Two days on the Bay

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Finding the calm after the storm

I had planned a five-day cruise up the Chesapeake from the York River recently. Instead, I only got two nights. And they were two very, very different nights.

This Horn Harbor sunset is a contrast to the stormy first night passage of the channel.

My cruise started with a midafternoon departure from the Seaford (Va.) Yacht Club. The weather conditions seemed nearly perfect with a steady southwesterly at 15 to 20 mph. NOAA reported only a "slight" chance of thunderstorms. The first two hours to New Point Comfort were a fast reach and run, and it looked like I could anchor for the night in Horn Harbor by 6:30 p.m. at the latest. It was not to be so easy.

Unexpected storm

By the end of the second hour, as I approached New Point Comfort headland, I found myself watching a growing mass of dark gray clouds to the west over Mobjack Bay. I figured with the steady southwesterly flow that this mass would be well past the Horn Harbor area by the time I anchored. Wrong assumption.

As I approached the long channel entrance to Horn Harbor, the picture along the western horizon was lit up like my recent July 4 evening at Back River: the sky was alive with "fireworks" of lightning bolts, striking down over Mathews County with ever-increasing frequency. It seemed like all of the dark clouds in the whole region had conspired this night to form the perfect storm and what I thought would move on ahead of me was now stalled right in front of me and turning in my direction.

As I entered the narrow Horn Harbor Channel, I got the first northwesterly gusts right on the nose. The blasts on the edge of the storm cells were like wind sheer, some as high as 35 mph, immediately forcing the water into breaking waves even in the lee of the land. Because the wind so easily caught the bow and turned the boat, I threw the throttle forward to keep my heading and make way, at no more than 3 knots. This channel is a good three miles long and, after 20 minutes, I was only past the first five channel marks.

Engine trouble

Just about that time, I heard a sound I had never heard before cutting through the roar of the wind. At first it sounded like 'chirping,' but then it become a steadier, staccato buzz. Looking down at the instrument panel, I saw the source of the sound: the bright-red oil pressure warning light. I was losing oil pressure. I found myself contemplating running forward to unhook the anchor so I could lower it quickly if the motor stopped. But I wisely chose not to leave the helm, knowing the autopilot could not handle compensating for the sudden shift in the force of the wind.

Instead, I immediately reduced the rpms of the diesel and, much to my surprise, the warning light turned off. Maybe there was still hope for making my anchorage.

Anchorage achieved

I was not quite making 2 knots at this point, almost too little to maintain headway. I made a turn to starboard in the channel and, amazingly, the angle of the wind also veered more northerly and abated a bit. That was all to the good for running on these low rpms.

Now the rains came in a series of torrential downpours. For the next half hour, I got wetter and wetter, but I was holding my line in the channel. As I approached my anchorage, the sun broke through the clouds in the west right in the midst of the downpour.

The couds I thought would move on ahead of me were now turning in my direction.

A little later, there was a rainbow in the east, but the thunder and lightning continued, now on the eastern horizon. During the next hour at my anchorage, I spent most of my time drying off and cleaning up and, at last, the heavens were quiet. Even though I'd missed supper I was too exhausted for more than a quick cup of soup and an early 9 p.m. bedtime.

Diesel diagnosis

The next morning was a wonderful reprieve, with beautiful weather for sailing in steady southwesterlies. I enjoyed a fast run and reach on a single tack from Wolf Trap, on past Stingray Point and right up to the Deltaville channel mark on the south bank of the Rappahannock River.

My objective was to get the diesel checked out at the marina where I had bought Caper II more than 10 years ago. The engine continued to function that morning, but I kept the throttle down to around 1,200 rpms just to play it safe. At the marina, the Yanmar diesel technician spent the better part of an hour examining the engine without being able the make a definitive diagnosis. The technician concluded, "It's probably not a serious problem. Bring the boat back tomorrow and we'll find a solution."

Corrotoman River

Since there appeared to be little risk in running the diesel a few more hours, that afternoon I continued my cruise up the Rappahannock River. What a blessing the next 24 hours was as I completed a round-trip to the Western Branch of the Corrotoman River, about 10 nautical miles west of Deltaville on the north side on the Rappahannock. And during this time, the diesel continued to operate smoothly, even at somewhat greater rpms (1,800).

Both going and coming, the southwesterlies held nicely in the 15-20 mph range. I had great reaches up and back, often hitting a steady 6-plus knots. Yet, the big surprise was the pristine anchorage I found on the upper reaches of the Corrotoman's western branch (pronounced cor-ROT-o-man, or car-ro-TOE-man in local parlance). By 5:30 p.m. I was anchored about a mile past "G-9" in a beautiful cove with a crescent beach, behind a small point of land. I was soon in the water for a swim, followed by a warm shower and then dressed with fresh clothes for the evening. I cannot imagine a more pristine and tranquil anchorage. Lounging comfortably on cushions on the foredeck with my favorite drink in hand, I was enjoying "Carmina Burana" playing from twin MP3 stereo speakers on the deck while reading, as a cool evening breeze wafted over me. Bird calls echoed about with kingfishers plunging into the placid water and fast-moving ripples of water reflected schools of small fry being pursued by larger fish under the surface. The lack of boat traffic four miles upriver maintained a delightful quietness, yet there was always something happening in the air or the water that spoke of teeming life.

That night was as clear and silent as you'll ever find, with the heavens ablaze with starry light. What a blessed evening and how decidedly different from the previous night.

Bridge passage

There was an added bonus to this part of my shortened cruise: the excitement of going under the Rappahannock River Bridge, an almost two-mile-long iron structure that soars some 360 feet above the river. It was a thrill passing under the higher center span (125-foot-high clearance) and getting some good photographs from the bottom side. But it was even more fun coming back down the river the next morning and catching up to another sailboat that was also going under the bridge at about the same time. I have the pictures to show I was first under that central span.

I dropped Caper II off for repairs on the way back through and didn't pick her up until the next week. The repair to the diesel was not heavy duty work. The main source of the leak was an "O" ring gasket on the valve cover - a $1.78 item. With no more oil leaks, Caper II is ready to take on the full midsummer cruise up the Bay - hopefully with more good nights.

This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters Section of the April 2010 issue.