Shakedown Cruise, Part I

Selfie while sailing up Chesapeake Bay. The Bay Bridge is visible in the background.

Memorial Day weekend: the traditional start of the American summer. And in Annapolis, people take their boats out onto Chesapeake Bay and seek adventure. And since I’m people and I’m living in Annapolis, that’s what I did.

And, oh boy, what an adventure. Sorta.

After much hemming and hawing, I opted to follow my former marina-mate, Renee, north up the bay to the Middle River. We’d been invited to anchor out near the Baltimore Yacht Club’s marina on Sue Creek by Kathy, who sailed with me aboard Further for last week’s Blue Angels show. The other option popular among the folks I know around here was a jaunt over to St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore. Some folks were taking part in a race to the Miles River (on which St. Michaels sits), while others were simply following that mobile party. With upwards of 70 boats competing, that seemed like that area was going to get pretty crowded (and apparently there’s not a lot of room on the water in St. Michaels is) so north it was for Further.

And things started out well. (Spoiler alert: they ended up well, too; it’s the middle part that was a bit sketchy.) I had Meghan Matthews, who’s sailed with me a bunch on Further, along for the ride, while Renee had Darlene and Maureen along with her aboard Sunday Kinda Love. Meghan and I slipped the lines from the dock around 10 a.m. on Saturday and motored out Back Creek and onto the bay, while Renee followed along about 45 minutes later.

Saturday’s route

We found wind out on the bay so Meghan and I raised the sails and Further took off on a nice, comfortable tack toward the northeast. We averaged six-plus knots, occasionally hitting eight, as we passed beneath the central span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and continued northeasterly.

When Renee came out of Annapolis, she continued motoring north up the bay, right up the main shipping channel toward Baltimore. Meghan and I tacked Further over and started back toward that westerly side of the bay and followed Sunday Kinda Love north. The wind was fading so rather than fall too far behind our friends, we fired up the engine and followed along in their wake.

A couple of things happened while motoring that caught my attention. For one thing, Further’s stern seemed (to me) to ride awfully low in the water. Her hailing port, which appears on the transom below her name, was frequently awash, and the engine’s exhaust port seemed (again, to me) to be really close to the water level. I worried about swamping the engine but then I realized: well, the boat’s been on the water for 33 years and that would have been kind of a big design flaw and presumably SOMEONE would have addressed it in the intervening years. A rationalization, perhaps, but then my initial concern was likely just my usual overly-nervous nature that comes out when I’m dealing with big projects.

The other event on that northerly run took place shortly after we passed where the Patapsco River splits off to head to Baltimore. Dark clouds had been building over the course of the journey — no surprise: the forecast called for afternoon showers and thunderstorms for the weekend — and as we cruised northeasterly along Hart-Miller Island those storm clouds started kicking up a nice little breeze. So we unfurled our sails again…and while I was standing at the base of the 54-foot aluminum lightning rod that is Further’s mast, a couple of loud cracks of thunder roared overhead. Gulp. A nice shower started, too, which added to my anxiety (did I mention I get overly concerned about things?) but, well, we were out there (and so were many other boats) so there’s was nothing else to do but keep on keepin’ on. Which we did, thanks to that breeze. We had a nice run to the green buoy marking the  tip of a shallow area off the north side of Hart-Miller Island where we turned west and headed up the Middle River. And actually, the rain turned out to be a nice flourish on the afternoon’s cruise.

As we moved up the Middle River, the next wave of thunderstorms was approaching from the southwest. Ahead of them, the wind picked up in a hurry, so we once again doused the sails and continued on under engine. And it was under engine that the real fun for the day started.

Sue Creek breaks off to the south from the Middle River and runs behind on a small bluff on a spit of land on which sits the Baltimore Yacht Club. The clubhouse commands a great view of the river and bay out front, and the marina and creek out back. Across the creek’s entrance float several small white buoys, there to remind boaters that there’s a no-wake zone inside. Kathy’s instructions to us were to leave the second such buoy to starboard; I mistakenly recalled the instructions saying we should PASS to starboard of the buoy (which is silly because no one over gives directions for passing a mark like that). Just after passing said buoy I felt Further shudder a bit then shudder again. And I realized we were aground.

Well, shit. To be honest, I wasn’t as embarrassed about it as I might have been since virtually every sailor I’ve talked to in this area has told stories about running aground in the Chesapeake’s thin water. And the bottom of the bay is soft mud so I wasn’t too worried about damage. I was a little concerned about the dark clouds still bearing down on us from the southwest, however, so I wanted to get out of my predicament as fast as I could.

Which wasn’t very fast. I tried the engine forward and backward but we weren’t going anywhere. I called Renee on the VHF because she had a dinghy that she’d used to push her boat back afloat when she’d run aground, and I also flagged down a passing speedboat who, thankfully, was kind enough to stop.

We tied off a line to the speedboat and though it took a couple of pulls, she proceeded to pull us back into deeper water. But while we were disengaging from each other, her boat drifted perilously close to my stern. I sprung to the rail to fend off her boat, but not before she struck my solar panel and bent it.

What was worse, however, was that I thought Further’s engine was in neutral while all this transpired. It wasn’t, and the line we’d used to get pulled off the bottom was now lying in the water unnoticed. Unnoticed, that is, until the engine alarm sounded and I quickly sprung back from the rail to turn it off. The line had gotten wrapped around the propeller. Sigh. I leapt to the bow, released the anchor so we wouldn’t just drift out into the river and thought about what to do next.

Renee and Kathy appeared in the dinghy as I was stepping down Further’s transom ladder in my surf shorts. “You want the good news or the bad news,” I asked Renee and Kathy. “The good news is: we’re not aground anymore. The bad news is: there’s a line wrapped around the prop.”

I really had no alternative but to dive beneath the boat and see if I could free the propeller. Thing is: the Chesapeake Bay is renowned for being, well, not very clean. But facing no practical alternative, into the water I went. (If I wind up catching hepatitis in the future, we’ll know the cause.)

The culprit. The chewed section is where the line got wedged into the cutlass bearing.

That’s when I found the next challenge. Even with my dive mask, I could not see even an inch when under water. So while Meghan held the end of the line in Further’s cockpit, I pulled myself along the taut line past the rudder and under the hull until I could feel the prop. On the positive side, the water was shallow enough that I could stand on the bottom and wedge my shoulder against the hull, which enabled me to stand in one spot and have both hands free to work the line. And work it I did, by Braille, unraveling the line from around the propeller shaft until I had the other end free, which I handed to Kathy in the dinghy. Frustratingly, the line still would not come completely free because it was wedged into the cutlass bearing, a tube that holds the propeller shaft steady. It seemed the damned line would not come out despite several efforts (I could go down for 30 seconds at a time or so) but then, hail Poseidon, on one trip I yanked and the line came free.

Again by Braille, I felt around the bearing, the prop and the shaft but could find no other line. I climbed into the cockpit, tried the engine…and it turned over. I engaged the gears…they worked. Woohoo! Kathy climbed on board and managed the windlass to raise the anchor and we motored in — this time on the OTHER side of that second buoy — and tied up to Renee’s already-anchored yacht.

At which point it was DEFINITELY beer-thirty.

(The rest of the shakedown cruise follows in the next post.)