Circumnavigating Delmarva 1998

by Joe Boyle

We were northbound on the Chesapeake Bay and just able to make out the ghostly hulk of Thomas Point Lighthouse squatting in the gloom off the port bow. Half an hour earlier we had eased Callinectes out of her slip into the early morning October darkness to begin our circumnavigation of the Delmarva Peninsula. My shipmate, Bill Marr, and I had cast off early since there were only 11 hours of daylight and we wanted to knock off the 55-mile leg and arrive in Chesapeake City before dark. As the sky to the east brightened, tentative whispers of wind began moving across the bay from the west. An hour later, the breeze came up with the glittering sun and we had a solid 15 knots on the port beam. It stayed with us all day and we had a big smiling beam reach all the way up the bay. Letting the flood current help us, we stayed in the middle of the bay as we reached past Baltimore, Rock Hall and the Sassafras River. We arrived at the at the C and D canal entrance well before dark and reluctantly doused the sails since there is no sailing allowed in the narrow channel. Motoring the last half mile into Chesapeake City, we really noticed the 2 plus knot current, it was almost like the boat was on one of those moving sidewalks at the airport. The harbor was almost empty so we tied up and took a walking tour around the town. Look up "quaint" in the Dictionary and you should find a picture of Chesapeake City. We had to ask a bartender which state we were in: "Maryland, Bub, another 5 miles or so to Delaware". We turned in early since tomorrow was to be one of the most critical legs of the trip. We needed to catch the slack tide before ebb on the Delaware River if we had any prayer of making it down the Delaware Bay to the Atlantic before nightfall.

The next morning at first light, we motored off through the canal at slack tide. Just stick to the right, don’t cut blind corners and keep an eye out behind you according to the advice we had received. It wasn’t long until a huge red tugboat named "Chief", towing a barge that seemed the size of a football field, overtook us. We hugged the right side and still had 35 feet of water within 15 feet of shore as Chief rumbled by. The canal water was roiled and confused for a good half- hour after Chiefs passage. At Reedy point where the C and D meets the Delaware River we gratefully hoisted our sails and turned down the Delaware River. The wind was Northwest at 15+ and we were heading due south with the cruising chute up. We had a two plus knot current on the stern and the GPS was nudging 9 knots, Callie was just flying. We pitied the poor souls that we saw beating northbound into the steep chop and a two knot current, argghhh.

Since there was a lot of commercial shipping in the area, we checked in on VHF channel 13 with a southbound tug who was passing us to port. "Uhhh, yellow tug southbound in Linbrook range, we’re the southbound sailboat on your starboard side, over", I said. "Roger that, waddaya want Cap’n" came the quick reply. "We were hoping you could tell us how you’re picking us up on radar since we just hoisted our radar reflector?", I said. After a brief pause the reply came, "Yeah I’m paintin’ ya real well Cap’n. Have a nice trip. Out". Most commercial vessels monitor VHF 16 and communicate with each other on VHF 13.

There was not much in the way of scenery in Delaware Bay except for the huge Salem Nuclear Power Plant churning out steam clouds on the New Jersey side and some abandoned lighthouses. The navigation was interesting since visual range lights on the shore marked the shipping channel at almost every turn. Just line up the high light and the low light and you’re safely in the channel. Even better, put the low light to the left of the high light and you’re just outside the busy channel to starboard. Bill and I fell into an easy watch rhythm of two hours on, two hours off. The watches went by quickly and we both spent most of our time in the cockpit anyway. We arrived at Lewes Ferry Delaware just after dark and anchored in good holding sand, securely behind the breakwater. We each enjoyed a hot shower and then a great meal of Bills homemade pesto and wine. Later that night in the cockpit, it was stars, scotch, stogies and lots of conversation about the looming Atlantic run.

The circumnavigation really started on a warm summer afternoon a few months prior when Bill, my next door neighbor, and I were gazing at his Pacific Seacraft 37 "Callinectes", as she floated in her slip. We had never had the opportunity to sail her out into her natural element, the ocean, even for a short trip. She is after all a blue water voyager that has seen service as a bay weekender and even a daysailer for much of her life. Since we live just south of Annapolis the closest ocean would entail a trip down to Norfolk and out into the Atlantic. And hell, if we went all the way to Norfolk to poke our nose into the Atlantic, we could come back home a different way - say through the Delaware Bay. Circumnavigate the Delmarva Peninsula, it had a nice ring to it. The circumnavigation would be unlike our usual "out and back" trips and would afford us the opportunity to sail through the night in the Atlantic.

The Delmarva Peninsula is made up of land from three different eastern states and is bordered by 3 separate and distinct bodies of water. Delaware, Maryland and Virginia (hence the name DelMarVa), share the XXX square mile peninsula which is surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. At the Northernmost corner of the peninsula, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (C & D) links the Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay allowing for a complete circumnavigation of the Peninsula. Except for a few bridges over the C and D canal, just the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Annapolis and the Bridge-tunnel near Norfolk connect the Delmarva Peninsula to the mainland.

We needed some input on the best route for the trip so we emailed a letter to the Chesapeake sailing magazine Spinsheet asking for advice as to whether we should start out north or southbound. The letter was published and garnered over a dozen responses from Chesapeake area sailors. The opinions expressed varied from "if it’s not a race, why do it" to "what a great idea, we should join you". The overwhelming recommendation from the Spinsheeters was "go north". The prevailing wind is north in the fall and we wanted the wind with us on the Atlantic run. Another reason to start to the north was to get the tougher part of the trip behind us while we were fresh and then enjoy a more leisurely cruise up the Chesapeake. The northerly portion of the trip would bring fiercer currents, more commercial traffic and less scenery than the Chesapeake leg. This was by seconded by our friends Chris and Jane Teige from the day charter Schooner Liberte based in Annapolis. They sail Liberte up to Cape Cod every summer and know the route well. We bribed Chris and Jane with dinner at our house for a chart briefing. With charts, tide tables, coastal pilots and wine glasses spread all over the living room floor, our route started to gel. If there was ever a time for studying the tide and current tables, this was it. The currents along the route could add 30% to our speed or slow us down to a snails pace.

We would head north to the C and D Canal and spend the first night in Chesapeake City. The next morning on to the Delaware River timing our departure to reach the Delaware river at the slack tide before ebb (about 9:30AM on October 15th). That gives us almost 4 hours of favorable current down the Delaware Bay to Cape Henlopen, the gateway to the Atlantic. We’ll drop the hook for the night by Lewes Ferry and head into the Atlantic the next morning. Then it’s 24 hours due south in the Atlantic to Norfolk and back into the southern Chesapeake Bay. On the way back up the bay we can spend a night around the Rappahannock and one night near Solomons and then head home. In spite of the fact that we had two handheld GPS�s on board, we decided to keep a detailed ships log of the trip with hourly notations of our progress for dead reckoning navigation.

Callinectes was pretty much ready to go. But, since Bill had been long considering adding a radar system, this was the perfect time. Just a few boat units later, Annapolis Marine Electronics and Kato Marine had her outfitted with a new radar on a stern pole mount (this was no small feat within two weeks of the boat show). We dug out and reattached the inner forestay for the staysail in case we ran into heavy air and we checked all of her systems. All that remained of the boat chores was to fill her tanks and replace a few light bulbs.

Heading out into the open Atlantic from Cape Henlopen we were both excited and expectant as we looked for the sea change that we were sure the ocean would bring. Once we cleared the confused seas of the breakwater, the vast Atlantic lay before us. A simple flick of the wrist could put us on course for Bermuda or even the Azores. What a wonderful feeling of freedom it must be to be sailing a well found ship and have all the time in the world to explore and adventure. Perhaps next time. We bore off to the east to get out of site of land as soon as possible before turning south to Norfolk. Aside from the swell, the only noticeable change was that the water changed color to a greenish hue from the grey- brown color of the Delaware Bay. We were running wing on wing in 12 knots of breeze with the headsail poled out with some nice 4 or 5 foot swells on our stern. The swells were large but gentle rollers and they seemed to help us on our way south. We had noted some duck-in spots on the Atlantic coast charts in case the weather turned nasty. Rehoboth Beach and Ocean City both had small harbors with reasonable approaches. Once south of Ocean City however our duck-in options seemed to dry up as there were few harbors of refuge with enough water to handle our 4.5 foot draft. Chinquoteauge Island has and inlet with enough water but the approach would be hair raising in any kind of weather.

Once we were well out of site of land we were visited by a couple of tiny birds, one of which had a bright red slash on his head. They flitted about in the rigging for almost an hour and one ended up actually sitting on Bill’s shoulder for a few seconds. These intrepid flyers we later identified as Ruby Crowned Kinglets. The male Ruby Crowned Kinglet is distinguished by a bright ruby slash and is apparently quite rare to see. Not long after sundown, the wind died and the mighty Atlantic started looking like a millpond. Nothing to do but fire up the motor and keep on going. We rigged jacklines and donned life jacket/harnesses for the night run. We also reminded each other of the old saw about drowned sailors. More often than not their bodies are pulled from the water with open flys, ’nuff said.

During the night we had the radar running and it was easily visible by peeking down the companionway to the nav station. In some ways, navigating at night is easier than during the day. Lighted buoys and lighthouses are visible from much farther away and traffic seems to be lighter. We also switched to three hour watches so we could each try to get a little sleep in the V berth. It’s really true what they say, there’s nothing like the stars to keep you company when you’re on the night watch. I whiled away half of my late watch watching Orion rise with the dogstar Sirius following obediently as if on a leash. Just before dawn, we saw the huge row of lights on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel inviting us back into the Chesapeake.

Since it was still early morning, we decided to give the busy port of Norfolk a pass and head for the more serene Rappahannock. If you had the time, Norfolk, Hampton Roads and the James River offer unparalleled historic attractions and excellent marine services. Some of our favorites from past trips are walking tours of Hampton, Smithfield and Porstmouth. More often than not, you can sail past an aircraft carrier transiting port at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Just don’t try yelling "starboard" at them, even if you’re the stand-on vessel in a crossing situation.

The water down in the southern bay is wide, we were out of site of land for a good part of the day. The wind was still light to non-existent but it was sunny and in the low 70s ; not bad for mid October. We set our course for Windmill point on the north side of the Rappahannock. One casualty of returning to the Chesapeake was our ships log. Every hour, religiously, we had been entering our speed, course, position and sea state in the log. Once we arrived in the Southern bay our log seemed to lose it’s importance and sat untouched for the rest of the trip. Maybe it was due to us catching up on our sleep from the previous allnighter or perhaps it just seemed redundant on the trip home.

Late that afternoon, we anchored in the lee of Grog Island for the night in the company of a some southbound cruisers. Grog Island is a beautiful tree covered spit of land that is more of a peninsula at low tide. We tried hard, as did the other boats, to do our part to honor the name of the island by hoisting a few. The next morning we raced some of our harbor mates out into the bay and did pretty well by old Bill Crealock. It was quite a sight, three cruising boats beating out to the bay, each with a trimmer on the leeward genoa winch trying to look as nonchalant as possible. The wind was southwest at 15 so we set up one long spinnaker leg across the bay to Tangier Island. Once on the eastern side of the bay, we dodged a couple of military prohibited areas and gybed on course for Solomons Island about 20 miles away.

Solomons Island is a popular Chesapeake cruising destination and boasts great anchorages, scenery and marine services. When we dropped the hook right at the town dock it was already dark. We really appreciated the fact that we had taken the trip "off season" since we had the normally crowded harbor virtually to ourselves. Most of the restaurants were closed for the evening but we took a walk through town to try out our land legs as it had been 4 days since we had stepped off of Callinectes. The final leg of the journey saw our first real weather leg. We took the opportunity to put up the staysail and got an extra knot out her. CalIinectes was looking salty and proud with all three sails drawing, shoulder down and foam on the rail. We must have made a nice sight to the southbound cruisers who looked to be just beginning their long winter adventures heading down the ICW. One day, one day by God! All in all the circumnavigation took 6 days and 5 nights at an easy pace. We enjoyed lots of new scenery, plenty of navigational challenges and of course achieved our goal of getting our feet wet in the Atlantic.