Lessons Learned From the Delmarva Circumnavigation

by William Woodford, Charis, P365

We had been discussing a circumnavigation since shortly after we purchased our Pearson 365 ketch last August. Much discussion and planning had gone into getting underway and we were finally departing. Our intention was for this to be a shake-down cruise and to work out the bugs in our boat. We got all we hoped, and more, out of the trip. Several very important lessons were learned in our voyage.

My crew consisted of my co-owner and girlfriend, Gina. She is the self-described " galley bitch" (obviously good-humored) and she has only sailed since last August. Joe is a long time bay cruiser and racer. He and I co-owned a Pearson 26 for 12 years. My brother, Craig, is a pilot and possesses a brilliant analytical mind and good navigational skills, but had no previous sailing experience. Rounding out the crew was my cousin, Brian. He is an avid sailor on Lake Erie and a first-rate mechanic. He is also the owner of a 26-foot Paceship. I have been sailing for 12 years on the bay. My experience has been predominantly as a cruiser interspersed with 3 years of racing experience. As with most trips, we were slightly behind schedule in our departure.

We departed from Bodkin Creek on Saturday May 26, 2001 at 9:52 a.m. A steady rain fell and winds were from the ESE at 10-15 knots. We were able to sail past Worton Creek before the wind hit us bang on the nose. Our plan was to make Chesapeake City and have dinner at the Canal House before anchoring overnight in the anchorage. We began motor sailing near Howell Point and we proceeded to do so for approximately five hours until we reached the C&D Canal. We arrived at The Canal House at 7:30 p.m. and enjoyed a delicious meal, while our sea legs and land legs fought for control.

Lesson: Communicate

The first, and perhaps most important lesson learned came as we exited the dock. We were tied up alongside the dock. As the person manning the stern line let go the line off the bow became stuck. The C&D has a swift current which quickly caught the ass end of the boat. We began pivoting around the still secured bow towards an unsuspecting Pearson 26-footer, whose crew was snug below for the night. The stainless self-steering platform, which is mounted on the after end of Charis, glanced off the bow pulpit of the 26. The bowline was finally freed, and, after an apology, we proceeded on our way. Make sure docking procedures are reviewed before departing and maintain constant communication. Sometimes words cannot be heard over wind and engines so put in place the necessary hand signal commands. My suggestion on leaving the dock where a boat is secured to pilings is to untie the lines before departing but place the line around the piling and hold both ends of the line. When you are ready to leave you can simply let go of one end of the line and proceed.

Lesson: Be Prepared

Most of us would like to hop in our boats and be on our way. A little planning and preparation will go a long way in avoiding potential problems and hazards. We departed the anchorage at 3 a.m. Joe and I had drawn the first watch. We motored through the canal, which was wide and well lit. In fact, we only encountered one ship during the transit. We arrived at the east end of the canal at 6 a.m. Part of our preparation included reviewing the tide charts for this area (Reedy Point) as well as the Delaware Bay. We have heard horror stories of the strong current. There was also a fatal accident in this area not two weeks prior to our leaving. We planned our arrival at this point to coincide with a favorable tide. Although there was no wind this morning, the preparation paid off as we headed down the Delaware River, making 9-10 knots.

The wind did not pick up until about 2:30 p.m. We shut the engine down and began sailing. Blessed relief! The sun was out and the water was a beautiful green, notably cleaner than the Chesapeake Bay. We had perfect conditions and saw a lot of weekend anglers enjoying the day.

Lesson: Be Flexible

As we reached the lower Delaware Bay, the winds continued to build, as did the waves. We experienced winds of 18-22 knots and seas of 5-8 feet. Once again the wind clocked around and was bang on our nose. We were being beat pretty bad by the waves. We flipped on the NOAA weather broadcast and heard reports of an approaching storm moving in our direction. They were calling for lightning and hail accompanying the storm. The plan had been to begin watches and sail continuously down the coast until we reached the southern mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Prudence dictated that we pull into Cape Henlopen and wait the storm out. It was not the best anchorage, but everyone agreed it was a good decision, given the existing conditions. We made the best of it by hoisting our cocktail flag, enjoying a cool drink and having dinner aboard the boat. Gina had made some wonderful chili in advance and it was greatly enjoyed. We noticed a barge anchored about a half mile away, but assumed he was awaiting an assignment. We were treated to a spectacular Memorial Day fireworks display just after sundown and we had the best seats in the house.

We departed at 6 a.m. It was overcast and some ominous clouds approached. The gear was stowed and we donned our oilys. We had a rough ride for an hour and a half as we experience waves of 8-10 feet and winds from the SSE at 15 knots. We motored through the storm and then began sailing. As luck would have it the wind was back on our nose. We sailed for two hours without making any real headway south and then began motoring. On reaching Ocean City, the winds shifted and we experienced favorable winds. After a short stint in favorable wind conditions, the wind was back on our nose and we began motoring south.

At 9 p.m. we went on watches. The initial plan was for two person crews lasting 3 hours. After some discussion it was decided to reduce the length of the watch and go to two-hour watches. We also decided to stagger the crew so that there was one rested person coming on each hour.

Lesson: Stay Calm

At 2:42 a.m. an alarm bell sounded rousing everyone. We shut down the engine and noted our position. Sails were hoisted and two persons began steering the vessel while the other three attempted to ascertain the problem. Let me tell you, nothing will awaken the senses like an alarm bell loudly ringing on a dark night in the Atlantic. Just about this time, the clouds covered the moon and visibility was reduced substantially. Kudos to all for remaining calm and attending to the task at hand. We were able to determine that a sensor attached to the exhaust manifold caused the alarm. Brian identified the potential causes of the alarm: 1) a faulty sensor; 2) a bad thermostat; or 3) the exhaust manifold was overheating. In that the exhaust manifold did not feel to be overly warm and that the temperature gauge had been jumping wildly at times, we ruled out the third possibility. We sailed for two hours while trying to correct the problem. Joe and I remained on watch while the others went back to bed. We tried motoring again but the alarm sounded again at 5 a.m. We shut her down and began sailing, albeit making little way.

We awoke the crew at 6 a.m. We were 15 miles from N6, which marked our entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. The winds were light and, you guessed it, in our face. Brian attempted to correct the engine problem and by 8:30 a.m. a pattern had emerged: motor for 30 minutes to an hour; the alarm would sound and sails would be raised; the wind would be bang on the nose; we would make no way. Repeat. The cyclical process certainly contributed to the lowering of morale among the crew. Luckily, we had chocolate chip cookies!

Brian went into the port lazarette and attempted a repair. He maneuvered into his best lotus position and managed to pull the thermostat out. Just as the task was completed, the winds came up, the sun came out and we were making 7 knots towards our destination. Our spirits were greatly buoyed by numerous dolphin sightings. We reached N6 at 2:40 p.m. and much celebration ensued. Pictures were taken and a few beers were popped. Time spent in the Atlantic totaled 30 hours 40 minutes. Gina took the helm and took us through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. The winds were perfect and we went from N6 over the tunnel in one tack. We were headed to Plumtree Bar to locate a marina and restaurant. We asked some fishermen for suggestions and they pointed us back to a small jetty a mile and a half behind us. I would have never have noticed, much less attempted to pull into this small entrance (Salt Pond) but we found a well-protected area with a full service marina and restaurant. It was just what the doctor ordered. We enjoyed our first shower in four days, had a decent meal and went to bed.

We awoke at 6:10 a.m., cleaned up and waited for the marina to open at 7 bells. We replenished our ice supply and were off. The 50-lb. block of ice we started with was just about spent. The wind was beautiful, 15-18 knots, with temperatures in the mid 70s and sunny skies. The currents in the lower Chesapeake Bay are strong. After sailing for two hours, on two long tacks, we had made about two miles headway north. We began motoring again. We tried heading off any over heating problems by pouring seawater through a hose and spraying it onto the heat exchanger. Although not an ideal, and certainly not recommended, it was a temporary solution. The engine seemed to be running hot. We made 16 miles in 7 hours. Winds were from the North at 15-18 knots and we experienced 5-6 foot seas. We decided to pull into Deltaville, VA. We only made 33 miles headway.

The Deltaville Marina was a boon to our spirits. It was an idyllic spot. They offered free bicycles for use. Gina and I rode an old tandem into town while we waited for a pizza to be delivered. They had a lending library and great shower facilities. Several boats were anchored just off the marina. For $ 3.50 a day, you can use all of the marina facilities. (Phone/fax/computer modem hookup/ showers/weather channel and a cordial atmosphere).

Lesson: Be Flexible

I know I said it before, but it is a must. This voyage was originally intended to last six days. Joe had competed in the Great Ocean Race previously and had made the circumnavigation in four days. With only a week of vacation available to most members of the crew, we were working with some time constraints. It became clear that we would not be back in Annapolis on Wednesday night. Gina and Joe had to get back to work and were planning on disembarking at Annapolis.

We made Solomon’s Island by Thursday and with spotty cellular service in the lower bay were able to make arrangements to have them picked up. Once ashore, we rented a car so that I could drive Craig and Brian back to Baltimore on Friday in time to catch a flight from BWI. Gina and I then drove the rental back to Solomon’s late Friday night to complete the voyage on Saturday and Sunday. The sail up from Solomon’s, with an overnight in the Rhode River, was enjoyable. Both days we were blessed with perfect winds and favorable currents. Best of all, no diesel engine needed! We actually experienced a beam reach on Sunday.

Lesson: Select a Good Crew

A good crew can make or break a voyage. We faced some adverse situations during this trip and their positive outlook and sense of humor were key to a successful trip. Many people were surprised to know that everyone actually enjoyed the trip given the engine problems and bad weather.

I’ve heard it said that sailors are where they want to be when they get to their boat whereas power boaters always want to get to a destination. Our crew enjoyed each other’s company and the camaraderie that followed from facing adverse conditions together. The best part of the trip for me was spending time with the people I love in some very beautiful surroundings. We laughed a great deal, had plenty of good food and drink, and constantly enjoyed our surroundings. The Chesapeake region is indeed a beautiful area; one that could take a lifetime to explore. The adverse conditions brought us together and made us a crew. Sure there were some tense moments; five people on a 36-foot boat doesn’t leave you a lot of room or privacy. Add to that the inevitable head problems and you have a potential for disaster. However, it is testimony to their personalities and good nature that the voyage was a success.

If anyone has any specific questions, please feel free to e-mail me at woodchuck@erols.com. I wish you all a successful voyage with fair winds.