Our un-bottom painted 1990 Rhodes 22′ sailboat needed to come out of the water. About three weeks earlier, we’d settled her in a slip in the Cedar Hill Marina in Bivalve, Maryland with plans to explore the Chesapeake—day trips, an over-nighter, maybe even a multi-day trip. (We’ve had her for three years now and have spent more hours rigging than sailing.) This time, too, life and weather got in the way. All we’d done was sail to the mouth of the Nanticoke and back a few times. Nice, but not satisfying. But since we had to take her out anyway, why not make a journey of it?
Janes Island State Park at Crisfield, Maryland is about twenty-six nautical miles south of Bivalve. If you’ve got wheels, twenty-six miles doesn’t sound like much. But on the water, using sail power, the variables add up. No matter the wind speed, the fastest our sailboat can travel over water is about 6 mph. And the twenty-six miles is a straight line. A head wind would require lots of tacking, which could almost double the mileage. Add to that an opposing current, lots of chop, and 6 mph could easily drop to 3 or 2 mph. Slower than walking speed!
We needed a north wind. So, like a couple of migratory shorebirds ready to head south, we waited on the weather. Too much wind, wrong direction, too cold, perfect but we had other obligations… Finally, everything lined up: A north wind, 15-20 gusts to 25—a little more than is comfortable on this boat (10-12 is perfect) but doable as a tailwind.
We took our trailer to Crisfield, loaded our vehicle with our sailing gear including sleeping bags, extra food and water in case we had to overnight on the boat, and our dry suits in case we had a slow motion sinking, and planned to be on the Rhodes at first light.
7:30 am: Our sail up, we cut the motor, and zipped our parkas up to our chins. Soon after, we unfurled the genoa. “Six mph,” Mitch announced after checking his Navionics app. “Estimated time of arrival, 11:30 am.” Not five minutes later, he checked it again. “5.7. ETA noon.” Then, “We dropped to 4.8, ETA 1:30. We might not make it today.” I rolled my eyes. My drama-king.
A waterman, diesel motor at a low grumble, spewing dingy fumes into the clear morning air, had idled out of the Cedar Hill Marina just ahead of us. At first, he seemed to be going against the current of fishing boats heading in. But at the mouth of the Nanticoke, a half a dozen other commercial boats prowled around in a small area. More and more appeared on the horizon. A skipjack, sail down, worked among them.
8:30 am: We’d passed the mouth of the Nanticoke—new territory for us. Earlier, Mitch had worried that the wind might die. That would not be an issue. The Nanticoke is wide at Bivalve, maybe about a mile across. And the shoreline is low marsh which doesn’t offer much protection. Even so, here where the bay opened up, we felt the full force of the 20 mph wind and, with miles of fetch, the wave height increased significantly. We rolled up the genoa and, with only the mainsail, maintained about 6 mph.
10:00 am: We’d passed Deal Island and Little Deal Island. The horizon cleared of fishing boats. It looked like we had the entire Chesapeake to ourselves. What other idiots would be out in the open on a day like this? The wind had picked up and was now gusting to about 30 mph. The waves were a solid 3 feet. We’d made a slight turn to the east, so now we had quartering seas instead of following seas (hitting us not quite astern on our port side).
“Whoo hoo,” Mitch hollered. “We’re surfing!”
To me, it felt like we were a child’s bath toy in a washing machine. Upon catching a wave, we’d swerve and broach. Then, as the wave passed under us, we’d pitch to port, then starboard. At the wave trough, the rudder would catch again, and the nose would swing back on course. After a couple of trips to the cabin in search of various items, combined with looking at the app and the map, I’d started to feel… blecky.
Seasickness (caused when your brain gets mixed signals from your body) is such a strange thing. No amount of logic, denial, or begging works. “Look,” I told my nervous system. “there’s the horizon. It’s not moving. There’s land. It’s not moving. We’re fine. All’s good. Just a little rocky here but we’re good.”
“Liar,” it replied.
A slave to my stomach, I tried not to move. Just breathe. Don’t look at the phone. Look forward. Breathe. Breathe. All I wanted to do was lie down and close my eyes. But that wasn’t an option. So instead, I took the helm, which helped a little.
11:00 am: We’d passed Rumbley and we’re now entering the mouth of the Big Annemmessex River heading east, a beam reach, which would have been wonderful with a 10-15 mph wind. But the wind was now gusting over 30 mph. We had the sail all the way out and were still heeling over.
Somehow during this time (we’re still not sure how it happened) we got off course. Markers dotted the northern shoreline. And the nondescript entrance to the Janes Island Canal melded into the marshes. We’d aimed for a point further east than we should have, and by the time we realized it, were in dangerously shallow water. We had to jibe—fast.
In a heartbeat we’d heeled further than we’d ever heeled in this boat. I lunged for the upwind side. We were going over—capsizing. How was this happening? Mitch had released the sail—the sheet line singed his palm as it hissed out. Was the wind just too strong? Frozen in fear, I couldn’t think. Later I would go through all the reasons we wouldn’t have died: Rhodes don’t sink; the water temperature was still pretty warm; this wind direction would have blown us to shore, which wasn’t too far away. But in that moment I felt completely helpless.
Just as fast, we righted.
“What the hell was that?” I shouted over the wind.
“The boom got caught in the backstay,” Mitch said. “I thought we were going over.” He’d been able to reach up and untangle it in the nick of time.
A major shot of adrenaline does wonders for seasickness. I was wide awake.
The entrance to the Janes Island Canal is invisible until you’re in it. Once we put our faith in the markers, we sailed right in. Loblollies line both sides of the northern end. They doused the wind and smoothed out the water. Our sail, thankfully, luffed.
12:15 pm: Mitch executed a perfect tack just past the Jane’s Island State Park boat basin. We nosed into the dock—no motor needed. Blocked from the worst of the wind, the sun warmed us. After shedding our parkas, we stepped onto land. We’d made it in time for lunch.