Frederic, Casey, and I departed Nanny Cay marina on May 9th, one day behind our original schedule – and very ready to get to sea. We sailed west between Tortola and St. Thomas, then turned northwest towards our destination of the Chesapeake. Around the time that the Virgin Islands disappeared under the horizon behind us, it started to rain hard. That is when I determined that my lightweight rain jacket is not really waterproof. Next storm, I’m bringing out the real foul weather gear!
After the rain cleared we settled into our regular watch rotation, generally in three hour blocks. The plan worked out where Frederic, Casey and I had 9, 8, and 7 hours respectively of watch time per day. I requested the midnight watch – which I have found is the most peaceful time with complete solitude and amazing stars overhead. For most of the passage, I had the big dipper right in front of me, Jupiter off my port side and the full moon rising over my shoulder.
There is nothing quite like the thrill of sailing at night offshore. You need to get over the fact that if there were some sort of debris, a whale, a lost shipping container, etc. in your path, it is unlikely you would see it in time to alter course. Belief in probability (and luck) is essential. The night watch focus is on avoiding the big ships. New to me on Boundless is AIS (Automatic Identification System), which allows vessels to broadcast information about their name, position, speed, etc. to other vessels in the area. Our chartplotter adds icons for AIS vessels so you can see them coming before you notice them on radar or visually – and have an idea of whether there is a collision risk well in advance.
One night around 1:00am, hundreds of miles from any land, an AIS target popped onto my screen. Its profile said it was a 1,100 foot ship destined for the Suez Canal, moving along at twice my speed, and predicted to cross within less than 500 feet of me. It sure would be dumb to have a collision when you have hundreds of square miles of empty ocean around you. Surprisingly, the ship hailed me first on the VHF radio – already knowing our boat name from our AIS beacon. He asked my intentions and then said he would alter course to go well behind me – quite professional and unusually flexible. I am more used to the “law of tonnage” on the Chesapeake Bay – deference to big ships whether you technically have right of way or not.
In general, the wind for the trip was light 5 to 15 knots, but the size of the swells varied quite a bit – and the combination of light wind and side or stern swells can make for some uncomfortable rolling. On the thankfully few days when the following swells were upon us, it was difficult to sleep since you felt like you might roll out of bed – and every piece of the galley clanged from side to side. One night when we were well heeled on a port tack, I setup my bunk’s lee cloth (a piece of canvas in the middle of the bunk tied to the ceiling). It doesn’t look pretty – but it allowed for some peaceful sleep.
In the middle of the trip, we came across a big, long cold front extending west to east across our path. Not only could we see the front as clouds on the horizon, but also as a series of strong storms on our radar. So we took a left turn and sought to find the western end of the front so we could sneak around it. Unfortunately, the front found us instead.
As it became clear that we were in for a big storm, we prepared ourselves and the boat. We put on full foul-weather clothes and life jackets and put in the companionway hatch boards. The engine was running, so we furled the genoa all the way in and reefed the mainsail. It is generally a good idea to leave a little bit of sail up on a storm to improve the steerage and stability of the boat. The last thing you want is being caught sideways to the waves.
Frederic was steering the boat and I was working the sail as the wind and rain picked up very quickly – and then the lighting started. We kept the wind on our port rear quarter and I had to ease the mainsail a few times for Frederic to maintain good steerage. I have been in a number of squalls in my life, but nothing this strong. As the wind-driven rain was hitting the back of my head like bullets, I leaned in to see 50 knots on the wind meter! That’s 58 mph or tropical storm-strength wind.
Even with all of the wind and waves, the boat performed amazingly well – always very stable, confirming our choice of the Hylas 56 as an “all conditions vessel”. Only two things were damaged in the storm: our mainsail and our dodger. The top half of the mainsail shredded, leaving the leach as a long noisy tail. If I had known we were going to encounter 50 knots, furling the main all the way might have been a good idea. Although, given how fast it came on I doubt we could have accomplished it safely in time.
Our center dodger eisenglass window got a crack in it – and a few teeth in its zipper broke off. Not a big deal compared to the sail – and we needed to have some canvas work done in Annapolis anyway.
After the storm, the rest of the trip was low-drama. We decided to leave the mainsail up since its remaining bottom portion had decent shape allowing us to sail well (but very noisily with the flapping).
As we approached the notorious Outer Banks off of North Carolina (the “graveyard of the Atlantic”), the weather conditions could not have been more favorable. We had beautiful clear days with moderate winds blowing from shore. And after over a week of fishing, we finally caught a small yellowfin tuna! We decided to throw it back since we would not realistically eat it prior to our landfall in Annapolis.
After the extreme serenity and isolation of the open ocean, it is a jarring reminder that the US is the land of “shock and awe” when the Navy F-18 fighter jets greet you offshore near Virginia Beach doing exercises. Amongst the many fishing boats off the southern Virginia approach to the Chesapeake Bay, was a large anchored ship with numerous domes and radars. It sure looked like a Navy reconnaissance ship that was tracking everything happening around the Chesapeake entrance. However its AIS beacon said that it was a “tug boat”. I suppose if you want to be stealthy, you can’t be broadcasting “spy ship”.
We passed through/over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel during my midnight watch. That must be one of the most confusing night navigation areas on earth, with heavy traffic 7×24 within multiple, forking ship channels, a huge field of anchored cargo ships with their deck lights on, and a gazillion navigation markers. The cargo ships were all very good communicators, calling us well in advance to make sure we were out of the ship channel when they arrived – and telling their colleagues on trailing ships “hey there are going to be some sailboats up ahead, and they plan to be left of the channel”.
When I came on my day watch at 11am, we were crossing the mouth of the Potomac and heading for the patch of the Chesapeake known as “the targets”. The Targets are a test range for the Navy F-18s out of the Patuxent Naval Air Station where they test airborne and shipboard weapon systems. As often happens, a Navy picket boat hailed us on the VHF to let us know that “the range was hot” and we need to alter course to go up along the east side of the bay until past the Patuxent River. We complied and could hear the roar of F-18s overhead. Just as we were abeam of the target pilings in the middle of the bay, we saw a big splash right near the targets. The F-18 that delivered it was nowhere to be seen. Scary.
At this point, our shredded mainsail was still up. We wanted to take it down well before we got into the close quarters of Annapolis harbor – just in case we needed to send someone (let’s call her Casey) up the mast in the bosun’s chair to do some cutting if the track was jammed. So we headed into the wind and happily were able to drop the sail without incident.
After 1,400 nautical miles over 9.5 days, we approached Annapolis on a Thursday evening around 9:30pm. The bay and Severn River were deserted due to a storm heading east from DC. There was a beautiful orange sky with a ton of cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning slowly approaching. It would be just my luck to arrive at an unattended marina and have to dock the new boat for only my third time in a thunderstorm. We snaked our way through Back Creek and found our assigned spot on the service dock at Bert Jabin’s Yacht Yard. And it never rained!
After a much anticipated full night’s sleep, the next day we Ubered to BWI airport and then to the customs office in Baltimore to take care of our immigration and customs paperwork. The check-in went smoothly, even with Frederic having a Canadian passport and me not having my official boat registration papers before we left BVI. Next time we will be able to accomplish all of that arrival reporting by phone/electronically.
With our administrivia done, the passage was officially complete. So we had lunch at the Baltimore inner harbor to celebrate our successful voyage, including my first pint of beer since leaving BVI!