When Isabel Came To Town

By Bernadette Bernon
Published: February/March 2012

There are moments in the boating life — and water over the floorboards is one of them — when problems can begin cascading, and every decision becomes crucial.

"Douglas!" I called to my husband, after looking below to see the galley carpet sloshing around. "We're taking on water!" On a boat making an offshore passage, nothing seizes the attention faster than water over the floorboards. Douglas leaped from the first real sleep he'd had in 24 hours and started checking the bilge and seacocks as I pulled up the companionway floorboard covering the packing gland.

Graph representation of Hurricane Isabel's path

Sure enough, as the prop shaft spun, our "dripless" gland was auditioning as a lawn sprinkler. I rushed back to the helm and turned off the engine, which stopped the influx. We eased the sails and Ithaka straightened up from her heeled position, as Douglas started pumping the manual bilge pump under the engine, where the water pooled before spilling into the deeper bilges under the main saloon. Our pulses calmed as we began emptying the water out and cleaning up our galley, which had looked like a lap pool.

It had already been a notable 24 hours. We'd transited the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal with the outgoing tide the night before. Then, still in darkness, and thick fog, we'd sailed more than 70 miles down the side of the choppy Delaware Bay shipping lane amid countless other boats, tankers, and tugs towing barges. Even after dawn, the fog was solid and visibility nil; and for hours we'd had to navigate with radar, use horn signals, and give securite position updates over the VHF, listening to similar updates from the other boats and ships, noting their positions, and making sure we were giving one another plenty of passing room. At the mouth of the Delaware, off Cape May, in driving rain, we'd finally motor-sailed around the shallow Prissy Wicks Shoal, and out into the Atlantic. Blessedly free of land and shipping dangers, and with a long night and day of hard sailing and motoring against tides behind us, we'd turned northeast toward home, Newport, Rhode Island, breathing a sigh of relief.

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