The ocean. It’s big. It’s out there. I want to sail in it.
It probably seems like I should be sailing in the ocean all the time, since it’s only about 4 miles from my marina as the crow flies. Of course, Fortuitous is not a flying crow, and it’s a somewhat elaborate process to get there. Barnegat Bay, where I usually sail, is protected from the ocean by the Barnegat Peninsula and Long Beach Island—long, narrow pieces of land with only a few openings to the waters beyond. When the tide comes up in the ocean, it attempts to drain through these openings, and then when the tide goes down, the current reverses and the bay drains back into the ocean. With those forces at work on such a small aperture, the inlets can be rough, so not only do I need to sail to an inlet if I want to go out, I also need to time it for one of the few interstitial moments a day when the water is neither coming in nor going out, i.e., slack water.
Jenn and I have been wanting to go on a trip in the ocean for several weeks, but between the weather and land-based obligations, it hasn’t materialized. We’re rapidly running out of sailing season though, and despite not having enough time this weekend to actually get anywhere by sail, we decided to dip out into the ocean just for kicks.
The plan was to sail to Myers Hole on Saturday afternoon, anchor there overnight, and then get up at stupid o’clock on Sunday to traverse the inlet at slack water. We would then sail around in the ocean for exactly one tide cycle, come back in, and sail home. Although a trip of this size required only the minimal amount of provisioning, I still attempted to avoid it. Jenn seems to always want to bring fragile, perishable things that require effort to maintain, store, and prepare, whereas I want to 1) not think about it at all and 2) if really pressed, just go with hardtack, cowboy coffee, and focus on the sailing. Within the overlapping portion of that Venn diagram, we arrived at canned soup and nice bread, and ultimately settled for canned soup and “bread.” The selection was limited. Part of my delaying tactic was to stop at the grocery store on the way to the shore, which I forgot is at the nexus of ~500 retirement communities, resulting in far more delay than I had intended.
Why would retired people all go to the grocery store on Saturday? This is not rhetorical…while in the line snaking throughout the entire store, waiting for elderly people to slowly mumble depression-era profanity at the self-checkout machines, I witnessed this exchange:
Old Lothario: What are they, giving away free food? [winks] Old Woman: Well, it rained yesterday, so I guess everybody's out today. Old Lothario: You'd think they were giving out free food. [winks]
That joke definitely deserved repeating at 10 second intervals. I can only assume that it worked once, perhaps during the liberation of Belgium, and has been a go-to ever since. And who could possibly buy food in the rain? I’d definitely rather starve than have to put on my rain bonnet. This all would have been enough on its own, except that there was also a robot roaming around the store. An actual robot. It had oversized googly eyes like a giant squid on cocaine, which I suppose were intended to make it less unnerving, but that is exactly what a robot would want you to believe if its real plan was to lure you within the range of its metal claws to steal your medicine for fuel.
We escaped with our soup and marginal bread and continued to the shore. The marina had already started pulling boats for the season, and placed them all where I usually park. I found a spot and went to use the restroom while Jenn started loading in, and in that amount of time, she lost a can of soup overboard.
I went to the marina office and asked if I could use the official Crab Net of Shame to try to fish it out of the muck in my slip. Of course, the Crab Net of Shame had been retired to a locked shed for the season, so I had to go on a Walk of Atonement with a representative of the marina to retrieve it while the denizens jeered. The tide was high and Crab Net of Shame too short, so I considered it a donation to the nautical deities of delay and schadenfreude. By then, I’d already realized that I’d forgotten the cooler, so I ventured back out for replacement soup and ice.
I was able to find an identical can of minestrone at a pharmacy. I also picked up a small puffy panda toy for Jenn. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with it, but it was the best thing I could find in the toy aisle. I didn’t want her to feel bad about the soup…the bag just ripped. It’s not like she was playing grab-ass and lost it in the fracas.
With that, we could finally depart.
We sailed down the bay to BI on an unusual northwest wind. I felt like we were going pretty fast and asked Jenn to check our speed. Her telephone said that we were going 7.6kts, which seemed high, but I thought that maybe it was possible if we were getting help from the current. She checked it again a little later and found us going 11kts, which is absurd. It turned out that her app just takes a moment to settle down. Once it locked in, it agreed with my telephone that we were actually in the low 6s.
For a moment, I considered trying to sail the Oyster Creek Channel. I’ve sailed it in the other direction several times, since the prevailing wind is from the opposite of what we were experiencing, and thought that this might be a rare opportunity to sail it the other way. But satisfied with the amount of misadventure on this adventure so far, I decided not to, and we furled the jib and started the engine. I was glad we did, because the current was blasting through there pretty hard, and there was less to worry about under power.
There was only one other boat in the anchorage when we arrived—a large center cockpit sailboat—and we got about as far away from them as we could and set our anchor. I attached the kellet and took down the main. A trawler came in and anchored between us, but there was plenty of room. Before the end of the evening, a salty looking sailboat would come in the inlet and anchor on the other side of the center cockpit. I’m not sure what it was, but I’d say that it was at least in the style of a Baba. It’s interesting to be in Myers Hole this time of year: it’s a convenient stopping point for a lot of snowbirds heading down the coast to warmer weather, so there are often unusual boats and distant hailing ports.
We relaxed in the cockpit as the sun set, and then the temperature started to dip.
I try not to use the word “very” in this boat log. Newspaper editor William Allen White (not Mark Twain) said, “Never use the word ‘very.’ It is the weakest word in the English language; doesn’t mean anything. If you feel the urge of ‘very’ coming on, just write the word ‘damn’ in the place of ‘very.’ The editor will strike out the word ‘damn’ and you will have a good sentence.” I think this is good advice, and outside of a few idiomatic usages, I strive to adhere to it. In this instance, however, I’m going to say that it was “very cold.” It feels appropriate because I’m using it in the style of those asinine questionnaires:
How likely are you to recommend spoons to a friend? • Extremely likely • Very likely • Somewhat likely • Not very likely • Spoons are like unto Satan
It was not “extremely cold.” It technically remained above freezing. But by boating standards, on a boat with no heater, I would give it a 4 out of 5 on this scale for “very cold.” I was glad to have soup (and marginal bread) for dinner, which warmed us up a bit. After dinner though, I wasn’t really up for doing much. The sky was clear and cloudless and the Milky Way was plainly visible, as was Mars, which has recently been red in a way that I’ve never noticed before. I would have liked to lounge in the cockpit and look for early Orionid meteors, but all I could do was put the crib boards in and get under a lot of blankets. According to the weather station at Kite Island, the overnight low was 43°F.
Slack water was at 6:23am. We debated waking up with enough time to make coffee before departing, but between the boiling speed of my 8 BTU alcohol stove and my general disinterest in mornings, it seemed beyond the pale. There wasn’t supposed to be any wind (“gusting to 3kts”) until 10:00 or 11:00, so I said that I’d make coffee once we got into the ocean and invoked the captain’s prerogative: we got up at 6:00. It was still “very cold” (and dark) so I put on every piece of clothing that I brought, including some extreme socks that threatened to explode my boat shoes. We converted the cabin to sailing mode, and then I pulled the crib boards and went up on deck.
As much as I complain about mornings, the pre-dawn sky over the water is always worth it.
We hoisted the main, started the engine, and retrieved the kellet and anchor without issue. We then followed the channel toward the inlet.
The sun still wasn’t above the horizon as we motored past the Coast Guard station and lighthouse, but as soon as we rounded the corner, with the expanse of the ocean before us, some of the low clouds over the north jetty became tinged with neon light.
We were no longer thinking of the cold or being tired or any of the usual nonsense that seems to take up an ocean’s worth of brain space. The sun appeared above the distant line of clouds, and we moved forward.
We entered the ocean on a heading that would have taken us to the Cape of Good Hope had we continued on. We motored out past the second set of markers before shutting off the engine and turning to the south. There was more wind than predicted (I’d say closer to 10kts than 3), so we had plenty to fill the sails. With the jib unfurled, we started making our way down the coast.
There was also more chop than I had anticipated. I have relatively few hours in the ocean, but I’m used to much more gentle swell, at least when it’s not blowing 15-20kts or more. As soon as we got over the initial exhilaration of being in the ocean and were settled in, I gave the tiller to Jenn and went below to boil water for coffee and hot chocolate. That was when the extent of the motion became apparent. Fortuitous does not have a fancy gimballed stove or way to lock a pot to the burner, and standing there there holding a kettle over an open flame as the boat meandered through a confused sea was not particularly pleasant. I basically needed one hand to hold the kettle and one hand to keep myself upright, which left no hands to actually prepare the drinks or do anything else. I figured it out, but we spilled a hilarious amount of beverage, pouring at least a little out each time we made a drink handoff or paused to clean up the previous spill.
I also realized that in my haste to get sailing, I’d left the kellet clipped to the pulpit. My kellet is just two spherical 40oz fishing weights on a short loop of line connected to a large carabiner, so it looks like something that one would dangle from the trailer hitch of their pickup truck to assert its masculinity. Jenn did not want me going up there, but I couldn’t leave it banging around, so I went to retrieve it. It was rough enough that I preferred having two hands to steady myself, so I clipped the kellet to my lifejacket while crawling on the foredeck. When I stood up to go back to the cockpit, the weights caught on the lazy sheet and, like every clip on America’s Funniest Home Videos, I took 80oz of lead directly to the groin. I was not in a position to writhe around in pain though, since I was primarily concerned with staying aboard, and had to sort of shuffle back on the ludicrous 5in wide side deck.
I put the kellet away and took the helm. As we passed Harvey Cedars, Jenn spotted something in the water. She stared intently for a moment, and then it leapt up, partially out of the water. It was a dolphin, which was definitely the highlight of the trip for her. I was slightly concerned that she might jump off of the boat with joy. Frolicking dolphins are pretty great.
We were almost as far south as the Beach Haven water tower when it was time to turn around. I confirmed that Jenn couldn’t [cough] call out sick so that we could just keep going to Atlantic City (or North Carolina). Alas, we tacked around and started sailing back.
We had been close reaching all the way down, and I expected us to be broad reaching on the way back, but as is so often the case, I underestimated the effect of our velocity on the apparent wind. We were still close reaching after tacking through 180°, so I guess the true wind was close to being exactly on our beam. The wind had also picked up, and with it the disorganized chop. I didn’t think the tiller pilot would be able to handle it, and Jenn, having never experienced waves like these, also had some trouble keeping us on our desired course, so I wound up hand steering most of the way. It wasn’t too much of a burden since we were only out there for a little bit.
On the way back, we searched for more dolphins. At one point, we sailed directly through an enormous patch of baitfish that I imagined were either feeding at the surface or getting scared up by some predator. They were dancing out of the water all over the place, and sometimes a wave would pass by and the entire thing would be absolutely full of shiny silvery fish, all aligned the same way, trying to maintain order amid the chaos. I thought for sure we’d see a dolphin (or a shark) there, but it wasn’t to be. It’s possible that they were just [literally] flipping out because we were sailing through their fish party.
We timed the return to the inlet perfectly, and were able to run it without having to rush or dawdle.
The wind was the same on the inside, but the water was glassy in comparison to the ocean. We motored through the channel, and deployed the jib once we got back into the wide portion of the bay. The wind had picked up considerably, and we were slightly overpowered under full sails. I heaved-to and we put a reef in the main so that we could sail back to the creek.
Jenn had never been in the ocean before, at least not on a small craft, so I’m glad she at least got to experience it, even if the timing didn’t work out for us to actually go anywhere. The truth is, we did go somewhere: we went out into the ocean. Where dolphins live.
I also appreciated the experience and had a great time, despite (or, perhaps due in part to) the challenges. The ocean has a unique draw for me. It’s different from sailing in the bay, and although a lot of the skills translate, I feel like there are facets to it that you probably have to sail through to understand. I don’t know exactly what they are yet, and this may be one of those things that I look back on and think, “Damn, I was so dumb about sailing then,” but that’s what progress looks like sometimes, and the only way I’ll get there is to keep going out.
There are more photos in the gallery here: The Ocean Gallery