Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Passage from Chesapeake to Rhode Island - Day 1

[Kyle] All week I had been keeping a close eye on the weather forecast for the passage to Rhode Island. My work had originally given me 7 days off that subsequently was shortened to 5 1/2. I figured the passage would take between 2 1/2 days in perfect conditions and maybe 4 1/2 days in more nominal conditions. My preference was to arrive in Rhode Island at least a day early in order to have time to readjust to a normal sleeping schedule after coming off watches and also to have time to work out the logistics of my new commute, etc. This meant that we had very little wiggle room when it came to the departure time. Ordinarily, I would prefer to have 5 extra days or so over what is needed to make the passage. This will generally allow enough time for an adverse weather system to run it's course and be replaced by a more favorable one on what tend to be about 3 day cycles. Without the 5 extra days, though, we had to resort to hoping that we would just coincidentally be able to start the passage at the right part of the cycle. If not, the plan was to delay the passage another month until I could get another large block of days off. (My work schedule will generally allow me to bunch up my days off like this only about once a month.) As the forecasts got closer to our planned departure time (and thus more reliable), they seemed to indicate that we would have about 1 day of north winds at the start. This was the wrong direction for us initially but would allow us to get well offshore where we would eventually have a better wind angle for Rhode Island. These headwinds were to be followed by a brief period of light winds as the next system arrived to bring moderate Southwest winds for the next few days, which we could ride the rest of the way.

On my flight home I examined the latest downloaded weather files and discovered that the forecast had been changed to call for a longer period of north winds as well as stronger winds initially. I decided to delay our planned noon departure 12 hours in order to minimize our exposure to the north wind as well as our our eastbound progress. I did not want us to get far enough east to be in danger of entering the Gulf Stream and encountering treacherous wind against current conditions.

We left on Tuesday, April 8th at 0100 in cold, rainy, windy conditions, pulling out of the marina into an empty harbor. I had imagined that the day we finally left Portsmouth we would be glad at finally starting the adventure after a much too long wait. Instead, I felt like a cold, wet, tired cat who really just wanted to go inside and curl up somewhere warm but had no choice but to just stay out and endure it. Portsmouth and the rest of Norfolk harbor receded featurelessly into the soaking darkness. Maryanne went off watch to get some sleep.

As we neared the open water of Chesapeake Bay, the wind and swell began to increase and the boat started to bash her way through the short chop. I turned into the Bay and raised the sails with 2 reefs in each and shut down the engine (for non-sailors, putting in a reef is the process of reducing sail size for strong winds in specific increments. 2 reefs results in approximately 1/4 of full sail area.) Footprint flew toward the open ocean in waves that were becoming ever and ever larger as she went. Approaching the Chesapeake Bay Bridge tunnel, the interaction of wind and strong current and variable depth made for some very short, steep chop that made what was for me the scariest part of the whole journey. The waves were just the right size that one hull was in a deep trough while the other was on a steep crest, resulting in some alarming heel angles that caused my stomach to jump into my throat with fear. I was desperate for the bigger, longer waves of the open ocean, desperate to get out of the channel with its strong currents and desperate to get away from land with all of its things to smash into. We sailed passed the Bridge Tunnel and past the container ships anchored outside of it as they rode out the storm. I deliberately sailed very close to the last one. I knew its deck lights would be the last sign of civilization that we would see for a while as we sailed over the horizon into the dark Atlantic. I also wanted to enjoy a last respite from the wind and waves as we sailed through its lee.

In the open Atlantic, the wind and waves increased significantly but the ride improved noticeably in the longer waves. Maryanne came on watch at Dawn and, not surprisingly, reported that she hadn't been able to get much sleep. I had the same experience. I found, interestingly, that I slept in about a thousand increments that were a fraction of a second long. I repeatedly would fall asleep as the boat crested a wave and wake up as she bottomed out, realizing that I was on the boat and that I had just been dreaming. Occasionally, the boat would get hit hard by a particularly large or irregularly timed wave and I would wake up in a panic thinking we were rolling over. I'd turn wide-eyed to Maryanne and she'd look back completely nonplussed and relaxed as if she were driving through the countryside. Must just be more disorienting in the bed.

Through the rest of the day the winds and seas continued to increase. The waves grew to about 20 feet. Their sheer heaving mass caused me to regard them with the same awe as the enormous marble buildings of state capitals or the big monuments of Washington, D.C. The wind howled and made other terrible noises in the rigging. The boat remained relatively stable and livable, if not exactly comfortable. Maryanne and I had both lost our appetites with all of the stress and motion, but so far, we had managed to keep our meager meals of crackers and bread down, although just. As we got more tired and more used to both the conditions and the routine, we slept better and woke up more refreshed, gradually pushing our way east looking for a better wind.


Mommy Carla said...

Never stop writing about your experiences, even when there are no comments to reassure you people are reading them. We are. I feel a little like a stowaway without seasickness and love reading all your posts. RI sounds peaceful and welcoming, just what was needed. Keep blogging for those of us who can't be there with you.

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a way to start your journey! I hope it just gets better from here on out (or at least not any worse!)

I spent a summer on Narragansett Island in RI. Lots of fun that summer...beautiful part of the country! Enjoy it while you are there.