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
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
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
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
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
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.