November 1, 2004
Great Bridge, Virginia
36°43.138 North
076° 4.221 West

Swift Boat To Virginia

By Bernadette Bernon

As a march of hurricanes wrecked havoc in Florida and elsewhere, Douglas and I stared at the weather charts and pondered the news coming out of NOAA and The Weather Channel. Sitting in Newport, Rhode Island, we needed to get south, yet we were unwilling to risk going too soon. This had been a violent hurricane season, and we’d been staying put until Jeanne, Ivan, and their trouble-making buddies were well out to sea.

Hurricanes are the key concern of sailors trying to get south during the fall migration season.
Our friend Paul arrived in Newport from Washington, and moved aboard Ithaka , ready to roll, but put no pressure on us to leave quickly. He seemed as careful as we were about venturing south. When the weather window looked about right, and Hurricane Jeanne—still a long way from us—was losing steam and predicted to go ashore well south of our destination, we dashed to the grocery store one last time, loaded up on fresh food, hugged family and friends, hauled the dinghy on deck, raised the mainsail, and on a bright, windy morning loosed Ithaka from our borrowed mooring. We motored to the edge of Newport’s harbor, hung a left, unfurled the genoa, and as we turned off the engine our trusty boat put her shoulder to the task ahead.

Winds were brisk, and the sky was clear. Ithaka tore along on a beam reach, despite the fact that she was sitting deeper in the water than we would have liked. Regardless of our efforts to the contrary, we’d managed to put even more weight on her than last year. We’d replaced our chain, and added 100 more feet, we’d bought a heavy-duty sewing machine, lots of new tools, spares, books and provisions. Then, to make matters worse, we’d taken everything out of our starboard-side guest cabin (we treat it as a two-car garage) so that we had somewhere for Paul to sleep. Then we moved all that gear to the port side settee in the main saloon, and tied it down there. Ithaka immediately listed to port, and with all the extra stuff in the main cabin, the boat had a slightly chaotic, claustrophobic feeling. We made a note to get rid of the extra weight, but to both of us it smacked of yet one more dieting resolution.

Our friend Paul was the perfect crew for the three-day journey from Newport to Norfolk.
Our destination was Norfolk, Virginia, some 350 miles away; we figured we’d probably stop a day earlier inside the shelter of Cape May, New Jersey, if the weather deteriorated. But as it turned out, the weather would hold as we flew by Long Island, New York, Atlantic City, and Cape May at the foot of the Delaware.

Day one on an offshore voyage is all about finding your sea legs, getting things re-arranged on board and settling into a watch schedule. Douglas and I are accustomed to doing these things by ourselves, and it was a novelty – and a luxury -- to have Paul aboard. Suddenly lunch would appear, or a snack, or lemonade, or a sail would get trimmed. Without any bidding he shared in the chores that go along with moving a sailboat from A to B. The aspect of a third crew that we really noticed was how much more sleep we all got. Instead of two hours on and two hours off, two-hour watches among three people meant we doubled our naps! That was an extravagance that made the nights zoom by.

With the wind coming from astern, we secured Ithaka 's boom with a preventer line to the bow to make sure it didn't swing dangerously across the boat..
By day three, the noises on the boat were a familiar symphony—some soothing, some discordant. There was the gurgle of water in and out of the sink drain as we swayed from side to side. Annoying. There was the jostling of the pots and pans, which one by one I snuffed out by stuffing towels and clean sponges around them. There was a noise that took two days to find, and which only wore its way into my consciousness whenever I tried to catch some shut-eye. It sounded like a marble rolling around on a plate, and it drove me crazy until – Eureka! -- I remembered the two little dowels we’d stored in one of the handholds that run the length of the main cabin. They were sliding back an forth with the motion of boat.

Then there was the metal-against-metal clinking of the intermediate backstays. We only use them when we’re sailing upwind with the staysail, so they were in their storage position amidships, snap-shackled to pad eyes on the side decks, where they telegraphed their knocking through the deck and into my brain. I vowed that by the next nightfall they would not be able to steal another minute of my sleep. The solution was to tie rope quoits through the pad eyes, securing the two sets of tackle to them, a simple and clever idea I’d just read in a book by Bill Seifert (with Dan Spurr) called “Offshore Sailing: 200 Essential Passagemaking Tips.”

This is a book filled with clever tips, written by an experienced seaman.
I’d happened to meet Bill Seifert in West Marine the day before we left Newport. I was in there, as usual worshipping at the altar of yachting consumerism, picking up last-minute odds and ends, including a rain jacket, which I was trying on when this fellow walked by and reminded me that the jacket needed to be roomy enough to fit a fleece sweater underneath.

Well yeah, I know that, I thought, as he strolled along into the aisles. I mean, jeesh, what do I look like? Then I took another look at myself in the mirror, and decided to change the jacket to the next size up. Bill caught this from around the corner, and I noticed him smiling at me. We struck up a conversation, and when I told him Douglas and I were headed south the next morning, he told me all about his book, and the next thing I knew he’d gone out to his car, gotten a new copy, inscribed it, and given it to me as a gift.

“Have a great trip!” he called as he left the store.

Douglas and I have been reading the book on and off since we left Newport. It’s a treasure of practical ideas that Seifert as picked up over years during his thousands of sea miles on different boats, during his career as a marine project manager for Tartan, Alden, and other top builders, as well as in his own yacht-management company. Here are a few of his tips that hit home for us.

The mansions of Newport's waterfront are bathed in the warm light before sunset. This was the view from Ithaka 's stern.
In discussing stanchions, as well as dodger and bimini tubing, Bill writes that instead of using Allen screws, which only apply pressure to the outside edge of a tube that’s been inserted in a female fitting, it’s better to drill the sleeve and the stainless tubing for through-bolts, which give more reliable support if anyone falls against them. While you’re at it, he suggests, you might as well solve the problem of standing water that can collect inside stanchions or pulpit socket bases, causing corrosion, which can lead to failure under load. Seifert recommends using a cobalt bit at slow speed and drilling a tiny drain hole at the lowest point on the side of the stanchion socket. I added this our To-Do List.

After Douglas picked up the book on one of his off-watch afternoons, I noticed him polishing the tumblers of all our combination-locks. “When we open up a boat,” writes Seifert, “we leave combination locks showing the opening numbers on the lock, making it easy for thieves to figure out our combinations by looking for the weathered numbers.” This is especially true on the popular Sesame type of lock, which we use on Ithaka , which have tumblers that must be aligned in the correct sequence in order to open them. The numbers weather in this configuration and that’s easy to spot as each tumbler is rotated. “Cleaning the numbers with metal polish makes them all look the same.” Done.

Once you sight a tanker on the horizon, it can be upon you within about 15 minutes, so it's critical to scan the horizon often. We use an egg timer to remind us and keep us awake.
To the challenge of storage on a small boat, Seifert sang to me. He recommends putting spare sails, or seldom-used sails, in heavy plastic bags. Then, he says, take them to a life-raft re-packer who can vacuum-suck air out of the bags, and seal them, leaving you with much smaller packages that are protected from mildew and moisture. This tip alone would open up an entire locker aboard Ithaka , although, sadly, it would do nothing about our weight problem. Even Seifert and Spurr don’t have any bright ideas about that.

Ithaka sailed along as Paul, Douglas, and I read our books and magazines and newspapers, ate all kinds of meals and snacks, talked together, slept well, and stayed on the lookout for ships by scanning the horizon every 15 minutes or so. Standing on the deck of most small sailboats, such as Ithaka , your eye height is roughly 10 feet above the water. Seifert reckons that from that height the typical horizon is roughly 3.6 miles away.

Sailboat Alley, inside the Atlantic Yacht Basin, which is behind the Great Bridge lock, is perfect protection from hurricanes.
We made such swift progress towards Norfolk that it looked as though we were going to make landfall in the middle of the night. Instead of that guaranteed anxiety tour of a busy, commercial highway with hundreds of confusing lights, we opted to slow our speed -- surprisingly challenging because the wind was now coming from the stern quarter 15 knots. We managed to inch Ithaka down from eight-plus knots of boat speed to four by putting three reefs in the main, steadying the boom with a preventer line, and rolling in the genoa altogether. Ithaka then had one hand tied behind her back, and crawled along obediently for the rest of the night.

The next morning, as we entered Norfolk’s shipping channel, I was on watch to see the sunrise paint the sky orange. As we sailed over the underground tunnel in Thimble Shoal Channel, a Coast Guard cutter zoomed directly toward us. What on earth could they want with us at this early hour, we wondered? The cutter slowed when she reached Ithaka , and we saw immediately what the fuss was about. Directly behind us was the rising conning tower of an enormous black submarine. We held our breaths as it ghosted by, its massive upper body breaking out of the water near little Ithaka , and then leaving us behind, with our mouths still open.

Ithaka 's early-morning encounter of the amphibious kind.
With the clear sky, sunshine warming the decks, and wind at our backs, we sailed through Norfolk, passing waterfront condos and hotels, freight docks, erector-set bridges, Navy destroyers and lots of yachts. We continued to tune into the NOAA weather reports on our VHF, and knew Jeanne was slowing down over land, but still likely to bring some serious rain and winds our way. So instead of hanging out and anchoring in Norfolk for several days, which had been our druthers, we entered the ICW and headed for Great Bridge, Virginia, 12 miles south.

The Atlantic Yacht Basin, in Great Bridge, is a completely protected basin of deep water, sitting just the other side of a lock, so water levels are controlled and storm surges just don’t happen. We knew that soon we’d be off Ithaka for more than a week – to attend a family wedding -- and that seemed the safest place by far to leave her in the event another hurricane came this way.

The erector-set-like bridges of Norfolk
Our cell-phone reception was back, now that we were again surrounded by civilization, so we called Douglas’s mother in Cleveland, to let her know we were safe and sound. She’d been absolutely glued to the television set, she said, and offered an immediate update on Jeanne, which she feared was heading right at us.

“Where’s Jeanne now?” I asked her.

“Oh... Hmmmm. I don’t really know that,” Betty answered. “I only know where Al Roker is.”

Jeanne lost most of her strength long before she arrived in this neck of the woods. Tucked inside the inner pool of Atlantic Yacht Basin, behind the protection of the Great Bridge lock, we had some rain and wind, but none of the destruction.

Our sail from Newport had been well planned, and fast. This cabal of hurricanes was almost history -- we prayed anyway -- and it looked like it might be safe, once again, to set our sights on a new journey ahead. We looked forward with hope.

From our safe haven in the basin, the reflections of the trees paint a canvas of peace around us.