Adventures in Sailing #2 Nantucket


Sailing along the east coast can be challenging because of the dense fog that often develops.  We were once held up in Newport Rhode Island for three days, due to fog.  With radar and GPS you can certainly navigate, but it’s unpleasant.  Your senses must be heightened and you must be aware of any dangers not picked up on radar, i.e. debris in the water.  Fog on the ocean is not log fog on land.  All you see is a wall of white.  It’s no different from closing your eyes and walking around outside.  You are truly blind.  In addition, there are no trees or buildings.  The water meets the sky so you lose perspective.  It’s actually worse than being in the dark.  Everything looks exactly the same in every direction.  In the densest of fogs you feel as if the wall of white is closing in on you.   I suppose it’s like having claustrophobia.  Usually when it’s foggy on the water it’s also very still.   Heavy rain and fog don’t go hand in hand.  If it is raining, it’s generally not densely foggy even though visibility may be limited.  I’m not talking about a storm, I am just referring to a simple rain event.  Early one August morning we set off to Nantucket Harbor from Martha’s Vineyard.  This is not a long journey, approximately 29 miles, and the natural course most sailors would take if heading to Nantucket.  It was indeed foggy but certainly not unmanageable.  It was our first time sailing to Nantucket which was very exciting but a little daunting because the inlet to Nantucket Harbor has a reputation for being difficult to navigate, especially in a dense fog.  If it got any worse, it would be a challenge none of us wanted or needed.   Sailing along at a slow, meager 5 knots, with an unfavorable wind direction, it would take us the better part of the day to reach the channel buoy.   At least the seas were calm.  The water between the two islands can get pretty rough and if it was choppy, it would have only made our tedious journey that much more unenjoyable.  As we reached the half-way point we were hit by a gusty thunderstorm.  Not necessarily a bad thing as I ran up to reef the mainsail.  Reefing refers to reducing the amount of sail area.  Full sail is not only unnecessary in high winds, it’s actually detrimental.  As I returned to the cockpit, we were hit abeam by a nine foot wave that broke across the deck.  Fortunately I was secured before the wave hit or being swept off the deck would have been a real possibility.  The most amazing thing about the sea is that conditions can change so quickly.  One moment we were sailing along at 5 knots in a 12 knot breeze with winds out of the southeast and now they howling at 35 knots out of the northwest.  The sea became more and more tempestuous, (from Jonah and the Whale), and our journey went from slow and peaceful to windy and wild.  Fortunately, we had all the faith in the world in our boat.  We knew should could handle any weather thrown at her.   As the wave heights grew and the wind continued to blow at force 8, the lightning surrounded the boat almost as if it was teasing us.  Due to the height of a sailboats’ mast, it’s not uncommon to be struck by lighting.  It does no damage however because the mast is grounded to the keel and acts as a lightning rod.  But that doesn’t mean you won’t be struck directly while standing and steering.  The boat rolled and pitched but we were now making excellent forward progress zipping along at a snappy 7.5 knots.  At this rate, we would only have to ride this out for another hour, perhaps two with several more tacks needed.  But at least there was the light at the end of the tunnel.  But just as that thought left me, a monster wave swept across the spreaders on the mast which are approximately 25 feet off the deck.  It wasn’t a swell as we had been experiencing during our trip, it was more like the Hawaii 5-0 wave from the series in the 70’s.  It completely knocked the boat on to her port side and it felt like we had run in to a brick wall.  I managed to hold on to the wheel the entire time and the rest of the crew was fortunate to have heard me yell for them to brace themselves.  My heart was racing and I was kicking myself because I didn’t react quickly enough in order to get the boat pointing in to the wave which would have softened the blow.  The great thing about sailboats however is they’re built to lay on their sides.  We had 5 tons of lead laying underneath us, ensuring that the boat would right herself.  And she certainly did, almost as if she was saying, nice try.  There were some cuts and bruises and a sprained wrist, but otherwise we came out of it unscathed.  I had seen enough but one more unfortunate incident would befall us before docking.  As we reached the entrance to Nantucket harbor, we started the engine and lowered the sails.  The Perkins diesel was powerful enough to safely take us in to the harbor and navigate around any obstacles difficult to see due to the ongoing fog.  But as we reached the jetty, the engine quit.  We had no engine and our sails were safely tucked away.  I immediately yelled down in to the cabin for someone to take the wheel so I could raise the sails.  The momentum and control of the boat would only last so long.  At that point we would be at the mercy of the wind and tide and the rocky jetty was not far off.  I raised the sails faster than I ever thought possible.  Within 30 seconds the mainsail was hoisted and the Genoa was being unfurled.  The Genoa is the front sail on a sloop.  Thankfully, roller furling makes this process a quick and easy one.  We were now forced to sail in to the well-traveled harbor under full sail, in the fog.  The wind was at our backs so we would sail in to the harbor wing on wing which would make us very visible to outgoing traffic.  We would not be able to dock at the Nantucket Yacht Club under sail so we needed to find an empty mooring, and hook up to it.  As we sailed in to the harbor I remember thinking, what an entrance.   If you’re forced to sail in to the harbor, this is how you want to do it.  We found a mooring, dropped the sails, tied up and finally exhaled.  We called the harbor master and explained our situation as we were tied up to a mooring that clearly didn’t belong to us.  What should have been a relatively easy journey ended up testing our resolve.  One thing I learned from the experience is to never take anything for granted.  There’s no such thing as a gimme.  That night we ate, drink and slept out under the stars.  It was a perfect moonlit night with a slight, cool breeze, the water gently tapping at the hull.  As I drifted off, I thought about the day and about how happy I was it over.  But I also thought about how I couldn’t wait to sail again.  Sailing is in my blood and despite the stress of our journey, I looked forward to dropping anchor and heading out to our next port of call.

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