Heading to Norfolk -- Cause It's 64 There and Other Flotsam and Jetsum
Leaving New York

The Three Most Important Things I learned During My First Week as a Cruiser

Greetings -- not from the Chesapeake, but from Sandy Hook, New Jersey.  We haven't made it south yet, but are having fun and learning a lot. Yesterday marked one week truly "at sea". Nearly 7 days when EW and I didn't touch land, or talk face-to-face with other people. We've not had the urge to murder each other and in fact, are having fun together and handling the challenges very well.  And we've had a couple of challenges.

So, what did I learn this week? A lot.

Lesson 1: It's better for me to take the first night watch. When we left Portland, EW took the first watch and I was supposed to sleep at three in the afternoon. No dice. I take the 3 to 6 watch because EW can fall asleep whenever he has the opportunity. (Reading, watching TV, at the ballet ... in fact we have a deal, I don't ask him to attend a dance performance and he won't fall asleep at it.)  Anyway, We've had three overnights at sea (two in a row) and take 3 hour watches. I've handled it fine. The first night down to Cape Cod was an easy start and that made me more confident when we set out for the three-day overnight. (You'll note that we didn't complete the three-day overnight. More about that later.)

We'd stayed in Cuttyhunk because the winds were 30-35 knots on bow and we left Cuttyhunk with the winds at 20-25 knots on the bow and seas that were still rough and confused.I took the first watch from 3 to 6 as we continued to slog under power into the waves and wind, with "Pine Top" our diesel engine doing all the hard work. "Casey" our autopilot handled the wheel and I checked for boats, confirmed our course, listened for boat noises and to the radio, and generally made sure things were all right and we were on track. I wasn't scared. Really. But I wasn't relaxed. The seas were advertised as being 3 to 5 feet in height. The "fine print" on the weather radio stated that some waves would be twice that. I saw those. And the seas were "confused". One wave would raise the bow out of the water and a rude, out of sequence wave would slap La Luna in the chest. We'd slow a bit and I'd listen to make sure everything was fine. Or we'd take a wave over the bow and water would roll up to the cabin top and blast onto the dodger. I'd close my eyes in reflex, but stayed dry. Pine Top, Casey, La Luna and I pounded up and down through the evening. EW slept. We all did our jobs and did them well. 

Lesson 2. Just because you can go, doesn't mean you should go. I went off watch at 9 and kind of slept through the pounding and the noise. The wind and seas had abated and my midnight to 3 AM watch was uneventful. In the morning, we were comfortably motoring as the wind started to fill and were looking forward to a nice day of sailing. Pine Top sputtered and quit at 10. We thought that a fuel filter was clogged again, but EW quickly removed the floorboards over the fuel fill tank and got out the measuring stick. Our main tanks were empty. This has now become known (as EW calls it) a "fuel management issue". The fuel management issue meant that we had 5 gallons of fuel in our emergency tank and none in the main tanks. We were 68 miles offshore of New York with nearly 300 to go to Norfolk. The wind was up and we could sail, but in what direction? We decided to be prudent and headed to shore for diesel. In retrospect, of course we shouldn't have left Cuttyhunk under those conditions. We also should have fueled up in Onset. We discussed fuel when we left Cuttyhunk but didn't think we could get any there and did not want to slog in Buzzard's Bay in the wrong direction, gosh darn it! If we were going to be uncomfortable, we were going to be heading South doing it! 

Lesson 3. You can sail just about anywhere if you're patient and don't care how long it takes. We set the sails and headed to New York. EW took the helm and I navigated a course. We don't have a cruising guide for the region, so I had to look at the charts and read the Coastal Pilot to try to figure out where the closest, most accessible marina might be. I decided on the shores of New Jersey just around Sandy Hook. We hoped to make it in by 4:00 AM, so needed an area with a marina and a place to anchor before they opened. My job was to navigate us to an area close enough to allow us to reach a fuel dock with the precious 5 gallons we had left. EW's job was to make the boat move under sail. The chart of the entrance to New York harbor is intimidating. There's an area with in a large circle that is labeled "Precautionary Area". There are lanes or channels for commercial traffic and lots of lighted bouys. I studied the paper chart and the navigation software and EW sailed. He worked every shift and lift and kept the boat moving in the right direction. Sometimes we only moved at 2-3 knots. At dark the wind picked up for a bit and we had a marvelous sail for 5 or 6 hours. Late at night, the wind died and we drifted a bit.  It took us from 10 AM Sunday to 7 AM Monday to travel 68 miles to reach the spot where we could start the engine. We each got about 2 hours sleep before midnight when we neared the "Precautionary Area" and then we were both awake and alert as we sailed with 3 - 8 knots of wind, very slowly, into New York Harbor. I kept waiting for one of the ships  -- tankers, tugs, and the Queen Mary II -- to hail us, but no one did. We had to cross the largest "traffic lane" and waited until no ships were in sight as we "scurried" at 2 - 2.5 knots from one side to the other. (EW says we were mentally scurrying. At the time I reverted to childhood and The Little Engine that Could "I think I can, I think I can..") It was a foolish situation to be in and one we will avoid in the future. But it was a great day of sailing. Sailing is what we came out here to do. And we can sail. 

This was an eventful week and more lessons were learned. We are currently anchored outside of the Atlantic Harbor Marina where we fueled up on Monday. We've conferred with folks about the record breaking low that is over Chicago and consulted with Passage Weather (great website) and plan to leave on Thursday morning for Norfolk. If the weather looks good. As we leave EW said that we can take the time to cross the harbor during the day so I can see the Statue of Liberty. "After all," he said. "I'm retired." We can also wait for the right conditions, and from now on we will. 


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It sounds like you've had a rather exciting start to the trip! I know Sandy Hook (although only from land, not sea). I have been on a boat in New York Harbor, and I think if you decide to go back to see the Statue of Liberty during the day, it'll be a great memory to take with you as you sail south. Have fun, stay safe, and keep in touch!

David Kingsley

This is so interesting, Barb! I'm so happy you're underway now and I can follow your progress. I don't think I'd have weathered those big waves as gracefully. Can't wait for the next one!

Heidi Hansen

What an eventful start! Glad you met the challenge and acknowledge lessons learned. Great work! I think the biggest lesson I've learned from coastal cruising is to wait out the weather and never to leave port in a doubtful forecast. We want to have fun, yes? Best of luck to you two.

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