There, But For The Grace Of God,
Go We

By Bernadette Bernon
November 3, 2000
Mobjack Bay, Virginia
37 19.284 N 76 27.356 W

There was a time, not all that long ago, when I thought the guy who broadcasts the NOAA Weather Radio reports on WX2 was a Polish émigré. Whether he got the job through affirmative action, I thought, or through a devotion to meteorology, I was warmed every time I tuned in to think that someone in America who still had such a strong accent could get a job such as taping the public marine forecast. Over the years, I'd even imagined the guy, and what he looked like — a fastidious fellow of about 59, who cared about the safety of fellow mariners such as Douglas and me. When I discovered that it was a computer-generated voice, I was reminded just how little I know about most things. Such revelations keep me an extremely cautious sailor, always erring well on the side of conservativism. And my husband, as far as vigilance for safety goes, makes me look like Evel Knievel.

I thought about this a couple of days ago, when Douglas and I were sailing the 40 or so miles from the mouth of the Potomac toward the Rappahannock River, in 25 dreary knots of Arctic wind right on the bloody nose. It was a long, wet, cold old day, getting older and colder by the hour, as we searched tensely for the marks that would lead us into Carter Creek, which had gotten a nice write-up in Cruising The Chesapeake: A Gunkholer's Guide by William Shellenberger.

Photo of Douglas’s birthday balloons and libations Douglas's birthday balloons and libations.

That morning, we'd left Deep Cove off Jutland Creek, one of the most beautiful places we'd visited on the entire Chesapeake. We liked it so much that we stayed a couple of days to enjoy Douglas's birthday, the changing yellow and red foliage around our one-boat cove, the eagles soaring overhead, and the thousands of cackling ducks sailing by in formation. On Friday, we decided we'd also better start making some tracks in a southerly direction. No matter how much we were enjoying the scenery and the solitude, it was frigidly cold at night, and we only had so much fleece aboard.

The day started with the engine dying just as we were negotiating the narrow dogleg of a channel. We quickly let out the anchor and got our hearts out of our throats as it hooked before we drifted into the shoals on either side of us. The engine wasn't appearing to get any fuel. Douglas checked the filter and bled the fuel line of air — the first time we'd done this under any pressure. It started us spiraling down our usual "what if" drain. (What if the anchor hadn't held? What if it had happened at night?)

Photo of Bernadette, bundled up against the plummeting temperatures Bernadette, bundled up against the plummeting temperatures of November.

After Douglas bled the line, we fired up the engine and it roared to life. We winched up the anchor and Ithaka spurted out the channel to freedom. Jumping into a stiff northwesterly, we raised the main, rolled out the 135-percent genoa, and flew along at 8-plus knots. The wind built all day, as did the rain, and Ithaka was surfing down the backs of waves at 10 knots. We had a ball all the way down the coast to Fleets Bay. From there, we rounded the corner to Indian Creek, then up into the teeth of the same wind. For a couple of hours this was tough tacking duty. When we rolled in half the genoa we lost no speed and found a more comfortable motion. Finally, we began to make out the area on shore that held our next landfall. We carefully headed in over the shoals and around the fish weirs, and we watched the depths rise from 34 feet in the bay to 15 feet nearer to shore, then up to 10 as we closed the buoys, still a good mile off — always a sobering moment for two New England sailors who'd spent the summer in Maine, where depths usually remain in the triple digits all the way to shore.

Over the previous couple of hours, I'd watched as a beautiful dark-blue ketch under full sail had come up over the horizon behind us, had steadily caught up with us, and had then overtaken us with dispatch. I hate this. It fills me with self-doubt, and makes me wonder what we're doing wrong. Feeling lame, I started tweaking and fiddling with the boat.

"Hey, let's take the sails down," said Douglas, his mind elsewhere. "I want to put the engine on and make sure it's OK."

Photo of fish weirs on the Chesapeake Fish weirs can stretch for as much as a mile, and are all over the Chesapeake.

I took an envious look at the ketch, which was steadily pulling toward the distant shore under full canvas and heading confidently for what looked like Henrys Cove just to the north of Carter Creek. The chart made Henrys look extremely enticing, although it was unmarked. We'd looked at it and decided it was too much for us. It'll be a long time before we ever try a move like that, I thought, watching the ketch sailing all the way in the entrance to Henrys. If ever. "OK," I said, cranked her up, gave the helm to Douglas, and dug out the sail ties to take down the main. Douglas always raises the sail, and I always take it down.

We threaded our way into the protection of Carter Creek, where the wind died down — always a glorious feeling — and then we puttered our way at the lowest rpm into the gentle arms of Pitmans Cove. Surrounded by trees, we anchored with just two feet under us. Carters was a pretty creek, but it had too many houses for my taste, and a couple of industrial-looking buildings marred the landscape. A clump of trees blocked our view of the refinery pretty well, and we spent two quiet nights there while the weather calmed down.

Photo of candles Ithaka's heating system .

We wanted a bit of extra time anyway, as we were trying to sort out the charts we needed to order before we headed out of the United States in two weeks. Momentous decisions had to be made. I'd already ordered almost $1,000 worth of charts from Bluewater in Florida, and from Explorer Chart books in Maryland, and we had one more chance to buy any more we needed before we were out of convenient mailing range.

Buying foreign charts is an exciting thing to do, a reminder of the possibilities for adventure that lie ahead, while at the same time presenting confusing possibilities. The desire to take one cruising day at a time and go where the wind blows is thwarted by the practicalities of obtaining in advance the charts you'll need for your wanderings you're not yet sure about. Basic frugality plays a part as well; at $15 a pop, you don't want to order charts that aren't needed. Where exactly were we going to go? Decisions had to be made.

One day a couple of weeks ago, when Douglas and I were in Annapolis, deep in conversation about the different passages we'd take over the next year, and the seasons and prevailing winds that could stand between us and some of the places we wanted to see in Central and South America, we began to despair that we couldn't organize ourselves well enough. We worried that we'd have to skip Belize and Honduras altogether, or skip Venezuela altogether — one or the other — all places we'd really wanted to visit. Suddenly, we heard someone knock on the hull and call out, "Hello, Ithaka!" We scrambled outside.

"Hi there," we said to a bearded man in a dinghy.

"Oh," he said when he saw us. "Wrong Ithaka. I thought you were someone else. Sorry to bother you."

I noticed he was wearing a Belize Yacht Club tee shirt. "WAIT!" I said. "Have you been to Belize?"

"Sure," he said. "Spent five years cruising Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, all over Central America. Loved it."

"Do you have a minute to come aboard, have a cup of coffee, and tell us about it?" Douglas said. "We just happen to have all the books out on the table down below, and we're just trying to plan our own voyage there."

Photo of Bob Maine Bob Maine tells us all about Central America.

Bob Maine, from Houston, Texas, who was living aboard Ro Ro in Annapolis, ended up spending the morning helping us map out our strategy against time and the prevailing winds. That afternoon, calmed down, we ordered our charts for Central America and the north coast of South America.

Now, a week later in Carter Creek, the chart catalogs and cruising guidebooks were spread out on the table, and I went over everything again to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything and made a note of a few more charts to add to the next Bluewater order. I've noticed lately that Douglas and I spend a lot of time going through books aboard — mostly reference books. Depending on the way we’re feeling — adventurous? careful? confused? — we go to different sources for the answers. If we're feeling jaunty, we use Steve Dashew's Cruising Encyclopedia — a useful, if weighty, tome that makes you feel like you can do anything. If we're mechanically flummoxed, we worship at the alter of the God of all things technical, Nigel Calder. If we want straight talk about sailing techniques, we live by John Rousmaniere's Annapolis Book Of Seamanship. If we're feeling conservative — which is most of the time, to be honest with you — we use Lin and Larry Pardey's Self-Sufficient Sailor and their Storm Tactics, the latter of which can really put the fear of God into a couple of coastal sailors such as ourselves.

For the past two weeks, Douglas has been quoting Lin and Larry every time he wants to make a point about how we don't know beans. "Lin and Larry go simple; they don’t have refrigeration or even an engine," he said, when our refrigeration was acting up. "Lin and Larry read by oil lamps," he said the other night, as I tucked in under one of our halogens to enjoy a cup of tea and Mark Helprin's wonderfully funny novel Memoir From The Antproof Case. "Lin and Larry don't just heave to, they put out a sea anchor too," he said, when we were practicing the maneuver a few weeks back. "Lin and Larry have figured out a way to use their mainsail cover to catch rainwater," he said, as I just tried to stay warm and dry yesterday in the deluge.

"I bet Lin and Larry probably make their own Velcro, too," I said.

"Yes," he said, not missing a beat. "I believe they use their own pubic hairs, which they collect from the bilge."

Photo of Douglas arranges the snubber on the anchor chain Just off the Severn River salt marshes, Douglas arranges the snubber on the anchor chain.

The next morning, it was still blowing 20, but we bundled up, chugged out of the protection of Carter Creek, and slowly began to rethread our way out the narrow channel markers. To our port side, in the vicinity of Henrys Cove, there was the blue ketch again, flying only its mizzen sail. Something seemed amiss.

"Oh my god!" said Douglas, looking through the binoculars. "They're aground!" Sure enough, the ketch was sitting high and dry, still facing Henrys Cove, where we'd last seen her, her keel and rudder exposed in the low tide, and anchors set to keep her balanced. She appeared to have been like that for two days. We were speechless in the face of such troubles, and powerless to help them in such shallow water. There was no one on deck and the companionway was closed. We called on the VHF. No reply. There was nothing we could do except carry on and be grateful that it wasn't us.

Tonight, we're anchored in 10 feet — that's four feet under us — behind the spectacular salt marshes of the Northwest Branch of Mobjack Bay's Severn River. A couple of duck hunters are plodding through the marsh grass near shore. The sun is setting, the sails and books are put away for another day and, despite our feelings of inadequacy compared to the likes of Lin and Larry Pardey, whom we admire greatly, we enjoy the peace and each other, grateful to have ended another day intact.