River run

IMG_2807We had it all worked out. If we left the anchorage at the southern tip of Long Island Sound at 8am, we’d slip under Throgs Neck Bridge and start our run down the East River with the current in our favour. Our aim was to hit the aptly named Hell Gate at 10:30am, which would give us enough time to get out of the river before the tide turned against us.

Now the East River is not really a river. It’s a 14-mile tidal strait that begins in Long Island Sound and ends in New York Harbor. Eight bridges span it—all high enough for a sailboat to pass under. They’re not the problem. It’s the current, which can run as high as 5 knots. That’s our top speed under motor, so running against the current was not an option. Even running with it would require expert helmsmanship. Fortunately we have some of that on board.

We weren’t the only sailboat running the river—half a dozen of us entered the river at the same time, which was reassuring: clearly we had the timing right. We were moving along smartly at six knots, seven. In no time we were under the first two bridges, the waterway still nice and wide and more or less straight.

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This part of the run was anything but scenic—old industrial buildings and abandoned piers, rows of rotting wooden posts jutting out into the water. Power plants, low-rise apartment buildings, a road running along the shore teeming with traffic. The odd ferry or water taxi crossed from one side to the other. A charter boat passed us, heading out to the sound, bristling with people and fishing rods.

The river doglegged to the left, ran straight again for a while. By now we were travelling at a heady 8 knots, buffeted by the current, but there was lots of room and little other boat traffic.

Then Hell Gate Bridge appeared.

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Now the bridge itself is lovely, an arched steel structure with stone towers at each end, built in the early 1900s. And travelling at 8.5 knots now, we were under it in no time.

Then a sharp dogleg to the right and we were in Hell Gate itself, where the Harlem River pours into the East River. It was a boiling, foaming mess. Chris wrestled with the wheel to keep us more or less in the centre of the narrow channel, while I watched the shore whizzing by, and then we were through the gate and into another long, straight stretch.

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Whew. That wasn’t so bad. Chris was able to let the autopilot take it and we both relaxed a little. It was a grey, foggy day so we could barely see the Manhattan skyline emerging from the gloom.

“Look, Chris—I think thats the Empire State Building.”

But Chris was looking at the traffic ahead of us. Suddenly the river was thick with ferries, tug boats pushing huge barges, little fishing boats drifting with the current, all kinds of pleasure craft. A helicopter took off from a pad beside the river. There was a sailing regatta underway out in the harbour. Spinnakers bloomed as the boats rounded the mark for the downwind leg.

“Have you got that ferry?”

“Which one,” Chris said grimly. “The small one zipping in around the tip of Manhattan Island, the fast ferry coming up behind us, or the huge orange ferry approaching our bow?”

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The big orange ferry—the Staten Island Ferry—passed within thirty feet of us, people smiling and waving at the little sailboat beside them. Little. That’s not how we usually think of ourselves. Whoa. A huge oil barge, painted red and tan, being pushed by a matching tug boat. More fishing boats to dodge. Then the open water of New York Harbor at last.

The Statue of Liberty saluted our successful passage as we sailed by, such a nice lady. We made our way easily through the many cargo ships anchored in front of her, waiting for clearance to go to dock.

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Under the bridge at the narrows—oops, one more surprise for us: we were overtaken by about the biggest cruise ship we’ve ever seen—and then we were in the wide open bay beyond, the Atlantic Ocean not far in the distance, nothing but water between us and the Azores.

But that’s not where we’re headed right now. It’s too late in the season to think about crossing, so we’re back where it all started 13 years ago, almost to the day, tucked behind Sandy Hook waiting for the right winds to make our way south to the Bahamas, where we’ll spend the winter.

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It feels so different this time. Last time, we had never been in the ocean in our boat, were both feeling a little daunted by the prospect. (Well I was. I’m not sure Chris is daunted by anything.)

We now have 10,000 miles of ocean sailing under our belts, but that doesn’t make us cocky. If anything, our respect for the seas is even greater. But then so is our confidence.

By the way? We hit the Hell Gate Bridge at exactly 10:30am.

 

Wild ride

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It all started out so well. We left Shelburne at noon last Saturday, motoring into a gentle east wind as we made our way out the 10-mile-long inlet to the ocean. It was sunny and warm, the seas had calmed, the waves were less than a foot, and when we rounded the headland and turned to the south, the wind filled our sails. This is as nice as it gets.

But then (why is there always a but then?) as we sailed around Cape Sable Island at the southernmost tip of Nova Scotia, giving it a wide berth—sailing friends had warned us about the currents there as huge amounts of water flow into and out of the Bay of Fundy—the wind picked up sharply and went west. In no time, the seas kicked up and we were taking three-foot waves on the beam. Then four. Five. Six. Our only options were to turn and run with the seas, which would have taken us far off course, or just tough it out. We chose the latter.

It was a long, rolly night. Fortunately there was an almost full moon, so we could see the waves coming towards us, brace for impact, relax for a minute, oh, here comes the next one. It was exhausting. At one point, I didn’t brace myself in time and was thrown across the cockpit, bruising my knee when I landed. And my dignity.

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We went on short watches—two hours—but neither of us really slept that night. Waves slamming into the side of a steel boat make a lot of noise. By morning the seas had calmed some—not much, but some. The wind was still coming from the west, the direction we needed to go. We knew that if it didn’t start going north soon, we would miss Cape Cod and end out in New York.

Around nightfall, the wind finally began clocking to the north, and we followed it, staying as tight on the wind as we could, trying make as much westing as possible. The problem is, seas take longer to shift than the wind does. We pounded into huge waves all night, spray crashing over the bow and drenching the cockpit windows. And worse—dislodging our anchor. We heard, but couldn’t see, it smashing against the bow of the boat.

“We’re going to have to heave to,” Chris said.

Which was easy enough. We just turned the boat into the wind until the foresail backwinded, then cranked the rudder so the boat stalled. Suddenly, all was quiet. We were just bobbing up and down. Chris snapped on the spreader lights then clipped himself to the lifeline and went forward.

The anchor chain had popped out of the roller so he couldn’t just bring it up with the winch. He had to wrestle it back on board. Which was no small feat. It took him several tries, but finally he had it secured on deck.

Reluctantly, we went back to sailing, this time just a little less hard on the wind.

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By morning the wind had gone fully north and the seas had calmed. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny fall day. You know that scene in The Perfect Storm, a movie I probably watch too much, when the fishing boats who weren’t lost in the storm motor peacefully back into harbour? It was just like that.

I sent Chris down for some much-needed sleep, made myself a cup of coffee, fetched my book, curled up on the cockpit bench. This is nice, I thought.

But there was one more surprise in store. A smudge appeared on the horizon, quickly resolved itself into container ship, heading our way. I put my book down, checked the chart plotter. We have AIS now—Automatic Identification System—so I could see the name of the vessel, its size, and its course and speed. I forget its name, but it was 900 feet long and moving towards us at 11 knots. Exactly perpendicular to us, actually. We were on a collision course.

Now vessels under sail have the right of way over ships under motor, but we never count on that. I went down and woke Chris (he had just fallen into a sound sleep) and he came up and confirmed my assessment of the situation. We had to tack out of his way. So we did.

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We watched as the ship passed at a safe distance behind us. It was sitting low in the water, its deck piled high with colourful containers, looking for all the world like something our granddaughter would build with Lego.

We resumed our original course, I went back to reading, Chris went back to napping.

By late afternoon, we had curved around Cape Cod and were sailing along its western shore, heading for the sheltered harbour inside. I had always thought that Cape Cod was, well, just a cape, a bump of land sticking out from the mainland, but it’s not. It’s a long sandy hook curling way out into the ocean, miles and miles of golden sand backed by low dunes topped with beach grass. We rounded the lighthouse at the tip of the cape and headed into the quiet anchorage off Provincetown, dropping anchor just as the sun set.

“Cruising has two pleasures,” the saying goes. “One is to go out in wider waters from a sheltered place. The other is to go into a sheltered place from wider waters.”

We certainly enjoyed both pleasures in our race from cape to cape.

Cone of uncertainty

Jose

It’s not a term I’d heard before, but I’m certainly familiar with now. We’ve never sailed in the ocean during hurricane season, so studying forecasts from the National Hurricane Centre has never been a morning ritual. But it is now. Actually, I check the forecast several times a day. And in the middle of the night. I’ll admit that it’s turning into an unhealthy obsession. Sometimes Chris hides the iPad.

Hurricane forecasts are based on computer models, satellite data, and the actual movement of a particular storm. The cone of uncertainty, which represents the probable track of a storm, is designed to show that the further out the forecast is projected, the less sure anyone is about a storm’s track.

A couple weeks ago, some long-range computer models had Jose making landfall exactly where we were, in Lunenburg. So we left our comfortable mooring ball there and scooted ten miles up a nearby river to wait it out.

As we rounded the final bend in the river, a wall of derelict fishing boats and a huge old navy vessel loomed out of the fog.

“This can’t be right,” Chris said.

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We double-checked the chart. Sure enough, we had reached the public wharf in Bridgewater, at the head of the La Have River. Ample room for visiting sailboats to tie up, our guide said. But there wasn’t. We circled a couple of times, then finally squeezed in front of the navy ship. Its grey hull rose high above our stern. I climbed onto the rough concrete dock and secured our lines around a couple of huge, rusty bollards. A flight of pigeons settled on the bow of the ship behind us, peered down through the gathering gloom. On the wharf beside us was an old steel sailboat, waiting for the cutting torch. Nearby were the remains of another boat, Just a transom and a couple of winches. It was a sad sight.

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We spent a week in Bridgewater, in the fog and the rain, waiting for Jose—which never did hit Nova Scotia—to be downgraded to a tropical storm and head off to sea. Which he finally did.

But Maria was hard on his heels, with a massive cone of uncertainty that blossomed out into the North Atlantic. Forecasters were saying that Maria would miss New York and Boston, but might brush the tip of Nova Scotia and merge with the remnants of Jose before heading out across the Atlantic.

Might brush the tip of Nova Scotia. It’s the uncertainty that gets me.

Chris is pretty Zen about it all. He works on the boat, reads his book, flies his drone when the fog lifts. What’s for dinner, he asks. Another day has slipped by.

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After Jose headed offshore and before Maria moved our way, we managed to sneak along the coast to Shelburne, a pretty little town near the southeastern tip of Nova Scotia. We’ve been waiting here for Maria to make up her mind, which she finally did. The night before last she passed well offshore of us and headed out to sea. But the wind in the night was unbelievable. I sat in the cockpit wrapped in a blanket and watched waves breaking around the boat in the anchorage, even though we’re a good ten miles from the ocean here. Then the rain came.

But this morning has dawned sunny—and sharply colder. It will take a couple days for the seas to settle down enough for us to make the three-day passage to Cape Cod, but it looks like we’ll be able to start heading south over the weekend. I’ll just check the forecast…

Wait a minute. Where’s the iPad?

Hurricane hole

at anchorEleven and counting. That’s where we are today. There have been eleven named storms so far this year—you’ve probably been watching the devastation caused by Irma on the news, Jose is coming across the ocean on much the same path, and Katia is rambling around in the Gulf of Mexico. And it’s early September. We don’t expect things to completely quiet down until the first of November.

Irma was a big question mark. At first it looked like Irma might make landfall halfway up the coast of the United States, too close for comfort. So Sunday we took cover five miles up a river on the eastern coast of Nova Scotia, along with several other sensible sailboats.

We learned an important lesson on the way here: a storm doesn’t have to have a name to cause trouble. We left the shelter of the Bras d’Or Lakes just after an unnamed storm which had come up the coast had moved off to sea. Fine, we thought. The winds had settled (if you call 25 knots settled) and were in our favour, so we set off. It was a lively ride across the Canso Strait, waves breaking over the bow and showering the boat with salt water, and we were making good time. Until we rounded the northwestern tip of Nova Scotia and encountered the swell left by the unnamed storm.

There’s still debate among those of us sheltered here in this hurricane hole as to how big the swell was. Some say six feet, some say more like nine. It sure looked like nine feet of water to me when it loomed in front of the boat (yes, of course we were pounding into it.) But there was a long interval between waves so for the most part, the swell just lifted us up then set us down again more or less gently, except of course when we crashed into the next wave.

We’ve decided that if an unnamed storm can wreak this kind of havoc with the seas, we’re going to wait here until Irma wears herself out before we continue our journey south.

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But this is not such a bad place to be. We’re at the head of the Liscomb River, anchored off an old fishing lodge—it’s been here since the 1950’s, upgraded over the years, to include a swimming pool and hot tub which boaters are welcome to use. Very civilized. Showers. Laundry. And a restaurant specializing in cedar-planked salmon. I’m okay with being holed up here.

Yesterday we amused ourselves by going on a 10-kilometer hike to the waterfalls and fish ladder at the head of the river. It was a rugged hike—“Master’s Level,” the map cautioned—but we had all day, and anyway, how hard could it be?

Hard, is the answer. It started out okay, but as we got further up the river, the trail started to climb and we had to scramble up slippery rocks and teeter along logs laid across little streams. Two hours it took us to get to the suspension bridge over the falls, but it was worth it (I think): the view was spectacular, and the fish ladder was quite something, a major piece of infrastructure. We had expected a narrow wooden, well, ladder. This was a superhighway for spawning salmon.

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Truly one of the best things about this place, though, is the other sailors. A couple of the boats holed up here are on their way back from Newfoundland. The stories they tell make our sail here seem like a Sunday outing. The people on one boat are professional documentary filmmakers, and after watching their videos and seeing what they’ve sailed through, we feel reassured about our decision to stay here for a bit. Even they aren’t willing to venture out in this.

How many more days will we be here, you might wonder?

So do we.

Sailing with MacGyver

I wasn’t the first person to call him MacGyver. It was Neville, a single-hander we met just after we made landfall in the Azores. He limped into harbour a couple of days after us, having gone through the same gale we did but having fared much worse. His engine was seized, his boom was broken, and his batteries were dead. He’d been hand steering for four days and he was exhausted. Chris helped him put his boat back together as best he could using the sparse materials at hand, and ever after Neville called him MacGyver.

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We set out for Newfoundland on Monday, under sunny skies. The wind was at our back, the seas lively but on our stern quarter so we were moving right along. We’d been out for about three hours when Chris gave me the wheel and went below to check something in the engine room. He was gone a long time. I heard the auxiliary bilge pump come on. Not a good sign.

“There’s water in the bilge,” he said.

“Where’s it coming from?”

“I don’t know but I’ve pumped it all out. I can’t see any obvious problems. Let’s just see what happens.”

We sailed along for a bit, going over all the possibilities we could think of. Then I went down below to see how we were doing.

“The bilge in the engine room is full,” I reported.

“Take the helm.”

He pumped the bilge out again, then came above deck.

“I’m just going to have a look in the garage.”

I’ve mentioned the garage before—remember? The enormous locker at the stern of the boat big enough to park a small car in? Well to our horror, it was almost full of water. Something had gone seriously wrong back there and the new bilge pump we had installed wasn’t keeping ahead of it.

“Turn around,” Chris said. “We’re going back.”

Now we were sailing into the wind and the seas, and it was impossible to point the boat back towards the Great Bras d’Or inlet without the help of the engine. Chris kept checking the garage—we weren’t winning.

“There’s a sandy bay over there,” I said pointing to a spot on the chart just outside the inlet. “We could drop anchor there.”

“Good idea,” Chris said. “It’s shallow enough there that we can ground the boat if we have to.”

I didn’t find this very reassuring.

We dropped the hook and while I kept an eye on the anchor, Chris hauled everything out of the garage—no small feat—stripped off his pants, stepped in, and started bailing with a bucket. The water was up to his thighs.

“There’s the problem,” he said, once the bottom of the garage had emerged. The engine exhaust hose, which unlike a car carries cooling water, not just exhaust, had split in two. We had been pumping the ocean into the garage as we motored out the inlet. And as we made our way back to relative safety.

He went down to his workshop, came back up with a can of glue, a roll of self amalgamating tape, and some shrink wrap—the kind we use to cover the boat in winter. Before long he had a temporary fix in place.

“Let’s get moving.”

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We motored into the inlet, against the current but we didn’t really have much choice. We had to get out of the ocean. At one point, we were moving at one knot—about one mile per hour. It was after dark when we finally dropped anchor in the shelter of Otter Island. It had been a long day.

But a good day, in some ways. It reminded me that I’m sailing with MacGyver. We could have sailed across the ocean, if we had to, with the exhaust hose taped together so securely. Chris can fix anything but a broken heart.

Wait a minute—I’ve seen him fix one of those, too.

 

Run to The Rock

IMG_3964We knew this would be a bad hurricane year. On average, there are maybe a dozen named storms between June and November, but this year up to 17 are predicted. We’re at eight named storms already, with Harvey tracking through the Caribbean at the moment and two as-yet-unnamed but suspicious-looking weather systems following close behind. Gert, thank goodness, missed us and has spun out to sea across the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, leaving nothing but high winds and rain behind to dampen our plans.

We’re hoping to get to Newfoundland this season, but it’s getting a little late. Normally, we’d want to be heading south by the first of September. But maybe with all the storms brewing along the coast of the southern United States, we’re better to stay in Canada a little longer.

The weather seems to be returning to normal now in the wake of Gert, so maybe tomorrow we can make our run to The Rock. We spent yesterday getting ready to spend a couple weeks exploring the remote southern coast of Newfoundland. Some of the settlements along that coast have been deserted, and of the ones that remain, many are accessible only by boat. So diesel fuel, water, and food could be in short supply. Never mind cel signal. You might not hear from us for a while.

We hauled jerry cans of diesel fuel and jugs of water to the boat, topping up our tanks. We made a trip to the bakery (fresh bread! scones! oatcakes!) and the grocery store, picked up a couple of spare parts from the marina.

Then I spent some time putting together the abandon ship kit. We have a life raft lashed to the deck, which will deploy itself if it hits the water. It’s filled with emergency supplies—flares, a first-aid kit, a bailing cup, a flashlight, a rain water collector (whatever that is), a fishing kit. But we keep a carefully packed bag ready to take with us if we have to abandon ship, with such niceties as juice boxes and granola bars (I could survive a long time on these before I ate raw fish). A blanket. Some ginger candies to ward off seasickness. Toilet paper.

May I never see the inside of this bag, I say to myself each time I pack it. And may we never see the inside of the life raft.

Am I looking forward to making to the crossing? Not really. We could get pretty beaten up out there. And I’m not looking forward to dodging big ships in the dark—we’ll have to sail overnight, right across the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. But I’m sure once we’re out there I’ll be fine.

Now all we need is for the seas to subside a little in the Cabot Strait. There’s been a 10-foot swell out there in the wake of Gert—a little too lively for two people who have spent the summer sailing in the sheltered waters of the Bras d’Or Lakes. We’re anchored in the far north of the lakes right now, in a place called Otter Harbour, not far from where the lakes squeeze through a narrow passage and out into the ocean.

Who knows. If this rain ever lets up, we might even get to see some otters.

Mussel beach

You haven’t heard from us for a while because we have been busy. Very busy. Okay fine, we haven’t been busy at all—we’ve been on vacation.

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This is what vacation looks like on a sailboat. We spend a lot of time at anchor, reading, drinking coffee, napping. When we feel ambitious, we go for a ride in the dinghy, fish a bit, swim if it’s hot. Each day we go for a hike, along pebble beaches for the most part, sometimes along a meadow trail (if the bugs aren’t too hungry.) And some days, we even sail, if it’s sunny and warm and the wind is in the right direction.

Chris has been doing a lot fishing. Well I have to believe that he’s been fishing—though he disappears in the dinghy for hours at a time, he’s yet to bring back a fish. But we have found something we can catch: mussles.

We had read somewhere that there was a mussel bed off Chapel Island, which is one of our favourite anchorages, so we set off in our dinghy to find the spot and yes, just off shore the sandy bottom was littered with mussels! We scooped up a pail full and took them back to the boat. Mmmm. Mussels for dinner. We left them in salt water for several hours, changing the water regularly to remove the grit they were supposed to have spit out. Then we scrubbed them and steamed them and sat down to a bowl full of tasteless mussels full of sand. Well, the ones that opened anyway. Most of them stayed resolutely shut.

But Chris isn’t one to give up. He came back from his next fishing expedition with no fish but with some exciting news: he had found another mussel bed, full of young, clean-looking mussels. Our friends Rick and Sally were coming for a visit so we decided to take them “musseling” and try this again.

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In no time we had filled a pail with much more promising-looking mussles, and, as luck would have it, Sally had brought her famous recipe—and all the ingredients. She spent hours carefully scrubbing the mussles (Chris and I may have skimped a little on this step…) then disappeared below deck to reappear in no time with a pot full of steaming mussels.

Now I had pretty much gone off mussels after our last experience, was thinking of becoming a vegetarian to avoid such experiments in the future, but Sally’s mussels made me change my mind. They were delicious. The four of us polished off the whole pot and soaked up the leftover broth with bread. And of course washed it all down with a fine white wine from New Zealand, which Rick and Sally also brought. (Future visitors please take note: anyone attempting to board without a nice bottle of wine—I mean a really nice bottle of wine—will be repelled.)

If you’ve read this far, you’re in for a bonus: Sally’s mussel recipe appears at the end of this post.

Look, I’ve got to go. We’re still on vacation and I have some serious loafing to do.

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Mussels with tomato coconut sauce

2 lbs mussels, well cleaned. No, I mean really well cleaned.

1 tsp extra virgin olive oil

1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced

4 green onions, thinly sliced, white and green parts separated

1/2 cup cilantro

4 cloves garlic, minced

Salt (to taste)

1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes or to taste

796 ml (28 oz) can diced tomatoes

398 ml (14 oz) can coconut milk

1 1/2 tbsp lime juice

In a medium pot, heat oil on low. Add red peppers and sauté until soft (about 4 minutes). Add whites of the green onions, 1/4 cup cilantro, red pepper flakes, and garlic. Cook 1 minute.

Add tomatoes, coconut milk, and salt to taste, cover and simmer on low about 10 minutes to let the flavors blend together and to thicken the sauce.

Increase heat to boil and add mussels and cook for 5 minutes or so, until they open. Add lime juice.

Divide equally among 4 bowls and top with remaining green onions and cilantro. Serve with lots of crusty bread.