Hard Luck Cruise
by Bill Zeitler
from Messing Around In Boats)
here for more information about MAIB)
I'm thinking that the old nautical superstition
(bananas on a boat bring bad luck) might be true. I ignored
that warning in my provisioning for my one-week cruise down
the Delaware Bay, and look what happened!
After almost 1000 miles and several years of
power cruising in my 6hp PMT (Poor Man's Trawler) Amenity, a
Bay Hen 21 sailboat converted for shallow water power cruising,
I had come to feel quite at home on the upper Chesapeake Bay.
(click to enlarge)
Although the Delaware Bay is almost unanimously
reported as a rather unpleasant place to cruise, highly commercial
(crabbing and fishing) vs. the more yachty Chesapeake Bay, opening
directly to the Atlantic Ocean, a very busy shipping channel,
potential violent weather and high sea states, few nice nooks
to anchor in for the night, few hurricane holes, near nonexistent
fueling stops, low and boring, flat, mosquito infested, reedy
shoreline, fog prone, I decided to have one final cruise for
the year 2003, a first time, one-week familiarization cruise
down the western side of the Delaware Bay, a round trip of nearly
200 nautical miles from Wilmington to Lewes, Delaware.
By the end of the first day my handheld GPS would
not acquire satellites, my much needed handheld depth finder
quit, my installed marine VHF radio quit (I carry a handheld
backup), the weight of the oranges, apples, and bananas in the
gear hammock: pulled the fittings out of the cabin bulkhead,
and my AT&T cell phone told me "No Service."
NOAA radio had predicted dense fog for the next
several mornings. Man did they get that right! A thick, drippy
fog settled in overnight and did not clear until about noon
the next day. Morning navigation (for me) was out of the question.
A few local crabbers, however, zoomed through the fog to deploy
and/or tend their pots. I think that is called '"local
knowledge" or just perhaps "making a living"
vs. just messing about in small pleasure boats.
Lovely (!) Port Mahon, Delaware
Although I always anchored near shore in the
small, infrequent, but navigable rivers (Mahon and Leipsic),
I did on occasions blow my red plastic lung powered horn when
I heard powerful (but invisible) engines roaring my way through
By the way, the bottom mud in this area is like
chocolate pudding. It took my three Danforth anchors to somewhat
hold me in place against the very strong spring (and reversing)
tidal flows, and even then I dragged a bit.
When the fog cleared enough for me to get underway,
I continued down the Bay on the second day towards Lewes. My
charts showed that I had to avoid the Bombay Hook Shoals. This
required me to cross the shipping channel, head for the interesting
Ship John Shoal Lighthouse, and then recross the shipping channel
to get back to the western shore.
Ship John Shoal Light
Although I have often navigated through many
of the so called "minefields" of crab pot floats,
I had never snagged one. First time for everything I guess.
Black floats in choppy water are extremely hard to see. Suddenly
I was captured. I immediately killed the engine and tilted it
up to evaluate the situation. Now I love to eat crab cakes and
greatly respect the crabbers' work and investments. Luckily
the crab pot float line was not wrapped around my prop. I was
able to cut the line and reattach it to a float, saving the
pot still sitting on the bottom, and was on my way. The required
lifting (with one arm) of my 83-lb., 6hp, 4-cycle Yamaha engine
up out of the engine well however did a job on my 70-year-old
back. By the end of the day I had snagged two more crab pot
floats. Oh my aching back!
Then, without a depth finder I ran into some
mud well offshore that was not supposed to be there but was
able to safely escape to deeper water. Although my boat hook
works as a shallow water depth finder it is not the best.
NOAA was predicting more (and more dense) fog
for the next several mornings. I made a mental remark, "Hey,
this is supposed to be fun...and it's not working out that way."
I decided that there was no way I could cruise only half days
(starting each day about noon because of the fog) and complete
my cruise plan. I decided that the prudent mariner course of
action was to abort and turn back for home. It helped my ego
to recall one of Tristan Jones's global circumnavigation cruises
where he was met with adverse conditions and reportedly simply
decided to go around the world the other way! I tried my AT&T
cell phone to call my wife about my change of plans but was
greeted with the words "No Service." Enough hard luck
I now have a greater appreciation for the real
sailors who claw their way to their objective, tacking back
and forth for 20 miles to make good one mile towards their goal.
In my case I had to use every relatively fog free daylight hour
to claw my way back up the Delaware Bay and River to Wilmington
and to my car and trailer at the Newport, Delaware facility
on the Christina River.
By the end of the fifth (and fog prone) day I
was able to make it to the refuge behind Reedy Island in the
Augustine Beach area of the Delaware River. I somehow got through
to my wife on my cell phone advising her I was coming back two
days early and where I was. NOAA continued to declare Fog Advisories
and now also was making remarks about 20 knots or more winds.
The fog was so thick and heavy that the winds could not blow
it away. I was faced with two days of wet slogging and pounding
up the Delaware River, often wind against the tidal flow.
I anchored in the small refuge area along with
four large sailing cruisers flying Maple Leaf flags. This time
of the year many Canadian "snowbirds" cruise down
the East Coast of the U.S., head up the Delaware Bay, go west
through the C&D (Chesapeake and Delaware) canal to get to
the Chesapeake Bay, head down the Chesapeake Bay, then on down
to Florida or out to the Bahamas, etc.
By midnight I knew it would be another soupy
night as I could not see the anchor lights of the nearby Canadians
or even the extremely bright lights of the Salem nuclear power
plant on the other side of the river. Now and then throughout
the night I could hear the low, somber bellowing of fog horns
as ships and tugs made their way invisibly in the shipping channel
on the other side of Reedy Island.
Morning at anchor, where is everything?
The next morning the fog was so thick that I
could not see the shoreline and nearby Augustine Beach boat
ramp which was only 20 yards away off my port beam! In a brief
moment of slight visibility I noticed that someone on shore
was flashing their car headlights in my direction. Clearing
off my binocular lenses I saw my wife standing by the side of
her car trying to get my attention. Through sign language and
marital mental telepathy it was decided that I would weigh anchors
and very cautiously motor to the nearby boat ramp, totally invisible
in the fog but on a compass bearing of 300 degrees magnetic.
She suggested, and I agreed, that rather than
continue on I might want to take Amenity out at this boat ramp,
lock her up, and make her fast to the pier. She would drive
me back to my original launching ramp near Newport, Delaware,
about an hour car drive away. I would retrieve my car and boat
trailer, return to Augustine Beach ramp, take the boat out there,
and return home by land. The alternative was to wait until about
noon for the fog to clear and then experience a slow, wet, pounding
two-day river trip back to my original starting place.
The boat came out at Augustine Beach! By the
time I was ready for the highway it was noon. The fog was just
clearing. I was home in an hour, two days early, safe, warm,
dry, aching back, and exhausted. Interesting trip indeed! Guess
I'll try this cruise again next year, but without bananas!