There is a small informal organization called the Oar Club that I found awhile back on the internet. There are no dues, no newsletters, no clubhouse. The club's raison d'être is to promote boating and sailing without the use of engines. Inducting yourself as a member requires a 100 mile, 4 port passage. This intrigued me since Egia, my Norwalk Islands Sharpie 18, does not have an engine. And hopefully it never will.
The big question was how to put together a qualifying passage. The answer came in the form of a Sunfish regatta. The Sunfish fleet I normally race with was holding a regional regatta. I hatched an idea to sail Egia from Norfolk to the regatta, help the race committee during the weekend, then return to Norfolk afterwards. Since it is about 50 nm from Willoughby Marina, where I would launch, to Yankee Point Marina, where the regatta is held, that would take care of the distance requirement. Anchoring somewhere on the way up and on the way back would help satisfy the 4 ports. Tides and currents in Chesapeake Bay are fairly predictable, but the wind is not. With that in mind, I allowed 2 days to travel to Yankee Point and 1½ days to return. If we fell behind, we would continue sailing into the night. It all started to come together when my bride agreed to join me.
After spending a week assembling food, safety gear, and assorted camping stuff, we arrived at the launching ramp at Willoughby Marina on Thursday morning with boat in tow. Carefully I put Egia together, knowing that 5 days would go by before we would return. This would be Egia's longest stay in the water and also the longest voyage since she was built. My plan was to be underway as early as possible, given an increasing foul current at the entrance of the James River. But after the necessary chores, packing, children delivered, launching, and trailer parking, we didn't get away from Willoughby Spit until 1040.
The weather forecast was very encouraging. NE breezes 10-15 kn shifting to E and SE by evening. Once we cleared the mouth of the James River, our course would be due N until we reached the Rappahannock River. From there it would be a NW course as we go up the river to a tributary, the Corrottoman River, and thence to Myer Creek where the Yankee Point Marina lay. The next day's forecast was even better--S 15-20 kn.
As we rounded Willoughby Spit and crossed over the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, we were faced with an 8 kn breeze and a current running against us. Not the most ideal situation. We crossed several tide lines indicating varying speeds of current. Once near Old Point Comfort, I started tacking back and forth in the shallower water hoping to keep clear of the faster current. A few times I wandered into deeper water and got swept back. Eventually, though, each tack brought us farther up the shoreline until we cleared the point. I breathed somewhat easier. We still had to stay on a closehauled course, but at least now we were making good progress towards our destination and the current would be less adversarial as the afternoon wore on.
At 1338 we passed R "2PF" near the mouth of Back River. The wind started veering so we were able to crack the sheets a bit more. We were also entering one of the areas where the Chesapeake Bay is the widest. No longer could we follow a beach to mark our progress, nor could we jump from nav-aid to nav-aid. A compass course was needed. After checking the chart, I lined up a course to York Spit Light. This was the first time I've tested the accuracy of the rather expensive compass I installed. After an hour the light appeared dead ahead on the horizon. Excellent. We passed the light at 1450 averaging 5.0 knots from the last aid.
While my bride steered I took an opportunity to play with my new gadget, a hand-held GPS. It's a pretty basic unit, hence the inexpensive price. But I got it as a navigational backup. After fiddling with it for several minutes it acquired satellites and started displaying our course and speed, updated every second, accurate to 23 ft. Course shown on the diminuitive display was N. Well, that's good. Speed, 4.8 kn...4.7...4.8...wind slacked off a bit...4.5...4.3. That's also good. I turned the unit off and never touched it again.
As the day continued, the wind slowly veered more to the SE and hovered around 8-12 kn. Passing New Point Comfort I started talking about where we could anchor to spend the night. North of New Point Comfort there were several choices: Horn Harbor, Winter Harbor, and some 6 nm further was Hole in the Wall. Winter Harbor had an entrance that was uncomfortably narrow, and Hole in the Wall, although well marked, was distant enough that we would be entering it close to nightfall. One of the things that salty mariners will warn you about is trying to enter an unfamiliar port at night. Since I am semi-salty (I am a Shellback after all), I figured Hole in the Wall was not a good choice for today. I adjusted our course towards Horn Harbor.
Horn Harbor had a meandering narrow channel entrance that was well marked with aids. It was all downwind, which of course means that we'd have a harder time tomorrow when we left. I did not want to add too much distance to the next day's voyage, so we anchored as soon as we found a bit of protected shore just inside the harbor.
One of the interesting things about cruising on a 18 ft. boat is having to shift gear around to do something. Admittedly we did not use the storage efficiently. The bunk area was filled with cushions, sleeping bags, and backpacks full of clothes while the locker space below the bunk was nearly empty. Next time we'll improve.
Once at anchor, we moved the Portapotti and backpacks to the cockpit, set up the stove, and cooked a nice pre-packaged meal. Twilight was spent resting and pleasantly chatting until the sun set in a splash of color.
Friday morning we awoke to a puffy SW wind. Excellent. A leisurely breakfast, repack the boat, weigh anchor. Underway by 1015 to catch a favorable tide. Excellent. As expected we had to beat upwind through the entrance channel, but the wind was far enough to the W that only a couple of short-leg tacks were necessary. Once beyond the last entrance marker we bore away for points north. Outside Horn Harbor the wind clocked around to the S and continued at a steady 10-12 kn. Within 15 minutes we were in sight of the dreaded Picket Fences.
The official term for a Picket Fence is a pound net. It's nothing more than a line of small pilings several hundred yards long, each pole about 10 feet apart. Fisherman tie a long net to the pilings to divert the fish into a trap at one end. Their presence has created a bit of lore among cruisers and racers in the Chesapeake Bay. Live around here long enough and you'll hear a story about someone who blundered into one at night. You see, despite the rather large obstruction they present, they are rarely lit. But they can be avoided. They are typically in 6 - 15 ft. of water (which admittedly encompasses about 70% of the bay), and if found during the day, you can mark the chart of the approximate location so you can give them a wide berth later. If you fetch up on one and the net isn't deployed, then the worst that can happen is sideswiping a pole. If the net is up, well, that's where the stories come from. In this case, I made note of them on the chart for future reference.
As the day wore on, the wind started picking up to 15-18 kn. Past Hole in the Wall the waves started picking up as well. Normally in these conditions I reef, but since we were making great time and going dead downwind I held on to the full sail. But it's still a big sail. The closer we got to Stingray Point Light, the more the wave action helped rock the boat. At one point Egia rolled to windward so that the starboard gunwale touched the sea. That was it. Time to reef. Then things settled down and we were still making good time.
After passing Stingray Point Light at 1345, we adjusted course to start heading up the Rappahannock River. The bridge at White Stone was visible in the distance. With the wind still from the S, I figured the rest would be a beam reach. But once in the river the breeze veered more to SW and became puffy and shifty. Reluctantly I adjusted to a close reach. During the lulls I started thinking about shaking out the reef, but then a puff would come along and delay my decision. Eventually the wind slackened to about 8 kn so at 1430 I shook out the reef. Slowly the bridge got bigger and bigger until we passed underneath. A slight course change to the right and we were aiming right for our next waypoint, the Corrotoman River.
The mouth of the Corrotoman is typical of many estuaries of the Chesapeake, the entrance marker is located close to one side rather than in the middle. In this case the marker was on the opposite side from our approach. Not wanting to add all that distance, and having a rather shallow draft which can be made even shallower by pulling the board up, I elected to keep a straight course. Great, until I started seeing lots of PVC poles sticking out of the water. Local fisherman use these as unofficial shoal markers. My chart was not detailed enough to show the depths, so I elected to maneuver around them, hopefully on the deeper side. It certainly made things more interesting than a straight and boring course. Around Ball Point we entered familiar territory, having raced my Sunfish in the area for several years. Soon the masts of Yankee Point Marina loomed ahead. I called on the VHF to get our slip assignment.
Most marinas are not designed to be entered under sail. Yankee Point is no exception. I discussed with my wife my plan about anchoring first, furling the sails, setting out dock lines, then rowing to our slip. This was the second time I've had to row Egia, and the 10 kn breeze had me a little nervous. Most of Egia is above the water so I'd be fighting windage. Well, I couldn't do too much about that or the breeze, so we anchored at a central spot near our assigned slip at 1646. Pulled down the sail, pulled up the centerboard and rudder, deployed the oars, and soon my bride was hauling in the lunch anchor. I wasn't too clear on the directions to our slip, so I started off towards a pier that was mercifully downwind. But soon a dock worker appeared to direct us to a slip on a different pier not downwind. Alas, I turned Egia around, and with my bride standing on the bow with a line ready I slowly coaxed Egia into our temporary resting place. It wound up being easier than I thought. And thus ended Leg 1 of our Big Adventure.
Saturday and Sunday were spent helping the race committee, socializing, eating, and resting. On Sunday afternoon the races ended, trophies were awarded, hands shaked, pictures taken. A quick trip to the marina store insured we had ice for the next couple of days. We then employed the reverse of how we got in the slip. Rowed away, anchored, raised sail. Winds were 20 kn, so we started with a single reef to be safe. We raised the lunch anchor, weaved around a couple of anchored boats, and by 1450 we were officially underway, waving good-bye to well-wishers on the docks.
Because we had less time to return to Norfolk, I had warned my bride that we would probably need to continue sailing after dark. The forecast was good for both days: N 15-20 for Sunday, NE 10-15 on Monday. I still wanted to travel a good distance on Sunday in case the weather forecast was wrong. With this plan in mind we entered the Rappahannock River where the wind steadied at NW 20 kn with slightly higher gusts.
Like Thursday and Friday, Sunday's sky was clear and temperatures warm. The late afternoon sun glinted off the whitecaps behind us and made the shoreline houses shine brightly. A perfect day. But the wind angle was forcing us to gybe in order to pass under the bridge. Trying to pick a lull, we slew the boom across to starboard. Even reefed, there was still a great deal of force on the sail and we skidded around a bit more than I planned. I took a mental note for future gybing.
Landmarks ticked by with regularity. The bridge was passed at 1604. Most of the time we were averaging 5 kn, and between G "7R" and Stingray Point Light we averaged the fastest speed in the whole voyage at 5.3 kn. Not too shabby for stemming a weak flood tide. At 1741 we reached our turning mark at Stingray Point Light. Turning right to our new course to Wolf Trap Light, I figured we would have to gybe again. Lo and behold the wind did its Funny River/Bay Thing and shifted to due N. So we stayed on a deep port reach.
Once out of the relative protection of the river, the N breeze meant that the sea had the entire Bay to build up a good chop. So we went from minor 1 ft. waves to more significant 4 ft. waves. We rocked and rolled as each wave picked us up and slid underneath. Seemed like an excellent time to start cooking dinner.
After handing over the helm to my wife and letting her get used to steering through the waves, I fired up the one-burner gimballed stove. We had bought 2-person frozen dinner packages at the grocery store before the trip, only problem was keeping them frozen in our small coolers. By this time one of our 2 remaining dinner packs was bloated like a dead animal so we decided to pitch that one. I started cooking the last dinner and after about 10 minutes let my wife sniff the contents since she has a much better nose than me. The verdict was thumbs down so I let the fish make the final call. And if they refused it, it would sink down to the world of the crabs. Several months from now, the patron of an elegant restaurant will be served the same crab that dined on my slightly fetid chicken teriyaki with rice.
We still had plenty of food, so I continued my attempt at dinner by boiling water and using it in the lunch noodle cups. That worked very well since the boat was moving around too much to hold anything on a plate. The stove certainly passed the trial, having cooked food and boiled water without spilling a drop.
By the time we got close to Wolf Trap light at 1954, the sun had mercifully disappeared behind high clouds. We altered course to due S, still staying well offshore of the picket fences. After another mile of sailing dead downwind, figured it was safe to gybe and head for New Point Comfort, near which we could anchor for the night. I decided that given the 4 - 5 ft. waves it would be safer if we tacked around instead of gybed. After all, we are cruising, not racing. Gradually we headed up to a beam reach before I swung it around and bore off to a broad reach. As the sun neared the horizon, it suddenly dropped through a slot in the clouds to appear as a flattened red orb before gradually settling into the distant shore. It didn't look real.
Darkness was soon to follow, and being a safety nut I passed out the special night sailing gear. Harnesses for both. Lifejackets with strobe and whistle attached. A week before our trip I had shown my bride in the calm of our kitchen how to operate the strobe. She was dubious that such a small flashing light would be visible more than 3 feet, but she kept these thoughts to herself. Now when darkness closed in and I wasn't paying attention she turned it on. To my shock there was a sudden blinding flash of white. It took me a moment to comprehend where it came from. Quickly it was turned off, but it took a bit longer to get our night vision back.
Some time after dark the wind began to slacken. I found one of 2 flashing red markers that define the shoal around New Point Comfort and was steering straight for it. Our pace was much slower so I shook out the reef and we picked up speed. As we eased by the first flashing light, I told my bride that these daymark boards are fitted with reflective tape. Shining my small flashlight at the piling, the red triangle and number 2 shined back. But gradually the wind dropped off even more. I figured it was a land/sunset effect and the breeze would return. Sure enough, while heading W toward the second red flashing light the wind picked up, still from the north. With the boat moving faster, we were suddenly awash in the glow of bioluminescence. Areas of extra turbulence around the rudder lit up the entire blade. Past the 2nd red marker, the wind was now pushing 15 knots, and since we were now faced with an upwind beat, I stopped to put in a reef.
My plan earlier was to find a shore protecting us from N - NE wind, and the area north of New Point Comfort lighthouse seemed the perfect spot. The lighthouse, built in 1804, has since been abandoned by the Coast Guard. Although orginally built on a peninsula of land at the eastern edge of Mobjack Bay, the sea has slowly eaten away the land so now the lighthouse sits alone among shifting shoals. The Coast Guard has expressed their desire to dismantle the landmark, but the local community has organized to save it. Even though the rotating beacon has been removed, it appeared to have been replaced by a steadily lit 60 watt bulb. It still helped as a general navigational aid as we sailed by it.
Further north we sailed, closehauled on starboard tack. Our present course was taking us to the left of Davis Creek, so I carried on until I figured we could reach a suitable anchorage after tacking. At this point my wife's comfort zone must have been exceeded because I noticed she had a two-fisted grip on the VHF radio. We tacked smoothly and headed for a dim shoreline. It's difficult to estimate distances in the dark, so after a bit I stopped the boat and took a sounding. Naturally, the leadline took this opportunity to tangle into a hopeless knotty mess. I tried for a short bit to untangle it but eventually I used it, mess and all to estimate the depth. About 15 feet. I was looking for 10. So we sheeted in and continued into the darkness for a bit longer. Next time we stopped it was about 12. Close enough. I tossed out the anchor, took in the sail, set the anchor light, and we were snug for the night at 2200.
One detail about my anchor light. It's one of those intended for inflatable dinghies, runs on 4 AA batteries. Only one problem. It doesn't last through the night. At 0515 on Monday I heard the motor of a crab fisherman tending his traps. Slowly it got closer, so I scrambled for the hatch and shined a flashlight at the crabber. It was barely twilight and it's quite possible he could see me, but I wanted to make sure.
Through the night the wind shifted so by morning it was NE at 20 - 22 kn. This would mean another downwind sleighride. Excellent. By 0810 we had finished breakfast and I was hauling in the anchor. This time I started with a double reef. With less distance to cover and more wind, I took the more conservative approach. After all we're cruising, right? As expected the anchor was hard to retrieve. It eventually popped out and we were off on a broad reach towards home.
Leaving the protection of New Point Comfort the seas kicked up to 4 - 5 ft. No surprise there. But even double reefed we were making easy progress. Milestones passed regularly. Crossed York Spit Channel at 0937. At Back River the breeze started to slack off. As we ran parallel to Buckroe Beach the breeze dropped further. No problem, I just pulled out a reef. Short of Fort Monroe the pattern continued and I shook out the last reef. We entered the busy Thimble Shoal Channel mercifully during a lull in big ship traffic and sailed easily out of harms way near the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. What seemed (in comparison) a moment later we were entering Willoughby Bay Marina and tying up to the launching docks at 1254. Thus ended Leg 2 of our Big Adventure.
In conclusion, we travelled 53.5 nm on Leg 1 at an average of 3.8 knots and 56.1 nm on Leg 2 at an average of 4.7 knots. So after sailing 109.6 nm in 25 hours 49 minutes on an 18 foot engineless sharpie and writing this account, I have officially become a member of the Oar Club.