For forty years or so I’ve dreamed of sailing my own boat home to Plum Island, Massachusetts. And on Friday, July 20, that dream became a reality when I guided Further along the beach in front of where I grew up and where I kept the Hobie Cat that I learned to sail on back when I was a teenager. The three of us aboard Further—my friends Jill and Ed, along with yours truly— entered the mouth of the Merrimack River at 9 a.m., ninety-five hours after leaving the fuel dock on Back Creek in Annapolis. This is the story of that trip.
Part I: Motoring Through An Oven
The trip up Chesapeake Bay was unsurprising for mid-July: hot with no wind. And by hot I mean: scorching hot with oppressive humidity. With temps in the 90s and dewpoints in the 70s—and nary a cloud in the sky nor breeze to provide any respite—Monday was a drag. On the plus side, we made great time, reaching the head of the bay in about six hours. And on top of that, listening to the National Weather Service on the VHF radio, it became clear that we got up the bay before some gnarly weather settled in back around Baltimore.
The trip through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal was equally scorching but there was a sense that we were making progress, that the trip was actually happening and it wasn’t just another day trip or short cruise on the bay. And there were sights to see as well: the high bridges spanning the canal, the municipal dock at Chesapeake City where we would have been able to tie up overnight for free, and an osprey diving down into the water to grab a late-afternoon snack. Side note: In an effort to capture the fishing action on film (so to speak) I grabbed my Canon DSLR camera and high-tailed it toward the
foredeck. Unfortunately, I forgot about, and didn’t notice, the line we’d rigged from the boom to the toerail to keep the boom and mainsail steady amidships, and went ass over teakettle onto the side deck. Years of experience prompted an instinctual lifting of the camera and lens in both hands to keep it safe off the deck—at the expense of both elbows and knees. My left elbow would blow up a few days later but hey, the camera was safe.
Part II: Further Traverses the Delaware
Our crewman Ed hails from the place on the Delaware River where George Washington made his famous crossing two hundred and forty years ago. This time, Further wasn’t going all the way across, just entering the river, turning right and heading south to the Atlantic Ocean. And the moment we made that turn, things changed in several ways.
For starters, stiff breeze in the high teens to 20 knots blew up Delaware Bay, cooling things right off and sending spray over the decks. The cooler temps were a pleasant relief but the spray forced us to scramble to close the hatches we’d had wide open in a failed effort to keep Further’s cabin from being stiflingly hot. We’d timed our entry into the Delaware to coincide with an outgoing tide so we got a great lift going south: we were doing nine-plus knots over the ground despite motoring into the stiff headwind. But that southbound current running into a northbound wind made for short, choppy waves that splashed all over Further’s topsides. No big deal, but what a change.
The other big change was that as the evening darkened we encountered more and more freighters and tankers running up and down the bay. We hung to the outside of the channel, leaving the big boys all the room they needed, but one encounter well down the bay late in the evening was shaping up to be a tight squeeze.
For navigation, Further has a chart plotter at the helm. The plotter has a built-in GPS so it knows where you are and displays that location on the relevant nautical chart. It’s not exact—you wouldn’t go navigating through coral heads with this chart plotter—but it’s close enough. The chart plotter also takes an input from an AIS (automatic identification system) device. Large ships are required to have AIS transmitters that send out information: size, speed, GPS location, heading, etc.
So Further’s chart plotter not only showed us where we were, it also showed us where the big tanker coming up the bay was. The AIS device also plots out where the boat is going and how close it’s going to get to you, and in this case we were going to pass about a quarter-mile from each other. The problem was that the passing was going to be right where a large pilot ship was anchored and another large ship was dredging, both as part of some operation in the bay. Things were going to be tight AND crowded, and Further was the smallest ant among a flotilla of elephants.
And that’s when the AIS system paid for itself. Further’s AIS not only receives information about the big ships, it also transmits that same information about Further. And as we neared the congestion point I heard on the VHF, “Sailing vessel Further, sailing vessel Further, this is…”.
It was the anchored pilot ship asking us about our intended path and providing more detail about the tanker’s path. As a result, we cut right and passed around a reef, safely away from all the big ships. Whew. It was at that moment that I was thankful I’d sent the AIS unit to a company in Washington state a few weeks earlier to be fixed: having the old boat’s info removed and my new name and information put into the unit. That was $40 well spent. Side note: there are websites that gather all the AIS information in the world and plot it on charts, so you can see where Further has been and, when her VHF radio is on, where she is. It’s intermittent but still pretty cool.
Part III: Into the Atlantic
Jill and I were on watch around 2 a.m. when Further rounded the buoys off Cape Henlopen, Delaware, to the south and Cape May, New Jersey, to the north. Further was in the Atlantic. Ahhhhh…
She seemed to feel the same way. We kept motoring but once it got light we doused the diesel and unfurled the headsail. And like a frisky, young horse finally freed of the saddle and bridle, Further kicked up her heels and reveled in her element. There was no need for the mainsail; the jib alone pulled us along at six- and seven-plus knots and we sailed north by northeast before a steady southerly breeze with a swell running from the southeast. The challenge was to keep the sail full and pulling while the seas tried to push Further off her course and onto her side. The thing is: I found out that Further handles REALLY well. She has a little bit of weather helm (basically: left to her own devices, wind in the sail will cause Further to round up into the wind) but not much. So steering her is easy. And she likes surfing: riding down the waves there’s not a hint of the tendency among sailboats to nosedive.
Throughout Tuesday the wind kept building and we shortened sail to match the wind strength. We rolled up a bit of the jib and were still making good speed. The wind increased and we rolled up the jib a bit more. Still we made good speed, even topping eight knots now and again with just a double-reefed headsail. Woohoo! Further is FAST!
We were working more northerly than northeasterly due to a weather forecast of a strong cold front moving offshore toward us later in the day. Behind the front the wind would switch from the southerly we were riding to a light northerly breeze: right in our faces. We were hoping we could get north and then, after the front passed, turn east and be able to continue sailing on the northerly breeze. But as an old boss of mine used to say, “Hope is not a business plan.” It’s not a navigational plan either, and that weather front was going to change our plans a bit.
Part IV: Apocalypse Not-So-Much
We were about thirty miles off the coast of New Jersey and still working north-northeast. The clouds had been building the west all day and now, in the late afternoon, they could be seen billowing up to some pretty high altitudes. The weather reports we’d listened to on the hour indicated that there was some gnarly stuff going down on shore and there were various warnings being issued from Connecticut to southern Jersey. The forecast of a cold front with severe weather was apparently turning out to be an accurate one.
What would that mean for us? Monday’s weather on the Chesapeake had missed us, and the big cumulonimbus clouds we’d seen thus far on Tuesday had all dissipated upon reaching the ocean.
But when we heard the raucous warning signal on the VHF and the severe-weather alert that followed, we knew we were in for something. Phrases such as, “severe-weather alert” and “from Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey, to Cape May, New Jersey” (basically the entire coastline of the state) and “moving southeast at thirty-five miles an hour” and “strong winds and frequent lightning” caught our attention in a hurry. The wind was still rockin’ and Further was still rollin’, but we knew we needed to get ready for something more.
And that’s when we saw the wall of clouds bearing down on us. It looked like a photograph in a meteorology textbook: a solid wall of dark, layered clouds forming an apocalyptic-looking arc bending outward toward us and headed our way. Beneath the lowest level it was pitch black and whitecaps could be seen jumping on the sea below, and it was now just minutes away.
We played it safe. We rolled up the jib (and got it tighter around the forestay than I’ve ever seen it, before or since) and fired up the engine and kept on our heading toward Block Island. As the gust front reached us, we turned and headed into the now northwesterly wind and took it on the nose.
It was eerie how fast the southerly swells smoothed out beneath the advancing weather. Now, instead of rolling, turbulent seas from distant storms, there was only the choppy whitecaps of the wind and weather we were currently experiencing. And while it was windy, sure, and a bit choppy too, it wasn’t really that bad. We bore off once again toward the northeast, continuing our progress, and waited for the guts of the storm.
Rain showers could be seen cascading beneath coal-dark clouds all around us, but we saw only a few sprinkles. The wind increased into the thirties, a passing shower or two fell, and a handful of flashes (but no bolts) of lightning lit up the sky. Beyond that, nothing major. After freaking out for several hours at the impending disaster—lightning hitting the boat! huge waves! wind tearing the furled sails off the spars!—I went to below to sleep.
We got lucky. We later learned a funnel cloud had appeared over Brooklyn (forty or fifty miles to our northwest) and fierce rain showers had led to some flooding in places, but we just had some wind and a couple of showers. The storm left low clouds and periodic sprinkles in its wake but that was all. No biggie. Thankfully.
Part V: Light in the Darkness
The night was darker as a result of the storm that had now pushed off to the southeast, farther out to sea. Low clouds blotted out the sky and mirrored the ink-black ocean beneath. No other boats were visible. We were alone.
And yet even in such a dark scene there was light. The loom from the lights of New York City was visible above the northwest horizon. Soft bursts of light from distant lightning, like something visible only in your peripheral vision, appeared and were gone before you’d realized. And the greenish-whitish glow of bioluminescence oozed out from Further’s hull every time she passed through a bit of chop or carved through a swell. Streamers of the phosphorescent glow radiated from Further’s wake, charting her course through the ocean before fading into the night. It was magical. And it was about to get even more magical.
Standing on watch in Further’s cockpit, watching everything but seeing the nothing that was visible, a flash erupted near Further’s starboard bow. It sounded like a splash, but not a splash like the hull was making as she carved through the Atlantic.
Another splash, and this time the whitewater from the splash moved off away from the hull before it turned and headed back toward the boat. What the hell?! It looked like a line of bubbles from a World War II torpedo in a bad TV movie, headed straight for Further. And just when there should have been an impact, the stream of light disappeared beneath the hull and reappeared on the port side, carving a 360-degree turn and splashing again before it raced to the bow.
It was a pair of dolphins. And the light forming the “bubbles” was bioluminescence streaming off their bodies. Corkscrews of glowing greenish-white light like the track of a deranged roller coaster hung in the water for long moments before fading away into oblivion. And where once there were two such tracks, now there were five. The streamers raced in front of Further, around behind her and then back once again beside her, off into the dark oblivion of the night on either side, leaping into the air and diving to depths out of our sight, always to reappear alongside as the dolphins sought Further’s bow wave.
For half an hour the pod followed us, led us, delighted us, and when they disappeared for good, it seemed as though they had left behind for Further a benediction, sending her and us on our way with their blessings.
Part VI: Thar She Blows!
The post-storm clouds continued their slow lifting as sunrise broke. We were closing in on the eastern end of Long Island, and the bluffs of Montauk were visible in the dusky pre-dawn light. After the sun climbed out of the Atlantic, we enjoyed brief moments of wonder as shafts of light shot forth through gaps in the low clouds.
As we entered Block Island Channel, the twelve-mile gap between Montauk and our destination, our progress slowed significantly as we motored into the teeth of a fierce outgoing current. Immeasurable volumes of water were wedged into the gap between the islands and poured forth through the deep channel.
On that current there must have been a lot of little feeder fish, because there were rafts of seabirds on the ocean, diving beneath the surface and circling the air overhead. It was feeding time in Block Island Channel.
In addition to the birds there were other critters enjoying brunch: whales. I have no idea what kind of whales they were, but off in the distance a cluster of the huge beasts surfaced and dove for about an hour.
The whales disappeared about the time we broke free of the worst of the current off Block Island’s southwest reefs. And then it was just a case of finishing off the initial phase of this journey north. We entered Block Island’s Great Salt Pond during mid-morning and picked up a town mooring ball about forty-eight hours after leaving Back Creek.
Part VII: Reentry Blues
I’d always wanted to visit Block Island. I’d seen images of great surf there and the thought of being on an isolated island during a good swell often left me salivating. So I was excited to check the place out on this trip, if only to reconnoiter the island for future visits. And everyone who’d been there had raved about the place: how it caters to visiting sailors, how pretty and laid back it is.
So color me disappointed after being numbed in a matter of an hour by rude locals and commercialism rivaling Disneyworld.
We had hoped to top off our diesel tank for the rest of the journey north but a megayacht occupied the entire fuel dock at Champlin’s. No matter; we’d get fuel before leaving in the morning. So after picking up a town mooring and paying our fee for a night’s stay, called for the water taxi for a lift to shore. We were looking forward to the free (or at least cheap) showers at the Oar restaurant, famous among sailors for its grub and service.
Well, the launch driver damn near punched Jill when she boarded too soon for his liking. And upon landing ashore we found that the showers were not only not free or even cheap, but they weren’t even available unless you were in the marina at the Oar. They turned Jill down cold when she asked if she could buy tokens for the showers. We were told we could take a taxi to the state marina on the other side of town—for the low, low price of $24—where there were showers.
And the staff at the Oar, with the notable exception of one bartender who told us it was his first year working there, was rude to the point of tempting me to launch a few haymakers. grabbing menus out of your hand. They just pointed to where tables might be available — and this AFTER they had barked at me for walking past the hostess’ desk into the room just to see what was available.
And what was available wasn’t much. It was an hour wait for tables on the deck. Tables on the lawn, available on a first-come, first-served basis, had only a limited menu. The table we were offered inside was literally within the threshold of the entry and thus right where all the help and guests walked past nonstop.
Still, we were beat so we ponied up to the bar where we a full menu was available…which also wasn’t much. Burgers, sammies, drinks—that was about it. Frankly, a burger sounded good to me so that’s what I ordered. The hockey puck that was served to me wasn’t exactly satiating so I succumbed and had two beers to drown the taste. Pacifico. In Rhode Island. And that was the best of the selection.
Defeated, we returned to the boat, where I immediately donned a mask and fins and jumped overboard. For the first time since Further had been lifted out of the water for her pre-sale survey, I could see the bottom. While Ed and Jill returned to shore to explore the island, I wanted to swim and see what a winter at a dock in Chesapeake Bay had done to the hull.
I spent a couple of hours diving around Further’s hull and found it remarkably clean. I scraped out what barnacles there were (note to self: wear gloves next time; my fingers got thrashed) and cleaned off the little bit of plant growth. I cleaned out the through-hulls. And I explored the bottom of the keel since it had spent so much time in the mud in Jones Cove. Everything was fine. Really. I was pleasantly shocked.
Jill and Ed returned to Further and we had a casual dinner in the cockpit. A gorgeous sunset ensued, followed by Venus, Jupiter, the moon and Mars all being visible in a sweeping arc across the sky not long after sundown.
The next day we ate breakfast and secured things aboard the boat before heading out. I examined the engine and found the Racor fuel filter was full of the organic gunk that occurs in diesel fuel. As expected, the gunk had been dislodged by all the bouncing around at sea, but the Racor had done its job and it was a quick process to change out the filter. Next stop: the fuel dock.
Except the goddamned megayacht was still there. They actually shoved off the dock right after we dropped our mooring line, but by then I was so fed up with Block Island that damned if I was going to give the folks there any more of my money. So out the channel we went. We turned right, went around the north point of Block Island and headed east toward Buzzard’s Bay and the Cape Cod Canal.
Part VIII: Lesson Time
The quandary then became: where would we get diesel? Technically speaking, we had enough to make it home. Probably. Not wanting to chance it, I wanted to top off the tank. The challenge was where and when.
As we motored east off the coast of Rhode Island, I consulted the guide books I had and, somewhat disappointingly, a couple of websites with information for sailors. Yes, it’s true: I had cell service out there on the water. While I’d have preferred to have disconnected from the world, in this case it helped because we’d been planning on pulling into Onset, Mass., at the western end of the Cape Cod Canal. We’d get diesel and maybe spend the night at anchor before heading home. Thing was: having web access let me know the fuel dock in Onset closed at 4:30 p.m., and there was no way we were gonna get there in time. An alternative would have to be found.
And we found it in the New Bedford Yacht Club in the village of Padanaram in South Dartmouth, Mass. And a good call it was: what a pretty little village. Okay, sure, it helps that everyone in the area is, apparently, loaded: the houses were ginormous and the boats on moorings were yachts. And the kids working the fuel dock were friendly and capable. So we fueled up and kept on heading east.
As we made our way up Buzzards Bay toward the canal, we faced a stronger and stronger current running against us. We expected this: we knew the tide would turn in our favor at 10 p.m. Until then, we were swimming upstream. Literally. We were still making progress but as we got into narrower and narrower straits near the mouth of the canal, the current got stronger and stronger. We could have kept going, slowly, but I decided instead to pull the chute and wait for a couple of hours for the tide to turn.
We wound up turning in at Onset after all. But rather than head all the way up to the town and the now-closed fuel dock, we noticed two sailboats anchored in a quiet cove just a few hundred yards out of the stream. We motored in and Ed went to the foredeck to lower the anchor in about 10 feet of water. It was after the anchor had touched bottom and I was backing Further slowly so as to set the hook that Ed said rather calmly, “The windlass stopped.”
“Stopped? What do you mean it stopped?” I asked.
“It won’t go either way.”
Well, shit. The windlass had always worked; what the hell could be wrong? I sprang to the foredeck to see what was up and yup, pressing the up or down button yielded nothing but a chunking noise and no movement of the chain. I grabbed the chain where it left Further and headed for the water and pulled. It didn’t move so I went back to the cockpit and revved up the engine in reverse. Further still didn’t move. Okay, good: we were securely anchored. And, to be honest, it was a glorious evening with a wonderful sunset. So while I stewed and went through all the worst-case scenarios in my addled brain—having to haul up the anchor by hand, having to buy a new windlass, not being to anchor until I get a whole new set up—while pulling out the manual for the windlass, Jill whipped up some pasta and we settled in for a peaceful dinner in the cockpit.
It really wasn’t a big deal even if we couldn’t get the windlass to work. And as it turned out, it wasn’t a big deal to fix it. After dinner, I moved the dinghy so I could get into the sail locker on the foredeck. From there, I opened the hatch into the chain locker and there, clear as day, was the problem: the chain was in a balled-up knot, jammed into the hawse pipe going topside.
My brain immediately chilled out (as it should have been from the start) since it was just a jam and not an electrical problem or a dead windlass. Ed and I took the windlass apart on deck and were able to pry the links of chain free enough that the jam could be lowered into the locker. I put the windlass back together and it worked perfectly, so with Ed sorting the chain in the locker and me running the windlass, we put out more chain and took a breather. And at 10 o’clock, the windlass raised the anchor just as it was supposed to do and we were off for the Cape Cod Canal once again.
And in hindsight, it was a great way for me to get more experience with Further. A problem arose but we were in a completely safe spot: we’d been able to get enough chain out that the anchor took hold. If the jam had occurred with just, say, six feet of chain out, the anchor would have just dangled. We’d have had to pull the hook back aboard and dealt with the problem either at a dock or while afloat. And given the current in the canal at the time, that would have sucked.
Instead, I had a nice dinner beneath a gorgeous twilight and was able to diagnose and fix the problem comfortably. And in the process, I learned more about my boat and about the windlass. All good things to know. And more importantly, I realized that I have to stop assuming the worst when things arise. I’d done it for this windlass situation and for the storm out in the Atlantic, and on both occasions everything worked out fine. Further is a great, sound boat and will take care of me. Chill out and figure it out, and I’ll be fine.
Part IX: Homeward Bound
We entered the Cape Cod Canal right at 10 p.m., the time the tide was supposed to turn in our favor. A tug pushing a big barge went by us in the other direction as we passed Massachusetts Maritime Academy and then…nothing. Not a single other boat marred the smooth, oil-black surface of the canal. In fact, the surface was so smooth and still that it seemed more like a lake. Turns out, the canal was anything but.
We were motoring at 2,400 RPMs, as we’d done the whole day. The speedometer showed us going about seven knots. Good, but nothing spectacular. The GPS, however, told a different story: it showed us going anywhere from nine to ten knots. We were FLYING through the canal, making great time beneath a star- and planet-filled sky. In fact, we got from the railroad bridge at Mass Maritime to the jetties sticking out into Cape Cod Bay in an hour. From there, we turned north for home.
I slept for a couple of hours and came up to see the lights of Provincetown off our starboard side and, with binoculars, the lights of the Boston skyline off the port bow. I was on watch for a couple of uneventful hours—still very little other traffic—and then Ed came back on watch. He had the con while we crossed the shipping lanes into and out of Boston but said he only saw one ship while on watch. I took over again as the sky began to lighten and the mass of Cape Ann was visible ahead.
A glorious sunrise occurred while we were a few miles southeast of Gloucester, and Rockport looked pretty sleepy as we rounded Cape Ann and Plum Island came into view. We motored on smooth water until we were just offshore from my home. My brother said he waved from the deck but we couldn’t see him, and given the lowering tide I opted to stay a bit offshore, away from the sandbars I’d surfed since I was a kid. Then we turned and guided Further into the Merrimack River, fulfilling that dream I’d had also since I was a kid: sailing my own boat into my home river.
We passed between the rock jetties protecting the river mouth at 9 a.m., ninety-five hours after we left the fuel dock in Annapolis. So it was a four-day trip, and that included an overnight at Block Island. It would have been longer had we not used the engine as much, but once we got rolling we didn’t want to delay. I hope in the future I’m more about the sailing and the journey then the urge to get there, but we’ll see.
In the meantime, Further is in her new home for the rest of the summer and now I’m in decision mode: sail south for the winter or pull her out of the water come autumn and get back to work in the straight world? Also in the meantime, I hope to have a couple of short cruises here in northern New England to report. Stay tuned.