More colorful title ideas included “Peril on the Low Seas” and “The Barnegat Triangle.” It was quite a weekend.
Memorial Day is the traditional weekend for the Windjammers Sailing Club’s cruise to Beach Haven, NJ, on the southern end of Long Beach Island. We did this cruise last year, and it was our furthest foray from our home port at the time. It was relatively straightforward and we had a great time. We were eager to tackle this year’s cruise as seasoned veterans.
So seasoned, in fact, that we decided to not leave with the bulk of the fleet. The group was leaving at 0800 in order to make slack water at the Beach Haven Yacht club around 1400. Sailboats, especially those with inboard engines, are not particularly maneuverable in close quarters, and it’s often to their advantage to time things like docking in high-current areas such that the water is neither flowing in nor out. It’s our feeling (and this may be incorrect) that we’re not as affected as the big boats: our transom-mounted outboard motor can turn to direct thrust sideways, which enables us to pivot and crab across a current in ways that boats with fixed prop shafts can’t. Our boat is slow though, and while last year we left early to arrive with the club, leaving much before 0800 would have been nearly impossible for us.
As it was, we still got out of the house by 0600 and made a groggy dash for the shore. The marina was not yet in crazy Memorial Day mode, and we got the boat launched and loaded like pros. I topped off the gas tank with $6.66 worth of fuel, which may have been ominous if I were superstitious. We were able to shove off around 0845—the 13th boat in the group to do so, I believe. I did not notice any black cats or sail under a ladder. We could still see plenty of Windjammers when we came around Berkeley Island, so we weren’t that far behind, but they all have many feet of waterline on us and are inherently faster. We sailed under full sail against the southerly winds, beating across the bay and making good time. Sashay was the stand-in cruise director since Waterloo wasn’t able to make the trip, and we heard chatter on the VHF that they were motoring from the start; they wanted to arrive early to assist other boats with docking and make absolutely sure they got there at slack water. Other boats were sailing though, so we sailed on, even if that was more indirect. The channel south of about marker 44 is very narrow and with the southerly wind, beating against it would be practically impossible, so it was nice to cram in some quality sailing time before having to switch to the motor.
By the time we made the switch, the fleet was no longer visible. Last weekend, our motor had mysteriously stopped running, but we had the marina work on it and it got a clean bill of health after a thorough carb and fuel system cleaning, and it started right up both when we left the marina and when we got to the channel. As we ticked through the markers at a comfortable 2/3 throttle, the Manahawkin Bay Bridge slowly grew into view, and, as always, we broke out the camera to commemorate the crossing.
By the time we actually got through the bridge, the reports over the VHF were that most of the fleet had safely docked. We still had another couple hours to go since the headwind had increased to close to 20kts. It would actually turn out to be far more than a couple hours, since as we went through the gate at markers 69 and 70, the motor died.
We were literally between the markers, which are probably less than 100ft apart, and were bobbing around helplessly while powerboats tore their hair out trying to figure out what we were doing and how to get around us. I told Jen to go get the anchor ready while I frantically tried to restart the motor. I checked that we had fuel, that the fuel tank vent was open, that the fuel line wasn’t kinked, all of that stuff, but everything looked fine. The anchor, which we never even tested, wasn’t exactly ready to deploy, and Jen had a hard time getting the rode uncoiled. We slowly drifted out of the channel to the northeast, which was a mixed blessing: we were out of the traffic, but were now touching bottom. I cranked up the keel while Jen got the anchor deployed. She asked me how much rode to put out, and I guessed 30ft, which I did based on the magic 7:1 scope that’s been drilled into my head, figuring that we were probably in 4ft of water or less. I got the cover off the motor and started pretending like I took Sally Struthers’ class on small engine repair. I called the marina to see if they had any advice, but nothing they told me to try helped. We considered calling Sashay, but didn’t want to worry them unnecessarily, hoping that we could still get this resolved. I called TowBoatUS and asked for advice on what to do, which really isn’t their forté. I think they wound up sending a tow boat for us, although it wasn’t clear to us where we’d actually have them take us.
The main problem now was that we were still moving. The wind was relentless and the anchor didn’t set, and although it slowed us down a lot we were still moving back toward the bridge. We eventually crept back into the channel, with more powerboaters who were apoplectic about having to come off plane to get around us.
Captain’s Fun Tip: Do not use the phrase “[expletive] empirically verifiable” when arguing with your crew about whether or not you’ve drifted back into a channel in a high stress situation.
Things were kind of grim. We were almost all the way back to the bridge and needed to get out of the channel, so I made the decision to try to sail us out in 20kts of wind with the keel up—we couldn’t put it down because getting out the channel meant getting back into shallow water. Jen retrieved the anchor, and I had her sit on the bow and hold on while I put out a little scrap of jib. I’m not sure exactly what happened next since things were chaotic, but the result was that we did move parallel to the bridge toward Manahawkin and out of the channel, and the jib sheets got horribly tangled. I furled the whole mess in and I had Jen redeploy the anchor, this time with all of the rode. I then handed her a boat hook and gave the hilarious order, “prepare to fend off the bridge abutment” as we drifted backward through the causeway. This got a “You want me to do WHAT?” response with perfect comedic timing—her attention had been focused on the bow, dealing with the anchor, and she hadn’t noticed that we were making good speed drifting backward through the wrong opening of the bridge. There’s definitely a right opening between the supports, where the depth and mast clearance are known, and we were definitely not there. This time the anchor held firmly though, we didn’t hit anything, and we came to rest on the northern side of the bridge a couple boat lengths before getting to the pilings (and who knows what else) that make up the remains of the old drawbridge that used to connect the island.
We slowly collected ourselves.
I’m kind of collecting myself again while writing this, so here are some visual aids to pass the time:
- This is the opening that you’re supposed to go through when you go under the bridge.
- Marker 70, where the engine died. It’s almost a half mile from the bridge.
- This is about where we decided that we had to sail out of the channel, or at least where we were by the time we actually started accomplishing that.
- This is where the anchor finally set.
- We ended up here.
- Super shallow water on the other side of the ruins of the drawbridge.
Here’s a detail view with our approximate position superimposed:
It seemed that we were out of immediate danger and we resumed our attempts at communication. Sashay happened to hail us on the VHF and when I explained our situation they started putting together a plan to get us home from Beach Haven should we decide to continue the trip, which they were encouraging. I called TowBoatUS on the phone and told them that our position had changed, and that we were now on the north side of the bridge. Jen and I couldn’t really make a decision on where to go. We could have maybe sailed home, although it would have been harrowing trying to get back to the channel with the keel up and the drawbridge remnants downwind, and running aground (or even getting into the cove at the marina) would have been troublesome without a working engine. We could get towed home, which would effectively cancel our vacation, but that might be better than getting towed to Beach Haven where we’d have to do the dock of shame: coming in under tow with a majority of the club watching.
The tow boat eventually showed up. He was a little surly (perhaps warranted given our indecisiveness), and his opinion was that we should get towed to a nearby marina to have our motor fixed. My feeling was that on Memorial Day weekend there was little guarantee that they’d actually work on it, and, with no other way home, no limit to what they could charge us. He gave us the name of a local marina and puttered off to give some other stranded boat some fuel. I tried to call that marina and couldn’t get an answer, and in the mean time we got more potential solutions from the Windjammers, so we decided to just demand a tow to Beach Haven.
When the tow boat got back, he pulled up beside us and started pitching a local tow again, but before he could even begrudgingly toss us a line, his engine died. Completely. He looked back at it from his wheelhouse, said simply “Shit,” and that was the last we heard from him. The winds gripped him and spun him back into the drawbridge pilings where he got hung up dramatically, with waves crashing into his transom. He somehow got it off or was pushed off and then drifted away slowly, literally all the way over the visible horizon. I tried to hail him to ask if he needed assistance, which may have been a little spiteful, but he didn’t respond.
Now close to three hours into the fiasco portion of our vacation, we tried to keep busy. It looked like it was going to rain, so we properly flaked the mainsail and covered it. Jen got the jib sheets untangled and we furled the sail correctly. We re-cleated the anchor rode, since it had been fastened hastily while we were still at high alert. I got out my nav tools and figured out exactly how far we were away from everything in case we got any more static from the tow boats. I called to see if anyone was still coming for us or not.
A second tow boat did eventually come, and it was a much different experience. The boat was far more substantial, had a crew of two, and did not catastrophically break down. The person working the deck was patient and very clear in her instructions, which was necessary since we had no idea how to be towed. It was a bit of pain to get the towing bridal situated since it needed to use the deck cleats where we had tied off the anchor. I disconnected the rode and held it by hand while Jen got the bridal on, and then I strained to pull us in against the wind and waves. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get the anchor out of the mud, but I held the line against a cleat when the rode was nearly vertical and the wave action broke it free.
It was a wet ride the rest of the way. According to our telephone’s GPS, we were going close to 7 knots, which is above our hull speed and we were catching a lot of spray. I was soaked by the time I got my foulies, which is, for whatever reason, my usual M.O. At least one of us had to stay in the cockpit to steer because simply lashing the rudder proved ineffective.
We were pulled expertly into the fuel dock at the Beach Haven Yacht Club, and then turned around at the request of the marina. The towboat was a big inboard diesel and wouldn’t be able to get us all the way into our slip at the shallow end of the marina, but a smaller TowBoatUS RIB stationed at the marina would be able to shuffle us in the rest of the way (with lots of help from the crew of Tiki) as soon as he returned from a call.
Speaking of RIBs, our reception from the Windjammers included about the expected level of good-natured ribbing plus a lot of genuine concern and assistance. There were several people around when we got there to handle lines and help get us off the boat, which was about 4ft below the dock at low tide. I was immediately handed beers and we were made to feel at ease. Everyone was interested in our tale and shared stories of their own misadventures. Apparently, we were far from the first Windjammers to get towed to a vacation destination.
Jen and I were exhausted, and were both so landsick that we were barely able to get through our respective showers without falling over, so we went to bed early with the hopes of figuring out what to do about the motor the next day.
Sunday was our day of shore leave, but we were (or at least I was) pretty distracted. Here’s a quick rundown of the day’s activities:
- Four Windjammers attempted to get our motor running.
- One good thing about having a small boat is that our primary motor (technically the auxiliary to our sails, but you know what I mean) is the same size as a bigger boat’s dingy motor, and Sashay happened to have a technical manual for our outboard as well as the official emergency tool kit that’s supposed to come with it, neither of which we had.
- Despite their efforts, it would not go, which was both disappointing and vindicating. The consensus seemed to be that of the major combustion elements of fuel, air, and spark, it was the spark that was lacking, and a theory was floated that the problem may have been with the ignition coil.
- We briefly attempted to locate an ignition coil, but the local chandlery said that we’d probably have to go “off island” for such a thing. That was a weird phrase to hear in New Jersey.
- We got breakfast at a diner.
- We went to the Long Beach Island Museum, which was fine but not quite as interesting to me as the New Jersey Maritime Museum that we visited last year.
- While the wind would still be from the south, meaning that we could sail home, I was still concerned about how we’d get out of the marina and back into Trixie’s, but all was resolved when Providence II offered (along with several other skippers) to let me borrow their dinghy motor. At an unwieldy 60lbs or so, this wasn’t the most convenient thing in the world, but it was incredibly generous and put me at ease that we’d be able to make it home no matter what.
- Jen and I played the best game of mini golf of our lives at Mr. Tee’s Putt & Play, coming in at a combined 2 over par with scores of 40 and 38, respectively. It was only later that we learned that the Teeki Course [sic] is the bobo course compared to the much more challenging Victorian Garden course that every other boat played. We recused ourselves from the Windjammers competition, but had a good time. Frankly, I pity the fool who can’t have fun at Mr. Tee’s.
On Memorial Day, all we had to do was sail home. We stocked up on ice and gasoline (this time, a much less foreboding $3.00 even) and shoved off around 1000. We were the third boat out, following Lucky Star II and Stormy. There was good wind and we were moving along nicely downwind on just the jib. The rest of the club trickled out behind us and slowly passed us.
While Fortuitous was having a much better time of it than on Monday, the fleet didn’t make it back without a few casualties. Bad Dog II, which passed us soon after we left, had engine trouble and was forced to request a long tow back to Cedar Creek. Before the day was out, Day Dreamer II would run aground three times—I believe one grounding was severe enough that a tow boat had to be dispatched to pull them free.
The most dramatic problem of the day for us was that Stormy was forced out of the channel at marker 69 and went hard aground, almost exactly where our engine quit and not far from where ill-fated Tow Boat #1 had died. It was all very Bermuda Triangular. Stormy Petrel and Sunset were also nearby, but Stormy is a shallow draft full-keeler and they didn’t have a chance of getting to her, so it was up to us. We dropped our sails and switched to our borrowed motor, pulled up our keel, and tied some dock lines together to serve as a tow rope. While our boat handling was nowhere near as elegant as the professionals’ we eventually did get a line to them and (along with some extreme hiking on the part of Stormy’s crew to heel the boat) we were able to pull them free. It felt great to be able to help someone else for once and possibly start to balance our karma with the club.
The rest of the sail back was fairly uneventful. It was hot and wind trailed off in the early afternoon. We were slow to raise the main, thinking that it might be annoying if the wind came back, but did eventually perform an awkward downwind hoist during a lull. A sea breeze filled in as we got back into Barnegat Bay proper and we were able to sail a beam reach most of the way home.
We arrived sometime around 1800, tired and sunburned, and slowly worked through the process of unloading and rinsing down the boat. We swapped motors with Providence II, which seemed particularly arduous, and I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I guess I was en garde following Saturday’s difficulties, even though things were generally quiet.
The weekend was a lot more epic than I was expecting, and we learned quite a bit. We’ve seen it before, but it’s still amazing how quickly things can get out of hand. I don’t think that our reactions were all bad…in many ways we did the best we could with what we were given, although there are obvious areas for improvement. Mostly, I think that we should have been in better contact with the club, both to keep them apprised of our progress and to draw on their experience.
Hopefully we can get our engine fixed and get back out there soon.
More pictures can be found in the gallery here.