I have been complaining for a month that I need an adventure. I really thought that the three-day weekend for Independence Day might be the opportunity.
Jenn and I intently watched the weather, trying to find a time when we could go on a slightly-larger-than-usual trip. The forecasts were all over the place, changing rapidly and wildly and rarely agreeing with each other, which did not inspire confidence. Thunderstorms were a common feature, which is to be expected this time of year to some degree, but also something I prefer to avoid when possible. As the weekend approached, things slowly began to coalesce on “nope.” Saturday and Sunday came and went, the rain showed up as predicted, and I stayed in and worked on ludicrous guitar projects. The forecast for Monday was lame, but perhaps fitting given that my desire for adventure had already been completely sapped—1kt of wind at noon, “gusting” to 3kts. It was supposed to fill in over the course of the afternoon, so we decided to take a shot.
Diner Update: I previously mentioned that I have been tracking the inexplicable popularity of a terrible diner. Once again, the parking lot was completely full. There weren’t people waiting outside to get in, but even the tertiary row of parking spots were occupied. When I frequented this diner, the only reason to park there was to do something nefarious in your car an additional 25ft from the gaze of the undead night manager. He would still occasionally call the police, but fortunately the Burlington County 9-1-1 dispatch didn’t speak any of the dialects of the pre-Ottoman Carpathian Mountains, and he would be forced to yell at us directly in a language that sounded like it was comprised solely of diacritical marks. I can’t believe anyone eats there.
When we arrived at the marina, there was definitely more than 1kt of wind, although I was still picturing the forecast with the wind topping out at 10kts later in the afternoon, so we didn’t reef down. We prepared the boat and set out. As we motored out of the creek, Jenn took photographs of swans. When I see swans, my instinct is not to look for a camera but to assess what could be made into an impromptu weapon should the need arise. Swans are basically medium-sized dinosaurs with the attitudes of large dinosaurs, but I suppose that one person’s aggressive squawking nightmare is another person’s stately elegance. I struggled to think of the word “cygnet” as we eased by at a safe distance.
As we approached the mouth of the creek, I remembered why I try not to sail on 4th of July weekend. Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day are all peak boating days, and I assume that the sketchy forecasts on Saturday and Sunday concentrated even more traffic into Monday (as it did for us). The bay was overrun with boats.
I went forward to take the sail ties off, and got a much better impression of the wind and chop from that vantage, which were both substantial. We were still under power and on a reasonable heading away from any hazards, so I took a moment to tuck in a reef. The wind instrument at Trixie’s would later show frequent gusts to 25kts, and I was certainly glad to have a reef in. We unfurled the jib and started blasting down the bay against the southerly winds.
I had a general plan to sail to the south end of the bay. When we were still imagining an adventure weekend, one of the ideas was to go to Beach Haven, and I wanted to show Jenn where it stops being open water and becomes a narrow channel beyond Marker 42. We made our way across to the eastern side of the bay, mostly to get away from ICW where boat traffic tends to congregate. The eastern side is shallower, but I’ve been sailing these waters for a long time and know where I am at this point. Having less traffic to contend with should have theoretically made it more relaxing, but the conditions were a little rough. The southern end of the bay suddenly seemed like a long way to go beating into the wind.
We continued tacking, with the boat on her ear and pounding through chop, covering us in spray. I openly discussed not continuing on to the south, but decided to furl in the jib a bit to get the boat on her feet and try one more tack down toward Marker BI with less sail. I called “ready about” and Jenn pointed out a fishing boat that was creeping along on a course opposite to ours off of our starboard bow. I asked her to standby and continued on while I waited for it to clear. As soon as it came abeam, I said “ok, are you still ready?” She said that she was ready and I declared “coming about” and pulled the tiller over. And then we ran aground.
I really thought that it would be ok. All we needed to do was complete the tack and we’d be sailing away from the shallows. It seemed like we kept turning, and I waited impatiently for the sail to come over, but I had not accounted for the fact that time had slowed down substantially in that moment and we were, in fact, not going anywhere. I then briefly thought that we were stuck in irons, but were actually stuck in the mud. After some time, the wind pushed us back onto our previous tack, which I assume was just nudging us further into the dirt.
I didn’t take down the sails right away. It was so windy and there was so much wave action, I expected that we would bounce off, I’d get a little rudder control, and could tack us out of there. It wasn’t a terribly hard grounding, and the bottom of Barnegat is mostly forgiving muck. Still, we sat there with our sails flying like a ship in a bottle: looking sporty but not moving an inch in our blue-tinted glue.
When it became clear that there was not going to be a magical solution, I started running through the contingencies. I furled the jib completely and let the mainsheet out. I didn’t want to take the main down, because I thought I might need it to induce heeling. I fired up the engine and tried to back us out. Or forward us out? Or kind of do the maneuver like when a car is stuck in snow? I took note of a crab pot float just ahead of us so that I’d have a fixed point of reference to tell if we were getting anywhere—it was difficult to tell with the water all churned up and the beach on the south end of Tices’ Shoal almost a mile away. I kept thinking that we were maybe moving, but would then realize that we’d merely pivoted. Jenn and I hiked out and I sheeted in the main to try to buy us a couple inches of clearance through heeling, but it did nothing to get us unstuck. It takes an awful lot of heeling to buy any real clearance.
Barnegat Bay is shallow, and there are little awkward quips that are repeated over and over, like “If you haven’t run aground, you haven’t been around!” or “There are two types of sailors of Barnegat Bay: those who have run aground and liars!” I always lumped these in with sentiments like “It’s good luck to have a bird poop on your head!” This is obvious nonsense. It is the epitome of bad luck to have a bird shit on you. End of story. Any attempt to attribute good fortune to it is a transparent attempt to soothe the defiled. I have certainly run aground before, but never to the point where I couldn’t get myself unstuck, and no amount of folksy wisdom would have made me feel unbesmirched in that moment. I shut off the engine, lowered the main, and paused for some quiet contemplation.
Like shipwrecked sailors have done for thousands of years, I then retired to the cabin and installed an application on my telephone. This decision was affirmed immediately, as the VHF radio crackled to life. I don’t remember the actual name of the boat, but it went something like:
Tow Boat US, Tow Boat US, this is the Sailing Vessel Blameless. I ran aground outside Forked River, but it really wasn't my fault. You see, there was this other guy who was taking up the whole... Captain, this is Tow Boat US, please go to Channel 18. One-eight.
I wasn’t going to be that guy, literally broadcasting my plight to the entire bay. Not when I had full bars and ready access to the Google Play Store. I’m not used to having a fancy telephone, and still use mine as if it were the novelty variety with 16kB of storage that they sell next to the Chiclets and Weekly World News in the checkout aisle, so I had removed the application for Tow Boat US at some point in the nine years since my previous towing debacle. It was easy enough to re-install though. The authentication was a little more than I wanted to deal with under those circumstances, but it was probably less involved than trying to announce our latitude and longitude over the radio, or worse, describe our location via landmarks while not on land. The app sends all of that automatically when you request a tow. Which I did.
Jenn was remarkably calm throughout the event, and didn’t even seem to question my insane suggestions like “Maybe try to get some pictures of the tow boat, but look alive if they need us to do anything.” Look alive? I have no idea why in stressful nautical situations I start talking like Wallace Beery in Treasure Island, but it happens every time. Avast, the tow boat showed up at our location rather quickly after assisting S/V Blameless.
I caught the tow line and got it affixed to the bow cleat before it came taut. The tow crew confirmed our draft and started dragging us out. We were really stuck. It was not a quick operation even with their 450hp, which in some ways made me feel marginally better—it certainly wouldn’t have happened with my 13hp. We touched several more times on the way toward deeper water. None of it (neither the original grounding nor bumping while under tow) was particularly violent or jarring and it all felt soft, but we were really in there. We hiked out again to try to reduce our draft a tiny bit.
The tow boat lingered for a moment while we started our engine, just to make sure that we hadn’t sucked up anything into the cooling system in our prior attempts to free ourselves. It was fine, and we parted ways. When we had been waiting for them to arrive, Jenn asked if we were going to keep sailing south after we got free, to which I incredulously replied, “No.” She immediately understood once we were freely floating again, though. We just wanted to lick our wounds and get back. We motored for a little bit to make sure that we were well away from the shoals, but then turned to the north and cut the engine. It was all downwind from there to the creek, so we didn’t even bother with the main and just deployed the jib for a calm return sail.
The swans were hanging around the marina when we got back, presumably waiting to take flight and bless me with good fortune.
It wasn’t my finest day on the water, but it wasn’t really that bad either. This is why they have towing insurance. I guess there was an element of hubris. I was intentionally trying to avoid the western side of the bay due to holiday traffic, and I deviated from my normal patterns without checking the charts. To some extent, I feel like I do know these waters. I mean, not to sound like a Scooby-Doo villain, but I would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for that meddling fishing boat. If we could have tacked when I wanted to tack, we would have been fine. But I was way too close to the edge for eyeballing it. No one got hurt and nothing got damaged, so I’ll just chalk it up as a learning experience. It wasn’t the adventure I wanted, but it was the adventure I got.