There and Back Again: A Delmarva Tale

(With apologies to Bilbo Baggins)

written by Ed Criscuolo

Early in October of 2007, Bill Bredlow, Tony Bartolone, and I set out to circumnavigate the Delmarva peninsula in Bill's 26' sloop "Greater Expectations." This was to be the second attempt at this trip, the first one last year having been thwarted by bad weather offshore, and a corroded exhaust fitting that started pumping water and exhaust into the boat.

But this year was going to be different! The plan was to leave from Bill's slip on Old Road Bay on the Patapasco, and spend the the first night anchored on the Bohemia river in the upper Chesapeake Bay. After that, we would transit the C&D canal and spend the second night at Delaware City on the Delaware Bay. This lesiurely pace was designed to leave us well-rested for the next leg which was to be a long one, down the Delaware Bay for a full day and then offshore without stopping untill we reached Norfolk another day and a half later. After stopping at Norfolk, the last leg up the Chesapeake Bay would take another day and a half, and would be done in one or two segments, depending on how tired we were.

But, as they say, the reality was somewhat different. We modified plans along the way and ended up not stopping at ANY of the planned locations!

Bill, Tony, and I all arrived at the boat on Monday afternoon to load our gear do some final provisioning. After that, we went out to dinner at Bill's suggestion after he warned us that we would have to put up with his cooking for the rest of the week!

Tuesday morning came bright and early, but with a light wind. This was going to turn out to be a recurring theme throughout the trip. Once we cleared Old Road Bay, we were able to set sail, but progress was slow. It finally was clear that, at our rate, we wouldn't make the Bohemia River 'till late night or early morning. So somewhere in the vicinity of Hart-Miller Island we started motor-sailing, after only an hour of sail time. Progress was rapid after that, and it became apparent that we would make the Bohemia with lots of daylight left.

So, we started tinkering with the plan.

Since we were already motor-sailing, we decided to skip the Bohemia and push on through the C&D Canal to Delaware City. We would get there after dark, but a day ahead of schedule. This would allow us to break up the long leg of the trip by stopping at Cape May at the mouth of the Delaware.

Again, things did not go as planned.

Once we entered the C&D, our speed over ground, as reported by Bill's fancy new Garmin chartplotter, began to drop, finally slowing to less than 2 knots! After digging through the chartplotter's menus, we found that it was reporting over 2 knots of current against us! So, with the last of the day's light, we pulled into Chesapeake City, barely a quarter of the way through the canal, dropped anchor in Engineers Cove, and fired up the grill for dinner. The current from the feeder creek was strong, the winds were light, and we spun slowly and crazily with the anchor rode and the boat never really agreeing on which way to go.

The tide predictions showed that we would have the current turning in our favor at 9:30 the next morning, so we planned a late start at 9:00 to take advantage of it.

Wednesday morning dawned damp and foggy. By the time we had finished breakfast, it had lifted some, but didn't really burn off until later in the day. On the way out, we made a stop at Summit Harbor to top off our diesel and water. The plan now was to skip Delaware City, and press on all the way to Cape May. We would get there after dark, but be able to rest up before the offshore leg.

Once on the Delaware Bay, the light, unfavorable winds continued, so we motor sailed once more.

The Delaware Bay is short and wide compared to the Chesapeake Bay. Once you get about halfway down it, you loose all sight of land and appear to be heading out to sea. But the charts and the GPS both assured us that Cape May was out there, so we pressed on through nightfall.

Finally, we started to pick out the lights and markers at Cape May. But something didn't seem quite right about them. They waxed and waned unpredictably, sometimes fading out completely. Eventually, all the lights faded away. It was then that we realised that we were heading into more fog.

Soon the fog closed in around us, so dense that we couldn't even see the top of the mast. Fortunately, we were in relatively shallow water, with the big shipping traffic all far away to the south-west of us, so we cautiously pressed on, counting on the GPS to get us close enough to the Cape May Canal entrance markers to find them.

We arrived at the Cape May Canal around 1:30 at night. The GPS led us right to the entrance markers, and the brightly lit ferry terminal made everything visible. But once past the ferry terminal, the real challenge began. There were almost no lights of any kind along the canal, leaving the shores often not visible through the fog. The navigable part of the canal is narrow, only averaging about 80 feet wide. We cautiously inched on barely above helm speed, with Tony and Bill on lookout on the bow, and me at the helm relying solely on the GPS chartplotter to keep the boat in the center of the channel. It was like trying to play one of the "horizontal scrolling" type of video games! Except I couldn't push "reset" if I crashed into the sides! The stress was incredible!

Fortunately, the GPS's WAAS enhanced accuracy, and the accuracy of the charts, was up to the task. One hour, two bridges, and a powerboat full of drunken fishermen later, we arrived safely at Cape May Harbor without a single incident, and tied up at Utsch's marina. We were both elated and exhausted, and slept like the dead.

Thursday morning dawned still foggy, though not quite so dense as the night before. The weather report was going on the TV in the marina store and claimed that there was a "fog advisory" for large parts of Maryland and Delaware, and would burn off in the afternoon.

Never believe the weather forcast. The fog was to be with us for a while more.

On the way to Cape May, we had noticed that one of the boat's batteries was not charging up much past 11 volts. This probably indicated a shorted cell, so Bill bought a new battery and we replaced it. In the process, we also noticed that the engine belt was loose and probably slipping on the alternator, contributing to the poor charging of the batteries. There was no more range left on the tension adjustment for the belt, so we purchased a new slightly smaller belt and replaced the old one. This would later turn out to cause far more trouble than it was worth.

After showering and topping off our ice and fuel, we headed for the channel out into the Atlantic around 11:00. We would be at sea for the next 30 hours.

There was a fair amount of traffic both into and out of the stone breakwater jetties. The boat wakes combined with their reflections off the jetties and the swells from the open Atlantic to produce choppy and confused seas. Then, just before we reached the end of the jetties, we took a particularly large boat wake. Seconds later, the engine died! We knew instantly what had happened. The large wake had stired up or jarred loose an air bubble in the fuel, which was sucked into the engine's fuel feed. If it was small, the engine could pass it, but if it was too large, we would never get the engine started without bleeding the whole fuel system! With the stone jetties uncomfortably close, we crossed our fingers and pressed the starter. The engine coughed to life, and then immediately died again! Once, twice, three times we tried, each time the engine running a litle longer than before. Finally, the engine started and stayed on. Breathing a sigh of releif, we headed out of the channel and offshore into the fog.

Over the course of the day, the visibility varied from 1/4 mile to about 2 miles, but the fog never lifted. The wind died completely, leaving the sea glassy between the 3 foot swells. We had set our course to run about five miles offshore. Amazingly, we never lost cell phone coverage. Even my crappy AT&T service had 2 to 3 bars the whole time! But Bill and Tony's broadband service on their laptops dropped to an unusable rate. (We tried to download a movie, but it informed us that it would take 31 days to complete!)

The day passed uneventfully. The winds returned favorable but light, necessitating motor-sailing. The most exciting thing we saw was a floating orange laundry basket. Towards evening, we decided to use a double overlapping watch, with changes every two hours. Tony grabbed some sleep and Bill and I took the first watch.

About the time of the next watch change, we were almost down to Ocean City MD, but still five miles offshore. Tony came on, Bill went off, and we settled in for the next two hours. On the VHF we heard the Indian Inlet station caution boaters that conditions of "restricted visibility" existed. I idly remarked to Tony that we were about to pass the marker that identified the inlet at Ocean City, and we should watch for traffic. We both laughed at the thought that any fisherman would be crazy enough to head offshore in a fog in the middle of the night.

Not five minutes later, with no warning, the lights of an 80 ft commercial fishing boat with huge side booms appeared out of the fog only a few boat lengths away! Initially, it appeared that we would safely cross in front of his bow, so we throttled up the engine to be sure. But he must have decided at the same time to cross in front of us, and changed course. Suddenly, it was no longer clear who would cross whom! With no more time to decide, Tony grabbed the tiller, disengaged the autopilot, and spun the boat 180 degress while the fishing boat cruised past. Poor Bill had no sooner gotten settled down to sleep when all the commotion and noise brought him quickly up the companionway. But by then it was all over. The fishing boat disappeared into the fog as rapidly as it had appeared, leaving us stunned and slightly shaken.

The next two hours passed uneventfully, although our nerves were on edge with the strain of watching for anything. Faling asleep was NOT an issue! At midnite I went off watch and Bill came on.

Two hours later I was back on watch and the fog had lifted enough to see stars. The lights of Assateague Island and NASA's Wallops Island facility were visible on the horizon. I reflected on how this would be an excellent place to watch a night launch out of Wallops. The rest of the night passed with no further excitement. It was amazing how much the the strain went down once you could see to the horizon.

Dawn on Friday brought in lightly overcast skies, with just enough warmth getting through to be comfortable. It made a plesant change from the wet continuous drizzle of the fog. Winds continued favorable but light and we continued motor-sailing. Cell coverage was still good, so I made a few calls to home and work. Around midday, we saw a small shark, slowly crusing along parallel to us at the surface. Shortly afterwards, we saw two dolphins briefly, Disapointingly, they did not come over to the boat to swim with us as dolphins often do.

Later in the day, we started seeing a steady stream of short pieces of treated wood in the water, and started manuvering the boat to avoid them. Tony thought they looked like blocking material from some freighter, used to block up cargo. This seemed reasonable, as we were nearing the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay where a lot of shipping traffic converged.

Around 3:00 we made our first turn towards the Bay. This brought the wind over our starboard, so we set sails and shut down the engine to allow Bill to check the oil and the new belt. It had been making a lot of noise, but we attributited that to the fact that it was a toothed belt instead of a smooth v-belt like the other one. We managed to get in another half an hour of sailing in but were only doing about three knots.

Parts of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel were now in view, and soon we had to restart the engine and line up to cross over the northernmost tunnel segment. Big ship traffic was coming both in and out, and we had to time our crossing carefully.

Once past the bridge-tunnel, we got out the charts and started tinkering with the plan again. Going to Norfolk would entail going out of our way south, and back-tracking the next day. And besides that, we thought it would be more fun to tie up at some interesting out-of-the-way place than to tie up at a pier in the middle of a large city downtown. Using the chartplotter's database of marinas, we found several on the Back River just north of Hampton. We put in several calls to find out if they had transient slips, but got either answering machines, an outright no, or a promise to call back with the answer. While waiting, we noticed that all of them were situated far in on the Back River, and would require negotiating the narrow and unlit channel after sunset. Zooming in with the chartplotter, I discovered a small inlet directly off of the bay called "Salt Ponds". It was midway between Back River and Fort Monroe, and paralleled the bay shore, with a short 90 degree entrance. It showed two marinas, and we could reach them before dark. Bill called the first one (Kenthall Landings), talked for a few minutes, hung up and said "Well, that's where we're going, although I don't know what we're getting into. They're only charging $1.25 a foot." With such a low price, we all had visions of decaying docks, swamp flies and mosquitos!

A few hours later, as we approached the Salt Ponds inlet, we were surprised to see a row of large mansions on the bay side of the peninsulia between the inlet and the bay. But the entrance channel to their north was marked by a few ramshakle day marks, and led into a reedy salt marsh. As we entered and turned the corner, we discovered a huge marina on our right filled with large sailboats! A second large marina further down on the left appeared to cater to powerboats. The sailboat marina was Kenthall Landings, and it is a truely amazing place. It has about twenty piers, interconnected by a long raised walkway. It's so big, they use golf carts to get around on it! The entire structure is built out over the salt marsh, with a pair of 100 yard raised walkways that lead out to it from the shore. The walkways are secured with locked gates, and onshore is a gated community with half million dollar townhouses! The staff was very friendly and helpful, showing us around the facility and showing us how to access the bathouse (with showers AND a sauna!). All this for only $37 a night! This place is a real gem for anyone who cruises the southern Bay!

Once we setled into our slip, we fired up the grill and Bill cooked us some burgers.

At this point, we were planning a crew change. Tony needed to get home before Sunday, so Tom Pearson drove down to join us for the last leg up the Chesapeake, and Tony drove Tom's car back. After Tony left, we settled in for a good night's sleep.

Saturday morning came clear and dry. There was no morning dew on the boat for the first time on the trip. This didn't last, as a short morning rain passed through quickly, just long enough to wet everything. After breakfast, we topped up on ice and fuel, and set out on our last leg of the voyage.

Winds started out out of the NNE, but swung around to the SSE over the course of the day. Didn't matter as they still stayed light, and we continued to have to motor-sail. We set a course up the western side of the Chesapeake, trying to stay out of the shipping channel as much as possible. Although the channel is wide in the southern part of the Bay, the freighters tend to stick to the eastern edge, with only the tugs and their barges venturing west. We passed a lot of tugs during the day, some towing their loads, others pushing.

As nightfall approached, captain Bill decreed that the night's watches would use a four hour cycle instead of two hours. Bill had napped during the afternoon and was well-rested, so he and I took the first shift.

There was no moon, and the sky was the clearest it had been on the entire trip. There were countless stars in the sky and the Milky Way shone brilliantly. We passed many tugs coming the other way in the dark. Often we had to alter our course to insure giving them a wide berth. One tug, howerer, gave us trouble. Its red and green nav lights were not aligned properly, so that both were visible over a wide angle. It made it impossible to determine at a distance, whether he was aimed at us or not. So we had to wait until he got closer to make a decision based on his bearing change. When we finally decided what his course was, we made a large adjustement to ours to both insure a wide separation and to signal our intention. As we drew almost abreast of the tug, he suddenly shone a billion candlepower spotlight on us! This instantly destroyed our night vision and momemtarily terrified us, as it produced the illusion that he was fifty feet away and bearing down on us! The sensation was exactly like that produced by the headlight of an oncoming train! Nothing else was visible! Bill yanked the tiller away from the autopilot and swerved the boat 90 degrees away from the light. A few seconds later, apparently satisfied whth the chaos he had caused, the tug extinguished the spotlight and continued on his way, leaving us upset and angry at the tug captain's thoughtless action.

The rest of the shift was uneventful, and we crossed the mouth of the Potomac River without incident. I woke Tom at midnite to take my place.

Shortly later, as they were approaching the Patuxent River, Tom started noticing a "dark area" out in front of us. It wasn't until we were almost right on top of it that it could be resolved into two large, unlighted, pyramid-shaped objects lying directly in our path! They quickly altered course to go around them. Tom believes they are some sort of "targets" used by the nearby Patuxent Naval Air Station.

The rest of the evening passed without further incident. At 8:00am, Bill got up and offered to make us coffee and pancakes. Seconds later the engine emitted two loud clunks, and began a grinding, buzzing shriek! We quickly killed it and pulled off the cover to see what the problem was. What we found surprised us. The lower pivot bolt on the alternator had come completely out, allowing the alternator to fall downward! The noise we heard was caused by the alternator's cooling fins grinding against a part of the engine block! Two of them had even broken off!

As near as we could figure, the nut had somehow backed off, probably as a result of our belt-change in Cape May. Once free, the bolt walked forward until it came out of the bracket.

Bill was prepared. He pulled out his toolkit and spares stores, and came up with a replacement nut and a lockwasher. Soon the alternator was mounted back, and I watched him tighten the nut and lockwasher with plenty of torque. Engine restarted and problem solved.

Or so we thought.

This was Sunday, the last day of our voyage. It was clear and hot, the hottest day of our trip. Every so often, one of us would say "October!", and shake his head in amazement. We rigged towels for shade, and tried to drink lots of fluids and stay hydrated. The tugs had evaporated with the dawn, and there were an increasing number of pleasure boats about.

By the time we reached the area of Thomas Point Light, the Bay's surface was as tortured as the ocean entrance to Cape May Harbor, stired to a tempest by al the powerboat wakes. The pitching and rolling was most unplesant compared to the gentle surges of the offshore swell.

By Annapolis, several sailboat regattas were in progress, and we tried to stay out of their way.

The chartplotter indicated that we would be back in Old Road Bay by 5:30, and this proved to be the case.

As we entered the narrow channel leading to Bill's marina, we furled the jib and flaked and tied the main.

Moments later, the engine emitted a loud clunk and began the grinding, buzzing shriek again! The bolt had fallen out once more! Bill's good mood instantly evaporated, as he pulled the cover once more while Tom and I got the jib unfurled to allow us to maintain SOME control. At this point, we had NO idea why the nut kept coming off. Bill was muttering "I will NOT end this trip with a tow!" and trying to find another replacement nut. As he scrounged we were running out of channel, and the turn into the marina would have put the wind (actually more of a faint breeze) right on the nose. With only yards left to the turn, Bill pulled it off again, finding a nut, getting it installed, and restarting the engine in time.

Finally, we were back at the dock where we had started, six days later. We were home.