We took off the week for Jen’s birthday with the intention of doing some sailing.
We thought again about New York or Cape May as destinations, but due to some combination of prudence and anxiety, I still don’t really feel up to long ocean hauls or navigating a major shipping port with crazy currents. We thought about just cruising around the bay, possibly heading up to the Metedeconk or down to Beach Haven, which wouldn’t be a bad way to spend a week. Given the forecast of mild northerly winds early and southerly winds late in the week though, we decided to reprise last year’s sail to Atlantic City, to again face off with the inlets and ocean.
Last year (see AC on the Outside) we had a nice sail down, but I did a poor job of timing the current at Absecon Inlet and we had a rough ride back under a small craft advisory. Also, we had some mechanical difficulties that prevented us from using our jib in the ocean. That trip and our foggy delivery constituted the sum total of our ocean sailing experience, so although AC would be a repeat, I was hoping that we could finally have a calamity-free ocean voyage and build some confidence. It’s never really the same trip twice on a sailboat.
The original plan was to leave Monday, but the late forecasts shot up to 15-20kts, gusting to 30 overnight, which didn’t sound very relaxing. Also, I was concerned because I couldn’t make any sense out of the sea state forecast for the following day:
NW WINDS 10 TO 15 KT WITH GUSTS UP TO 20 KT...BECOMING W 5 TO 10 KT EARLY IN THE AFTERNOON...THEN BECOMING SW LATE. SEAS AROUND 2 FT. MAINLY IN SE SWELL WITH A DOMINANT PERIOD OF 7 SECONDS.
Having sailed mostly on protected waters, where the waves can’t possibly get that out of hand, I guess I never really learned how to read a wave forecast. The idea of the swell opposing the wind seemed troubling—we’ve already seen what happens when the wind and tidal current at an inlet are opposed—and while I have a good grasp on how tall a 2ft wave is (and know that it’s not very big) I have no visceral feeling for how wave period impacts the annoyingness of wave motion. I’ve been told that when the period in seconds starts to match the height in feet, things get uncomfortable, but still don’t know what a reasonable safety factor is (if the period is 2x the height, is that good? 4x?). It probably would have been negligible, but we decided to postpone. We had built in plenty of time to delay for weather, and delaying is not a calamity.
We arrived in the early afternoon and changed out one of our batteries, which hadn’t been holding a charge properly since our bilge pump self-destructed earlier in the season. Part of being calamity-free is having a backup battery. We swapped out the plywood crib board substitute for the real things, now coated in Cetol and transported in their custom-made crib board tote. We loaded in and headed out for Myers Hole.
There were more boats out than I would have expected for a Tuesday…possibly because the weather was nearly perfect: steady 10 or 12kts of wind, air temperature in the mid 70s. There were several sailboats lazily sailing about, although when we started chasing them, they trimmed in.
We didn’t pass anyone, but at least we’re upping the game out there.
I was a little nervous about running the Oyster Creek Channel…the last time we were there we bumped a lot, well inside the markers. I guess we weren’t the only ones who noticed, because the channel markers had been moved significantly, with the entrance (and a new additional buoy) now well to the south. While it is a little narrower in spots, at least there was deep water the whole way, and we had no problems, making excellent time with a little push from the current.
We anchored a few hundred yards from a Canadian flagged sailboat, probably making the long run south for the season. Jen made dinner and we ate in the cockpit as the sun set behind the trees of Barnegat Lighthouse State Park.
We woke up well before sunrise. The plan was to hit the inlet around 0600…about an hour before slack, but with some time in the bank to sail to Absecon slowly in predicted light winds. As we sluggishly collected ourselves and prepared the boat, the eastern sky got progressively brighter.
When we were finally ready to leave, I made the somewhat unusual decision to hoist the mainsail before weighing anchor—the wind was from the west, and I didn’t want to either turn around or try an awkward downwind hoist while navigating the channel. The engine fired right up on our new battery, we got the anchor unstuck from the mud, and were off.
We didn’t go 200 yards before I noticed that our engine was no longer pumping vital cooling water.
I quickly got us out of the channel and shut her down. I then asked Jen to sail us around in circles on the main while I investigated, hoping that it was something so dumb and innocuous that it wasn’t worth re-anchoring.
My first thought was the sea strainer. There were a couple pieces of grass in it, but nothing major. I then thought about the impeller, but it also looked fine. And that represented 100% of my ideas on what might be wrong. I stood on the lazarette like a gut-shot privateer contemplating surrender while Jen sailed us around a weird pile of filthy pipes that [I think?] the Army Corps of Engineers left when they last dredged the inlet. With a west wind, we wouldn’t be able to tack our way back through the channel under sail. In the other direction was the ocean, which I wasn’t about to take on without a working engine. I agonized about potentially having to call for a tow, which almost always constitutes a calamity.
In a last ditch effort, I called our marina…or more specifically the marina owner’s cell phone. He doesn’t sleep, right? He suggested that there could still be seaweed elsewhere, so starting at the seacock, I began disassembling the raw water system. I didn’t need to go far before I found this:
An entire Japanese entrée somehow got lodged where the raw water hose connects to the sea strainer. I removed it, and as Tom had suggested (accepting that it may have been a prank to punish me for calling him at dawn), I held the end of the hose above the waterline, opened the seacock, took a deep breath, and blew bubbles out the bottom of the boat to prove that it was clear. While I have surprisingly little context for what it should feel like to blow a standing column of water out of a length of radiator hose attached to the bottom of a vessel under sail, I was satisfied that this did the trick.
With everything re-connected and the engine happily pumping water, we resumed our trip, now an hour on the other side of slack. The winds were light and from land, the current was still minimal, and things went smoothly.
Once we were out of the approach to the inlet, we shut down the motor and began sailing in very calm seas.
We hooked up Sinbad, our tiller pilot, and commenced relaxing in the North Atlantic. When it was Jen’s turn to stand watch, I went below and took a brief nap. The sound of flogging sails woke me up, and Jen noted that there was no wind. We started the engine, furled the jib, and continued under power. I’m not sure what to say about being out there. Not much happened, but it’s never boring.
The tall casinos and hotels of Atlantic City loom on the horizon early as you sail south, and give a false sense of being “almost there” well before you’re almost there. You do eventually get there though.
As we approached the mouth of inlet, Jen suddenly exclaimed “There’s something over there. There’s a fin.” I couldn’t see it at first, but after some searching, I saw a dolphin come up and take a breath, just off the south jetty. Frolicking dolphins! We’ve never seen them in New Jersey, either from land or by boat, so this was pretty amazing for us. Dolphins are awesome.
After watching them for a while, we traversed the calm inlet…markedly different from the last time we saw it. We made the turn at the Coast Guard station and I hailed the Frank S. Farley State Marina on the VHF. They asked if we had a docking preference, and although I hadn’t previously considered it, in the time it took me to press PTT, I conjured up the sentence, “Farley, this is Fortuitous. We would slightly prefer bow-in, starboard tie-up, over,” which made me feel extremely nautical. We docked easily with minimal help required from the dock attendant.
After tidying the boat, we went up to the facilities to take showers. I tried to use the water fountain in front of the men’s room, but it didn’t work, so I went over to the ladies’ with Jen. That water fountain also didn’t work, but had a praying mantis on it. As I approached, he jumped on the ground and started doing some kind of threat display, reminiscent of a very cool customer making his way through the Soul Train Line…he definitely had his groove on, but with an economy of motion that let the [unheard] music do the work. In order to assert my dominance, I responded with a jive of my own.
Mid-dance-off, a woman emerged from the ladies’ room and explained to Jen that the men’s room was locked and that her husband was taking a shower in the women’s. Since we were all free-spirited cruisers [this is a joke] we decided to unisex the hell out of it and just make it a party in the ladies’ room. This was far less prurient than it sounds, and wasn’t actually a big deal, although the overall awkwardness level was consistent with our typical human interactions.
The rest of the evening was pretty low key.
Thursday was our day of shore leave, and Jen’s actual birthday. The celebration was mostly limited to aimless wandering. I’m not sure that it lived up to the high bar that we set last year, when we sat through whatever young adult movie happened to be playing at the IMAX theater, but this trip is more about the journey than the destination. Other highlights included:
- A thorough inspection of the engine and raw water system (all was well).
- An informative Jitney ride, during which our impromptu tour guide yelled incorrect things to her friends/in Jen’s ear.
- When we’re in vacation mode and aren’t trying to time an inlet, we don’t really get up early enough for brunch, but we did have lunch-dinner (linner? dunch?) at some fancy burger place that still knows how to do medium-rare.
- Jen got lost in a rest room.
- I saw a weird bird. I thought it was some sort of kingfisher, but after consulting whatbird.com, it may have been a green heron. I didn’t know they came in green.
- The marina’s slips were full of minnows, and Jen and I observed several of them playing a game of “jump over the feather.”
- We stopped by the old Ritz Carlton building to pay our respects to Nucky Johnson, the AC crime/political boss who inspired HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. When he went to prison in 1941, he was succeeded by our transient marina’s namesake, Frank “Hap” Farley.
- Speaking of New Jersey pride, we also caught a Bruce Springsteen tribute band, The B-Street Band, playing on the deck at the marina. They were pretty convincing.
- I inoculated myself against scurvy and malaria with several gin and tonics, in preparation for our return trip. And unwittingly for:
- Firefighting. Something (like a trash can or a potted plant) caught on fire near the Jitney stop. I ran to find a fire extinguisher, but there was some sort of firefighters’ convention going on, so basically everyone there was also running to find a fire extinguisher. We were all beaten to it by some casino dude in a tuxedo.
Again, we were up before dawn to make preparations. There was almost no wind, and we’d actually timed the tidal current correctly on this go-around, so there was no drama getting out of our slip or running the inlet.
The only downside was that there wasn’t enough wind to sail.
The return trip in the ocean was relatively uneventful. I saw a dredge working near shore, which reminded me of our trip from Sandy Hook. Being able to see them makes them far easier to avoid though, and even after he started moving, we were never all that close. On the way down, we’d been approached by a commercial fishing boat, who drove right up on us and then stopped to do some fishing stuff. They were out there again in almost the same spot, and I could tell that they were trawling (I couldn’t find the hourglass dayshape, but I could actually see the nets through the binoculars) so I bounced out another half mile to give them plenty of room. Jen took an extended nap and I was out there essentially alone for a long time. Quiet contemplation is one thing that I can handle, and I greatly enjoyed my alone time with the ocean.
Jen woke up as we approached Barnegat Inlet. The traffic picked up there too, since it’s a major thoroughfare, although it was still generally light. At the mouth of the inlet, there were birds diving at the water, and as we got closer we could see huge schools of small fish splashing at the surface. I was wondering what was chasing them, as we were still on the lookout for dolphins. Jen did spot another fin, but it wasn’t coming up for air or frolicking (or moving much at all), so perhaps it was some other finned sea creature that I’d prefer not to contemplate at that size, or it could have been a piece of flotsam…we didn’t get all that close.
We were about an hour early for slack at the inlet, but the wind was light and aligned with the very slight flood tide, so we didn’t have any problems. There was some kind of odd high-speed commercial boat roaring through the inlet that I thought might give us problems, but he was so much quicker than us that he was clear before we actually got there and in the process cleared a path for us as the drifting fishing boats scurried out of his way. It was no less exciting on this trip to see the other side of our lighthouse again, guiding us back to our home waters.
We got through the Oyster Creek Channel and shut off the engine. The wind had filled in from the south a bit and we were able to sail a broad reach straight back to the creek, which was a nice dessert for a good day of boating.
This wasn’t a groundbreaking voyage, and I would have liked to have been able to sail a little more in the ocean, but we had a good trip. I was really glad that I caught the clogged water intake early and was able to fix it underway. Noticing the problem before it became a huge deal, understanding the systems involved, and having the tools at hand to resolve the problem all seem like the kind of seamanship to which I aspire, even if I did need a little outside assistance to point me in the right direction. Overall, Fortuitous performed admirably. Plus: dolphins. Actually, all of our wildlife encounters were pretty great. I hope Jen had a good birthday, and I hope that next year we’ll be able to build on this calamity-free trip and push our boundaries.
More photos are in the gallery here: /gallery_calamity_free_AC