Sunset Goes South: Part One

For awhile now, I've been talking about taking Sunset south for the winter to Florida and the Bahamas to run charters and see what kind of work I can get as a captain down south. After lots of elbow grease, improvements, and routine maintenance, the time finally came for us to depart. I plotted a 140 nautical mile course from Patchogue, NY to Cape May, NJ for the first leg of the journey - expected to take 25 to 30 hours depending on conditions - and enlisted the help of some friends as crew. Aboard Sunset for the first leg was my long-time friend and sailing buddy Matt, his coworker Cody who also crewed on Sunset for me over the summer, my trusty crew and friend Alex, my friend Mike who had a day before run and finished the NYC marathon, and new friend Rebecca who was referred to me by a fellow crew from the Ventura. 

 From left to right: Cody, Matt, Mike, James, Rebecca, Alex

From left to right: Cody, Matt, Mike, James, Rebecca, Alex

I contacted the crew on Sunday Nov, 5 to let them know we had a good weather window with favorable winds out of the Northeast to push us down to Cape May which lies to the Southwest of Patchogue, NY. The crew arrived throughout the next day and we loaded up the boat, got everyone settled and then headed to sleep for an early wake up call, after a few drinks at one of the local watering holes of course. The next morning I got everyone together for a boat safety and navigation debriefing before we departed at 10am. Captain Pat and our Port Captain Dan showed up before we departed to christen the voyage by pouring over the bow some Bahamian moonshine made by our good friend Earl. Then we were off! We motored out of the Patchogue River and then raised sail. We sailed through the Great South Bay and snaked our way out Fire Island Inlet all under sail power. We even spotted a whale about an hour after exiting the inlet! Sea conditions were as expected, 15 to 20 knot winds out of the NE with wave heights 4 to 6 feet. We continued under sail for the next four hours until I noticed the conditions started to worsen. Winds increased to 20 to 25 knots with gusts up to 30 knots and the seas became higher. I knew we had to reduce sail and at this time we only had the main up with the wind between a run and broad reach. I had the crew take their stations as I brought the boat into the wind and gave the signal to lower the mainsail. As the mainsail was coming down, an exposed part of the leech line - a line that runs down the back edge of the sail - became fouled in another line and started to tear the mainsail. I shouted up to Alex and Cody to take the sail all the way down. As they were lowering the sail I noticed that the main halyard was tangled. I had Rebecca take the wheel and instructed her to keep us pointed into the wind as I made my way forward to the mast to untangle the halyard and help Alex and Cody drop the main. After a few minutes we had the mainsail down and we lashed it to the boom. We adjusted our heading back to our course of 220 and I knew at that point the mainsail would be useless for the rest of the journey and we would be surfing waves under engine power. Good thing I had already ordered a new set of sails and they are a week away from arriving!

At this point the rain started. Now the weather forecasts I looked at didn't call for rain, but boy did it rain. It rained on and off, but mostly on, for the next 12 hours. Cold and wet, but relieved of my shift at the helm, I went into the main cabin to warm up some beef stew for the crew. Cooking in rough seas on a rocking boat is a special talent to say the least. As I waited for the stew to heat up, the hatch opened up and Rebecca told me the dinghy had just broken loose. I popped up as quick as I could and instructed Alex to turn the boat about 180 degrees in a reciprocal heading. We began searching with the boat's spotlight, but with the rain, seas, and no ambient light - not even any moonlight or starlight to lend a hand - it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack, only the haystack is in the middle of a monsoon. After several minutes, I abandoned the search and went aft to discover the line that secured the dinghy had ripped right out of the dinghy's bow. Lesson learned: always secure your dinghy on deck when traveling in rough seas. Time to find a replacement!

For the rest of the night, we ran three hour shifts of three teams of two crew. Ideally this would mean everyone would have six hours off for every three hours on, but Matt - now nicknamed "sickboy" - came down with seasickness so I took his shift and worked double shifts, six hours on, three hours off. After the dinghy broke loose, I estimated we still had 18 hours to go, which would mean we'd burn nearly a half tank of fuel or about 18 gallons. Luckily we had following seas with the swell and wind at our backs which meant we could ride the waves and get pushed along our Southwest heading. So it was surfing, trying to stay warm, and fighting the rain for the next 18 hours. 

The next morning the rain subsided and the seas calmed a bit. We passed Long Beach Island, Atlantic City, and then made our way to Cape May. We entered the Cape May Inlet and took a slip for the night at South Jersey Marina, arriving at noon after a 26 hour trek. I went right to the fuel dock to fill up the tank and expected to take on 15 gallons or so. Much to my surprise, we only took on 8.2 gallons! With the following seas and surfing, we had only burned a half gallon per hour. That's better fuel mileage than some people's cars. The marina is best known for its spa-like showers, so after getting the boat squared away we all took hot showers to warm up and dry out the best we could. We said goodbye to Mike and Cody who had to return to the real world, and then we explored the town of Cape May, found a good watering hole and finally had a full nights sleep. 

 Sunset at South Jersey Marina in Cape May, NJ after making the 26 hour trek from Patchogue.

Sunset at South Jersey Marina in Cape May, NJ after making the 26 hour trek from Patchogue.

On Thursday, Nov 9, we departed Cape May at 0930 with sunny skies and NE winds at 15 to 20 knots and headed to Ocean City, MD. What a difference a day makes! Conditions were beautiful with calmer seas and good winds. We motor-sailed with full jib and covered the 40 nautical mile second leg of the journey in 7.5 hours, a short jaunt after our 26 hour battle with the sea the day before. As we were entering the inlet to Ocean City, we spotted a pod of four dolphin swimming along with us! They stayed by our side for several minutes, almost as if they were guiding us into the inlet. The Ocean City Inlet is a narrow inlet with strong currents. The current was ebbing quickly and making good size waves close to the jetties as the ocean current met in opposition with the inlet current. I kept my focus and really enjoyed entering that inlet. It made me think of my friend Jason - a seasoned pilot who I've flown with on many cross-country flights in his four passenger Cirrus SR22 - and a landing he did at Fort Pierce, Florida last winter. We were en route to the Bahamas and stopped at Fort Pierce to fuel up, take on over-ocean safety gear, and clear customs. Winds were coming across the runway at 20 - 25 knots and Jason had to expertly land the plane. I remember him saying how pumped he was to complete a landing like that, and I imagine we shared the same feeling; him landing in rough conditions and me entering a narrow inlet in rough conditions. 

 Matt at the wheel and Alex providing comedic relief.

Matt at the wheel and Alex providing comedic relief.

 Underway approaching Ocean City, MD.

Underway approaching Ocean City, MD.

Now we're in Ocean City, MD waiting for a strong cold front to move through and then Saturday, Nov 11, we'll be departing for Norfolk, VA to enter the Intracoastal Waterway! As I write this, I'm hunkered down in the main cabin with the heater going and protected from the wind and cold. 

 When in Ocean City, MD, do as the locals do.

When in Ocean City, MD, do as the locals do.

Stay tuned for Part Two, and have a drink of rum for me!

-Captain James