Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Traveling up the Chesapeake ...

We departed Norfolk on September 26 under overcast skies and with a variable wind of around 10 knots.  Down the Elizabeth River and past the line of naval ships (what few are in Norfolk these days, with all our investment in the Middle East), we had a lovely sail as the wind built to 15 knots.  The water was flat and we glided along at over six knots.  But it was not to last, for as we turned east on the James River to enter the Chesapeake Bay itself, we turned right into the wind.  For an hour we beat into the wind, Pen actually having the fortitude to make us a couple of sandwiches for breakfast, and then we shifted to a northwest course and things smoothed out a little.  At 1400 we reached our destination, Claxton Creek, where we anchored and snub in in six feet of water, amidst a could of duck blinds and a ration of crab pots.

Claxton Creek reminded me of anchorages Pen and I stayed in on our way out of the Abacos last May.  Perhaps it was the threatening overcast skies, for on our way out of the Bahamas we had ten days of stormy weather and spent a lot of time waiting for windows in which to seek out another anchorage a little farther along.  We'd left Norfolk in just such a window and sought out Claxton Creek as a refuge to avoid marina fees and wait out a bit more weather.  But it was also the somewhat exposed nature of Claxton Creek, which allowed the 15-20 knot winds to blow right across us while not really disturbing the water, and it was also the fact that we both felt so comfortable at anchor, with a good spaghetti dinner (thanks to Patricia, who'd made it for the trip) and really meaningful conversation about life, the universe and everything ... 42.

At 0730 on the 27th we were up having coffee and spent the morning planning how we would work our way up to the Solomons on Maryland's western shore to meet friends Karl and Lucy Lichty and John McCartney and Gail Lapetina, who were joining them from the Encinal Yacht Club in Alameda for a week long cruise on the Chesapeake.  The rainy weather faded by noon, and we weighed anchor and had wonderful broad-reach and some wing-on-wing sailing up past Mobjack Bay to Horn Harbor, a nice little protected spot but one with awfully thin water.

Arriving in Horn Harbor, we took three tries to finally get anchored in six feet of water on the south side of Horn Creek between markers 12 and 14, discovering a twist in the anchor shackle after the second try that had caused the anchor to settle on its side and not dig in.  The spot we did anchor in was that recommended the Guide to Cruising the Chesapeake Bay (2008), and in finding our spot we discovered that the guide has a couple of big errors in it concerning Horn Harbor.  It reminded us that cruising guides are just that: guides.  Once dug in, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset, marred only briefly by our dropping red wine on the foredeck, and then we were in bed by 2030 after a good chicken curry stir fry.

September 28 at 0615 we awoke to a gorgeous sunrise and by 0645 were weighing anchor and working our way out of the Horn Harbor channel with the beginning of the ebb tide.  At one point the depth meter read 3'7", and by past experience we know we are going aground at 3'2", but we made it out, raised the main, and motor sailed out to Wolf Trap Lighthouse, one of the Chesapeake's several classic lights marking areas of shoal and danger.  We laid in a course of 354 degrees true for entrance to Ingram Bay and our next anchorage at Mill Creek.  With wind out of the southwest at 10 knots, we sailed on a broad reach and breakfasted on a Western omelet.  After three hours the wind shifted to out of the south, and we went to wing-on-wing and skmmed along at almost six knots.  Finally turning into Ingram Bay, the wind had picked up and we hit 7.2 knots and a school of porpoises swam along with us for about 10 minutes.  They had a great time playing with Alizee and gave us a distraction for the 25 knot winds.

Mill Creek is a wonderful spot, completely secluded, ten feet of water almost up to the shoreline and quite protected from high winds.  One still gets a breeze, but it's gentle and comfortable.  It was the perfect spot for us to ride out the predicted cold front moving across the Chesapeake that evening.  We passed another cruiser in a nice ketch and at 1330 anchored by ourselves one more bend up the creek.  I took advantage of the time provided by the early arrival to change the oil and filter on Alizee's engine, and as the sun waned and clouds began to move in we enjoyed feeding stale crackers to a couple of seagulls, had our evening cocktail, and cooked a pork stir fry.  The cold front finally blasted through with perhaps 30 minutes of rain, lightning and thunder and high winds, and then the stars came out and the temperature dropped into the 50s.  Out came the sweaters and the jeans and even socks. 

We awakened on the 29th to a beautiful, sunny, crisp morning.  We were underway at 0800 for what turned out to be a real adventure getting up to and into Ewell on Smith Island.  Out of Mill Creek there was barely a 10 knot breeze, and on the bay it remained gentle and very comfortable even as it built to 15 knots.  But by 1100, it was blowing 20 with 25 knot gusts, the seas were rolling up and we had 30 minutes to the entrance of the Ewell channel.  We had a struggle bringing down the sails just outside the channel in the high winds, and Pen got a rope burn on her fingers fighting with the genoa.  We would have left up the sails in gentler conditions, but all the information we had was that this was a pretty narrow and thin water channel passage.  Both frustrated, Pen hurting and me nervous, we start entering the channel.  I tried to keep to the center of the channel, but drifted to the starboard side (the wrong side, it turns out).  The almost breaking wind waves behind pushed us along, I put the engine on hard forward, and suddenly we were literally bumping across two and a half foot depths.  If it wasn't for the wind waves (literally surf), we would have been hard aground, but we got over this bad spot just after the entrance to the channel, the depths became seven to ten feet, and we found our way to the ferry dock.

Sad to say, I made a bad and elementary decision at this point.  We had put the lines out on the starboard to go right alongside the ferry dock.  Because the wind was behind us, I should have switched them to port and come past the dock and around to come along side into the wind.  But, oh no, the Captain just plowed on ahead.  Pen got off the boat with a midship line, but the wind was too strong, and my going into reverse to stop the boat being pushed by the wind just blew the stern out from the dock.  Pen could not pull in the boat with the midship line or get it tied off.  I couldn't throw a stern line to her, and the bow had become the fulcrum up against one of those ugly pilings so common on eastern seaboard docks.  Pen finally had to let all lines go, I gathered them in before the prop caught them, and I went out for a second try.  I don't know whether it was the first or second try, but on one of them I crunched the bow lights ... damn, I feel bad about that ... I hurt my Alizee.  Anyhow, on the second or third try, John, a fellow from the only other cruising boat in the harbor, a nice little two-foot draft, dagger-board Francis Herreshoff design gaff rigged two master, came over, and with his help we got tied up.

Afterwards, I walked a few steps over to the little marina where John had his boat and asked the marina operator, Steve Eades, if the ferries were running in the wind we were having.  "Well, ya can't stay there," he said.  "Do you have a tie-up for us?"  "Sure do, right here beside John's boat."  So, John helped us untie from the ferry dock and met us at the marina dock and tied us up.  Only problem is the slip depth declines from five or six feet at the entrance to only two and a half feet two-thirds of the way in, and that's at high tide.  So, the front of our keel grounded, and we can only leave at high tide.

All afternoon and through the night the winds have been 20 to 25 knots, finally subsiding this afternoon to about 14 knots.  We, along with John, have decided to stay another day and night, for the winds are predicted to lessen to 5 to 10 knots tomorrow and the seas flatten out considerably to one-foot.  The wind will also shift a bit to come out of the west, not northwest, which is the direction of our next destination, the Solomons.  Consequently, this morning we enjoyed a lovely sunrise and have spent a relaxing day aboard Alizee, helped a 55-foot motor yacht tie up at the far end of the ferry dock (he really had no choice), and caught up on more internet stuff. 

Tomorrow we'll leave at the 1130 high tide and try and find our way out the channel.  The locals have told me to hold very tight to the green markers on the way out and I should have five to six feet of water.  When we bumped our way in, I was closer to the red markers.  And with the wind down to 5-10 knots, we shouldn't have the surf problems at the channel entrance that we had coming in with the 25 knot gusts.  At least we've got power, internet, and nice shower facility, and little grocery down the street, and we can have soft-shelled crab, the best probably anywhere on the bay.

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