Escapade 19.10 : The Home Stretch

By Larry Caillouet

On Day 7 of our return passage to Annapolis we lost Otto, the autopilot.  With over 400 miles to go, this put a much heavier load on the helmsmen. Although hand steering did not create serious physical fatigue, mental fatigue was an issue.  20 knots of wind and 6-foot seas in the dark strained the eyes, concentration, and patience of the helmsmen. Fortunately the rain squalls with 30-40 knot gusts that had been forecast for the evening did not develop.  

Day 8:  Tuesday, May 14

Another beautiful day on the ocean.  Although the wind was brisk in the low 20 knot range, there were no gusty morning squalls.  The day was sunny, bright, and warm and Escapade continued to punch ahead toward the Chesapeake.  A favorable wind from the southwest drove us along toward the point at which we would cross the Gulf Stream to the north and east of the infamous Cape Hatteras.  I went out on the aft deck to enjoy the sun on my face and the wind in my hair as Diana took Otto’s place at the wheel. Efforts to revive Otto were of no avail and we resigned ourselves to hand steer the remainder of the voyage.  

As day faded into night and watches changed, the seas built up and the wind turned against us. We started the engine and motor-sailed when the wind clocked to the west. Then it veered to the northwest which directly opposed our course.  The combination of wind and waves produced very difficult conditions and uncomfortable sailing. Imagine trying to sleep with Neptune constantly shaking you and the boat talking back with creaks and groans and taps and bangs.

Day 9:  Wednesday, May 15

Deep into the night Escapade and her crew were taking a pounding.  With 22 knots of wind punching us in the nose and 8-10 foot crossing seas slapping at the bow and stern, we were making very little progress forward.  Hand steering was very difficult. No one was in danger but neither was anyone resting or having a good time. At 1 am we decided to heave to so that we and the boat could have some relief.  An immediate calm came over the boat, like someone had turned the wind off and settled the seas. We began to drift backwards to the southwest at a little under 2 knots. We were slowly moving away from our destination, but it was a small price to pay for a comfortable night.  

By 6 am daylight had returned and we started the engine again.  Sailing northwest into a stiff northwest wind was impossible and tacking away from it would have been counterproductive.  The VMG, Velocity Made Good, would have been far too little to justify the effort. We prefer sailing to motoring, but as long as we had fuel, motoring was the only good choice.

Day 10:  Thursday, May 16

I never thought I would curse the moon, that heavenly nightlight that rolls a silver carpet across the ocean waves, but in the wee hours of the morning I did.  And I think I speak for all the night time skippers who are hand steering their vessels across a featureless ocean toward a featureless sky. There is nothing to steer toward, nothing but that little red devil at the helm called a compass.  Its wheel floats and spins as the boat rolls on its forward axis and yaws around its vertical axis. Its glowing red lines and numbers hypnotize your eyes. Just before you are captured by its spell, you will yourself to tear your eyes away, if you have the strength.  You look up to see if you are about to be bisected by an indifferent freighter and search the sky for Masefield’s star to steer by, but there is no star. And why not? It’s that blasted moon! That narcissistic moon all full of itself and cooing to the world, “Look at me!  I’m the glory of the night sky. I’m the object of all affection. Stars? What stars? Do you see any stars tonight? There are none. Look at me!”

No, give me a moonless night, a black sky, and stars.  I like the stars, the little people of the night sky, not the big pompous moon.  Stars require nothing of you. They are there to serve you just as they served the Phoenicians and the Polynesians and the Vikings and all ancient mariners who found new lands and sailed home again.  They navigated by the stars, not that self-absorbed presidential moon. At 5:42 am the moon finally crawled into bed over the horizon, like a 30’s-something bar-hopper with no obligations in the morning.  You can keep the moon. Give me the working people of the sky, the stars.

By 8 am we had left Cape Hatteras to port and the Gulf Stream behind us.  We celebrated the arrival of a steady breeze from the southwest, not strong at 10 knots, but perfectly placed to relieve us from the use of the engine.  With full main and genoa drawing us forward, we steadily approached our original rhumb line that led to the mouth of the Chesapeake. We spent the day sailing parallel to the North Carolina and Virginia coast, and by midnight we could finally say the Chesapeake was in sight.

Day 11: Friday, May 17

Image result for chesapeake bay bridge tunnel at night

You know that you are nearing the Chesapeake long before you actually enter it because of the light show associated with it.  Red and green lighted buoys marking the shipping lanes extend about 14 miles out to sea. We went on high alert due to the cargo ships and tankers using these lanes and adding their red, white and green lights to the show.  By 1 am the bright white of the Cape Henry Lighthouse dominated the horizon, and beyond it we could see the unmistakable line of amber lights on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge stretching 17 miles across the entrance. There are two gaps in the bridge lights which are the two places where the bridge dives down into two tunnels under the water.  We crossed the southside tunnel at 3 am and by 4 am had anchored in 25 feet of water just outside the Little Creek harbor. We were all ready for an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

In the morning we entered the harbor to take on some fuel and apparently stumbled into a naval exercise.  Big rigid inflatables with banks of big outboards and camouflaged men with guns raced in and out of the narrow harbor entrance.  One zoomed up to us to tell us to get on our radio to request permission to transit the restricted area. No problem. We complied, fueled up, and headed north up the Chesapeake.

We stumbled into more than naval exercises when we entered the Chesapeake.  Actually about 30 miles from the entrance we began to acquire a large number of flies.  When we stopped in Norfolk for fuel we encountered the Load of the Flies. We might have been able to coexist, but these flies were biters.  They were sneaky and they worked in teams. While some sacrificed themselves in front of you as you were occupied with swatting them, their colleagues would bite you on the ankles.  Since we were sailing with the boat open, the flies infiltrated every part of the boat. So while the crew steered the boat and swatted flies in the cockpit, I instituted my 4-part plan for fly extermination:  Confine, Confuse, Kill, Collect. I closed the companionway hatch and all the cabin doors to isolate each area. I turned on the lights in both heads to attract the flies into the ideal fly swatting zones—small rooms with white walls.  I swatted flies with one hand while carrying a cordless vacuum in the other. Vacuuming the flies helped make it clear which ones were dead or alive, and kept the boat cleaner. In the cockpit we simply washed the dead flies out with buckets of sea water.  After several hours of swatting, we finally established a No Fly Zone on Escapade.

If you’ve only seen the Chesapeake Bay on a map, it doesn’t look so big, but when you sail it you think you are still in the ocean.  The lower Chesapeake is 14-25 miles wide. It narrows to 11 miles wide where the Potomac empties into it, which means that you still can’t see the shore on either side.  By the time we reached Annapolis, it was down to 5 miles wide, still a lot of water.

Day 12:  Saturday, May 18

Sunrise over the Chesapeake can be just as beautiful as sunrise over the ocean.  We enjoyed our last sailing sunrise and by 10 am we entered the familiar waters of Back Creek, Annapolis.  An hour later we were docked. There was no wreath of roses waiting for us, but we had run the home stretch and crossed the finish line.  After almost five months onboard Escapade, we were home again.

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