From Branford Connecticut to Whitehall Bay in the Chesapeake


As I had mentioned in a previous post, Antares was in Brandford when I bought her. I went there a couple of times, by train, during the fall of 2013 to get to know her and do a survey.  She was on the hard with her winter cover on and no mast; you couldn’t see her top-sides, only the hull below the water line.  Still, based on this superficial assessment and the reputation of the boat I made an offer.   Financial transactions and  the coordination of the work needed to get her ready to sail down to the Chesapeake were done by phone and e-mail from Washington DC.  

On March 28, 2014 my friend Richard Hinz and I left DC early in the morning on a rented van headed to Brandford. We stopped in Newark airport to pickup my son Juan David who was coming from Ithaca New York. We arrived to Dutch Warf Marina in Brandford in the early afternoon. Antares was waiting in her slip fully rigged and with her sails folded. The owner and the surveyor were also there. We went for a quick “sea trial,” in the dirty and flowing river mainly to test the engine. The marinas along the way were deserted; the river banks and the grey and loaded skies were uninviting.  I was rather anxious thinking about the passage back home in, essentially, winter weather, and had a  hard time concentrating on the instructions and directions that Denis (the owner) was giving me and the feedback from the surveyor.  As soon as we reached Long Island sound we turned around and came back to the slip to take care of final payments and paperwork. By 6:00pm everybody had left the marina; Richard,Juan David, and I were left alone with Antares, the only sailing boat in the freezing water. We loaded the provisions, equipment, and our bags and went to have dinner at a restaurant near-by.   

The plan was to prepare and test the boat over the weekend, and then sail Antares south along Long Island Sound to New York, then off-shore in the Atlantic down the New Jersey cost to Cape May, up the Delaware bay and across the Chesapeake-Delaware Channel (CDC), and finally down the Chesapeake to Whitehall Bay. 


The weekend was miserable; it rained constantly and the temperature stayed below 40 degrees.  Because of the wind and strong current over the river it was difficult to maneuver the boat out and into the slip.  We didn’t have the choice though; we needed to fill the water tanks and, to access the only pipe that was operational at that time of the year, this involved moving the boat to the launching platform.  Richard helped from the dock while I motored the boat and Juan David handled the docking lines.  The maneuver was quite stressful and, after filling the tanks, I would have left her at the launching platform.   Unfortunately, there were no floating docks and the tide range was at least 15 feet. So we had to bring her back to the slip and this took two tries; I turned into the slip too early the first time not taking into account the effects of the current and had to go down river to turn the boat and try again.  Other than the water saga we spent the rest of the weekend testing various systems and installing the inner forestay, stay sail, and running back stays.  We didn’t go back to the sound.  By Sunday, late afternoon, we still hand’t decided whether we were going to depart the next day as originally planned.     The weather forecast was not good — a low was passing through and on top of strong winds we were going to have a snow storm.  Staying though, implied less favorable conditions for the leg down the New Jersey Coast. So we had a bottle of wine and went to bed early planning to get up at 6am.  



Richard sleeping after our first night at Brandford



Brandford, CN to City Island, NY

And that is what we did. When I went out on deck in the morning the boat was covered with sleet and it was raining. There was no wind.  After preparing and drinking some coffee we took the boat out of the slip and motored downriver to the diesel station. It was 7 am and, no surprisingly, nobody was there. But there was a sign with a phone number that we called to ask for help. Two men came down looking quite surprised to see a sailing boat leaving at this time of the year.  While the tanks were filled with diesel Juan David and I installed the “jack lines” (lines that go from the bow to the stern so that people working on deck can hook to them and avoid going overboard). It was 8:30 when we left the dock on our way to City Island, the snow started to fall. The forecast was 100 percent accurate. As we entered Long Island sound the snowstorm increased in intensity and the wind picked up. Visibility was less than one mile. At first we were motor-sailing and using the autopilot but as the seas built up it could no longer handle. So we took turns steering the boat, one hour each (the picture is Juan David during his first shift).  Things kept getting worse until around noon when the sky opened and we were able to see the land and, far to the south, the skylines of New York City. We put two reefs on the main and one in the genoa and under 25Kt of breeze from the North West we sailed at 6 to 7 Knots through the cold but sunny afternoon. It was 5:30 when we docked on the north side of City Island in an empty marina, very happy to have left Branford and made it safe. After cocktails we had dinner and went to bed early.  The wind was howling.


Juand David at the helm during the snow storm
Just arrived to City Island


City Island, NY to Atlantic Highlands, NJ

The important thing for this leg was to go through the infamous Hell Gate with a favorable tide.  We set departure time at 11:00 to cross the gate at around 13:30, and had a couple of hours of extra sleep.  There was no wind so when the time came we motored our way towards the East River.  We crossed  Hell Gate as planned but it was still nerves racking; the river was ebbing at 5 Kt and there was a lot traffic in New York Harbor.  Nonetheless ,it was  a memorable ride  with spectacular views  of the city, including the United Nations Building probably one of Le Corbusier most remarkable designs.  Seeing the Statue of Liberty from my own boat had also a different feeling. Last time I had seen it was probably in late 90s from a ferry. We arrived at Atlantic Highlands marina at 4:30pm. After hot showers Richard and I went for a short walk in town — one street with shops, cafes, and restaurants. But we decided to have dinner in the boat.  I don’t know what I fixed that night, but it was served with a bottle of red night, like every other night.  Scotch followed as a digestif.  By 11pm we were in our bunks pleasantly buzzed.



Motoring through the East River
Statue of Leberty
Docked in Atlantic Highlands


Atlantic Highlands to Cape May

I got up at around 7:30am and almost mechanically put water on the kettle, turned on the stove, and woke up the others.  After feeling a bit more energized under the effects of caffeine we moved the boat to the diesel station and filled the tank. It was 9:30am when we head out to the Atlantic.  We didn’t have much wind, the Atlantic was breading slowly in very long and deep swells. To keep the speed at 6Kt we had to motor-sail most of the time.  We kept a “2h hours” out & “1h in” watch. At night the temperature dropped to 38 degrees so the two hours outside (one of them at the helm) were not very pleasant despite the caffeine and nicotine. The person inside was supposed to sleep for one hour but it never really happened, we probably had 2 hours of sleep each.  Things went well overall.  Keeping the course was easy using as a reference the lights in the coast and, in particular, the pink neon of what seemed to be one of the largest casinos of Atlantic City.  The only scary moment happened, of course, at night.  Juan David and I were on watch, I at the helm.  We had seen a red light around 3 miles away and thought it was one of the buoys that we had marked in the chart plotter on the iPad.  I should have known better; the buoy was still too faraway to be seen.  The light we were seeing was that of a boat anchored around 5 miles away from the coast.  It didn’t have other lights though !  In any case, we kept getting closer and, probably some 100 feet before we crashed, they decide to flash a spot light on us.  I immediately turned the wheel to starboard and avoided a tragedy.  We took the opportunity to revise our course and start heading in-shore towards Cape May.  When the first lights of the day came out we were less than 5 miles away.  The entrance to the inlet was calm.  Juan David was carefully checking the depths along the shallow channel and giving me directions to the marina.  It was 7:30 when we safely docked.     

Like the other marinas the one in Cape May was deserted.  After a hot shower we decided to go for brunch somewhere around the port, but everything was closed. We walked and waited for a couple of hours. When we finally sat down at a window table in one of the largest restaurants we were very hungry and impatient.  The wait was worth though. We ordered oysters, seafood, and champagne.  The sunlight was coming through the window at a perfect angle to create a tenuous contrast with the relatively dim lighting of the interior and the dark woods making the tables and columns that supported the ceiling. We ate, drank, and talked for a couple of hours. I was happy.  Back at the boat we collapsed in our bunks and slept until it was dark.  That was a mistake.   


Richard at the helm down the New Jersey Coast
Juan David studying — not much sleep


David during a watch at night
Safe in Cape May

Cape May up the Delaware Bay to the CDC

The weather forecast for the next day was not good:  cold and 25 Kt winds coming from the north east and gusting to 30Kt — precisely the winds that we wanted to avoid while sailing down the New Jersey coast.  But my main worry was whether Antares, with her 58 feet mast, could go under the bridge in the canal that gives access to the Delaware Bay.  The clearance was close to 60 feet in low tide so we had to transit under the bridge before 8:30am.  Unfortunately, because we overslept in the afternoon the previous day, we were not able to fill the fuel tank.  We had to wait until the marina opened and then carry the fuel in jerry cans. The process took longer than expected and we didn’t get under the bridge until 10am or so.  A floating pole on the side of the channel indicated a clearance of only 58 feet but it was too late, we were committed!  The three of us watched the top of the mast as it went under the bridge and crossed our fingers. There must have been just a couple of inches between the bridge and the mast as we cleared.  What a relieve.  Soon we were out in the Delaware Bay in a choppy sea surrounded by spray and under a dark and very low sky.  Juan David and I reefed the main while Richard tried to keep the boat pointing up-wind, slamming on the waves; it was quite a challenge not to fall overboard.   With two reefs  in the main and one in the genoa we sailed at 8 Kts towards the entrance to the CDC.  Nothing special to write about the bay. As the author of a cruising guide has put it, the Delaware Bay is not a place you go for cruising, it’s the price to pay to reach the cruising grounds of the Chesapeake.  That day, in particular, the bay was desolated and dismal. Sailing past the nuclear plant on the north east side was probably the lowest point.  But we kept going, sailing just outside the shipping channel, and by  5:30 we entered the CDC.  One hour later we were docked at the entrance of the first marina we found (also deserted), fixing dinner and siping gin & tonic.  After setting the table I opened one of the last bottles of red wine.  We satdown for dinner surrounded by a thick silence as if the cold outside had frozen all movement under the black skies.  But the cabin was warm, heated by the very old (and faithful) electric heather that Richard managed to get, in Brandford, from the owner of a liquor store close to the marina.  



The CDC channel



Down the Chesapeake to Whitehall Bay


The last day was supposed to be the easiest: motoring through the CDC and then reaching down the bay, past Baltimore and under the Bay Bridge into Whitehall Bay.  We left as planned at 7:30 to have the current in our favor.  There was no wind.  The sun in our backs was quickly burning the mist and we were surrounded by halos of vapor.  It was a beautiful morning with a tamed light, where forms could not be precisely defined and became rather impressions.  But as we approached the bay and the channel widened, the wind started to blow from the west — in our nose — first at 15Kt, then 20, then  25.  The text forecast for the area indicated a gale warning with winds above 35Kt.  We decided to turn off the engine and set sails, and started tacking towards the Bay.  Progress was slow and to clear the land, the East Coast of the Bay, we needed to  keep heading North West for a while, when our destination was plain south.  I decided to motor sail to reduce the distance and gain some time — we were scheduled to arrive at the Marina at Whitehall Bay at 4:30.  When I turned the engine key, however, the only sound was the “click” of the solenoid (the gismo that brings electricity to the starter motor); the engine wouldn’t crank !    Juan David and Richard kept sailing the boat while I went below to see what was going on.  By then the wind had unnerved the seas and with the boat healing to starboard it was not easy to work on the engine.  Plus, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for.  I iterated between the engine box and the navigation table where I had an electronic copy of Nigel Calder’s “Marine Diesel Engines” open in my iPad.  Before attempting to by-pass the solenoid I moved the various cables that lead to it and with a screwdriver tapped on the terminals of the starting motor.  I came out and turned the key again; the engine cranked and started and I didn’t turned it off until we arrived.  By then we were already in the right tack and there was not need to put the engine in gear.  I just wanted to make sure that the engine would be operational when we got to Whitehall Bay and had to motor into the marina and our slip.  It was not clear that day what the problem was.  And in fact, the true problem was not discovered and solved until a few weeks ago, before we left for the Bahamas… 



Reaching towards the Bay Bridge
Juan David at the helm


The rest of the passage was uneventful.  We had winds in the 20-35Kt range but with two reefs in the main and genoa Antares was nicely balanced reaching at 8Kt.   When gusts came we just let the main out a bit and brought it back as soon as they passed.  It must have been close to 4pm when we sailed under the Bay Bridge.  Soon after we dowsed the main, rolled the genoa, put the engine in gear and started to motor towards the entrance of Whitehall Bay.  The last challenge was to dock Antares in her slip which, at the time, seemed awfully narrow. Because the wind was still blowing at 20+ Kt it was a bit stressful and I remember thinking, “how am I going to do this with Natalia and the girls, or if I want to go alone for an afternoon sailing?”  Antares is a heavy boat and you can’t just “push her” into the slip, particularly when the wind is blowing.  It is critical to have a properly set spring line and use the engine to align the boat with the dock while protecting the hull from the piles.  My spring line, though, was too far forward and when it tensioned it pulled the bow towards the dock.  This happened several times during the trip and cost Antares a few of scratches.  Mea culpa.  


John, the owner of the Marina, came to welcome us and complemented Antares for her beauty.  We had a beer to celebrate our arrival and then quickly packed our gear.  A car was waiting to bring us back to DC. Richard didn’t stop talking to the driver during most of the trip but Juan David and I said little. I was still thinking about how I would manage to go cruising with Natalia and the girls; spring-break was around the corner.  I also felt a void now that the trip was done.  Preparing for it had required a lot of my time and attention.  I didn’t know yet that I would be sailing Antares to the Bahamas one and a half years later.  






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