quick checks (not made anymore I hear). This morning showed the current at 1.7 knots against us, but diminishing quickly. When we exited the marina I anticipated current but it really took us. We have a winged keel at 5 foot draft, and I was just thinking if we had a full keel ... wow ... it would carry you way back. I eased the throttle forward, turned her more to port and slowly she came bow to. Our progress to say the least was slow, so checking out the sites were no problem. The bridges here, one after another were beautifully done. One different from the next. We slowly made our way eastward through the C & D. No breeze to speak of and the waters flat. The weather window is doing great, blue skies as we make our way out of the C & D Canal into the Delaware Bay. I don't remember breakfast and I don't remember feeling hungry so someone must have made something.

As we turned southward down the Delaware Bay, the serenity is taken up by the Nuclear power plant. I have never seen one so close up like this, but it is expansive. Talking about scenery... it was going by fast. The tide was pulling us out.... We were getting sucked out to the Atlantic. Winds were very light... like they predicted, 5 to 10 knots. We continued motoring, watching the marsh like shore go by. In the distance past the marsh were trees with the land rising slightly. It seemed wide open. The freighter traffic picked up as they passed us heading north towards the C&D Canal. As we continued south the winds picked up slightly, letting us open up to full sails. "Island Time" heeled lightly to port, and as we shut the engine down the drone of the exhaust gave way to the water rustling by. Our slow progress under sail was made up by the outgoing tide. It only took six hours to get down the Delaware Bay. We made the decision to round Cape May close, so Tom took over the helm from the autopilot. He would match up latitudes and longitudes I gave him off the paper charts, to that on the chartplotter by moving the cursor. As you moved the cursor, your latitudes and longitudes change. We would agree on that heading to the cursor, or if not, Tom would giving me his coordinates. All went smoothly around Cape May, a little close, but the winds and waves were cooperating. We discussed heading into Cape May harbor to fuel up. I didn't know if the electronic tank indicator was accurate, so topping off would alleviate that question and at the same time tell me fuel consumption per hour on our 4 cylinder Yanmar 56 horse power.

The seas were lumpy, 3 - 5 feet as predicted. Cape May harbor entrance faced seaward, but the jetties calmed things down. As we made our way into the harbor, we were greeted by a pair of porpoise happily playing around. Marina entrances in this Harbor were not marked and local knowledge was a must. We called ahead after trying this way and that and got the secret from the marina. After fueling, I found our consumption a little less than 1.3 gallons an hour. The electronic tank indicator had to be kept an eye on because the fuel being pumped on board did not match the indicator. It seemed to show we had more fuel than we had. As we pulled out of the marina we all knew the run to Montauk Offshore has begun. The Offshore Watches were discussed and basically put together aloud. I would have the 8pm to 11pm shift, Tom, the 11pm to 3am, and Cathy the 3am - 7am, but I would be on deck with Cathy on her watches. Daytime was up for grabs... meaning we knew someone would be on deck, we all pulled our weight during the day light hours... we all did what we wanted but we knew to cover the daylight hours.

Sails up and in the Atlantic at 6:30pm. The wind was coming from the southwest, the seas as I had mentioned were very lumpy at 3 - 5 feet. The waves were basically coming from the southwest, but a lot were from the east, which were the remnants from the last front. It made the ride at first uncomfortable. When you would get used to the motion another lumpy wave would come at you from a different direction. I called the seas lumpy because they were not typical to what you might expect. A usual sea is waves coming from one direction following the wind, rolling on by, spaced apart somewhat evenly. The bigger the seas, the longer the wave tops are. As the winds picked up the bigger waves crest a bit here and there. This is what you find Offshore typically. Lumpy conditions are from a wind shift, usually abrupt. The waves want to come from the wind direction but the waves from the last front are still rolling in from a different direction. As they meet, they push each other around causing wallowed up waves from confused directions. This is as I say uncomfortable at these present winds speeds around 10 knots. Can you imagine it at 20 or 30 knots? This is where skill comes in and danger begins. The waves are incredible because one going into another makes for a bigger wave. Prudent sailors wait in the harbor for better weather, but others less fortunate coming from a distant port get stuck out there... trouble can definitely begin. In our case the weather is improving calling for small wave heights and lighter winds. I find motor sailing more comfortable in these seas, and don't want to feel uneasy. We are doing 6.6 knots SOG (speed over ground) with a course of approximately 60 degrees (the seas are moving us a round quite a bit). As you remember, the knot meter was intermittent, and now quits completely. I am cautious about this, thinking if it is electrical, will my other electronics go out one by one? My back up is a handheld GPS which will give us latitude and longitude, easily put on a paper chart to see our progress. I turn off all unessential equipment basically only running the electronics and running lights, all other circuits are off. This is what I do normally anyway. I try to keep the Domino Effect in check. I give a last look around including bilge and through-hull fittings, securing anything that needs to be. Then let the watches begin... oh wait, I'm up. Tom makes a light dinner... some soup in hot cups which warms us up and bread. With the wave action, light and easy was good. After, Tom got some shut eye and I watched the stars appear. The evening was getting chilly and a jacket was in order. I can tell you that every hour that went by, the sea came more and more from the southwest, making the ride more comfortable. This was the first evening running with "Island Time" and found the engine gauges had a switch to illuminate them, and the red night lighting down below at floor level was convenient for quick checking around. All I can say is that the boat seemed tight, no groans or creaks were coming from hull movement or any other undesirable places. Things are looking good and strong. Tom comes on deck... I realize my watch went by quickly. We chat about my watch and what to keep an eye on. Through the years my crew knows not to switch anything on while I'm off watch asleep (as a captain, I really don't know if I do sleep... maybe deep resting). They know to alert me of any changes, especially electrical. I had one crew member years back that did not listen and I awoke to the sounds of circuit breakers being switched on and off, one after the other. They were labeled but he just kept switching them all to get whatever on. To say the least, I banned him from the panel and explained again I needed to be there in case something happened... I'd hate to be awakened to an electrical fire. Things happen Offshore from the relentless movement... we're miles and miles from any help. How do they say it? "Better safe than sorry".

Cathy comes in the aft cabin to let me know she is going on watch. I groggily come awake thinking it was an instant before I just laid back. As I moved through the boat I can tell the erratic motion has greatly subsided. Let the late night watch begin! This was Cathy's first Offshore shift watch. She wanted to make sure not to make a mistake, and we reassured her she wouldn't. Tom bought us up to speed on our location, course, sea conditions, and changes. Nothing out of the ordinary and at this point, things were running smooth. Cathy asked Tom a few questions to get the feel of the evening. And within hours Cathy seemed comfortable with her abilities and surroundings. This makes for a good crew member. I told her how the stars get so close to you at night, but a brightening glow off to port prevented this. We realized Atlantic City was the only area bright enough to do this. It's funny... when you're out sailing you realize the amount of energy needed to make something that bright. You realize your simplicity to that, but the glow that high into the atmosphere and this far out to sea is amazing. Cathy stayed behind the helm as I lounged on the starboard side of the cockpit in one of those adjustable lounge seats.... Oh what perfection. I dozed with her permission and her knowing I was there in a moments notice. She would get familiar with the chart plotter and other electronics, asking me questions here and there as she figured out each knob, button, and switch.

Dawn started bringing color to our watch. In the evening everything seems black and white around you... and then dawn. It's like seeing a color TV for the first time, a great feeling. Tom came on deck. At around 6:30am I noticed a large sized super white moth come flying in. The wind was generally behind us and I thought nothing of this till another and another and another came aboard. Within 20 or 30 minutes, herds of them came in on us. I had to close the hatchway. This made me think of the movie "The Birds" from Alfred Hitchcock. The moths would disappear under cleats, coiled lines, hatchway edgings, anywhere there was an opening. And with this all disappeared and it was like it didn't happen.... Until.... A black and yellow breasted sparrow type bird appeared. Just one and very small at that. He landed on the aft deck, hopping around. But as it turned out... he was looking for the moths. He was pulling them out of their hiding spots, shaking them hard to knock off there wings, and than consuming them. For over an hour he was magnificent and relentless. He pulled them from everywhere... places I would not expect. He knew his trade and with a bow before he left, he sprung into flight. Talk about nature and this far out at sea. We were all amazed.

Breakfast went down easy in these calming seas. No shore to be seen so looking for whales, dolphins or other sea life was exciting. You didn't know what you would or would not see. We had been clicking off the miles and found that we had 70 miles to go. Montauk here we come. During the day the cockpit stayed busy with conversation. I went below checking the bilge and through-hull fittings again, and giving an all around check out. No problems to report was brought back to the cockpit and with that, everyone found their comfy spot. Sandwiches were consumed for lunch; music from CDs came out of the background. We talked about our bird buddy and Tom mentioned that he noticed on the yellow breast a kind of black bowtie. For dinner chef Tom brought out ravioli with a great salad. The sailing was great, this weather window was holding up and the company was the toping. The sunset was magnificent. I have seen many Offshore before, but this one drew my attention and camera. The skies turned red as it spread along the horizon. The red sun settled on the sea top ready to plunge below. Instead it stacked itself like pancakes making an intenser red. A halo around the stacking formed from the different shades of red. When it finished stacking, it hung there saying "I'm not going away yet," and seemed to muscle itself aloft... then like a feather, a slight downward motion was noticed. And like a feather it held itself aloft awhile. And gently down again as the pancakes of red slowly, but so slowly, got swallowed by the sea. Its remnants in the sky above changed shades of red that seemed to be a part of the whole sky.

Once again an inspection down below and some tidying up is done. We are zoning in on Montauk and will be there in two hours or so. That would make it close to 11pm. It will be dark but we will have plenty of sea-room to round Montauk. Coming into unfamiliar harbors at night is not really prudent, but this is no problem. I have decided to anchor in a slight cut out on the east side of Gardners Island for the evening. It will add a few more hours to the trip, but will give us a gorgeous view come morning. If the trip Offshore was longer I feel confident this crew would have no problem handling it. We all gelled nicely and time went by quickly. Seeing the illumination of the Montauk lighthouse excited us all. I reflected on the Offshore trip we have just accomplished with ease. Being mainly land bound the past 4 years was not a factor at all...I guess it's like riding a bike...ya just gotta get on it. The combination of crew, weather, sea conditions, and boat was the key to an enjoyable trip. No other component on board barked back, but don't think I wasn't ready... you never know .... Happy sailing.

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