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~ A Cut Above ~



Monica and Richard Cordovano, who participated in an ASA106 Delmarva Circumnavigation cruise in October 2014, sent the following delightful description:


Monica and I have a plan. After another five to ten years of training and saving, we want to embark on a voyage in a sailboat. We do not necessarily want to sail around the world, although we are not ruling that out. We do want to sail around IN the world - to see more of it in a small boat moving at a pace that will most of the time be comparable to that of a runner jogging along some trail. I pine for the Mediterranean; Monica is entranced by the tropical promises of the Caribbean.

One of the installments of the training plan for this year was a circumnavigation of the Delmarva Peninsula with the Maryland School of Sailing and Seamanship. “Delmarva” is an amalgamation of parts of the names of the states of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. It is bounded by the Chesapeake Bay to the west and the North Atlantic to the east, with the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal cutting through its narrow, northern attachment to the mainland. The course took place from October 3 to October 11.

As we boarded a Baltimore-bound plane in Boston, I was hoping that we would learn a lot and make a better chart of what we do and do not know about cruising in a sailboat.  I was also hoping for adventure.

I was not disappointed.

We arrived in Baltimore Friday afternoon and caught a ride to Rock Hall, Maryland with a native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Jenny manages a marina in Rock Hall and runs a shuttle service with her SUV on the side. Jenny deposited us at the almost impossibly spacious and luxurious Osprey Point Marina. The wide, floating piers seemed almost endless, with their forest of identical white-capped pilings.  We piled our sea bags into a cart and found our way to Celestial, a 44 foot Island Packet sailboat with a cutter rig. We were the first to arrive. Captain Hoffman – Jochen – greeted us.

One by one, our shipmates came aboard: Patrick, a physician; Bill, a surgeon; and Dan, a mechanical engineer. A boat full of professionals! With me a software engineer, Monica a therapeutic social worker, and Jochen a One Hundred Ton Master with an Oceans endorsement, we appeared to have all of the bases covered. Everyone stowed their gear and we started to get to know Celestial. Celestial! What a lovely name, evoking the heavens and navigation by sextant.

We soon learned that this voyage was to be Celestial’s last for the Maryland School. After something on the order of 70,000 miles of sailing, she was going on the market upon our return. This fact lent an air of romance to the whole enterprise. Thinking of Celestial as “she”, as is the custom, this heavenly lady was having her last fling with us before an uncertain future. We spent the rest of Friday and all of Saturday with her in that alternately awkward and exciting beginning phase of a relationship, when it’s all about discoveries and disclosures.

Sunday morning we set out.  Jochen used his “local knowledge” to guide us over the bar at the entrance of Swan Creek and out into the Chesapeake. We headed north with favorable winds. We didn’t know it then, but those winds would be the only favorable winds we would enjoy on our voyage! By the time we headed out into the Delaware River, the wind would perversely shift with every change of our course to be “dead on our nose.” Seemingly endless hours of “beating” and pounding into waves awaited us. But we didn’t know that yet. We enjoyed flying up the bay, savoring the primal joy of moving with the wind. The more pragmatic aspects of passage making - rhumb lines, weather, tides, shipping lanes, and a welter of other logistical details – were temporarily reduced to background murmurs.

By nightfall we had sailed up the Bay and most of the way through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. We arrived at the mouth of the creek on which Summit North Marina squats at the low point of an exceptionally low tide, and it was touch and go to maneuver into the creek. But at least the bars were mud. Sailing in this part of the world seems a bit more forgiving than usual to this New Englander. Yes, I guess I can call myself a New Englander now, once again a transplant. In any case, I am more accustomed to most obstacles to navigation being rocks, harsh and unforgiving and ready to tear away at keels and hulls like snaggle-toothed monsters lurking just below the water’s surface.

Monday morning we were up early and out in the Canal again at first light. Tendrils of fog lay on the still water like witchy smoke, and it was indeed a bewitching start to a day that would see us running down the Delaware River with a swift current, bound for the ocean. The morning light was lovely, the reedy and rocky shoreline of the canal enchanting, and we passed the time naming the bridges as we headed east.

By Monday evening, the idyll was over. Night fell on us in the Delaware Bay with us battling to strike out into the Atlantic between the twin points of Cape May, New Jersey, and Cape Henlopen, Delaware. The wind was occasionally blowing a bit less than 20 knots, but mostly it was 25-30 knots, sometimes a bit more, and on the nose (of course). 

For the next few days the significant wave height (“mean wave height of the highest one third of the waves”) would generally be something like 3-5 feet, but Monica stood a watch with the Captain with 6-8 foot waves and winds above 30 knots the entire four hours. In these boisterous conditions, a shipmate was laid low by the full force of seasickness, experiencing the same sort of misery Monica had suffered through on the previous year’s training passage from Boston to Nantucket outside of Cape Cod. Monica fortunately had built herself a sturdy barricade of Dramamine for this trip, and only a little bit of mal de mer seeped through her defenses.

I enthusiastically filled in for my afflicted shipmate, but by the time I went below after this second watch, I was feeling poorly myself. At first I thought that I was experiencing my first ever taste of seasickness, but I thankfully I had a different set of symptoms. I have been told that seasickness can make you feel like you are dying, and I believe it. Hopefully, I’ll never have the chance to confirm it.

It turned out I was just dehydrated and sleep-deprived. I had got little rest between the two watches, as I found it difficult to sleep with Celestial bucking like a crazed horse, and in all the excitement I had neglected to drink much at all. With some help from a dose of Jochen’s magical Emergen-C powder and a copious intake of fluids, my first complaint was eliminated. Then, with a meal in my belly, and the twin sleep aids of exhaustion and adaptation, I was able to sleep despite the motion.

I awoke for my next watch much refreshed. I’ve read that the hard part about shorter passages of continuous sailing is that you don’t get time to adapt to the rhythm of watches the way you do on longer passages, but I can say that it was getting easier as we went.

We traveled on and on. A second day and night slipped by; we were moving much slower than planned, motor-sailing in definitely Force 5, probably Force 6, and perhaps a touch of Force 7 conditions. Now, I won’t presume to call myself an expert at pinpointing wind and sea state using the Beaufort scale, and I know that it’s easy to exaggerate what you encounter at sea, so you will have to temper my report with that caveat. However, I can say that before this trip, I would have considered the winds and waves we experienced to be a bit intimidating. Using the definition of “heavy weather” given by John Rousmaniere in his celebrated “Annapolis Book of Seamanship”, I probably would say we were in “heavy weather.” John says “heavy weather” is when you, personally, feel like you could lose control of your boat. Nonetheless, by the time we made landfall at Cape Charles Harbor, Virginia, at the gateway from the ocean back into the Chesapeake, conditions that started off adventurous were feeling rather ordinary!

Our repose at Cape Charles was to be brief. We ate dinner ashore and went to bed with the setting sun, only to arise at 11 PM for what we anticipated as a long passage to Solomons Island, bypassing the usual stop in Annapolis due to the boat show. The wind had of course worked its way around the compass to blow from the north instead of the south, so our hopes for a spinnaker run up the Bay dissolved into more motor sailing. That night and the next day were chock full of encounters with fishing boats and commercial ships, but we rode some tidal currents and made the marina at Solomons Island before nightfall of the next day. What a luxury to sleep a full night with Celestial lying rock solid and still!

Our next day was a shorter hop further up the Bay to Gibson Island. Of course, we sailed into the wind, as usual. We slipped into the anchorage near sunset and learned how to set two anchors instead of only one.

Although the legs of the journey up the Bay were less rambunctious than the ocean leg, I should mention that they were not devoid of adventure. Shortly after we left Cape Charles, we were “pulled over” by a USCG guard vessel. It turns out that there had been a distress call via cell phone with incomplete information. We listened in as the “coasties” contacted numerous boats and ships and a search for a possible man overboard was conducted and eventually broken off - sobering stuff.  Later that night there was radio traffic about a car in the water and a car hanging off a distant bridge! And as we neared the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, we picked up a distress call on the VHF radio. This time the situation was developing quite near to us. In accord with the code of the sea, we made our way to the source of the call, ready to render aid. A sailboat with a crew of two, perhaps headed for the boat show, had tried to sail under the bridge outside of the designated channels, and had got its mast caught in the lowest girders of the bridge in a rising tide. We could not approach too closely with our even taller mast, but the Maryland Natural Resources Police showed up to help, while we served as eyes and ears for the USCG until the situation was well in hand.

The last day of the trip brought mist and rain, as we made our final passage across the bay back to Osprey Point marina. And yes, the wind shifted to blow right on Celestial’s nose! How could it be any other way? Yet by 1 PM Celestial was not only snug in her slip, she was also cleaned up by her student crew, and ready for more extensive sprucing up for prospective buyers. Her last Maryland School of Sailing adventure was over, and she seemed to whisper to me of her anxieties about new owners and her hopes for more seafaring in the years ahead. I wished her the best. One by one, our shipmates slipped away and we left Jochen with Celestial, heading straight for his bunk, I suspect, as we rolled away our cart of sea bags to wait for Jenny in the drizzle.

What did we learn?

Well, we spent more days on the ocean than we ever have before, with the clockwork revolution of the watches and the sort of winds and waves that inspire small craft advisories on our home waters of Buzzards Bay.

I left Celestial with a list of improvements for our sailboat. For example, it’s past time for us to get a hand-held VHF radio and we need cockpit jack lines in addition to deck jack lines, to mention just a few things.

Being at sea instead of merely dreaming about it pumped new motivation into Monica and me to get into the kind of shape we were in during our mountaineering days. The week since the trip has seen Monica and I taking long walks again (six miles yesterday), lifting weights again, and resuming the struggle to master our food addictions and my dietary deficiencies. Got to keep that going!

We learned a process and the tools for making more detailed passage plans, and on Celestial we gained some experience with use of a chart plotter and radar; we have these instruments on our boat, but the radar was a mystery and the chart plotter was only an aid to piloting by paper chart.

We traveled with the big ships at night, an experience qualitatively different to both the busyness of Boston Harbor and our occasional shipping encounters in Buzzards Bay during daylight hours. Automatic Identification System (AIS) equipment is now a must-have in my book!

And of course there were myriad other things we learned about keeping a sailboat moving safely for more than 400 miles of sailing – from the “best” way to tie a trucker’s hitch, to how to safely enter a channel from an anchorage or marina, to the importance of strapping in to work in the galley, to how to look after your shipmates.

Mistakes were made, and the good Captain supplied the necessary corrections to his latest crop of apprentice skippers.

And so our 2014 sailing season winds down. It was a great season! We bought our 1979 Shannon 38 Victory in May, and although we spent as much time replacing her steering system as we did sailing her, the sailing was very, very good. It was exciting to work out how to sail a “cutter-rigged” ketch such as Victory instead of a sloop, and next year we will break out the mizzen staysail when sailing off the wind.

But for now it’s time for another learning experience – tucking Victory into bed for the winter, and all that entails. However, we may in fact, have one last passage to make next weekend – we are contemplating a fifty mile or so run up to Tiverton, Rhode Island in Narragansett Bay to have her toe rails pulled and re-bedded this winter by a yard staffed by former Shannon employees.

Of course, sailing Victory was not the only highlight of 2014. I got a taste of frostbite racing on J/24s in the early months of the year, and I experienced the joy of being first over the line in a Soling race, with a respectable overall finish of 8th of 19 boats for the season.  That seems pretty good for a first-time skipper, a novice sailor in the middle, and a novice racer (me) as the bowman!

But most of all, by circumnavigating the Delmarva, we got another tantalizing taste of the kind of adventures we are dreaming of as our careers wind down and we look to starting a new chapter on the oceans of the world, sometime in the years ahead.


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