Nights / Rites of Passage
We are in South Carolina on Boxing Day, far from all that we usually associate with this time of year, reflecting back to a few weeks ago, early in December. We had just made it down the Hudson River, past Manhattan, and had over-nighted at the Atlantic Highlands marina. We docked near the only cruising sailboats there, 2 other Canadian vessels also making their way south. Who else but Canadians would be out at this time of year?
The next day, we would commence our first through-the-night passage.
Before we get into that passage, a warning. This Ariose Note is a little long, much like that night felt, so you may wish to grab a coffee or glass of wine, and get comfortable before you settle into this read.
As with most novice cruisers, we were feeling a mix of apprehension and anticipation. Our overnight sail would be a rite of passage, an accomplishment that would move us into the realm of “real” sailors. The New Jersey coastline loomed. The North Atlantic seas are notorious for their wildness in winter, and this next shoal-lined stretch has few places of safe refuge. If there’s a favourable weather window, we had been advised, go and get as many miles behind you as possible. We had that window: 2 days of north or north-west 10-15 knots winds, gusting a little higher, and seas 3-5 feet. That’s as good as it gets. We charted a course from Sandy Hook to Cape May, a passage that we expected would take about 26 hours. Our Canadian neighbours agreed that this was it: Bridlewilde was also aiming for Cape May and Winds of Change intended a several day leg to Norfolk.
The next morning, we rose to rather fierce winds that clearly hadn’t read the same forecast we had. While we began to prepare, we were witness to a scary start for one of our fellow voyagers who had a rather inelegant departure from the dock. They were fine, although we suspect vocal cords might have been a bit raw and their boat’s gelcoat would carry some reminders of that start. We were a little unnerved.
An hour or so later, we had our main sail double reefed (tied down so that the sail is smaller and therefore, more manageable in stronger winds). We did a walkabout to be sure everything was secure and ready, and that’s when Tim noticed it. Our gooseneck, the joint between the boom and the mast, was bent and pulled away from the mast, surprisingly small bolts seeing the light of day for the first time in perhaps 40 years. Thank goodness we discovered it here and not at sea. Just 2 days before, as we mentioned in our last Ariose Note, we had installed a brand new rigid boom vang. We surmised that the force it exerted, new to Ariose, was the culprit.
A quick trip to the hardware store – the marina’s free shuttle was much appreciated – and a few hours later, Tim had the boom reattached to the mast, with much heftier bolts this time. Meanwhile, the winds had died. It was late afternoon, but, we thought, perhaps better to get through the overnight part early in our upcoming journey. We set out. It was near dead calm. The down side was there would be no sailing. The up side was… hey, this is easy! Who would have expected the North Atlantic to gift us conditions similar to a calm day on our home Lake Temiskaming?
The afternoon and early evening motor-sail was gorgeous and we thought that we had cheated the ocean and gotten off easy. Shirley’s brother Dave monitors our higher risk passages, so should we find ourselves in a worst-case scenario, he would alert search & rescue. We send him a detailed “float plan” in advance, and check in while underway, and of course, upon arrival at our destination. Within minutes of sending him our first text to let him know our whereabouts and the placid conditions we were enjoying, winds and waves began to kick up a little. Never again will we smugly brag about the ease of what we’re facing. The passage isn’t over until it’s over, and nature has a way of reminding us that we are mere mortals. Sorry, no photos for the next little bit. You’ll understand that taking out our cameras was not priority.
Over to Tim to share his version of the night from that point. He had the first turn at the helm from 10pm to 1am.
It was a long but mostly pleasant shift. It’s an interesting experience, to stand in the open in the dark, a few nautical miles out with only of the brightest lights showing on shore, 3 feet from an ominous breaking Atlantic ocean. As my shift unfolded, the wind and the waves continued to build until things were really rocking. This was no longer pleasant. Shirl took over the helm at 1am. I was tired and went below to the V-berth to sleep.
As I lay there, the boat pounding against the waves, and stuff in the cabin crashing around (it had been so calm as we departed, we hadn’t secured things as well as hindsight tells us we should have). I realized that sleep was not going to happen. After a while, the unmistakable feeling of nausea overtook me and I managed to grope my way over to brace myself between the companionway stairs and the galley sink. As my stomach heaved, the vomit was washed by the action of the sea coming back up the drain in a gurgling and swirling motion, conveniently cleaning the sink and washing everything down.
This was not what I was expecting from this first ocean experience; far from it. My body was tossed around and in my weakened condition it was all I could do to hang on. The next few hours put me through the worst sickness that I have ever encountered. I was eventually reduced to a cowering sack of uselessness, lying on the floor in a fetal position, managing to turn slightly to dry heave into a bowl that I had taken with me on the way down. Shivering, throat burning, and stomach in pain, I continued heaving, with nothing left to give. This went on and on way beyond what I thought that I could take. Absolutely intolerable. Absolutely humbling.
And now, Shirley’s version of the night:
It was 10pm, Tim took over the helm and I was tired. I knew I needed some rest before it would be my turn again at 1am. Falling asleep is something I’m usually quite good at. Every time I began to drift, though, Ariose would violently pound down and throw me side to side in the v-berth. I regretted not setting up the settee for sleeping, knowing that I would feel far less motion mid-ship, but the thought of reorganizing, tying on the lee cloth to keep me in, and getting bedding over there seemed like too much effort. Besides, I was cold, and just beginning to feel some warmth where I was. I wasn’t sure if it was getting rougher out there, or my growing fatigue was just making it seem that way, but feel that way it did.
Finally, I heard Tim open the companionway to call down. It was 1am. I was relieved to be freed of what was feeling like torture down here. He looked a little anxious, and as we switched places, he mentioned something about “Maybe we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. Maybe we should head to shore.” I peaked out, saw breaking waves, but it didn’t seem unmanageable. I had taken the lead on plotting our course, and knew all too well that this part of the shore was lined with shoals, so however rough it felt out here, there was more danger ashore. It better be manageable. I encouraged him to try and get some rest, and that I would call him if I needed help.
Those northerly winds we had been promised had changed to southerly, so we were pounding into it, and dealing with seas as confused by the change as I was. We had decided to motor through the night to keep forward motion and steerage, with main sail up to give a bit of stability and further speed. We later learned that had we used a bit of foresail, it would have been a more comfortable ride. I had considered it, but putting out more sail when already being overpowered seemed intuitively wrong. Besides, things were so rough, there was no way I was letting go of the wheel to unfurl our genoa or hank on our storm jib, nor did I want to wake Tim.
The rain began immediately upon my shift’s start. Ariose would ride up on a wave and crash down, showering me with spray, and the occasional wave breaking over the bow provided a further dousing. I was soon miserable with soggy feet and hands. The string on my foul weather gear had pulled out, so my hood kept blowing off causing my head to be drenched too, water running down my neck, soaking my torso. It was mid-40 degrees F, and although cold and verging on shivering, the effort of steering and holding on with feet tightly wedged to prevent being thrown around seemed to prevent my temperature from dropping too low. It was dark, so dark. Absolutely black out there in every direction. Nothing visible but the white of cresting waves. And they provided no reassurance.
After an hour or so, I began to get the knack of riding up each wave diagonally, rather than trying to hold a course, and things got smoother. In the moments that I could ignore the wet and cold, it was actually a bit, dare I say, fun? Every now and then, though, I would see the ominous white line of a breaking wave approaching from an unexpected direction and without time to adjust, Ariose would be tossed again.
Four a.m. and the end of my shift approached. I’m not sure if I was fuelled on adrenaline or still feeling the effects of the few mouthfuls of coffee I had gulped at the shift start (I’m not a coffee drinker – Tim’s coffee gives me quite a kick!), but other than being really cold, I was feeling okay. I suspected Tim, a light sleeper at the best of times, would probably not be sleeping but I had enough energy to continue a bit, so thought I’d treat him to a longer break. By 5am, though, I was exhausted. I wondered how I would hold on during the 10 minutes that it would probably take Tim to ready himself. Note to self: Don’t be a martyr. Next time, stick to the agreed-upon shift.
I locked the wheel hoping Ariose would hold her course. She didn’t. Within moments, we were broadside to the waves and getting a really wild ride. I opened the companionway to call to Tim. No answer. Mayhem below. Everything that could fly around the cabin, had, from dirty dishes, to a computer, charts, clothes, and more. I spotted Tim’s jacket on the floor. Oh my. Tim was still in that jacket! And then I was hit with the smell. After a quick game of 30 questions, I was able to extract from a nearly inarticulate Tim that he was sea-sick and not injured, and had been for hours. All that time that I had thought he was resting, he most definitely wasn’t.
I moved into crisis mode. I turned on the autopilot (my autopilot, that is, Ariose’s was not yet working). It seemed like it took an eternity, but through the tilt-a-whirl type ride with an unnerving soundtrack of things crashing about in the cabin, I did what I needed to do. I stripped down, emptied my bladder, got dry clothes on, found Gravol, encouraged Tim to take 2 (one came up immediately and the other we found the next day, untouched), and helped him drag himself under the covers. I tried to reassure him, to let him know that I was sorry he was feeling so awful, but that this hellish night would end and he would feel better again. All the while, I was getting thrown about, and knew I’d have a few bruises as souvenirs. After quickly vomiting in solidarity with Tim, I checked the AIS to be sure there were no ships in the vicinity, and headed back out. The nausea left as quickly as it hit.
I recall thinking something like “oh, #!%*#!!”, I’m on my own. I need to get us to shore. Our intended destination was still another 16 hours away, but there was safe refuge only 8 hours away in Atlantic City. We had usually limited our day-time shifts to 1-2 hours at the helm. I had been standing out for nearly 5, and wasn’t sure I had the stamina to continue but there really wasn’t any other option. So I would continue. I felt very alone, and very vulnerable, but also, very determined.
At one point, Tim hammered on the companionway, eventually opening it a crack. Like a caged animal, he clawed himself up a little and pleaded (to me? to the universe?) to make this stop, then disappeared back down. We now look back and laugh at that moment. At that moment, though, there was no humour.
Over the next hours, I called on all the tricks. Calisthenic exercises head to toe, which gave a welcome momentary burst of warmth. I played “where are we now?” guessing games, awarding points when I was close on latitude/longitude. I pulled out every girl-guide campfire song I could recall, belting them out to the wind, which boosted my morale. I counted waves breaking over us in English, French and Spanish. Bruce Springsteen’s “…meet me tonight in Atlantic City…” looped in my brain. The rain stopped, the black night evolved into a grey day, and conditions improved. Strangely, I no longer felt tired.
How rough was it through the night? It’s really hard to say. The seas weren’t all that huge. The winds had shifted so we were being hit with waves from all directions, but certainly none were towering. It was likely our unfamiliarity and ill-preparedness that made the experience so hard on us. The other Canadian boats, both from the Maritimes and experienced on the Atlantic, agreed it was a rough night. That was a little affirming.
By mid-morning, the distinctive outline of a structure appeared on the horizon. Atlantic City! This building was larger than any we had seen, and was not all that close, teasing us for hours as we ever so slowly approached. At noon, Tim emerged, looking tired and a little green but coherent. He seemed surprised to see me still at the wheel. I imagine he would have been even more surprised had I not been there!
The rest of the story from both of us:
Tim rapidly improved with the fresh air. By 1pm, he was able to take the helm, and Shirley dipped into the cabin to get into dry clothes and grab a few mouthfuls of food. The clean-up could wait. An hour later, we navigated into a marina, passing by Bridlewilde, as Jo offered us a celebratory whoop. They had also shortened their passage to take refuge here. We docked. We ate. We had a hot shower. By 3pm, we crawled into bed, awaking a few hours later feeling horribly hung over, but relieved.
We spent the next day walking Atlantic City – it was good to have feet on the ground. We found the city to be such a bizarre clash! Vestiges of the quaint seaside holiday town of days past have been lost among the over-the-top gaudy resort casinos piled one beside the other. Its famous boardwalk hugs the shore, with dunes and beaches on one side and Niagara Falls-worthy tacky shops on the other, hawking everything from t-shirts to candelabras, with psychics and pawnshops in between for good measure. It was the off-season, so it was almost deserted. Very, very strange. Not our cup of tea. And perhaps, not a very effective place to recover from sea-sickness… in fact, Atlantic City induced a feeling of nauseousness in us both! Here’s a photo tour from our day there.
Although we were in denial about the reality of needing to tackle another over-night passage to continue south, the prospect of staying longer in this town was not appealing. We gobbled up a wealth of seasickness prevention wisdom from Jeff, a Maritime fisherman crewing on Winds of Change (which, by the way, had also had taken refuge here). We faced a 36-hour passage to Norfolk, Virginia, and the start of the Intracoastal Waterway. The ICW would bring us all the way to Florida through a network of inland waters, well protected from the Atlantic. Now that was appealing.
On the second day after we had limped off the Atlantic, we drew on courage we didn’t know we had, and set out again. We had to make our way through huge breaking waves to get out to sea – the surfers were having more fun than we were – but once we were beyond them and away from shore, the anxiety dissipated and we felt safe.
Our first possible sanctuary en route would be Cape May, about 8 hours’ sail. We agreed that we would then re-evaluate whether to stop or continue. There were no further good weather windows in the next week’s forecast, so we hoped we would be able to make it. We did. This time, our sails were trimmed properly, we secured everything so had no stress-elevating soundtrack nor mayhem below, we munched on dry crackers and sipped ginger ale, we had clothing changes ready, and a cosy bed set up mid-cabin, we stuck with our schedule and were able to rest in between shifts, we emptied our composting head’s urine jug (yes, that also sloshed over last time out), we tethered ourselves when alone at the helm, and learned to let our bodies ride the motion rather than fight it. This felt completely different. This was better.
The moon brilliantly lit the way through the night. Over the course of our passage, we had a mix of conditions: uncanny calm, with ocean rising up under us like gentle swells of molten glass, through to brisk winds allowing us to sail a consistent 7.5 knots, and everything in between. It was a grand night, and in the morning, we were rewarded by our first whale sighting, its distinctive back and fin just off our beam. That first over-night 2 days before was beginning to recede like a bad dream. We were tired, but buoyed by a sense of achievement.
We still had a full day’s sail ahead of us. As we entered Chesapeake Bay, we passed over the longest bridge we’ve ever seen (it’s about 7km). Yes, “over” – the bridge dips to tunnel under the water in a couple of places allowing boat traffic to pass. Norfolk, situated on the the world’s largest and deepest natural harbour (according to a “fun facts” brochure … not sure where the “fun” is in that?) is a major shipping centre. We were dwarfed by the massive container freighters sharing the waterway.
We arrived after dark, testing our aging eyes as we strained to distinguish navigational lights from the harbour’s visual noise. Thirty-seven and a half hours after setting out (but who’s counting), we found an anchorage off to the side of the shipping channel. With our nights of passage – rites of passage – successfully behind us, we slept the deep, well-earned sleep of slightly more accomplished sailors.
We’ll wrap up this Ariose Note with a snippet of our dusk approach to a very welcome buoy marking the channel to Norfolk and the end of our passage.
*music accompanying us to the buoy: Bruce Cockburn – “World of Wonders”
PS – It’s great having so many folks along with us. Keep those comments coming. Ariose is a little snug for on-board company, but we have room for lots of virtual company on this journey.