Brenton Cove, Newport, RI
41° 28.539 North
071° 19.723 West
Delaware River Agonies
By Douglas Bernon
Chesapeake City is an in-between kind of place. Located almost smack dab at the mid-point of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, and cleaved by a 37-foot-deep ditch, the two sides are connected by an overhead bridge and a middle and last name -- North Chesapeake City and South Chesapeake City. The tiny burg has as many little Victorian, restored gingerbread homes as anyplace in the country. It was a boom town in the late 1700s and early 1800s when the canal—designed to create a faster trade route between Philadelphia and Baltimore—was dug by hand. Chesapeake City also offers for sale a greater supply of plastic lighthouses and hand-painted wooden butterflies than any place on earth.
The north side, where we were tied up at Schaeffer’s dock, is mostly residential. The other side of the river has houses, antique shops, B&Bs, and a very cool museum dedicated to the history of the canal. Housed in a beautiful stone building, inside of which is one of the massive now-defunct lock mechanisms that once raised and lowered water on the canal, it’s a museum well worth visiting. But it’s best if you go by car, because that would guarantee that you’re not on a sailboat on the Delaware River, which is the humongous skank of a spillway at the east end of the Canal. We’ve now transited the mud-colored Delaware three times, and unless there’s some karmic debt I’m not entirely through with, I hope never to pay that piper again.
The tidal speed in the Canal can exceed four knots, and the flood and ebb on the Delaware can race along at as much as two knots. The distance from the east end of the Canal, where it opens into the Delaware at Reedy Point, to the foot of the big bay, at Cape May, New Jersey, is a little under 60 miles as the crow flies, but that means you’re cutting back and forth across the shipping channel to shave a mile here and a mile there. When traveling in the dark, though, for peace of mind we prefer to follow a slower path and hug the edge of the channel. It’s a trick though, even in good conditions and daylight, because the Delaware can shallow quickly and shoal out. The whole thing just gives me the willies all over again even to relate it here.
We untied our lines from the Schaeffer docks just before 9:00 p.m., and were immediately swept along in the powerful current that carried us at a stunning 9 knots. As the town swiftly disappeared behind us, the black night fell in a blanket around Ithaka, except for the golden glow of the canal lights standing sentinel along the rocky banks.
As the miles ticked by, we discussed our plan after exiting the canal; turn to starboard when we finished the transit to head south down the Delaware. Our timing would give us some slack for awhile, and then an ebb tide to assist us. With even a moderate wind in our favor, we could ride the tide comfortably for much of the night and arrive at Cape May in daylight, giving us the option, if the seas cooperated, of picking our way through Prissy Wick Shoals, at the foot of Cape May, rather than adding another 20 miles to go all the way around it. That’s a boat-load of ifs, and none of them came to pass.
Just then, Bernadette crow-barred my attention away from the monster astern, to the blackness ahead.
“I don’t see anything,” I said.
“Look harder,” she said. I looked up. Whoooa! There was another tanker coming toward us. Again, black ship against a black sky, its lights mixed in with the lights at the end of the canal. Unbelievably, the three of us passed each other at the exact same time. At that point the channel got very skinny, we’d squeezed over as far as we could to the side, and had less than a foot under us. One of the captains was droll. He called us both on the radio. “Well fellas, we got three aces here. Two more and we can deal a hand of poker. Y’all take care.”
Within an hour the wind had turned against us, increasing the chop, but worse, a dense fog had rolled in and limited our vision to less than 100 yards. We couldn’t see buoys or tugs or tankers or anything – we could only hear them as they or we got very close -- so we took ourselves completely out of the channel and ran the greens going south, meaning we plotted a course from buoy to buoy on the western side of the river, keeping just outside the channel. Despite that it seemed there were times we could feel the freighter captains’ breath as well as hear their words, and because the fog was so thick, it was a night of constant vigilance and “bridge to bridge” (captain to captain) radio traffic. Everyone out on the Delaware that night – the big boys and the piddly little boats alike -- all of us were calling on the radio “securitee securitee” and announcing our positions, both with latitude and longitude as well as reference to the buoys and direction. The radio conversations went a lot like this one:
“Roger that, Captain. This is the sailing vessel Falcon’s Perch, bout a half mile in front of you, on the outside of the channel. I’m going to stay the hell out of your way.”
“Good idea, son.”
The passage was exhausting. Between the wind and chop and fog, instead of taking two-to-three-hour shifts as we usually do, sometimes we traded off the wheel after as little as 30 minutes, spent by the vigilance, and the cold, wet air. One of us was constantly on the radio, giving our location and plotting the positions of the other boats who also were running outside the channel with us. Twice we came within 50 yards of other small vessels before we actually saw them, and so we quickly altered course. Of course the larger ships showed up as targets on our radar, as did many of the buoys, but the smaller vessels often didn’t show until they were very close to our position. We had to rely on the radio, and constant checking in with one another to monitor the other boats’ changing positions.
Neither of us slept a wink. A simple river trip to the ocean became a tense all-nighter. It was not until we were within a mile of Cape May that the fog began to lift for us, that the wind came around more in our favor, just as the weather guru Herb Hilgenburg had predicted two days before. It was also at this point that we realized we had a major problem. The seal on our dripless shaft gland had sprung a leak, and when the shaft turned, salt water spewed through at such high pressure that unless I pumped the bilge for five minutes every 30, we had water above the floorboards.
Should we turn back, find a marina and haul the boat? That would be the only way to repair this problem, and probably the most conservative thing to do. But then again, the storm approaching the region was now a dangerous full tropical storm, which had its own serious risks. At this point, we were a full day of motoring (and therefore pumping) from the nearest haul-out (back up the Delaware, back through the canal, and down somewhere into the Chesapeake). The wind forecast was with us now, and predicted to remain in our favor for two days. We felt confident that we could sail hard and make it to Newport without using the engine. Decision made. We continued into the ocean, and headed for home.