February 15, 2004
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.

Shortly after sunrise one morning, Ithaka takes leave of the Sassafras River and heads for Chesapeake City and the C&D Canal.
When planning to go through the C&D Canal and Delaware River on a sailboat, you’ve got to consider the speed of your boat, the direction and timing of the tides, and how much of the river you want to sail in darkness, the benefit being you don’t see as much of how ugly it is. Ithaka is pretty much a five-to-six-knot motor boat, but push a strong enough tide against us, and we slow down a bunch. Add a strong headwind against us, and, well, we just about park. So timing the tides and getting a good weather window is crucial.

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 tied Ithaka at Schaeffers dock to refuel and take a walk around town before catching the tide that night, and heading into the canal.
As dreadful places go, the Delaware River’s got it knocked: water that looks and smells like sewage, funky currents, a shallow contour, a nuclear power plant, constant tanker traffic, and, if the tide and wind from the ocean are in opposition, you can add to that an ugly, snarling white chop that will rattle your teeth. Then, of course, there can be one more factor you never even considered in this list of possible woes: fog.

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.

Chesapeake City is a charming town filled with B&Bs and trinket shops.
We had our first infusion of adrenalin in the last mile of the canal. From Chesapeake City to Reedy Point, the canal is 12 miles long, and with the tide in our favor we were toddling along at a little over 8 knots, feeling wary but smug. This canal is an impressive, well-lit, 24-hour operation, with a relatively spacious width, so transiting it at night doesn’t present a great problem. From the time we left Schaeffer’s, until we were within spitting distance of the exit, we had the usually busy canal to ourselves, and were gloriously alone. Bernadette was driving and I was keeping a look-out. As I turned around to check our backside, I saw some twinkling lights I hadn’t noticed before, took a more concentrated look, then looked up and realized they were attached to a leviathan in black, a massive freighter that we could hardly see in the dark, humming toward us in almost complete silence. Whoa! We pulled to the edge of the canal on the right and had three feet under us. A bit of a surprise, yes, but so far not a problem. We chatted with the officer on the bridge, and told him we’d stand clear while he passed.

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.”

This brick walkway and overlook is perched above the waterfront town park, where in summer there are concerts and events.
Once clear of the canal, our troubles were just beginning. There were so many lights on the far shore, that it was almost impossible to pick out the pin-prick of a buoy against them. We were immediately befuddled, incredibly anxious, and made even more so because two more tankers were coming down on us from opposite directions, and they were calling us almost simultaneously, each barking condescending and contradictory instructions. One told us to turn to port immediately; the other kept telling us to turn to starboard. One of the snarly curs squawked at us: “Sailboat, if ya don’t turn soon, you’re just plain gonna die.” Confused beyond belief, our eyes still adjusting to the lights, not sure which way we should go, and now chipping at each other in the cockpit, we made a complete 360 while we tried to figure it out. As we finally got our bearings, made sense of the lights and turned accordingly, we heard one tanker driver say to the other, “Damn, that was the most boneheaded move I ever seen.” The other answered, “Well, Bill, you could just get yourself a little sail boat under your anchor there.” At that moment I hated them both.

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:

Chesapeake City sprung up during the building of the canal in the 1800s. Hilaire Dupont, who has a thoroughbred horse farm nearby, and fell in love with the town many years ago, began buying and restoring many of the old Victorians, and has helped make the town the gem it is today.
“Securitee… Securitee… This is the tug White Slipper with the Evening Prize in tow. I’m about 800 yards from marker R14. Man, I gotta do my thing and we’re running a long line cable, so you all might want to keep pretty clear of the east edge of the reds while I’m pulling North. Boys, I’m towing a wire and I’m all strung out, so step back. Roger?”

“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.

Ithaka sets sail from Maryland toward New England, to escape the major tropical storm aiming for the Chesapeake, and to head home.
More than fog, more than tankers, more than wind or chop or shallows, this was a serious problem. As we rounded Cape May, we debated whether to put in somewhere with a Travel-lift where we could haul out and make repairs, or to carry on for Newport, two to three days away, where we were going to haul out anyway. As long as we had wind and didn’t run the engine (turn the shaft), there was no leak and we were fine. But we also knew that if the wind died and we chose to motor, we’d need to pump regularly.

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.