The official log of the Abigail's return to its winter home—and baptism in The Church of Nautical Conversion.
Note: The following describes my first experience with offshore sailing in 1991. At the time, the fax machine was the state of the art method of quick written communication. There was no such thing as the internet in 1991 as we know it today. A cell phone was something so expensive it had to be rented for short periods of time and came in a rig reminiscent of a Word War II communications device.
The call came on a Wednesday night the last week in September 1991, from a friend who had a close friend who was helping an old friend sail his boat from its summer mooring in Nantucket to its winter home in Lankford Bay Marina off the Chester River on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The caller, who was a close friend of mine as well, wasn't actually going on the trip himself, but his close friend and his close friend's old friend desperately needed a third crew member and what better way to maintain a friendship than find a stand-in for something thought to be a complete waste of time.
With sailing there's a lot of talk about standing in cold showers and setting fire to money, but the real reason people get rid of sailboats is that they can never find a crew. So, despite the fact that I frequently tell anyone who will listen what an avid boater I am, I found myself starting to weasel out of this trip, thinking warm, comfortable thoughts about the firewood I had planned to stack behind our house this weekend, and cold, uncomfortable thoughts about wet boats fifty miles off New England in the windy Atlantic in October.
"When, uh, would we start sailing?"
"Sunday. That's only four days from now."
"Well, it's getting pretty late in the season."
Long pause on my end of the phone. Even longer on his. I try to outwait him, but it’s getting late and I want to go to bed.
"In other words," I finally say, trying to work as much skepticism into my voice as possible, "you're asking me whether, on only four days’ notice, I'd be willing to drop whatever I'm doing and take an entire week off from work away from a phone?"
"There'll be a cellular phone aboard."
All next day I mulled over what I should do, overwhelming myself with the vast number of intelligent, rational reasons for maintaining my lifelong armchair approach to offshore sailing, especially when the weather was on the chilly side. But concern with creeping mid-life crisis finally overcame caution, prudence and good sense. Leafing through one of my alumni magazines a few days earlier, I had found this squib regarding one of my classmates:
Cliff Roberson updates: "A year ago I opted for a career change. I closed my neurosurgical practice. This coming February I will be racing a team in the Iditarod dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome. Other than that, nothing much else is new."
Well, perhaps this sail would be a sensible middle ground somewhere between going off the deep end and not even getting in the wading pool.
The fax that came back Friday afternoon said the boat was a 1975 Westsail 28, a classic cutter rigged sloop named Abigail. It was owned and captained by Lyman Perry, an architect who grew up in St. Michaels, MD and had his practice in Nantucket. Our mutual friend who would be the second crewmember was cable TV mogul Cal Sutliff. Both were former Naval Academy submariners.
While they had been led to believe that I was an experienced blue water sailor by my friend desperately seeking a stand-in, I saw no need to disabuse them of that notion in view of the large number of excellent books on the subject which I had read over the years.
The fax said that I was to be Watch Officer and Yeoman, and as such it would be my task to keep the log, which I did, and which follows.
0400. Crew awoke after five hours sleep to catch the ebb tide out of Nantucket harbor. Abigail, normally moored in the harbor, had been tied to a fueling dock for the night. During the early hours of the morning, the crew discovered that the dockage had been a bit thinner than expected,resulting in the keel pounding the bottom throughout the night as Abigail rode the harbor swells. Not exactly an endorsement of the Captain’s boating skills.
Abigail had been provisioned the evening before by Mr. Sutliff and the Yeoman who had purchased food at a local supermarket according to a menu carefully planned over lunch at McDonald's on the drive up. Having not interrogated the Captain to any great extent, the crew had subconsciously chosen not to consider that a sailing trip of more than 500 miles might last more than three days. Accordingly, the provisions consisted of six days of snack food (mostly cans of Pringles, Cheetos variety packs, and unshelled peanuts) with barely three days of basics mixed in. To be absolutely certain of a maintaining a balanced diet, however, the crew felt it was only prudent that, the last night ashore, it should eat where the locals do, selecting a place called 21 Federal as what must be typical of Nantucket and spending as much on that one meal as on all the provisions for the entire trip.
0600. Pitch black. Abigail motored out of the harbor passed the jetty into winds blowing from the north at 15 knots. Yeoman at the tiller because of his extensive yachting experience, guiding the boat per the Captain's instructions to follow the range. Although he kept the two lights perfectly lined up, spending far more time looking backwards than in the direction Abigail was heading meant watching disconcertingly as large harbor buoys, all steel and barnacles,suddenly jumped out of the blackness only twenty or thirty feet on our beam and glided away quickly astern.
The air being a bit nippy (in the 40s), the crew used the occasion to demonstrate its foresight in equipping itself with insulated waterproof gloves, one set being ski mittens while the other was done in camouflage for duck hunting. The Captain, a Penn fine arts graduate who saw Abigail and its occupants as part of his grand nautical artistic experience, was already having misgivings about the aesthetic sense of his crew. Despite the low temperatures, he changed into shorts soon thereafter to shame the crew into stowing their gloves. The crew was unperturbed.
0800. As Abigail cleared the jetty and motored into shallow Nantucket Sound, the winds increased to 25 knots with waves a steep six feet. To the uninitiated, the boat appeared to be just pivoting up and down on a large bolt drilled through the rudder. Dear Abbie's bow would rise to meet the next vertical wave, and then crash in its trough without making any visible forward progress. Captain Perry pointed out to the crew, however, that Abigail was in fact making two knots over the bottom, the speed of the outgoing tide, news which the crew found tremendously reassuring.
During this time, Mr. Sutliff presented the crew with a breakfast of bananas as the orange sun crept over Nantucket to the east. After several poorly timed moves with the tiller, the Yeoman learned how to relate it to the movement of the compass dial, there being a series of icy stares by his senior officers when the Abigail took a few briny waves broadside.
0900. The Captain decided to raise the sails with reefed main and fall off to the south quickly, having read flickering (and for him unexpectedly early)signs of mutiny in the vacant stares of his crew who were gazing longingly at nearby harbors. The ship's keel sailed through, not over, the sands of Tuckernuck Shoal on more than one occasion as the Abigail, full of sound and fury, crashed about in the slop like a tethered whale. After three hours of staring at the spinning compass dial, the Yeoman decided to step below into the pitching cabin for a nap, but instantly realized his mistake. He did learn, however, that on the Abigail,there is even a set procedure for heaving bananas, doing so with a bucket, not by leaning over the side which seemed so much more inviting and tempting.
1200. Throughout the morning, Abigail continued slamming/wallowing towards Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard in these miserable conditions. With deeply furrowed brow, the Captain remarked several times that these conditions were some of the worst that he had seen in several years of sailing in New England. The crew was quite skeptical of the veracity of his remarks in view of tales told the evening before about riding out Hurricane Bob in Maine. All in all, a fairly dismal start.
1330. The skies cleared, and the wind and waves quieted as Abigail headed into the more sheltered Vineyard Sound near West Chop. Spirits improved, the air warmed, and the Cheetos were broken out as the crew quickly forgot the early morning unpleasantness. We now revel in a beautiful New England fall morning motorsailing past the Vineyard. Winds blowing moderately from the north. The drifter was set as we headed south with a following wind past Nashon (Forbes) Island and pristine Cuttyhunk with its rolling emerald green hills falling past neat white, shingled houses surrounding its sheltered harbor.
1800. The Yeoman discovered the perfect spot for taking in the view, sitting on top of the cabin roof using the dodger as a backrest, listening to the Brandenberg Concertos Number 3, 4 and 5 on his daughter's Walkman as Abigail sailed past the clay cliffs of Gay Head. At Buzzards Bay tower, course set for Cape May, New Jersey, which took Abigail into Block Island Sound in the afternoon. As evening approached, the wind slowly died beneath a clear blue sky striped with Mare's Tails signifying coming change in wind conditions.
1900. Abigail continued motorsailing through Block Island Sound out into the Atlantic as the sun set in a brilliant sky of orange. Captain pointed out the planes overhead,lined up one behind the other from horizon to horizon in a stately procession towards Europe. To the west was Southeast Light,200 feet above the water on Block Island's Mohegan Bluffs. We were so far away, however, the light looked like a glowing white ping pong ball floating on the water. To our east, an immense white cruise ship lit by thousands of sparkling lights moved against the indigo sky towards Bermuda. While its passengers sat down at linen tablecloths, violins and five course dinners, Mr. Sutliff prepared an exquisite supper of Dinty Moore beef stew, fruit cocktail and toast, stuffing the delighted crew to its gills as it listened to the sideband radio describe weather conditions offshore which were good in every was save one—wind direction.
2000. Winds began shifting from the North to the South at 8-12 knots and, as the forecast had foretold, were to remain blowing from that direction for several days. Our vision of reaching gently from Block Island to Cape May in a following wind has been replaced by the reality of sailing headlong into oncoming seas for a very long time. Still, because the waves had not yet started building, Abigail skipped across the flat water with its crew in high spirits, leaving behind the Southeast Block Island light flashing green. Once the shore lights disappeared, the Milky Way revealed itself. Mr. Sutliff patiently pointed out to the Yeoman the difference between the Big Dipper and Orion among other constellations, the Yeoman having until this point in his life conveniently referred to any obvious star combination as the Big Dipper.
With the drifter stowed and main, jib and staysail fully set, the Captain began motorsailing to gain compass direction. After some discussion, the decision was made to tack southeast to get south and pick up a little speed.
2400. Mr. Sutliff took the watch from 2000 to 2300 as winds and seas slowly began to increase. The Yeoman took over around 2300 and steered to the southeast through the night with Montauk Light to the stern.
Serving on watch alone in the middle of a black night surrounded by the commotion of the winds and waves is an exercise in humility. From the deck, one looks down through the open hatch into the illusory security of the softly lit cabin and a warm bunk. On deck, however,it's cold and damp. Everyone asleep is assuming the person on watch is constantly reading the LORAN for the compass heading, making sure the compass reflects that heading, scanning the radar to watch for contacts, figuring out the course of passing ships and avoiding any breaching whales.
0100. Since 0015 the Yeoman had been watching a green blip on the Furuno's radar screen. According to the screen's glowing green concentric rings, the blip represented another boat of some kind about a mile and a half away. The blip was steering an erratic course, like a waterbug on a still pond. From time to time, he would take the binoculars and try to find the blip's running lights,but it was difficult on the tossing sea. With nothing else around on this moonless night, the Yeoman had slowly begun to develop a relationship with the little blip which represented a platform of humanity out here a long way offshore.
As time went by, the blip's seemingly random movements slowly brought it towards the center of the radar screen as the Yeoman cheered on his new found friend. Eventually, the blip came into full view off the port bow and grew into a large fishing trawler with booms outstretched like something out of Star Wars, its random movements dictated by a school of fish it was following. The Yeoman enjoyed its company for several minutes at this close range when he remembered that commercial boats have right of way over pleasure craft and that this trawler probably wouldn't have thought twice about cutting the Abigail in two for getting in its way if the school were to assemble under its keel. It was time to awaken the Captain and change tacks.
Unfortunately, it took the Captain several minutes to reach the deck because the Yeoman in his fatigue kept calling out Mr. Sutliff's first name instead of the Captain's, and Mr. Sutliff was not about to budge from his warm bunk when the Captain's was closer to the deck. Bringing the boat about and resetting the jib, the Captain repeatedly inquired as to the Yeoman's intentions and thoughts, not at all impressed by the Yeoman's cheery confidence that his close friends aboard the huge trawler would have seen the Abigail before running her down.
While neither the Captain nor the Yeoman thought about it as they brought Abigail around, Mr. Sutliff had been sleeping in the forward V-berth in the leeward side, wedged into it by the ship's heeling at a 30 degree angle (probably dreaming of how good he had had it the previous evening quietly bouncing off the bottom of Nantucket harbor). By violently coming about and shifting the angle of the heel 90 degrees through the vertical without the proper warning,Mr. Sutliff had been tossed on the cabin floor from a height of four feet with all his limbs wrapped tightly inside his sleeping bag. A pathetic groan could be heard despite the wind and waves slamming against the boat. Fortunately, he was too much of a gentleman to complain to the crew about its embarrassing oversight.
0200. The Captain returned to his bunk, and the Abigail continued on towards Cape May alone again in the night. Remaining on watch, the Yeoman was having a difficult time staying awake. But as he forced his eyes open,he didn't like what he saw. Looking back towards Long Island and New York, cities of orange skyscrapers suddenly shot up all across the horizon with thousands of tiny white lights for windows. Over and over again, they would build themselves to a huge height and then disappear. He kept blinking, dousing his face in cold saltwater, but the hallucinations continued unabated.
0300. Finally deciding that he might end up doing permanent damage to his psyche if he tried to stay awake any longer and that it wasn't his boat anyway,the Yeoman woke Captain Perry again and climbed down the companionway into his bunk. As he slipped off to sleep, the Yeoman heard the pleasant sound of the Captain barfing over the side as quietly as possible, proving that not just junior greenhorn Yeomen were vulnerable to bouncing decks.
0700. Crew awoke to a beautiful blue day, wind blowing from the south at 12 to 16 knots, seas 4 to 6 feet, and the world generally rolling around like a basketball in a tumbling barrel. Climbing on deck, the crew found the Captain muttering incessantly about looking at the Montauk Point light all night and asking (what the crew felt should have been rhetorically) which idiot had decided to tack to the southeast. The Yeoman silently applauded his wisdom for having almost rammed the trawler. Otherwise, the Abigail might have continued on that tack towards Bermuda even longer.
0800. No one envied Mr. Sutliff who gamely prepared oatmeal while being thrashed about in the galley. During breakfast Captain Perry asked if anyone had noticed the Northern Lights the evening before. This was very reassuring to the Yeoman who had never done acid, but secretly had begun wondering whether there were residual highs by simply being part of a particular generation.
0900. With the waves having become just a bit larger than ones the Yeoman was comfortable with in the creeks and rivers off the Chesapeake Bay, life now consisted of a small number of major undertakings, like getting dressed, or climbing on deck, or finding a comfortable place to sit when all flat surfaces were now at a 45 degree angle to the horizon while Abigail moved violently in five different directions at once. The boat's motions made doing much of anything an unpleasant prospect. One could have probably watched a camera slip overboard and thought nothing of it. The crew soon learned that it was much simpler to nap with shoes and foul weather gear on, instead of trying to take them off inside the bouncing boat.
1000. More of the same. Having to relieve oneself posed interesting dilemmas. One could try hanging over the vessel's stern, but risked either getting tossed into the ocean or getting a bit more wet than desired. The Yeoman remembered reading somewhere that most dead yachtsmen the Coast Guard fishes out of the ocean have their pants unzipped. On the other hand, one might have to use the head down below. That undertaking entailed propping oneself against a cabin door, pulling one's pants down while trying to stand upright, lunging for a handhold on the sink and pirouetting to land on the seat. Next,the user would cling to the toilet bowl as if it were a carnival ride, being occasionally reminded that big waves come in threes when the Abigail SLAMMED, SLAMMED, SLAMMED into their troughs. The Yeoman once made the mistake of standing up after the first of a threesome, and with his trousers and foul weather gear wrapped around his ankles, was thrown out of the head compartment, then thrown face first into the forecastle as Abigail hit a trough only to be thrown back into the main cabin on his bare butt as the boat rose to meet the next wave. Sitting on the floor, his brethren peered down through the hatch and asked benignly, "Everything alright?"
1100. Seas gradually built to eight feet, and the Abigail, sailing as close to the wind as possible, continued pounding through them. During the morning, the reality of the situation dawned on the crew as it began to understand that yes, this beautiful boat with its classic lines, scroll work and bomb proof hull, with more character than any slick razor thin fiberglass production machine on the market,was for all intents and purposes slower than molasses flowing uphill. According to the LORAN, it's speed overground was approximately 4.5 to 5.5 knots in the howling wind, which meant that in essence the crew would be going from New England to the Chesapeake at almost the same speed as if it were jogging in a marathon for geriatrics.
A large three masted, schooner from an earlier century sailed most of the morning a mile or two away on our port beam before turning towards New York harbor. Other than those white, gaff rigged sails, the ocean was empty.
1200. Winds have risen to 25 to 30 knots, and water started sloshing into the cockpit at times. After mentioning to the crew once or twice that the Abigail was about to confront a particularly large wave (and receiving evil looks in return), the Yeoman found it more prudent to just watch it pass under the boat, lift it up for a good view all around, and abruptly drop the shuddering vessel in the next trough with spray flying in all directions. One reef had been placed in the main, the jib had been furled, but the staysail was still set. Continued motorsailing for compass direction. As Abigail left the continental shelf and passed over Hudson Canyon 3000 feet below, the waves began to stretch out and the ride become a little more comfortable.
1500. During the afternoon as the waves remained at eight feet and portions of the boat began going underwater for longer and longer periods of time, the Yeoman began to grow weary of the frat-like behavior of the two former submariners. A large ship on the horizon would invariably produce gleeful shouts of "Contact Off the Port Bow"and "Take Her Down, Mr. Sutliff," but his cold stares were completely ignored in the juvenile revelry.
1600. "And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, And the flung spray and the blown spume and the sea gulls crying." I was beginning to wonder if Masefield actually sailed much.
1700. With daylight coming to an end, it is remarkably difficult to remember what happened during the day other than the wind blew, the blue ocean foamed around the boat, and Abigail galumphed along from wave to wave, smashing the water to the right and left and occasionally spraying her occupants. The crew must have conversed at length,feasted on its heavy stores of snack food, and generally waited for the day to pass while trying to find a comfortable place to sit. The Yeoman did recall scraps of a few deep discussions, such as the number of boat magazines the three had collectively purchased in their lifetimes (the cost, it was concluded, must have been in the$25,000 range). Mr. Sutliff, the consummate dealmaker, mused about what good sport it would be negotiating with someone who advertised his boat in one of these magazines as "Seriously For Sale," or "Try 135K." The crew also began noticing that the Captain in his queasiness usually referred to an item on the vessel, not by its nautical name, but simply as"that thing." Not that the crew really knew the names of very many items on the boat, but it proved to be a wonderful excuse after having accidentally reached for the wrong thing, "Why didn't you just say the fore staysail port sheet?" being a good example of how the crew would respond to muttering from the Captain about the denseness of his subordinates.
The few times the crew went below, it began noticing a funny smell in addition to the ever present diesel fuel and that the floor had become as slippery as if someone had poured a quart of 10W-40 on it. This proved to be great sport as the crew watched each other try to move from point to point in the cabin. The Yeoman also discovered that large bags of unshelled peanuts are really not a good idea on a sailboat. Stray peanut shell parts began rolling back and forth across the ooze on the cabin floor along with sleeping bags, duffels, and pillows.
2000. Winds continue from the southwest undiminished. No one seemed terribly interested in dinner,and no one dared ask the cook whether he planned to go below for fear that he would suggest someone substitute for him. The intrepid crew at this point begins disintegrating with fatigue, and the Captain took over the helm as the others grope their way forward into their bunks.
0100. A few minutes ago, Mr. Sutliff awoke to relieve the Captain. Climbing from the warmth of the cabin into the damp, cold cockpit, he was surprised to find himself alone on deck. The seas had continued to build while he had slept, and with it the wind. He looked forward in the Stygian darkness towards the bow, but none of the shapes resembled the Captain. Checking the LORAN and the compass heading, Mr. Sutliff saw that the Autohelm was keeping the boat on the correct course and that the sails were properly trimmed. He did notice, however, that the safety harness the Captain insisted the person on watch wear to keep from being washed overboard had been thrown under the dodger. Climbing back down into the cabin, he checked the bunks and found the Captain's empty. He slid his way forward across the oozy floor to the head compartment and banged on the door. No response.
Heading back towards the companionway thinking of the movie "City Slickers," Mr. Sutliff glanced at the navstation and thought that maybe he should have paid a bit more attention when the Captain had plotted the course. Climbing back up on deck with a sinking feeling beginning to overlay a few other weird sensations in his stomach, he crawled his way towards the bow to see whether the Captain might have fallen while adjusting the sails. No sign of him there. Panic was now taking hold, trying to figure out how to get the boat’s course reversed and the chances of retrieving the Captain from the Atlantic’s embrace. Heading towards the cockpit, his eye caught something on the mainsail. It was the shadow of the Captain. Far above the deck, he was standing on the boom with his feet spread wide apart, leaning back into the sail and looking very comfortable as he silently rode Abigail over the waves as if she were a horse on a steeplechase. “Looking for someone?” he said.
0300. The Yeoman awoke when the Abigail's diesel suddenly stopped, an eerie sound in the open ocean for the uninitiated, even on a sailboat when the LORAN reads 122.34 knots Distance to Destination (Cape May in this instance). After debating for several minutes whether to pretend to sleep and hope that somehow the world on its own would suddenly correct itself, the Yeoman finally forced himself up and took over the helm, only to find the Autohelm broken and that steering would have to be done by hand throughout the night.
Apparently, Mr. Sutliff and the Captain had tried unsuccessfully to jury rig a substitute for a part that had mysteriously slipped over the side. But the more daunting task was to get the diesel running again as the Abigail had already fallen off 10 to 15 degrees towards the North. While the Yeoman steered into what had now become a shrieking wind, the Captain worked on the engine for over two hours straight, coming up occasionally to barf. For the Yeoman whose sailing experience was principally on Hobie 16's,this kind of sailing was comforting in its familiarity—just sail as closely as possible into the wind and don't worry about where you're going, even if you are 50 miles offshore.
From the cockpit, only one of the Captain's two bare feet could be seen protruding from the engine room. The rest of his body was turned upside down and wrapped around the engine as he slithered through five gallons of diesel fuel to replace filters, bleed and prime the engine and restart the motor by decompressing it manually (i.e., allowing his hand to be sucked into the air intake to act as a choke). Mr. Sutliff assisted the Captain in the repairs, with parts and engine manuals spread about the cabin floor. The engine finally coughed into life, the crew cheered and shook hands, but it soon died again. Next, in the 8 to 12 foot waves hitting the boat nearly head on, the raw water cooling system had to be repaired and the impeller replaced before the engine could be coaxed into turning over. Engine finally restarted with a healthy dose of ether, which apparently put the Yeoman into an even deeper, and welcome,sleep as Mr. Sutliff took over the helm.
0530. In his dreams, the Yeoman began hearing a faint voice calling the Captain for help, but the Captain would not respond. The calls seemed to go on for some time,until finally the Yeoman decided that, bobbing sea or not, he should once again force open his eyes. Looking up through the hatch and seeing a distressed Mr. Sutliff, the Yeoman shook the Captain awake and was greeted with the sight of two eyes turning into white baseballs, a torso coming straight up from the bunk, and a body flipping over in mid-air before its feet had hit the deck. After considerable commotion on deck, the Yeoman joined the rest of the crew to see a sight which, by this time, he was not ever sure he would see again—dozens of manmade lights stretched along the horizon. Apparently, Mr. Sutliff had been convinced that he had been looking, not at the harbor entrance to Barnegat Bay which meant we were very far off course,but at a fishing fleet of some kind with a long dark gray barge being towed through the middle of it. Only when the depth gauge had read 9 feet did he decide that perhaps the barge was a jetty,and that perhaps those lights were in a parking lot. Quickly jibing, Mr. Sutliff was taking Abigail back out to sea. Although he kept it to himself, it crossed the Yeoman's mind that behind his placid smile, Mr. Sutliff harbored a secret desire to ram the Abigail into the surf at full speed,wade ashore, shout a few expletives at the remaining crew members, and check himself into a motel for a hot shower and a long sleep.
0600. Yeoman now on watch. Abigail continues sailing southwest along the shore as the sun slowly rises.
0745. A completely exhausted Captain returned to deck, the winds still blowing and the seas still bobbing, and ordered Mr. Sutliff below to prepare oatmeal. It was concluded at the end of breakfast that eating pre-packaged oatmeal was not much different than eating cakes of corn syrup. Mr. Sutliff insisted, and everyone readily consented, that on all future trips (like there were going to be any), the boat be provisioned with Irish Oatmeal. Crew in its fatigue noticed that the engine was running very hot, but it was either too tired or too stupid (or both) to draw the conclusion that the fresh water cooling system might need topping up.
0900. With a lift from the shore breeze toward the south and a current running in the same direction, Abigail continues moving towards Cape May. The crew completed further repairs on the jury rigged Autohelm, and once again the boat can steer itself. The Captain is pulling out drawers and opening lockers in a vain attempt to find the cause of the slippery floor. As the morning warmed, the crew suddenly realized that it had left New England far behind, that they were now in the mid-Atlantic, and that five layers of clothes are no longer needed to stay warm.
1030. As Atlantic City came into view, the engine died a third and final time opposite Absecon Inlet. The Captain's patience at an end, the Coast Guard was radioed for help. Unfortunately, the Guard simply announced our plight to the world on a separate channel and wished Abigail good fortune and God speed. As the crew pondered its plight, the friendly voice of a local towboat operator boomed out of the speaker and asked for our LORAN coordinates, the Captain now willing to spend almost anything to be towed.
Shortly thereafter the Abigail was docked at the state marina directly beneath Trump Castle. After taking long hot showers in the beautifully maintained marina facilities, the thought began forming in the fog of the somnambulistic crew's collective brain that perhaps water might be good for the engine too. The system was topped up, and the motor started immediately and stayed at the correct temperature.
1400. The boat was moved to Atlantic Diesel about a mile away from the marina. Trying to make an impressive entrance at the engine repair dock to show the $90 an hour mechanic that he was not some dumb bunny Yuppie day sailor, the Captain managed to ram the bow of the Abigail firmly between the two pilings at the end of the repair dock. The crew heard considerable muttering about the brand new folding prop not reversing at the correct time,but it quickly convened itself into a safety board and made the following finding to be entered into the log:
Fatigue caused by two sleepless nights had prevented the Captain from deciding which side of the dock to land on, leaving him no alternative but come down decisively in the middle, no matter how foolish it was to do so.
After dexterously extricating our dear lady amid the sound of splintering 2 X 10's, a further and this time more successful docking was made.
Apparently, Abigail's problem was typical of boats coming South from New England at this time of year. During the summer, algae builds up on the sides of the fuel tanks and then is shaken loose by the open ocean, clogging filters. A large number seem to breakdown around Atlantic City for some reason, and fall is an excellent season here for diesel mechanics.
The 90 gallon fuel tanks had to be pumped out, cleaned, then replaced with clean fuel. The filters and a host of other assorted parts replaced, and the excess diesel fuel removed from the bilge in which the Captain had been bathing while working on the engine. The Captain had been particularly keen on this last maintenance item because everything he now ate tasted like diesel fuel, and when he belched (which was often) it was like a diesel exhaust.
1530. While more of the Captain's life savings were being siphoned into the repair yard's cash register, Mr. Sutliff and the Yeoman hiked to the Boardwalk. After quaint Nantucket,Martha's Vineyard, and Cuttyhunk followed by 60 hours sailing off New England,they found the experience surreal. The weather was warm, the crew was strolling on a boardwalk overlooking a beach,and they half-expected a beach in a crowded beach town to be jammed with lots of kids and teenagers. The Atlantic City boardwalk, however, was different. No one was on the beach, and at 44 and 53, the two crewmembers found themselves to be some of the youngest people around. The casinos looked like a giant rec center at Leisure World, causing the crew to wonder if the three might have actually drowned offshore and that they were in reality lost in a zone depicted by the movie "Defending Your Life." Over a late lunch, Mr. Sutliff and the Yeoman discussed the merits of large boat ownership and offshore sailing, concluding conclusively that there was not one chance in a hundred of the two of them doing either—ever.
1830. The repairs completed, the Abigail motored back out to sea several hundred dollars lighter heading south. Moving along the shore as night fell, it became dazzlingly clear that gleaming Atlantic City with its huge, white, brightly lit hotels and casinos lined up along the shore for miles was meant to be seen from the sea, not land,but few people probably get the chance to do so. The Captain remarked that sailing northwest one night away from the Jersey shore, he could see the Trump lights half way to Block Island. The log becomes sketchy at this point because the Yeoman stumbled into his bunk exhausted as the Captain and Mr. Sutliff motorsailed on through the night towards Cape May.
0230. Sometime around midnight the Abigail arrived at Cape May and motored into the harbor. In anticipation of a forecasted storm which was to pass through the area early in the morning,the Captain had called ahead to reserve a space at a marina. Unfortunately, he was not able to find it at this hour amidst the acres of slips and the endless panorama of fiberglass,teak and chrome that coated the shore. Mr. Sutliff recounted two hours of motoring in and out of marinas looking for spaces, wedging and extricating Abigail from extremely tight places as they searched in vain for one empty little slip to tie up in for the remainder of the night. The honking buzzer on the depth gauge was set to go off whenever the boat reached a depth of 4 feet or so, and the Yeoman remembers it bleating for what seemed most of those two hours as he tried to sleep with a towel wrapped around his head. Finally, the Captain mercifully gave up and tied Abigail to a commercial fishing pier and turned off the diesel. All three crew members slept the sleep of the dead.
0830. The crew awoke to a warm, gray, drizzly morning without a breath of wind. Spirits quickly brightened,however, when they discovered the commercial dock also bordered a Cape May landmark—the Lobster House—and that it was open for breakfast. Once inside all the wonderful morning smells of coffee, cinnamon, and frying bacon, they quickly found three places at the breakfast counter.
Through the window it might have looked as if the crew were hunched over the counter with their hands folded waiting to be served, but this threesome was really kneeling before the alter in the Church of Nautical Conversion, for here is where THE TRANSFORMATION occurred. The Lobster House was frequented by the old salts who manned the deep sea fishing trawlers moored at the commercial dock along with the Abigail. Once discussions began of offshore conditions, the crew's agonizing memories of ricocheting off sharp objects topside and rolling around down below in a 32 foot wet clothes hamper suddenly vanished as the Captain related our own experiences on the high sea. All that was simply a rich part of the adventurous lives we all lived. Heads bowed over the counter, the crew partook of its early morning meal on Cape May's shore and was united into the Brotherhood.
To be accurate, the log should reflect that the Yeoman had always thought of commercial fisherman like the cowboys of old, following the herd for hundreds of miles, wandering through lonely tracts far from home for months at a time. Yet for some reason Captain Perry, Mr. Sutliff and the Yeoman were the only unshaven pilgrims in filthy clothes in this church, and the Yeoman could not help overhearing the two seated next to him comparing the US Air frequent flier miles they had racked up jetting home for the weekend. Even that inexplicable anomaly, however, did not detract from the baptismal ceremony.
Returning to the boat feeling like three blowfish, the crew found that the tide had dropped the Abigail's deck ten feet below the deck of the commercial dock. With the trawler crews thoroughly enjoying the sight of three middle aged men desperately lunging for the side stays and ratlines trying to get back on board, the Abigail managed to get underway without breaking any bones.
1100. Abigail motored out of Cape May Harbor through the canal into Delaware Bay. When she approached abridge that seemed a bit shorter than the 60 footers typical of the Intercostal Waterway, the Yeoman offhandedly asked the Captain how tall his mast was. The mast of the Yeoman's Hobie 16 shoots 28 feet above the water, and he began thinking that a boat twice that length probably had something in excess of 50 feet. "Gee, I don't know," came the response as all necks craned upwards to watch the top of the mast miss the bridge by what seemed to be no more than a foot or two on the extremely low tide.
1200. Seas were calm and a drizzle was falling under a grey sky as Abigail headed past the Cape May-Lewes ferries into the main shipping channel of Delaware Bay and turned north towards the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. To the south, several freighters and container ships were anchored in the bay, waiting for the flood tide to begin. The Captain logged in the day's coordinates in the LORAN and instructed the Yeoman to forget the compass and steer by the LORAN heading gauge. After doing two figure eights trying to carry out these instructions, Mr. Sutliff patiently pointed out that when you are trying to steer a boat along an imaginary line running 60 miles, you want to creep up to that line by running nearly parallel to it, not lunging for it directly. We were soon back on course, motoring north into a grey sky that dissolved into a grey sea as flat as a mirror.
1300. The drizzle stopped, the grey gave way to a brilliant blue behind white starched clouds, and the sun began bathing everything in warmth. A gorgeous afternoon unfolded as the boat glided up the Bay on the flood tide, absolutely rock stable. The crew opened up the portholes and began drying out the boat, clearing up all sorts of little mysteries in the process. The most significant was the cabin's slippery floor and its shimmering glaze which was soon traced to an open quart bottle of liquid boat wax that had fallen on its side. The contrast between this afternoon and two days ago is startling. Everything is so simple. If one wants to get something down below, it is only a simple bound away. Two days ago, the task seemed like walking a mile down the side of a steep mountain and back up.
1600. The afternoon ride up the Bay is the most relaxing day of the trip thus far with everything warm, peaceful and horizontal. The Captain bounced around the boat, doing small repairs and climbing into the rigging to wire ratlines and figure out the height of the mast.
Mr. Sutliff fell asleep in the shade of the furled mainsail, and the Yeoman used the cellular phone to pretend to be in his office for the afternoon with great success,opening up splendid possibilities for the future. There was a feeling of doors beginning to open in the universe as he spoke authoritatively about political events in the nation's capital while being fanned by a warm breeze in the middle of Delaware Bay.
1700. The ships that had been anchored at the mouth of the Bay began charging up the channel on the tide, quickly passing Abigail as they lunged towards Wilmington and Philadelphia. The Yeoman tried his hand at preparing dinner—fettucine alfredo and barbecue beans,applesauce, and toast. He concluded that if he ever did an extended trip on the water again, he would be planning the menu months ahead of time.
1800. Abigail turned into the C&D canal and the bright orange ball of the setting sun. A warm breeze floated off the surrounding fields that were sprinkled with darting birds. Mr. Sutliff and the Yeoman were seated in the bow, drinking in the evening as Mr. Sutliff described how he had brought his sub, the Piper, through here many years ago.
At this point, the crew had reached absolute mellowness, causing the Yeoman to hypothesize foolishly, "What if Lyman asked you to help him take the boat back up next spring, what would you say?" Mr. Sutliff lowered the binoculars from his eyes, turned halfway around and stared into the passing marsh grass that had been turned yellow by the setting sun. After a long pause, he never did answer the question.
[Note: He did help the Captain sail Abigail back to Nantucket the following spring. After another long smash through an oncoming sea all the way to the Vineyard, Abigail turned east and was tearing along at hull speed on a reach in the 20 knot wind. The Captain enthusiastically said, “It just doesn’t get any better than this. Mr.Sutliff’s unenthused response was, “I know.” I was told the Captain never invited him to sail on the Abigail again.]
1830. The sun has set, the row of bright lights along the canal's banks had been turned on, but it had become quite dark in the middle of the canal. The current was flowing with the Abigail,and she was making well over seven knots, the quickest speed of the trip. The crew soon noticed that the bridges far overhead were marked with green lights in the middle and red lights near the shore. The crew assumed the trick was to simply steer towards the green light, a real no-brainer. Another bridge approached while Captain Perry was below, and feeling like Bob and Ted in their Excellent Adventure, the Yeoman and Mr. Sutliff lined the boat up with the middle light. Until the two began wondering why that light kept moving slightly to port. A few seconds later, it became agonizingly apparent that they were not lining Abigail to pass under a bridge, but directly into the bow of a freighter. As Abigail headed directly for the bank, a dark gray outline piled ten stories high with containers glided passed her less than 100 feet away.
1930. Listening to the radio chatter on Channel 13, the crew heard a container ship check in at one end of the canal and then a freighter at the other. They called out their position to the canal traffic controller who commented, "You two'll pass each other 'bout same time." Overwhelmed by the profundity of his insightful exposition of the obvious, all communication ceased for several minutes on Channel 13.
2000. Abigail completed transiting the canal and motored into Bohemia River. Using the radar and depth gauge, the sailing vessel was guided to a sheltered cove where it anchored for the night. The crew fell asleep listening, like the old salts that they now were, to sea chanties.
1100. Awoke to another beautiful day with a light wind blowing from the south which, unfortunately, meant another day of motoring and not sailing. After a quick swim and breakfast, weighed anchor by 0900. We are motoring down the Chesapeake past Georgetown, the Sassafras, and Rock Hall as Abigail neared its destination—Lankford Creek off the Chester River.
By this point in the trip, the Abigail's crew is totally into the rhythm of motoring through bays, canals and inland waterways, and serious consideration is being given to continuing this odyssey indefinitely. The male bonding is now complete, and the crew has spent a good part of the morning huddled in the bow,swapping stories and trying to forget about having to go back to the routine. The Captain had already begun planning subsequent sails, and was even starting to talk about Bermuda and how we could cross the Gulfstream to avoid the cyclical storms.
1200. Abigail was suddenly home. The familiar sight of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge emerged from the haze of the Indian Summer, and the crew realized that yes, it had really brought Abigail all the way from New England's Nantucket near the Labrador Current back to the Chesapeake's warm waters.
1245. The boat at this point is being steered by the Autohelm's remote control device that resembles a Nintendo pad on a long wire. From a distance, no one seemed to be piloting the boat, just three unshaven, disheveled middle aged men huddled strangely in the bow. Abigail was making the surrounding boaters a bit uncomfortable, and for good reason. As she turned into the Chester River and encountered a large number of other yachts making their way upriver, the Captain and Mr. Sutliff went below to clean and pack, leaving the Yeoman at the helm. Trying to set up a last group photo, the Yeoman was a little too intent on taping his camera to the gallows. When he turned back towards the bow, he noticed a large Hinckely shrouded in acres of teak suddenly veer to starboard to avoid being run down by the Abigail. Looking under the furled mainsail, the Yeoman saw the Hinckley's captain glaring at him and muttering in terms even louder than his own Captain would use.
The Yeoman also noticed the carefully trimmed beard of the Hinckley's captain and how it was shaded by a white canvas sailing hat that looked as if it were dry cleaned and blocked after each weekend jaunt. Looking around at the other boats that apparently were motoring towards a nearby creek for a weekend raftup, one could see none had radar reflectors in their shrouds, radar or sophisticated man overboard equipment, none had self-steering mechanisms nor pulpits for holding sailbags and water jugs on deck. In other words, none were set up for going offshore. Abigail, in contrast,had all of this equipment and more, and had sleeping bags and foul weather gear hanging from the rigging drying out in the warm sun, something one would of course do after a bit of heavy duty sailing. Further, while the Abigail was as slow as molasses, this convoy had discovered the ability to move at an even slower pace, perhaps because these boats never strayed more than a few miles from home. Purified by THE TRANSFORMATION, the Yeoman summoned all the hubris of a novice who had spent a grand total of 48 hours offshore and simply dismissed these would-be sailors with their nautical pretensions and continued taping the camera to the gallows (all the while fervently praying that the Hinckley wouldn't end up at the same marina as the Abigail and give the Yeoman 60 well deserved lashes with a sharp tongue).
1600. Abigail was docked at the stillness of Lankford Bay Marina. All systems were turned off, the crew's belongings removed, one last picture made and the good ship hosed down and shut up tight. The trip was over, although it would take two days for the sound of the throbbing diesel to leave the crew's heads.
At 0300 on Sunday, October 6, the Yeoman was sleeping in his bed at home. The windows were open to the warm night, and a southwest wind was rustling the leaves, blowing like the wind and waves offshore causing the Yeoman to dream of sailing in the open ocean. Suddenly, the fall weather changed. The temperature cooled as the wind shifted from the north, rose in intensity and blew across his bed,partially waking him. After being on the water for five days, he had not yet completely adjusted to solid land. As he half opened his eyes, everything seemed to be rolling around. The four poster bed was the deck of the Abigail, the posts the side stays, and the blankets piled at the foot of the bed the furled staysail, which the Yeoman found very puzzling. How were we to get across the Gulf Stream quickly without bending on all sail. He stood up muttering and moved forward on the rolling deck as his wife wondered whether one of those marine catalogs that littered their bedroom carried strait jackets.