We left Newport on Wednesday and enjoyed a great mostly downwind sail to Stonington. The winds were honking at close to 20 knots, but since it was behind the beam we were able to enjoy the benefit of it without any of the angst. Bob the windvane steered like a champ, although we are still fine tuning our technique so that we won’t vary from our set course quite so much. Once we were settled in at Dodson’s (we decided to treat ourselves and enjoy unlimited hot water showers) we realized that we hadn’t tacked once the whole way. It was great!
On Thursday we headed from Stonington to Old Saybrook, motoring our way up the Connecticut River for the first time. We had picked North Cove as our destination because we needed to do a few boat chores the next day and it offered good protection for the predicted high winds that were coming.
North Cove has been designated as a Harbor of Refuge, and the Army Corps of Engineers prohibits charging transients to use empty moorings. Although the channel and cove had silted in considerably over the past few years, it was dredged this past winter and now has plenty of depth. Given that it’s past mid-September we easily found a mooring and settled in for a few days with a Saturday departure planned to Port Jefferson.
Friday night was a small craft advisory and the winds were howling. At one point Jeff and I were both awake and said that we weren’t leaving if it was going to continue like that. Eventually they calmed down though, so after checking the forecast and seeing 15 knots predicted with choppy waves, both decreasing throughout the day, we decided to go. That was mistake number one. We raised the mainsail while we were on the mooring and didn’t put a reef in, based on the forecast and how it felt in the cove. That was mistake number two. Cue the ominous music.
As we left the Connecticut River and entered Long Island Sound we noted that it was windy but not too bad, and the waves weren’t as bad as we thought they would be. Shortly thereafter all hell was breaking loose by our standards. The wind had climbed to a steady 18-20 knots, the waves were making Long Island Sound a washing machine, and we needed to reef. We hadn’t installed our jacklines so I couldn’t tether in (mistake number three) so Jeff was VERY nervous about my going forward. It had to be done though, so I stayed low, took my time, and kept making eye contact and talking to him from the mast while he helmed like a champ.
Once I was back in the cockpit it was clear that reefing had helped smooth the ride out a bit, and I debated going forward to raise the jib to see if it might assist in punching through the waves. Jeff was adamant about my not doing that, however, and it’s not like we were in danger so I stayed put.
The wind kept rising and the waves were getting worse. We were in the worst conditions we had ever been in, with the wind blowing steadily over 20 knots, gusting to 30. I think my eyes bugged out when I saw the wind instrument hit 30 knots for the first time.
It was at that point that I told Jeff that I was a little scared, and he said he was too. I was actually starting to get a bit nauseous but then I realized that it was simply nerves, not seasickness. Jeff has a movie quote he likes, “Fear is the mind killer”, so I took some deep breaths and reminded myself that Pegu Club was doing great and could handle much more than this. Maybe her crew couldn’t, but she could!
My pep talk to myself cured my nausea and cleared my head. It was time to look at our options. Clearly the forecast had been way off, and with no way of knowing when it would get better (or god forbid, worse) we decided, to quote Monty Python’s Holy Grail, that we needed to “Run away!!!”
Turning around would get the wind and waves behind our beam, making things much more comfortable. Now where to run?
We initially started heading back towards Old Saybrook but the wind had shifted a bit, making it less comfortable than it could be. I suggested to Jeff that we check the current for Plum Gut, and if it was o.k. we should duck into Gardiner’s Bay and head for Coecles Harbor. We had never been to Coecles before, but we knew it was well protected, and heading that way would put us on a deep reach with the waves behind us – a much better situation. What if Plum Gut wouldn’t work? Well, we would keep heading towards Fishers Island and go right back to Stonington if we had to!
Luck was finally on our side with the current table showing that, while Plum Gut would be almost at max current, it would be going in our direction along with the wind. If it had been wind against current, we most definitely would have had to go with a different option. We spent the next hour heading towards Plum Gut and triple checking to make sure that we were assessing the current and wind correctly.
Pegu Club flew through Plum Gut. I watched our speed over ground increase, calling it out to Jeff. “8.6! 8.7! 8.8! Come on 9! 9!!!” It was amazing, and good practice for when we go through the East River (assuming we ever get there). I said to Jeff as we passed through that you know it’s a washing machine in the Sound when Plum Gut at max current is a smoother ride.
Things were much better inside Gardiner’s Bay and we made our way to Coecles Harbor in Shelter Island. The channel is narrow and shallow and may have made me more nervous than being out in the Sound! Of course, it’s nothing that a few months in the Bahamas won’t be able to cure (again, assuming we ever get there).
We dropped the anchor and proceeded to settle our minds. I felt a bit discouraged, wondering how the heck we were ever going to be able to make it to the Bahamas if we can’t even make it to Port Jefferson, and I REALLY wished that I could call my dad. Instead I called my Uncle Ken and posted on the Women Who Sail Facebook page, and was feeling much better as the afternoon went on.
It took a few hours and listening to some good feedback, but I eventually realized that what happened was far from a failure. We kept our heads, assessed the situation, made a Plan A, B, and C on the fly, and got ourselves somewhere safe without injury to the boat or ourselves. And on top of it all, we have raised the “At least it’s not as bad as that time when….” threshold a bit higher. We’ve also learned that we should probably wait 12 hours after a small craft advisory is lifted so the water can settle down, and we should read the synopsis in the NOAA marine forecast – not just check the wind and waves.
Last night Jeff and I were talking about how when we first started sailing we would get a bit nervous when the winds would go above 10 knots. Then we started getting comfortable at 12 knots. Last summer’s windy vacation got us to 15 knots. Something tells me by the time we get back next summer we’ll be comfortable at 20 knots. Too bad there’s no way to get comfortable without actually going through it!
What’s next? We could have motored to Port Jefferson today but we really prefer to sail when we can. Thursday looks like our next best opportunity so we’ll hang out in this beautiful harbor until then. Fingers crossed we have better luck this next time!