Sunday, October 26, 2008

Plymouth MA to New York City - The Big Apple - or how we avoided becoming Apple Sauce

I have been accused of not knowing what I was doing once or twice in my life. I have been accused of not knowing where I was going a few times and I have even been accused of not knowing what was going on around me. At various times the accusations may have had a smidgen of verity, but for the most part I have managed to shrug everything off as the ramblings of lesser mortals. This past weekend however I had to openly admit that I had no idea where I was, That I had only a slight notion of what I was doing, and I could only pray that I was going to be forgiven my trespasses during the latest installment of the Mother Nature’s lessons on life. Indeed this week has been a week of contrasts. Just when there was enough bad stuff happening to encourage a prolonged session of thumb sucking curled up in a fetal position, great things would happen that would cause us to stand tall and go just a little further.

At the beginning of this week we were pinned in Plymouth MA waiting for a Nor’easter to blow itself out. The weather was as cold and as miserable as we have seen to date, and Pat and I were not motivated to leave the boat, except for a quick dash out to see the fabled rock. In fact even leaving the boat was somewhat hazardous as we were out at the end of the dock system and the wind driven waves were washing over. Threepenny Opera was caked in salt spray from the 30 knot winds that blew whitecaps through the very shallow Plymouth Harbor. It wasn’t a huge hardship, but our Espar heater ran nearly full time. We were warm and snug but frustrated that we were stuck.

While the old wives tales promised good weather immediately after a Nor’easter, there was no stipulation as to how long the period of good weather would last. Mother Nature must have been a lawyer! As we were preparing to leave Plymouth on Tueday AM, the revised forecast was for another cold front to sweep through, bringing heavy rain and high winds. Since we had already experienced a little taste of down east weather, we revised our plans to clear the canal and hang an immediate right into a place called Onset Bay. It is hard to imagine a town that closes at the end of the season, but Onset Bay made Summerside PEI seem positively effervescent by comparison.

It occurred to me the other day that Pat and I have been playing a game of cosmic Frogger. Like the little animated amphibian of video game fame, we have been metaphorically negotiating a watery highway that is fraught with hazards, while similarly packed with hidden prizes. In the game of Frogger, timing is everything. There is a rhythm to the game that once mastered will advance a player by several levels. A mistake however will leave a little stain on the road and the life count goes down by one. Since we had become pretty good at timing the cold fronts, Pat and I were waiting for the appropriate gap in traffic to make a run down the length of Long Island Sound for the prize of The Big Apple. It was a shame that we ended up bypassing great sailing destinations like Newport and Mystic Seaport. Actually we stopped in Mystic for the night, but since mother nature had given us a 2 day pass, we did not want to insult her kindness by dallying and playing tourist.

By Friday night we were in Norwalk CT and well within striking distance of NYC. Perhaps it was due to the tantalizing closeness of it all, perhaps it was the frost on the boat or maybe we were just fixated on a single point oblivious of the hazards around it? Like an ill timed frogger jump across the highway, Pat and I dismissed the Gale Warnings that were effective on Saturday PM for the New York and Western Long Island Sound forecast area. I can rationalize our actions by observing that up until now the forecasts had been very precise and that the forecast conditions of 15-20 knots with gusts to 25 after 12:00 noon were becoming fairly routine conditions for “experienced” cruisers like Pat and me! But rationalization is the lament of fools.

Since the forecast was for the weather to worsen in the afternoon, we cast off from Norwalk shortly after sunrise, expecting that a 3 hour trip to City Island in the Bronx would be fairly uneventful. And uneventful it was for the first 2.5 hours of our 3 hour tour! In fact I would go so far as to say that for 2.5 hours it was totally blissful! The seas were flat, the winds were as forecast in the mid teens and coming from our port quarter. We were slicing through the water at nearly 9 knots, absolutely convinced that we were both Master and Commander!

Little did we know that the first 2.5 hours were the climb up to the apex of the roller coaster. When things started to go down hill, they went down hill very quickly! First the wind increased to 20-25 with gusts to 30. Secondly it started to rain, virtually obliterating any forward vision. Then I discovered that despite the latest in electronics I found myself on the wrong side of a mark and of course the furler would pick this exact moment to get sticky and require a winch to bring in the head sail. At times like this you really want to press the reset button and start over, but unfortunately real life ain’t like that. In the end we did not go aground, we did get the sail put away and somehow I managed to put the boat into a slip despite a +20 knot cross wind and driving rain.

When the boat was secured into the slip, Pat and I thought we had been through the worst of it. Little did we know that when Mother Nature teaches a lesson in humility, she wants to make sure her points get across. As the day wore on, the local weather channels started to hint that the convergence of cold fronts in the NYC area was going to create an intense weather phenomenon. Translated it meant that the winds were going to exceed 40 knots, the local airports were going to suspend flight operations for a time, and that thunderstorms would bring flooding and power outages. For Pat and me it meant being banged around at the dock in a way that was positively scary. At the peak of the storm the wind was 47 knots, which was 7 knots more than we saw during Hurricane Kyle.

The boat was leaping and surging in the wind driven tide to the point that we needed to wedge ourselves against the table to remain sitting in an upright position. When I looked outside I could see the rudder of the neighboring boat as it surged out of the water. At about 7:10 in the evening, after we had been hanging on for dear life for the past couple hours, a blinding flash of light followed by what I thought was a carbon arc spotlight illuminated our boat. The source of the light it turned out was a 60Kva transformer melting before our eyes, and about 10 feet from our boat.

Suffice it to say that we are now duly humbled and will repeat 100 times that we will be more conservative in our weather decisions in future. Mother Nature you got your point across!!

The trip through Hell Gate and the East River on Sunday was almost anti-climatic, although it was hard to be nonchalant about sailing past Manhattan under gloriously clear skies and relatively calm waters. We are now in Lincoln Harbor Yacht Club, which is in Weehawken NJ, directly across from the Empire State Building. It is only a 15 minute ferry ride from Manhattan, and we can catch it from the pier just at the end of the Yacht Club. Today we were wandering outside in our shirt sleeves for the first time in weeks. We are in a world class city, and we have a world class view. It doesn’t get much better than this. Our plans are to hole up here for a few days, and let our mail catch up with us. Towards the end of the week we will be off towards the New Jersey Shore …. If Mother Nature thinks it is a good idea.

Have a great week. I will think of you when I chomp down on a Carnegie Deli Super Corned Beef Sandwich!!


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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Rockland ME to Plymouth MA – We are heading due South…finally!

I am a creature of habit. Since we have started cruising full time, it is a little weird to change gears and to develop a new set of habits that work with the current circumstances. I no longer check my Aeroplan statement daily, and the compulsion to pull my Blackberry out of its holster and spin the magic thumbwheel has finally subsided. In the past my morning would revolve rigidly around a cup of coffee and a few minutes of peace and quiet with my newspaper. I have to confess that in the past month, I do not recall actually reading a newspaper, at least not on the day it was published. While the coffee ritual remains sacrosanct, I have substituted the Business section of the Toronto Star with a daily pre-departure perusal of the weather pages.

Pat and I have become aficionados of weather sources. Instead of putting our ear to the VHF and listening to the drone in both official languages of the forecasts and current conditions from what feels like half the planet, we log on to a few choice web sites and make our “where do we go today decision. Some of our favorites sources are the US Navy Forecast center and of course the pages of NOAA. They both have an experimental marine weather section that provides graphical representations of wind strength and wave heights. We have come to appreciate that for the US Navy, dark blue or black represents the “good stuff, whereas lighter shades of blue and other warmer colours meant varying degrees of the “go back to bed” On the NOAA site the opposite is true so its really important not to mix the two up.

Normally I make the coffee in the morning, but this past Saturday I was feeling lazy so Pat, was up first. Her exclamation of “ohmygod its only 6 degrees” shook me wide awake. In the time that it took for me to get from our cabin to the salon, the temperature actually dipped to 5.9 degrees. Naturally I headed for my computer to check the forecasts and sure enough we were in the grips of a pretty solid cold front. In addition to the cold front, the US Navy site was getting decidedly lighter and NOAA was getting much darker. The long and the short of it was that Pat and I did not have to make a “where do you want to go today” decision, but rather a “where do you want to get stuck for a couple of days decision.”

Originally we had planned to stay in Salem for a couple of days expecting the town to live up to its guide book descriptions and provide us with some interesting excursions. While the town itself is quite charming, it has, like many tourist destinations over done its franchise to the point of tackiness. Without a doubt there are more fetish shops, disguised as occult stores, per square meter in Salem, than there are anywhere else in the world. For a kinky weekend of velvet pointy hats, fishnet stockings and dungeons, Salem is just what the doctor ordered.If however your expectation is more in line with the true history of the Scarlett Letter, a weekend in the equally tasteful Niagara Falls, ON should provide an equivalent level of disappointment.

To put matters into perspective, we felt that 2-4 foot seas building to 3-6 and higher were a preferable alternative to another night in Salem. The barometer was dropping and we have had to face the cruel irony that despite the onset of a genuine Nor’easter in October, Pat and I have slowed our pace from 50-60 mile days down to 35-40 mile days. Perhaps the change in pace was due to the adrenalin of saying awake for 40 hours wearing off, or perhaps it was due to the terminal hangover from the mixing of post crossing celebratory champagne, with several red wines and several types of local beers. Or more plausibly it was because the geography and tidal ranges of the Atlantic coast require navigators to enter or leave most ports at high tide, or at slack tide. Places like Newburyport on the Merrimack River for example have a 4-5 knot tidal flow that makes Dalhousie with the sluice gates open seem like child’s play. Whatever the reason however, the fact is we have slowed down this week.

Today we are in Plymouth MA, where we will stay until Tuesday. Since arriving here from Salem yesterday afternoon, after rolling through several hours of 3-6 footers, we have not left the boat. At least most of the trip was on a heading of 180, a due south course finally. The weather is miserably cold, and the NE wind is howling. During the night my instruments recorded a peak of 31 knots and the average wind is still in the mid 20’s. Hopefully we will get a chance to visit the famed “Rock” but a part of me is dreading the onslaught of Pilgrim t-shirts, Puritan hats and fake blunderbuss rifles. Perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised and the spirit of Miles Standish will in fact be preserved with some dignity, but I am not holding my breath. By next weekend, weather permitting, we will be in New York, so our goal of making the ICW by early November is still very much within reach.

Stay warm, and have a great week. I know I will….no matter what Mother Nature serves up.


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Monday, October 13, 2008

Halifax to Rockland Maine - Blue Water, Black Night

It was about 6:30 on Saturday evening of the Thanksgiving weekend and I was lost in thought as I wedged myself against the dodger frame of Threepenny Opera. We had been underway since 7:05 that morning so it had already been a very long day and despite the serenity of the golden glow of the setting sun, which illuminated Seal Island, I was more than a little bit apprehensive about the night to come.

Seal Island Nova Scotia is a little bit of rock that is approximately 15 miles WNW of Cape Sable which is the southern extremity of Nova Scotia. It has very little to offer, other than to serve as a pedestal for the light house that serves as a warning beacon for the super tankers and other commercial shipping traffic that plies the Bay of Fundy. For Pat and me, the added significance of Seal Island was that it was the last bit of land we would see until about 9:00AM the next day.

We have both made significant advances as sailors, but the coming night was to be our first blue water over night passage. It was not just any overnight passage, it was an October crossing of the Bay of Fundy/Gulf of Maine during the time of the highest tides. No matter what the weather forecast, there would be a couple of periods of significant wind against 20 foot tides that we would have to deal with. Seal Island represented the last opportunity to save ourselves and change course for Yarmouth or even to return to Shelburne, which we had left earlier in the day.

When we arrived in Shelburne from Liverpool on Wednesday afternoon, we met up with several other cruising boats that were also headed in the same direction as Pat and me. We had met the crew of Active Assets (Richard and Connie), a beautiful DeFever 49 Trawler in Taddoussac more than a month earlier. There was also the crew of Valissa (Bob and Debbie -friends of Dave F) and a single hander on Adena ( the City) Since we all had a common objective of getting away from winter, we immediately bonded into a tight cohort. Like the pilgrims of Chaucer’s Cantebury tales, we were each unique in our own way, with our own stories to tell and reasons for doing it, but in the end, we found comfort in just having kindred spirits nearby.

The original plan was to leave on Friday AM, so Thursday gave us a whole day to re-provision and to finish a couple of small boat projects that I started during our week off in Halifax. Plan “A” was to leave very early on Friday AM to catch the tide for Yarmouth, and then to continue on to Grand Manan Island New Brunswick on Saturday AM and finally to Bar Harbor Maine on Sunday. Each leg would have been ~65 miles so taking the timing of the tides into consideration no more than 2-3 hours of any portion would be traveled in darkness.

By late Thursday afternoon, it was becoming obvious that the weather was not materializing as forecast. Well perhaps for a land lubber it would have been pretty close, but we sailors watch for winds and waves more than temperature and UV index. Give me an overcast day with a flat sea and a steady wind any day over the brilliant clear blue skies and gale force winds, accompanied by the confused 1-2 meter waves that are so common in South Western Nova Scotia this time of year! Debbie from Valissa was one of the most experienced sailors in our group and she kindly offered to re-check the forecasts when Environment Canada and NOAA reissued them at 3:30AM to confirm our weather window. If the weather was good enough to go, she would be the “she rooster” and wake us all up with rapping on the hulls. When I awoke at my usual 6:30AM the next day, all of the boats were still on their finger docks, and “Camp Shelburne” would not be struck for at least another 24 hours.

Friday turned out to be a beautiful sunny day but with winds that were gusting up to the mid 20’s within the well protected confines of Shelburne Harbour. There was a certain smugness amongst our little group that our finely honed “sailor instincts” had made the correct call. That same “sailor instinct” however was looking at Saturday as an “even better” weather window that should not be squandered on a mere coastal hop to Yarmouth. With 2 days of good weather in the forecast, winds NW 15-20, diminishing to NW-N 10-15 and seas in the 1 meter diminishing to 1 meter or less by Sunday, we were convinced that a Fundy/Gulf of Maine passage was a very real possibility.

It was a very interesting linear programming problem. We had the constraints of weather window, viable ports and distance, balanced against the resources of vessels, crews, winds, tides and fuel. In the end, through science, instinct and prayer we all reached the conclusion that Rockland Me, a town on the Maine Coast ~ 185 miles from our current docks, was the perfect next stopping point for the wannabe-soon sun worshippers of Camp Shelburne. The route was to leave Shelburne before high tide at 7:00AM on Saturday -Cape Sable-Seal Island NS-Seal Island ME-Rockland ME by mid-Sunday afternoon with the most challenging leg to be the crossing of the Gulf of Maine between the two Seal Islands during the night of Saturday to Sunday morning. The total travel time was estimated to be in the order of 30 hours at 6.5 knots.

The Sirens were singing the next AM as the brightening pre-dawn sky revealed flat water with just the slightest ripple of a breeze from a favourable direction. Their songs rose to a crescendo as we sailed out of the harbour beam reaching at 7 knots under full sail in brilliant sunshine and calm seas. When we turned the corner at Cape Sable however, the Sirens stopped singing and began giggling and pointing Gotcha! The winds did not clock to the NW direction and stayed more westerly, so the motor came on and we created our own NW apparent wind! – please see my definition for apparent wind in the Bienvenue a L’Acadie post. Adena decided wisely that as a single hander, 30 hours of open water would be a bit much and left our group to follow the original plan A towards Yarmouth.

As the day progressed the wind stubbornly refused to clock as forecast, but all of the other variables remained constant so we pressed on by motor sailing, and tacking back and forth across the rhumb line. Since route planning was done collectively and sailing was done individually, it was a relief and confidence booster to see that everybody else was also adopting a similar technique….but then misery loves company. So by 6:30 PM after a full day of close hauled motor sailing, my thoughts revolved around what I would do if something on boat broke in the dark, that the forecast would fall apart completely and that I would be sea sick!!

Pat is a miracle worker on the boat. In the fading light of day and bouncing around in 3-4 foot waves, she prepared a hot meal of beef and broccoli accompanied by steamed jasmine rice. The rest of the convoy were discussing various ways to do ship to ship transfers via VHF when Bob on Valissa suggested we just throw some over the side so dinner would drift back to them. Poor Valissa was having some engine overheating problems and the crew was nursing her along at 4.5 knots instead of our 6-7.

With the contented feeling that comes from a full belly and a nearly full moon, night fall seemed to be palatable even though I was fighting the incipient nausea that comes with a less than distinct horizon. The seas, although a little rougher than forecast were bearable and as long as I stayed at the helm I was fine, but in the back of my mind I was having the no win pee or puke debate.

The details of the next 12 hours could fill volumes, so rather than bore all with a wave by retching wave description; suffice it to say that the wind was higher than forecast, and from the wrong direction, the waves were higher than forecast, from all directions and that incipient sea sickness became a full blown (bad pun) case of heaves. What was good however is that we survived the night, snug in our heated enclosure, comforted by the steaming lights of our companions and the knowledge of that which does not actually kill us makes us stronger… so the theory goes.

In the end we took 33 hours to cover the distance from Shelburne to Rockland ME. We buried the bow into 6 foot waves in pitch darkness, ran a gauntlet of lobster traps and discovered that regurgitated beef and broccoli is not runny in the palm of your hand. We are now in a foreign country and have an official cruising license in hand, delivered to the boat personally through the courtesy of USCBP officer Stan S.

Today is Thanksgiving and Pat and I are doing just that as we have a lot to be thankful for. Tomorrow is another day, and our destination is not particularly clear. All we know is that we are proceeding in a southerly direction and that we will end up somewhere interesting.... after all we are now Blue water cruisers!

Have a great week

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Halifax - From Hurricane Hole to Shore Leave!!!

The big weather event of the week was the passing of hurricane Kyle. At first it seemed that Nova Scotia might get a miss, but as hurricanes are totally unpredictable, Kyle took a last minute turn and slammed into Shelburne. We are told that the docks at the Shelburne Yacht Club sustained serious damage, but remain serviceable. Hopefully they will still be available to us when we pass through next week. In Halifax, at RNSYS, the event was reminiscent of riding out Hurricane Ernesto which passed over PCYC on the Labour Day weekend in 2006. Even though we were securely tied to a dock, Pat had to free the gimbal on the stove to cook dinner because during the height of the storm we were heeled about 15 degrees? In the end most boats were unscathed, although our boarding steps are now at the bottom of the bay, a victim of the wind.

We broke our rule about meeting people at a specific place on a specific date this week. I had promised my mom that we would meet in Saint John, NB on our way south, and since I left the planning up to her, she suggested the weekend of October 4/5 as the ideal time to meet. I had used the visit back to our old haunts as a carrot to ease her fears about us sailing off over the horizon, so I could hardly back out of the bargain now. Since taking Threepenny Opera to Saint John in time was not possible and also because the ports further along our route were not conducive to leaving a boat unattended for several days, we decided to bite the bullet and stay put in the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron. By staying put, and flying back to Saint John instead of sailing, we knew the first rate dock staff would look after the boat in our absence. In the end everything will work out, but when I get my Visa bill, the additional costs incurred will be a good reminder of why I had the rule in the first place.

So instead of Halifax being only a hurricane hole, it became a shore leave of 9 days. And yes as Gene J and probably Rhonda would attest to, sailors who have been at sea for several weeks can find themselves in all kinds of interesting predicaments, when they finally get a few days off duty! Since children might read these words, I cannot even begin to reveal the details, but if you ask Gene or Rhonda, I’m sure they could help you speculate! What I can tell you is that I rented a car and we were able to explore. Our conclusion is that Halifax and its environs are a great place to visit and we could easily have spent another week if the opportunity presented itself. All you have to do is look at the pictures of Peggy’s Cove and you will appreciate why we feel that we have only scratched the surface.

One of the highlights of our week was meeting Win H. in person, a man who has been very much a part of our cruising experience from the outset. One of the constants on our trip thus far is the group of volunteer ham radio operators that make up the Mississauga Maritime Net. Every morning between 8:30 and 9 AM EDT, the net of amateur radio operators from Lake Ontario to Jamaica, call for and record the position of any vessel that cares to check in. They also provide message relaying if needed, as well as providing any other type of information that might be required. When Win heard we would be in Halifax for a few days, he made a point of coming down to make sure we had everything we needed.

It is not uncommon on the route that Pat and I have followed to date, to be in places were there is no cell coverage, so the call to Win (VE1WIN) and gang was the only contact we had with other people. It’s a great and valuable service and we are grateful for their dedication. For anybody contemplating more remote cruising, I would highly recommend the effort to obtain an amateur radio license and to install an HF radio on their boat.

As luck would have it, our alternator started making very funny rattling noises on our last leg into Halifax. Since stopping short of Halifax was not really an option, we pressed forward, weird rattling noises and all. The culprit was the nut that held the alternator to the engine block had vibrated loose, so the alternator began to vibrate. The vibration had elongated the mounting holes in the foot of the alternator, making them oval instead of round. As the vibration continued the size of the holes grew, the more play there was, and the louder the rattling became. It was a vicious cycle. Lady luck was with us once again, because if one is to break a major part like an alternator, (even though I had a spare)it is better to do it in a civilized place like Halifax, than in some fishing out port in the middle of nowhere. The fine folks at Rob’s machine shop in Dartmouth fixed things up exactly to spec, so now the mounting foot on the alternator is as good as new. Trust me, checking the tightness of the alternator will be added to my morning pre-start checklist.

Next week we are off to Lunenberg and Shelburne and points South. With fair winds we should be in the US by the time we post our next update. The weather windows are getting shorter but the urgency to get away from the cold is increasing, so it will be a tight rope walk between expediency and comfort.

Have a great week, and for those who are going on the PCYC Thanksgiving weekend cruise, have a piece of turkey for us.


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