We left Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey on Monday the 8th with a forecast calling for winds gusting into the high teens but dropping off later in the afternoon, and waves of about four feet decreasing with the wind. Based on the forecast we decided to leave with a reef in the main and switch to the 85 jib. It was the only thing that went right that day.
Leaving the relative protection of the anchorage the winds were gusting into the low 20’s and we were very glad that we were using the small jib. We had read that it could be rough rounding the point of Sandy Hook but then things typically smoothed out, so we were prepared for it tp be sporty. What we weren’t prepared for, however, was regular 6-8 foot waves on the bow. Although we were wearing rain pants and our lighter foul weather jackets, we hadn’t thought to put on our rubber boots. Within minutes we were soaked from head to toe.
Pegu Club climbed up the waves and down the other side, but there were a few times she dropped off of the edge of the wave, plunging through the air before slamming down on the water with a thud. I was definitely scared, but turning around wasn’t an option. The waves were so close together we were concerned we might broach. We had no choice but to keep plowing through.
Finally rounding the point we were able to turn onto our course so that the waves were no longer directly on our bow. Other than that, the waves were not smoothing out as we had previously read. We were in a washing machine of water, motor sailing with the main reefed and the jib down (we had dropped it when we started working our way around Sandy Hook knowing we’d be dead into the wind for a while). I was at the helm reading the waves as best as I could, but Jeff quickly demonstrated a natural talent for knowing exactly which way and when we should steer into the waves to avoid the worst of it. For about an hour I steered with Jeff saying every few minutes, “Go to the port, more to port, more, o.k.” Pegu Club would wash over the wave and then I would steer her back onto our course again.
The waves began to get a tiny bit better (they were closer to five feet vs. the six plus we had been experiencing), so I decided to go down below to get us some Cliff Bars. That proved to be a mistake. Coming back into the cockpit I was now fighting nausea. I really didn’t want to throw up because I had read that people experience seasickness differently. Sometimes throwing up wouldn’t help, and it would instead set off a cycle of getting worse and worse. We had much too far to go for Jeff to do this on his own, so I fought the good fight. Eventually, however, I had to feed the fish. “Go to the low side!” Jeff said. I threw up harder than I have in years. I even threw up out of my damn nose because the boat dropped while I was throwing up. Ack! Fortunately, however, I felt MUCH better after that and I was ready to take the helm again.
The forecasted wind speed decrease wasn’t happening. We were still experiencing 15-18 knots which in and of itself was fine, but it wasn’t giving the waves a chance to calm down. With no viable bailout points along the New Jersey coast until Atlantic City (which we wouldn’t reach until 3:00 a.m., and there was no way we were navigating the inlet in the dark), we had no choice but to go all the way to Cape May.
We had stupidly not put our dinghy on the foredeck and we didn’t want to let it out far enough to use Bob because we were concerned the dinghy would flip. This meant we had to hand steer the entire trip. The hours passed, the waves kept churning, the wind wouldn’t drop, and as sunset approached we knew our first time ever sailing at night was going to be pitch black with no moon, and seemingly endless.
Trading off steering every hour with the other person catnapping in the cockpit, the hours dragged by. Every time I had to pee it was a ten minute ordeal to take off all of my layers in the dark (by now I was wearing my bibs over my rain pants, my cold weather jacket over my lighter jacket, and boots). Going down below was out of the question (not to mention it was a disaster down there with things strewn about) so the cockpit drain it was, but I honestly didn’t care. It was so rough that I ended up repeatedly peeing all over my leg but again, I didn’t care. No one talks about these things when describing a long passage, but the fact of the matter was we were both covered in salt and I stank of sweat, seawater, vomit, and pee. I know, I know, sailing is so pleasant and romantic, isn’t it?
As the night went on the wind would drop down to 12 or 13 knots and we thought that maybe we were finally getting a break, and then it would go back up to 18 knots. We couldn’t see anything except for lights off of the New Jersey coast. Each of us silently hoped that there wasn’t a log or something similar in front of us that we were going to run into, and then we would push the thought out of our heads. By now we knew that Pegu Club was doing fine, but we were tense nevertheless. I discovered the next day that my jaw was sore, presumably from clenching it all night.
About the only thing that went right (besides the fact that we didn’t die, Pegu Club didn’t sink, and our engine didn’t skip a beat) was that our AIS receiver was fantastic, letting us avoid a few fishing boats throughout the night. We’ve already decided that we are going to upgrade to a transponder so that the boats can also see us.
Finally, finally, at 6:00 a.m. the sky started to lighten ever so slightly. The wind had actually dropped a bit around 4:00 a.m. and the seas had also eased up to 2-3 feet, but being able to see again was fantastic. By 8:00 a.m., a mere 21 hours and 123 nautical miles after we had left Atlantic Highlands, we were going through the Cape May inlet. Fortunately the current was running in so the waves were with us, and Pegu surfed at 10+ knots until we got past the jetties. We had made it, and we never wanted to do it again!
We napped for three hours and then cleaned up Pegu Club as best as we could. It was a warm, sunny day so we also cleaned ourselves up with our solar shower. It felt great! We had wanted to spend a day or two exploring Cape May, but with Hurricane Michael heading our way we thought we should get into the Chesapeake so that we would have some better protection. Cape May was going to have to wait for another time.
The next morning, Wednesday the 10th, we raised the anchor at sunrise so that we could get through Delaware Bay. Fortunately the timing of the current was o.k. with it turning in our favor a few hours before sunrise, so we thought that with a little luck we might make it to Chesapeake City. There was virtually no wind which was a good thing, because the Delaware Bay can get very snotty with a wind against the current. After the passage from Atlantic Highlands to Cape May, we didn’t want any excitement. Alas, it was not to be.
Things were going fine with the exception of dealing with a swarm of thousands of midges for several hours, but in the early afternoon it was clear that making it to Chesapeake City before dark was unlikely. There were only a few options for anchoring on Delaware Bay, so we picked Reedy Island.
We turned out of the channel and as we approached I saw some unfamiliar lines on the chart plotter. They kind of looked like gas pipelines, but not exactly. I was at the helm and as I got closer to the lines a little voice in my head said I should turn around, but I foolishly ignored it. I did decrease the throttle a bit, but no matter. As Pegu Club’s bow crossed the first line on the chart plotter there was a horrific sound and we came to a dead halt, our bodies jerking forward slightly. “Holy shit!” I said, followed immediately by “Oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god!” We had run aground, hard.
Honestly, my mind was frozen. I couldn’t immediately process what had just happened, and I was sure that I was about to start seeing water pouring in down below. Jeff hollered, “Put it in reverse!” so I did, and then turned us around in the opposite direction of those damn two lines on the chart.
Not entirely sure yet that we weren’t taking on water, I jumped on the VHF and called for TowBoat US saying that we had just run aground. There was silence for a few moments, and then the Coast Guard came on the radio. They asked for our coordinates and also if there were any injuries or if we were taking on water. By now Jeff had checked the bilge and it didn’t have any additional water than we had started out with, so they said to let them know if anything changed. I thought, “Wait a minute? You’re leaving me? Don’t leave me!” but intellectually I knew that it was because we weren’t in danger at that moment. I then heard someone on the radio let the Coast Guard know that they were close by to help if needed.
By this point we were motoring north again and I had remembered that there was a marina in Delaware City. I tried to call them on the radio but the reception wasn’t clear, so I asked Jeff to look up their info and let them know we were coming and needed to be hauled. A few minutes later a Delaware Natural Resources police boat came up to us. We had obviously been heard on the radio.
The Corporal gathered information from us, we told him we were heading towards Delaware City Marina, and he escorted us virtually the whole way. He was wonderful, checking in repeatedly, letting us know we were still on our waterline, and basically holding our hands. I steered up the Bay, crying, berating myself, and apologizing repeatedly to Jeff who couldn’t have been more supportive about the whole thing. Finally, finally, we arrived at the dock at the marina and turned the engine off.
A new Delaware Natural Resources officer met us at the dock to start getting information (the Corporal had to get fuel for his boat and then was coming back). It turns out I had steered us directly into an underwater dike that extends south of Reedy Island for over three miles. While it was more obvious on the paper chart, it was not at all clear on the chart plotter where I had zoomed in. The dike has markers on either side of it, but we had gone in right where the markers weren’t easily visible. Neither Jeff or I recalled seeing any with the exception of a day marker that we thought marked the end of the island. Nope. It was actually on the damn dike.
I told the officer how stupid I felt and he said that a Hatteras 58 foot motor yacht with six people on board had sunk in that area in June, and a Nordhavn 47 sank there two years ago. Jeff came back from checking in at the marina and said that the manager told him that six boats had sunk in that same area this summer alone. Clearly we had gotten very lucky.
After the officers had all of the information they needed, they cut me some slack and only gave me a warning ticket. They were both very nice, I understood exactly why they had to do it, and I was grateful that we didn’t have a fine on top of what was likely going to be a hefty repair bill.
After they left I still felt awful, even knowing that I was far from the first one to hit the damn dike. It wasn’t until I posted on the Women Who Sail Facebook page that I started feeling slightly better. I had literally over 200 comments from women who told me about their similar experiences and by the time we went to bed I was only berating myself occasionally instead of every ninety seconds.
The next morning Pegu Club was hauled out and we held our breath as she rose out of the water. We both were sure she would have a fist-sized hole in her keel. As she was being lifted a guy in a truck pulled up and called out the window, “Another one bites the dust! I’d sue the Army Corps of Engineers if I were you.” The yard manager replied, “No you wouldn’t! You’ve hit the same thing yourself!” We had a good laugh over that. Clearly the word had gotten out that the dike had claimed another victim.
Shockingly, the damage wasn’t nearly as bad as we had feared. Those Bristols are tough as nails. Pegu Club’s keel had obviously been crunched, but it was nothing that a few layers of fiberglass and some epoxy wouldn’t be able to take care of. At that point we both started feeling considerably better. It was a repair we could have made ourselves if we had the tools, but instead we got an estimate from the marina and agreed that they would do the work.
Just a flesh wound.
Since the Delaware Fire Marshal prohibits sleeping on boats that are on the hard, the marina had a camper that we could sleep in for $35/night, and they estimated we would be back in the water by Saturday afternoon. Looks like we were going to be spending a few days in Delaware City!