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Sailtime Storys by Bill Amt #4

Twenty years after my first ICW Experience

Are there yet more lessons to be learned?

A passage from Baltimore MD to Norfolk VA

1999 once again gave me the opportunity to revisit the very first watery lesson that I had learned – a fool and his money soon part.  Another windfall bonus, a great Annapolis yacht broker, and a West Sail 32, which this time was a real “sail away’ package, all came together in the back yard of “Threshold’s owner.  I was commuting from Atlanta to Washington DC, and any reasonable pragmatist could see the economics of living on a sailboat at the Shem Creek Marina in Annapolis and traveling back home on the weekends.  Pretty doggone logical decision in my mind.  And, God forbid, should the job transfer me someplace else, good ol’ Threshold could easily move with me.  Sweet!

And this time I had charts and a monochromatic hand held Garmin GPS so getting from Baltimore to Shem Creek in Annapolis posed few navigational problems.  Only one bridge to pass – Shem Creek.  I picked up the boat at the local marina after the survey and paid for a fresh bottom job and with all of the confidence in the world, stepped into the cockpit, started the engine, cast off the lines and fifty yards later ran aground on the sand bark that the yard foreman had previously warned me about.

But Threshold was strong and had a powerful Perkins engine with a three blade prop and the twenty year old lessons learned from the ICW immediately returned to my mind. Simply turn the tiller full port, pointing the bow to what I thought to be deep water and gun the Perkins.  Thankfully, the marina had a little power boat with a tow line and shortly, after listening to the yard superintendent’s instructions for the second or third or fourth time, Threshold was now in 10 feet of water and heading to Annapolis, hopefully, with no further embarrassments to be levied upon her by her new Captain.

Six months later, I learned my company was going to relocate to Orlando FL, and I had a month to get settled in the Sunshine State.   Of course the news broke my heart, but then again there are many alligators and crocodiles in Florida and crocodile tears are of such a common occurrence that no one would take heed to my protestations.  But how to get Threshold to where she needed to be was a bit of a concern since I could not make the junket in one single leg, and I did not have my crew of twenty years ago.  Long ago I learned to appreciate the second hand to spell me at the helm, spot day beacons, and help me tie up or anchor at night and fix a welcome PBJ sandwich and a cup of hot coffee.

Also ICW mile marker 0 was still 140+ miles away and I was not familiar with the Chesapeake shore line.  Even then Daytona was another 830 statute miles after that.  Let me see, at 50 miles per day and a thousand miles to go, even that fellow in China would find a single handed trip a little daunting.  So it dawned upon me that I had a bunch of frequent flyer miles, a handful of college chums who had retired and had little on their work plates, and I had a need.

So the trip was planned. At Annapolis, Norfolk, Cape Fear, Charleston, and Daytona, a new crew would fly in and an old crew would depart.  I would cover the expenses (mostly frequent flyer passes), and the trip would be spread out over the course of a month to allow me to attend to work as well as pleasure.

On July 3 1998, Threshold left Shem Creek and headed to Norfolk – a passage of, give or take, one hundred thirty miles.  For the passage I had two crew, Jim and Jack, both of which had never been on an off shore sailboat, and, as I soon learned, were unequivocally incompatible with each other.  The concepts of port and starboard, tack and jibe, main sail and jib were foreign to both.  So I decided that before we made the trip down the Chesapeake we would have some early morning sailing and boat handling lessons.

The wind was brisk – 15 to 20 knots and Threshold was a cutter with hanked-on staysail and jib.  Jim had some experience sailing a West Wright Potter but Jack knew “jack little” about sail boats or any boats for that matter, and probably to this day has little regret about his lack of this kind of knowledge.  Regardless we did our thing, discussing sails and running rigging, and sheets and the like and before I realized it we were still sailing within four miles of Annapolis at three in the afternoon.

I had been watching the weather, and while I knew a Bermuda high was settling in off shore of Norfolk, there would be a significant possibility of a thunderstorm that evening.  So after having all of the fun we could have learning how to sail a heavy boat in 15 knot breezes we doused the sails, stowed the stowables, fixed a light dinner of pasta and I took the helm and pointed the bow toward Norfolk.

As the sun began to set we could see the fireworks of both Baltimore and Washington in the night sky, and while Jack and Jim were ogling at their splendor, we could also see the outline of the thunderheads in the same sky.  At that moment, I suddenly realized that this would be their first night time sailing experience and a shudder ran up my back.

Both were tired from working the sails that day so both sat in the cockpit, backs to the bow and watched the darkening horizon over the stern of the boat.  For a while I thought they were mesmerized by the moment, but suddenly both headed for the scuppers at the same moment, up chucking their pasta.

Seasickness is no joke.  It is a terrible feeling no matter who you are and it is debilitating. We were then thirty miles down the Chesapeake and it was dark, the wind and seas building into a nasty and sloppy chop.  I was raining and there was some lighting. I had not planned for an emergency port, and did not want to turn around and go back to Annapolis.  And I had not followed the precaution of knowing my crew properly.

So I did only what I could do.  I put on my foul weather gear; stowed Jack and Jim down below and sat at the helm for the next six hours.  No, Threshold did not have an autopilot or wind vane, and yes every ten minutes I checked the monochromatic GPS and watched the compass like a hawk watches for a field mouse and marked our position on a paper chart.

At about three AM after the storm had passed, Jack and Jim found their sea legs, and joined me in the cockpit.  Jim relieved me at the helm and Jack reluctantly spelled him every so often.  After a quick cup of coffee and confident that they could stay on course, I decided to jump into the quarter berth to grab a few winks, hoping to wake up at dawn and prepare to enter Norfolk that afternoon.

I dozed off only to wake up to hear Jack and Jim arguing.  “Should we go between them?”  “No, go around them” “No they are too close, we need to go between them” and the argument began to heat up with a lot of profanity thrown in just to spark excitement.  Needless to say, I went up on deck and looked forward only to see us heading straight for the beam of a north bound container ship.  I knocked the helm to starboard, gunned the engine and we missed the freighter by no more than 50 yards, its wake throwing Threshold every way conceivable a few seconds later.  Both had seen only the two white mast lights and nothing else and were heading for the gap in between.

Needless to say, I stayed in the cockpit the balance of the night and about 3:00 PM we tied up at a Marina in Norfolk.  Little was said about the incident twelve hours earlier, but a huge collection of lessons went into the lesson book.   Do not transit the Chesapeake at night in a small boat unless well equipped with VHF, GPS, AIS and Radar and then only if you know how to operate such equipment proficiently.  Know your crew and make certain all are compatible – incompatibility can lead to disaster not simply hurt feelings.  And plan your trip with an emergency port in mind.

Looking back, the trip was enjoyable and we felt a sense of accomplishment.  The one scary incident received little discussion and chagrin was contained within each individual.  But I did put my crew in danger, risked my boat, and if we were to have hit that freighter no one would have known our fate since I did not file a sail plan with anyone.

Traveling the coastal waterways in a pleasure boat requires a sense of responsibility and I was not responsible that evening.  It could have cost us our lives; a big lesson to learned by all taking such a trip.

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