A Nor’Easter Cometh

A near death experience.

One of the adventures I had when sailing as crew in Southern Maryland was a transport mission. A co-worker had his twenty-six footer moored in Annapolis Harbor near where he had lived and wanted to bring it down to his new digs at Breton Bay on the Western shore of the Southern Maryland peninsula and his choices were limited.

He could either pay a huge sum to have his craft pulled from the water and shipped by truck or he could sail it straight down the Western shore of Chesapeake Bay, around the peninsula, and up through the mouth of the tidal Potomac River. Idiots being the least costly of the two choices, he recruited me, another co-worker, and an experienced friend from Annapolis to make the journey on the promise of drinks and a great meal at a famous restaurant in Annapolis.

The plan, given that the weather forecast was favorable, was to leave Annapolis on a Friday night and arrive at Breton Bay sometime in the afternoon on Saturday. But, things along the way turned out a little different than we expected..

After our celebratory meal, we spent some time taking in the night life of Annapolis, which we wrapped up sometime around 11 PM. By that time, while all the local 7-11 stores were open and we could get ice, snacks, and brew, every filling station in the area was closed and we could not fill the gasoline tank for the outboard motor needed to power around in quiet waters. Knowing that we had at least some gasoline in the tank and being fairly certain that we wouldn’t have to dive into any of the storm holes we had identified, we went ahead and motored out of the harbor and set sail at around midnight.

That night was one of the most beautiful of my life. It was comfortably warm, moonless, completely clear, virtually silent, and well-suited to a comfortable cruise on a beam reach in following seas. All we had to do was make relatively small course adjustments from time to time in order to stay out of the shipping lanes, chat, joke, and have snacks and a beer at our leisure. So ideal were the conditions, in fact, that we neared our halfway mark, the mouth of the Patuxent River, shortly after daybreak. And that’s when all Hell started to break out at ITS own leisure.

First, our owner-captain suggested that since those who were awaiting us had been told not to report us missing unless we had not arrived by late Sunday afternoon, we should take a side-trip to the watermens’ homeland of Smith Island on the opposite (Eastern) shore of the Chesapeake.and maybe get ourselves a home-style meal. We had only to stay out of the path of in-bound and out-bound freighters and tankers in their lanes, which could be easily done with the miles of visibility we had, even though the sky was becoming overcast.

That’s when Pandora’s Box opened just a tad.

Crossing the bay was a breeze (no pun intended). But, in order to get to Smith Island, we had to cross a restricted zone – The well-marked U.S. Navy gunnery range on that side of the bay. By well-marked, I mean that the perimeter buoys were easy to see, as were their warning signals. Unfortunately, since Smith Island was not on our itinerary, we had not checked for any planned testing and sailed into the zone in ignorance. Our first and only warning that we should not be there was delivered via amplified megaphone by a very irate Navy helicopter co-pilot doing a routine pre-exercise safety scan who told us in no uncertain terms to get the fuck outta there.

Once out of the zone, we headed for the protected channel to the Smith Island marina,   which is notoriously and deliberately NOT well-marked. Smith Islanders are extremely private and do not suffer infringement well. If you’re not a resident, you have to rely on guesswork when it comes to channel marker placement. When we motored in, our guess that the markers were within a yard or so of the channel’s edges proved to be off by about eight feet and in rounding a marker to starboard we ran nearly hard aground on the submerged mud flat we had hoped to avoid. But for one thing, we could have gotten out of our predicament. All we had to do jump into the shallow water and, with motor assistance, push the boat back into deeper water.

As they say, however, time and tide wait for no man. We were able to turn the boat around but could not free her because we had run aground at full ebb and the water beneath us was gone in a matter of minutes. For most of the night, the boat was aground on its starboard side, heeled over at about 45 degrees. But, in the course of its coming and going, what had confounded us also saved us and we simply floated off the mud flat when the tide turned. For about fifteen minutes, we were elated and once again carefree.

Reality then hit us in the form of a Nor’easter which had come up overnight. We motored out in darkness, but the sky soon turned brutally blue and cloudless and we found the seas off Smith Island to be running at about twenty-seven feet in the face of sustained winds which would have shredded our sails or capsized us had we even been able to raise them. Still, we had to get home, which meant motoring all the way across the Chesapeake in seas high enough to hide our mast from the view of any oncoming tanker or freighter in the shipping lanes and, depending on the period, could cause us to turtle, all without the slightest idea how much gasoline we had. Conditions were so serious, in fact, we later learned from the the Coast Guard that had they known we were out there they would have mounted a rescue mission and consigned the boat to Davy Jones.

But, I’m here. So we obviously made it. Mother Nature had taken offense at our temerity, however, and had set another challenge while lulling us into a false sense of security by having the Nor’easter subside as we crossed mid-bay and giving us permission to make sail.

After entering the Potomac River, we made it about a mile upstream when the minimally favorable wind which followed the Nor-easter left us becalmed and in need of a little more motoring. About a hundred yards or so further on, we ran out of gasoline amd spent the next four hours in a dead calm and sweltering heat trying to hail other boats to help us refuel.

The kicker here is that we made it to Breton Bay on Sunday afternoon well within the envelope.

And the moral is: Have a care when going down to the sea in ships unless you’re anxious to see the works of God in the deep up close and personal…