It was pitch black outside when the anemometer hit 40 knots. Scanning the horizon for lights of passing ships or fishing boats, all I could make out were the faint, white crests of the massive North Atlantic swell — but barely. The coast was miles away and daylight seemed just as far.
We’d been at it for two days already and sleep was coming in fits. With three reefs in the main and just a scrap of staysail out, our speed was relentlessly fast and the Garcia Exploration 45 we’d been tasked with delivering took it all in stride. But the funny thing was, just like the boat, Jill and I felt as though we could go on for days, even weeks on end.
The captivating power of the ocean never ceases to amaze, and on this wild ride, it was breathtaking.
Ready, Set, Go
When the opportunity arose for Jill and me to leave the friendly confines of the Pacific Northwest to deliver Arctic Monkey from Portland, Maine to Annapolis, Maryland, we couldn’t say no. As we arrived in Maine on Monday morning, a low was set to move through with strong southerly winds, which meant we could take our time assessing the boat, getting provisions and working out routing options for the 500 plus mile trip to the Chesapeake Bay.
While 500 miles isn’t that far, this particular route had several stages that needed to be taken with care. The first 115 miles from Maine to the Cape Cod Canal had to be timed right in order to get a favorable current through the cut in daylight. The offshore stretch from Massachusetts to Cape May, New Jersey could be handled by making a straight shot or by hugging Long Island and the Jersey shore. And then the trip up the Delaware River to the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal (C&D Canal) and down the bay to Annapolis would mostly be done in narrow, shallow channels with shoals on either side.
Having lived and sailed in Newport, Rhode Island and delivered boats from Annapolis before, I knew most of this area, but our friends and impromptu shore team in Portland, Scott and family, invited us over for dinner and to talk charts and weather. A fellow delivery skipper, it was great to get his view on the various routing options and to confirm my overall plan. That night, the quickly moving low passed through and by morning the strong southerly wind had abated. It was go time.
When we dropped Arctic Monkey’s mooring in Portland Harbor that afternoon, a slight breeze funneled in from the north and I knew that our timing was right. Out on the ocean, the water was glassy, but as the sun faded behind the featureless New England backdrop, it soon began to fill in.
Southeast, east and then northeast the wind backed as we went, and with a full main, jib and staysail we bounded south towards the Cape Cod Canal throughout the night. By morning, the wind was a steady 15 to 20 knots and blue skies had given way to a steel gray that we’d see for the next three days. With the wind came larger seas that, when meeting the leftover southerly swell, created a sloppy, confused ocean.
The canal hove into view just after sun up and with a favorable current, we made it quickly through the winding, 17-mile channel. While transiting, the wind continued to build and when we made it out into Buzzards Bay to re-set the main, it was blowing a consistent 25 knots out of the northeast. Knowing that it would likely build stronger as the offshore section of the delivery unfolded, we tucked two reefs in the main and rolled out the jib.
With the blink of an eye, Arctic Monkey was up on step sprinting towards the Atlantic Ocean and shortly after leaving Martha’s Vineyard to port, we lost sight of land.
From the port helm, I looked back at the gray North Atlantic to time my steering. A monster swell loomed large and when it picked up the stern, I turned slightly to port, then back to starboard to catch it. Just like that, we took off like a shot, surfing down the face of the wave for an exhilarating ride that topped out at 15.5 knots. In the moment, my smile felt as big as the wave.
The North Atlantic in the fall is no joke, and we took it seriously. For the better part of two days and nights, the wind was a consistent and relentless 25 to 35 knots and before long was topping out at 40. Later, when I checked buoy reports, wave heights were pegged at 16 feet — we’d easily seen that and probably more.
Out on the open ocean, Jill and I worked ourselves into a good routine of watch standing, resting and eating. From the forward facing nav station inside, we could stand watches out of the rain and the B&G instrumentation both inside and out proved its worth while tracking numerous ships and fishing boats along the way.
As the wind built, though, we began sailing too fast, which made the boat harder to handle in the massive following seas. From two reefs we went down to three, and for a while we sailed with just the triple reefed main. Even with that much sail area up, we still surfed at 11 to 13 knots and when the wind became sustained at nearly 40, we struck the main and sailed with just the staysail. Even then, Arctic Monkey was happy sailing fast and comfortable — and we let her have her way.
A gale and darkness had set in by the time we reached the outer buoys for the entrance to the Delaware River. Well marked and easily navigable, we picked up one blinking aid to navigation after another, but with wind and rain, only when they were about a mile in front of us.
Once in the mouth of Delaware Bay, the shallow water kicked up a wicked cross sea that was close together and steep — a big change of pace from the swell of the open ocean. Turning northward, the wind went forward and we decided to roll up the staysail and power into the long and narrow channel up river. Along the way we met outbound cargo ships from Philadelphia and scooted as far to one side as we could to let them pass.
When daylight came, we were finally in the lee of New Jersey and could feel everything change. Gone were the ocean swells and the choppy bay, and as we turned into the C&D Canal, we were again going downwind. Reaching the Chesapeake Bay brought a feeling of accomplishment and out came the jib for the run towards Annapolis. At this point, it was almost odd to be off the ocean and when the familiar sight of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and then Naptown came our way, we were left with a swirl of emotions.
Tying to a mooring buoy in Annapolis Harbor had Arctic Monkey stopped for the first time in 530 miles and 75 hours, but we still felt like we were moving. Maybe we wanted to be.
Stepping onto the dock at Pusser’s, our legs wobbled as we made way for the outside bar and quickly ordered two Painkillers. With a clunk of the plastic, nectar-filled cups, we celebrated the end of a successful yet wildly fast passage.
After letting the voyage sink in for a few days, I can still feel the surging ocean swell, hear the wind in the rigging and sense the movement of the boat from the helm. Overall, Arctic Monkey couldn’t have been better for the task at hand and really deserves its own review, so stay tuned for that.
For Jill and me, the voyage reiterated a connection that we’ve had since day one and has remained our story throughout our time sailing together. We worked in flawless fashion to make decisions, execute and get us and the boat safely through all the sections of the trip. Whether it was reefing, standing watch, steering, cooking or managing boat systems, I can’t imagine having a better first mate by my side.
In the end, if we’re on Yahtzee as a family or on another boat, the adventures in life are always there for the making and taking. It’s up to us alone to bring them to fruition, and this incredibly memorable voyage was no different.
Editor’s Note: Sorry for the lack of quality images, the conditions weren’t great for photography.