The morning of Friday, September 11, we set out for the longest passage of our thirteen months of cruising. Actually, when we left, we weren’t sure if we would complete the passage or abort a few hours in and find a safe harbor. There was an iffy weather window for our planned jump south. A strong low pressure system was working it’s way up the eastern seaboard. We could ride the back side of this all the way across the southern edge of Long Island taking advantage of ENE breezes. Later, the winds would shift to the north and strengthen, accompanied with widespread thunderstorms and heavy rain. Once this passed, winds would become light and conditions would moderate. If we did not take advantage of this questionable window, it would likely be a week before we would have another opportunity.
After filling our tanks with water from the town dock, we slipped from the harbor in light breezes and a light fog. Not more than a mile from the harbor entrance, the fog thickened, blanketing Beatitude and her surroundings with a grey mist. One of Nantucket’s nicknames is “The Grey Lady,” so called because of her appearance from the sea when fog obscures her land mass, as it often does. As we made our way westward through Nantucket Sound along the northern shores of the islands, visibility was reduced to less than one-tenth of a mile. The AIS, radar, and most importantly, our eyes and ears were actively engaged in locating any other traffic. The opaque, thick fog persisted for two to three hours before it started to lift as we distanced ourselves from The Grey Lady. This dissipation began shortly after making our way southward through the pass between Muskeget Island (of Nantucket) and Chappaquiddick Island (of Martha’s Vineyard). In a moment of impatience, I decided to cut to starboard across the shoals which extend south of Chappaquiddick. The charts read at least 15 feet deep where I attempted to do so. Suddenly, my depth alarm sounded and I was in less than 6 feet of water. Quickly, I slowed the engines and retraced my path to deeper water. We’d go the extra few miles around.
As we again turned westward once reaching the open waters of the Atlantic, passing south of Martha’s Vineyard, the fog finally cleared. The sky remained overcast, however, and the winds slowly increased from the ENE to about 10 knots. For the next several hours, the breezes strengthened and shifted to a more northerly direction. We were racing westward to beat the low pressure system which was heading NNE just off the coastline. Soon, the thunderstorms came, and not long thereafter, so did nightfall. The conditions were still quite reasonable as the sun set. This did not last long however. Cindy and I divided the night-watches up into 3 hour chunks: Cindy would stand watch from 8p-11p and 2a-5a, while I stood watch from 11p-2a and from 5a-8a. At least in theory, that’s how it would work, unfortunately on Cindy’s first watch, there were what I believe were large commercial fishing vessels everywhere. They did not show up on AIS, and seeing how it is difficult to judge distance and direction at night, I was up a while to help navigate through the maze of mystery ships. Then, Cindy definitely drew the short straw on her second watch from 2a-5a. These were the worst conditions of the entire passage. Winds strengthened from the north at 20-25 knots with higher gusts. Waves also built to 5-6 feet over our starboard beam. On top of this, it grew quite cold in the cockpit. She was a trooper, however, and lasted for her entire watch with minimal complaint (But, she was awful glad to see me relieve her when the time came).
Once we had travelled the entire length of Long Island from west to east, we began to turn to the south. We couldn’t travel a straight-line path from Nantucket to the Delaware Bay because of needing to skirt around the backside of the low pressure system. If we had attempted a more direct route, conditions would have been dangerous and unbearable. As we reached the New York/New Jersey Bight, our course changed to more SSW direction which made conditions much more tolerable. Now, the waves came from astern, and it was no longer dark. The waves remained at 4-6 feet throughout the morning, but in the afternoon, just as forecast, the winds began to abate and the waves began to moderate in size. By mid-afternoon, there was even sunshine to be had.
When the sun began to set on the second day, we found ourselves passing about eight miles off the coast of New Jersey, just west of Atlantic City. The gambling mecca was silhouetted by a golden-orange sky produced by the sinking sun. Winds had diminished to less than 5 knots and the waves were now gentle rollers of 2-3 feet from astern. We had persevered through the worst and now were enjoying a pleasant evening off-shore. We had initially thought we would stop at Cape May to anchor for a few days, but the conditions were so benign we considered continuing our passage. Our decision to press on up the Delaware Bay was cemented with a review of the tides and current, alongside the weather forecast. Based on the timing of our passage, we would have a following current for most of the way. The winds, after becoming almost still for a few hours, would pick up from the SE, once again pushing up the Delaware to our destination.
We decided to follow the same watch schedule the second night, and this time we both enjoyed sound, uninterrupted sleep throughout the night. I could not be more proud of my cruising partner on this night. Out in the open ocean, when taking watch, you mainly have to watch for other ships. But, when heading up the Delaware Bay, you had to watch for passing tankers and cargo ships coming and going in a relatively narrow band of deeper water. Additionally, you can’t just set the autopilot and ignore your heading for long lengths of time. The channel and the deeper water are constantly changing direction. For Cindy, this meant she had to not only deal with these massive tankers charging along at 20 knots and passing within a quarter of a mile, but she also had to navigate to keep the boat in the deeper water. We didn’t want to stray too far from the main channel, because of all the crab and lobster traps which are set outside the channel, just waiting to wrap themselves around your propeller in the dark. On Cindy’s watch during our expedition up the Delaware Bay, she passed several of these tankers, not once waking me up (which I, of course, requested that she do if she has any concerns). She really grew as a cruiser/sailor on this night.
Just before noon on Saturday, we turned to port off the Chesapeake/Delaware Canal and into the protected waters of Chesapeake City. We once again found a spot on the free dock and tied up our vessel after a momentous (for us) passage. Wow! Three-hundred and sixty-one miles over fifty-two and one-half hours of continuous passage making! This more than doubled our previous longest passage, in time and distance. We felt much better on the second night than the first, and it was easy to imagine how a longer passage might feel. Now, it doesn’t seem (at least to me) at all like a huge hurdle to make a passage of four or five days or longer. Our confidence is certainly at an all-time high and we feel a great sense of satisfaction at what we’ve recently accomplished. Our boat performed flawlessly on the entire trip with no breakages or contingencies to deal with (well, one of our radar reflectors fell from the mast during the worst conditions, but it’s not that big a deal).
We covered in just over two days, what took us nine days of travel to cover when heading northward (not counting, the days when we were stationary in port). Over the previous 3 1/2 weeks, we’ve visited 7 states and covered close to a thousand miles. I’m sure we’ll look back on this passage as an important one in our progression as longer-distance cruisers.