Hard Luck Cruise

by Bill Zeitler
(Excerpted from Messing Around In Boats)
(click 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 the fog.

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 is enough!

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!