Victory's Voyages

A Sailing Adventure

School of Hard Knocks

As I write this, Victory and her crew are holed up in Port Washington, NY, on the doorstep of New York City. We are once again waiting out several days of fierce winds and rain. The remnants of the human tragedy known as Hurricane Ian have decided to take up residence along the mid-Atlantic coast as a stubbornly stationary Nor'easter. We are in the top end of the flow around the low pressure center and are getting wind gusts of over 30 knots. I know this for a fact because I have turned on our wind instrument from time to time and read the values reported by the anemometer on top of Victory's mainmast. More speculatively, based on the howling of the winds and the heeling and shuddering of the boat, I think that we may seen gusts north of 40 knots at times, specifically in the wee hours of the morning while trying to sleep...

Getting here to Port Washington from Stonington, CT via New Haven, CT was the work of two passages. One of the passages, the second one, was delightful and came off beautifully according to plan. The first passage, however, saw us sitting in front row seats in a classroom at the proverbial School of Hard Knocks.

Here's what happened. As mentioned in my previous post, we spent a lot of days at anchor in Stonington waiting for Hurricane Fiona to roar past on its way to deliver a frightful blow to the Canadian maritime provinces. After Fiona went by, we were originally holding out for a day of northeasterly winds to sail downwind through Long Island Sound. Nonetheless, feeling a certain urgency to get on our way, in the end we decided to set out at first light on a calm day with mild southwesterlies (upwind) forecast for the afternoon.

This was an unfortunate choice. As you might imagine, wind direction, wind speed, sea state, and ocean currents go a long way towards defining the quality of life on a cruising sailboat. Sailors want those "fair winds and following seas" you've heard about. And it's with good reason that it's said that "gentlemen don't sail to weather." Well, sailing to weather (upwind) is exactly what we decided to do. Which brings to mind another tidbit of sailing lore: the most dangerous thing on a boat is a calendar.

Our rationalization went something like this. We would start out with no wind, and we would ride the strong flood tide current cleanly through "The Sluiceway" section of Long Island Sound with the engine running. By the time the southwesterly winds filled in, we would be out of the strong current, and although these winds would be on our nose, they were going to be moderate and the waves would be small. Therefore, we would be able to tack our way into New Haven under sail by late afternoon, no problem. Wouldn't it be great, we thought, to resume our voyage to the still very distant warm weather embrace waiting for us in the Bahamas after so many days pinned down in Stonington, unable to even get to shore?

So it was that we left the next morning bathed in the pink light of dawn. Sunrise and sunsets on the water are somehow so much more intense than on land. It was a good start and spirits were high as we raced west on the flood tide. But cue up the "Gilligan's Island" theme song. Our rosy outlook started to unravel when the southwesterlies came earlier, and much stronger, than suggested by the forecast.

The definitely not fair winds started to build before we were out of the Sluiceway, and they raised up definitely not following seas that quickly became large enough to slow us down significantly. Consequently, the tide turned on us and we found ourselves fighting a foul ebbing current as well, slowing us even further. The sky faded from a sun brightened blue to a washed out gray. Our lives had suddenly become distinctly uncomfortable.

Still, we told ourselves, we'd just labored through nine months on the land doing boat work and this was an opportunity to get back in the groove of some serious sailing. This was good practice!

At this time, the apparent wind (true wind plus the wind generated by Victory's motion) was in the high teens, gusting into the low twenties. We reefed (reduced the size of) our sails and squeezed up as close to the wind as we could, bashing our way through four foot waves that sent occasional bursts of spray into the cockpit.

The hands of the day's clock inexorably circled the dial as we did long tacks almost perpendicular to our intended course. It became obvious that an early dinner ashore in New Haven was not going to happen. Instead, when we finally got to New Haven we were going to face the choice of entering an unfamiliar harbor at night (almost never a good idea) or heaving-to (sort of parking the boat) to wait for dawn.

On the bright side, a somewhat favorable wind shift came along at dusk and delivered the prospect of making at least some noticeable progress. Plus, the updated forecasts cheerfully told us that we would be having winds of 5-10 knots with seas of less than one foot overnight. Great! Relief in sight!

In reality, the wind just kept ratcheting up until we had apparent winds in the low twenties, gusting into the higher twenties, with waves that looked like they were getting up to perhaps five to six feet, with occasional bigger ones. Down below, Victory's cabin sole (floor) was littered with things that belonged tucked away in cupboards and lockers. We had been unfortunately casual about stowing things away for the passage.

The darkness finally closed in. Then, in a truly terrifying moment that dropped a big, red exclamation mark into what was otherwise just an unpleasant night, the high water alarm I had installed during Victory's refit went off. I was at the wheel, swathed in foul weather gear and hand-steering to head up in the gusts and down in the lulls, so Monica went below to investigate. She immediately discovered that the three-way switch on the automatic bilge pump was inexplicably in the "Off" position. Thankfully, it only took a few minutes of running the pump to silence the alarm. But we didn't figure out what had actually happened until the next day, which was, as you can imagine, not ideal for our nerves as the night wore on.

But the best was yet to come. At about 1 AM the winds were finally settling down a little and Victory was slowing down anyway, so we struck the sails, turned on the engine, and started motoring along parallel to the shore, on the rhumb line to the harbor entrance. Victory was pitching in the still substantial seas like a demented rocking horse, but we slowly ate up the remaining miles until there were only two miles to go! This is when we fouled our prop with a trailing line and the engine stalled out. It was 2 AM and we hurriedly raised Victory's mizzensail and hove-to to figure out our options, as Victory slowly, ever so slowly, drifted downwind, away from New Haven.

One alternative was to turn and sail back twenty miles to where a diver could be brought out to us to clear the prop. That was the cheapest and most self-reliant choice. But we were spent. For example, since we were motoring in a straight line, we had turned on the autopilot and I was taking little cat naps with an alarm set for every five minutes for a look around in the otherwise empty sea. Monica pointed out that I was actually sleeping through the alarms, something she had never seen happen before. So we decided discretion, not valor, was needed, and called for a painfully expensive tow into New Haven, tails between our legs. Four long, cold hours later we were dropped off at a mooring in a cove on New Haven's waterfront as the sun came up, twenty four hours, almost to the minute, after setting out from Stonington.

So what about the high water alarm? It turns out that a wave had washed the cover off the chain pipe for our unused second anchor, and water was occasionally surging through the pipe to run into the bilge and mingle with some accumulated rain water we had unfortunately neglected to pump out of the bilge. Another bit of laxity in the spirit of what was supposed to be a mild passage...

As for the second passage, two days later, we left New Haven in the early morning light, bound for Port Washington. We had hired a diver to come to Victory to get the line off her prop, everything below was stowed properly, the errant chain pipe cover was firmly attached, and the bilge was pumped out. We slipped through a weather window with fair winds and following seas, Victory broad reaching on the flood tide like a dolphin. Yes, we were in time to enter the harbor in daylight and go ashore. And we'll be here for awhile, until we can get some more of those fair winds and following seas. Forget about gentlemen, sane people never sail to weather, if they can help it!

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