Nights / Rites of Passage

IMG_9322We 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.

Gooseneck: not good!!

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.

Docked at Atlantic Highlands with Manhattan skyline in the distance.

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?

New Jersey lights receding. This is easy.

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.

Hours after first spotting this monolith, we were there.

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, back from near-death experience.
Tim, back from near-death experience.
Shirley looking more than a little worse for wear.
Shirley looking more than a little worse for wear.

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.

Refuge: Kammerman’s friendly marina!
Ariose enjoying the nightlife!
Not a typical view from inside our cabin.

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.

A bit of the past Atlantic City survives… for now.
But mostly, it’s block after block of casino-land.
Lost lighthouse.
Tim contemplating Trump’s Taj Mahal. No words.
Dunes, and our 1st palm tree siting to the Boardwalk’s east…
… and casino land and trashy shops to the west.
Northern Ontario biologist feeling a little lost…
… until he finds this interesting flora specimen, (cacti plasterus, I think)
… and plenty of native fauna, too!

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.

IMG_9207On 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. IMG_9213This 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.


Sun’s going down, wondering what this night would hold for us.
Dawn – made it!
Peaceful start to the day.
Now let’s get ourselves to harbour.
Screen Shot 2016-12-26 at 3.38.42 PM
Image borrowed from “Virginia Beach Vacation Guide”

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.


Monstrous freighters all around the mouth of the Chesapeake..
A more comfortable view as they move away from us.
Is that the buoy we’re looking for?
Safe anchorage in Elizabeth River, Norfolk’s lights.

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.

29 thoughts on “Nights / Rites of Passage”

    1. Hey Erin – so nice to have you along on our adventure! We think often of your adventures with John and your girls in Thailand last year. I may need a therapy date with you upon our return to get your suggestions on resuming “real” life. Hope your transition back has been a smooth one.

  1. I grabbed a coffee to settle in to the read…didn’t get a sip down! Wow..what a read and what an accomplishment! For a moment, I dare say my kitchen table was rocking against the waves! Happy New Year to you both!

    1. Guess I owe you a coffee, Lesley!! Hope you & Tyler & your kids are having a great start to your 2017. Great to have you along, even if it is from your kitchen table. S

  2. Geez Shirley, I could almost feel the nausea as you were describing the motion of the boat and Tim’s situation. Remind me to give you my captains hat. Happy New Year and I hope it settles down for you soon so you can enjoy the ride.

    1. I’ll gladly accept your hat – I think I’ve earned it!! Things have already settled, thanks, and we’re enjoying a much more relaxed, leisurely pace, not to mention the warmer conditions. We are in southern South Carolina, and are considering hopping back out into the Atlantic tomorrow. Although we know we’ll miss some beautiful sights by skipping Georgia, the Intracoastal Waterway through that state doesn’t sound too appealing, and Florida is calling. Wish us well! All the best in 2017 for you too.

  3. For goodness’ sake, what a nail biter! It’s a steep learning curve- you two are showing unbelievable oomph to make it through from hell to the next sunny day. Geez. You have no idea how much I like hearing about the lovely warm lazy day. Best new year wishes and big hugs to the both of you xoxox
    PS, hoping you never need it again, you’re aware that gravol comes in, er, other forms than oral, yes? Like a good insurance policy.
    Love, Nadia

    1. I know that I can always count on you for wise advise, Nad! We do have the most incredibly stocked first aid kit, and yes, it does contain the form of gravel that is administered via the, er, other end, but until I just read your comment, I had completely forgotten that we even had it! So much for being prepared. Anyways, we are likely heading out on the Atlantic again in 2 days’ time, so I’ve just let Tim know about that option. I figure the threat of it is enough to ward off any sea sickness he might be considering!
      Hope you’re also having a great start to 2017. So nice to hear from you. xo

    2. I know that I can always count on you for wise advise, Nad! We do have the most incredibly stocked first aid kit, and yes, it does contain the form of gravel that is administered via the, er, other end. Until I just read your comment, though, I had completely forgotten that we even had it! So much for being prepared. Anyways, we are likely heading out on the Atlantic again in 2 days’ time for a 24 hour passage, so I’ve just let Tim know about that option. I figure the threat of it is enough to ward off any sea sickness he might be considering!
      Hope you’re also having a great start to 2017. So nice to hear from you. xo

  4. a very well written story able to re-create the fear and the anxiety of the dark night.
    hope that after this rite of passage you will find your sunny waves
    you put an end to 2016 by this difficult way. have a nice 2017 start

    1. Merci beaucoup, Marc, et bienvenue avec nous!
      Today, we enjoyed a day of luxurious lazing about in mid 70 degree F temperatures, feeling worlds removed from that night. A lovely start to 2017.

  5. OMG What à night! You are two brave souls! And maybe a little……. enjoyed your long post and I have to admit I’m glad it’s you and not me. I really hope this is just one bad night and wish you guys calmer sailing nights.

    Enjoy reading your posts and always happy to see another post pop up in my email meaning you guys are safe.

    Happy New Year to both of you and wishing you calm sailing days ahead.


    1. Well, as a biker chick, you do know what it is to be brave & a little … , Nicole! 😉
      We’ve had much less adventuresome days since that night, and are moving more and more into relax mode, finally!Thanks for the wishes, and hope 2017 is a special year for you too.

  6. Wow…again, at the edge of my chair reading your accounts…and I too can sympathize with Tim, memories of a catamaran adventure beyond the reef many years ago, the smell of whatever the cleaning product was can still make me ill! BUT, clear sailing for you two here on in… so, so exciting!

    1. Tim’s lapping up all the sympathy he can get over that night… seems like almost everyone who has been on the ocean has been there at some point. Thanks for sharing your “adventure”.
      Hope you’ve had a good Xmas and have had time with your special little one. Happy New Year, Nancy!

  7. HI Shirley and Tim,
    I sure am enjoying your trip south as it brings back so many memories as I crewed on my friends 43 foot trawler in 1994 as we left from Hamilton to Annapolis. We stayed there for a week and my friends came to,get me in my van to,bring me home..Joe and Anne continued on After the boat show to Florida.. it sure was a remarkable trip. WE stayed in Sandy Hook for 3 days waiting for the Atlantic to,calm down as we did not want to Bob like a cork and get ill like Tim did. WIshing you sunny skies and gentle breezes on your trip south also Happy new year.
    JOhn and Cathy Parry

    1. So nice to hear from you John, and Happy New Year to you and Cathy!
      My father mentioned you had been reading along – I didn’t realize that we were following in your path. Tim’s body seems to have adapted and he’s had no further episodes, but just in case he’s overcome again, might you be interested in another gig crewing? 😉
      It really is a remarkable experience to travel by boat, isn’t it. There’s the combination of pride in being so self-sufficient with the humbleness that comes with being at the whims of nature. We’re so grateful to have this experience, and thrilled to have you along.
      Hope that 2017 brings good health and happiness for you both. take care. Shirley

    1. Thanks, Jonathan and glad you’re enjoying reading about the adventures our Alberg is opening for us… hope yours is good to you in 2017!

  8. Gripping! Holy smokes… but so happy that you were able to settle in and relax a little if that is possible. And I read that right. Don’t want to assume anything, lol.
    What an experience ✅

    1. Hey Mary – we are definitely moving into relax mode, and it feels lovely. Maybe the purpose of the hardships we faced early on was to be sure we didn’t take the easier times for granted. Hope you’ve had some time over the holidays in relax mode too, perhaps on Manitoulin?

  9. Great story and wonderful adventures. Belated Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you both. I look forward to receiving more updates. Please try to remain dry and healthy!


  10. Omg… I can’t even imagine the fatigue and the terror of that first over- nighter! I can empathize – sympathize with Tim, as I too have experienced that kind of sea sickness (albeit not on a tiny sailboat on the Atlantic!). Shirley you are truly a modern day Wonder Woman (without the skimpy clothes and gold belt).

    Loving your blog and updates! Great reading…. You two may need to think about turning these posts into a novel and publishing one day.

    Hoping you are past the worst of the journey!

    Happy holidays!


    1. It’s been pretty smooth cruising since that night, although no doubt, there will be trying times ahead… all part of the journey!
      We sure laughed when we read your “Wonder Woman” comment, Jill … no gold belt for me, in fact no belt at all – it was one of many items left behind in the last minute packing frenzy (like a true sailor, I’ve been using a bit of rope instead!), but I sure do look forward to pulling out those skimpy clothes before long!
      And Tim says thanks – he appreciates the empathy/sympathy. All the best in 2017!

  11. Oh my gosh, sounds like quite the journey, thank gawd for your strength and determination Shirley that’s all i can say! I guess I am now wondering if you have to go back through all that? Looks like you are getting closer and closer to your destination, but then what?
    Hoping it is clear sailing to your destination, thanks for keeping us posted! Take care xoxo

    1. Hey Deb. Funny you should ask. We are finally falling into the cruising groove enough that we are beginning to think of the “then whats?”. We’ve slowed our pace and our enjoying the journey a little more rather than the racing against winter mode we were in for the first month. Definitely looking forward to the Bahamas, and then maybe beyond to the eastern Caribbean? As hard as it is to believe, Shirley, the planner, is getting more and more comfortable living with uncertainty. Over the next few months, we will make the call whether to return on Ariose, and if so, that will involve trekking back north over this same route, or whether to find a safe place to leave her so that we can return once we’ve refilled the coffers, or some other option. At this point, no idea!

    1. I think we are all capable of amazing things when given the opportunity… just not looking for too many more of those opportunities! 😉

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