Shakedown: Chesapeake to Narragansett Bay

Ready for your first offshore passage? Here, we examine a classic East Coast route.

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The print version of this article contains illustrations of fully annotated charts that can't be reproduced here. If you're considering a Chesapeake to Narragansett Bay run, get the February '98 issue of Cruising World. Another great resource for your preparation and the run itself -- charting software from Maptech
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No one starts out as an expert. We develop sailing competency along the way, mostly by trial and error. Start with what you know: your home waters. Then stretch your legs from there and get a taste of what open-ocean sailing is all about. This month, we take a close look at the run from the Chesapeake to Narragansett Bay.

East Coast estuaries, protected bays, sounds and harbors along this route can isolate you from ocean swells for a lifetime. Those whose sailing universe remains the protected waters of Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake, or other inshore havens, may find themselves in for a surprise when they decide to sail offshore.

This article offers such inshore sailors advice on how to navigate beyond sight of land, how to test your self-steering gear while under the influence of ocean waves, and a sample of what it’s like to be underway all night. Mother Nature must also be reckoned with; the best way to see her good side is by carefully tracking the weather and using forecasts (rather than a calendar!) to pick the day to go to sea.

Ambitious Or Conservative? You Choose The Route
Annapolis and Newport are two of the most active sailing centers on the East Coast. The trip between the two can be a performance-oriented, non-stop speed run (Route 3), or a month-long meander stopping in little anchorages along the way (Routes 1 and 2). Check the accompanying charts, and Michael Carr's sailing notes, for information relevant to the three options. We have suggested a south-to-north itinerary, but the basic tenets can easily be reversed if you are setting out from a northern location.

Passage Prerequisites
Any sailboat heading to sea should be structurally sound and meet the guidelines of ORC category II or III regulations and the safety standards of the U.S. Coast Guard. In addition, be sure to have a 406 EPIRB and, if there's no liferaft on board, an inflatable dinghy should be lashed down but accessible.

Ocean sailing necessitates a new look at how gear should be stowed. Towed dinghies and those carried in davits can create problems for those headed offshore. Loose gear on deck and down below can come adrift in rather modest conditions, threatening the well-being of crew and boat. Aboard Wind Shadow we have two modes of stowage, one for inshore sailing and one for offshore. The longer we are away from ocean conditions, the more forgetful we become about the motion of the sea and what it does to loose gear. Be careful.

Keep A Weather Eye
Summer tends to be tranquil in the Northeast and is the best time for offshore travel. Still, it's important to keep track of weather conditions. With the Annapolis-to-Newport itinerary, use the clear, concise NOAA broadcasts received via VHF transceiver. Before departure, spend some time listening to the forecasts and watching The Weather Channel to get a feel for the three- to five-day, long-range forecast. Though the season is statistically placid, there can be pitfalls. While infrequent, thunderstorm activity can be vigorous, even when a cold front is not a factor in the equation. In late summer, hot, humid conditions may spawn individual cells that have strong gust fronts and exert short-lived ferocity. Accompanying seas usually are not too intimidating. Dropping all sail and lying ahull until the cell has passed can save you a trip to the sailmaker. When confronting a strong squall line aboard Wind Shadow, I like to douse the main and jib and continue on under staysail alone.

Fog is a by-product of the cooler waters off New England meeting warm, moist continental air. Navigating in fog has gotten easier with reliable electronics. GPS, Loran C and radar provide information about where you are and who’s out there with you. These are no substitutes for a good deck watch, but are valuable complements to traditional navigation.

Finally, by monitoring regular weather updates that depict tropical storm activity in the Atlantic Basin, you can steer clear of that potential danger. The Annapolis-to-Newport run can be staged as either a coastal or an offshore passage, allowing you to hedge your bets if there’s any doubt about the long-range forecast. It’s important to know how many miles a day your boat can travel (under sail and power). This means knowing your speed potential in calms and heavy head winds.

Here's Some Local Knowledge
Along this stretch of the East Coast, west winds herald fair weather and relatively smooth seas, while easterlies mean brooding gray skies, building wind and waves, and the approach of a low or a cold front. Sail with the former; seek shelter, when possible, from the latter. For example, on a return trip to the Chesapeake, use an easterly to charge down Long Island Sound rather than tackle the offshore route. Then, instead of continuing on and immediately sailing out of Manhattan's lower bay into a growing gale off New Jersey's shoal-ridden lee shore, tuck into protected Atlantic Highlands and wait a day or so while the weather blows through. The west winds that follow provide splendid sailing for the next leg south. Strive to cruise in sync with the weather.

Currents play a key role. Consult Reeds or Eldridge before deciding on departures and courses. If you leave Newport to return to the Chesapeake, for example, use an ebb tide for a convenient lift out of Narragansett Bay; time it to rendezvous with a current change in Block Island Sound to ensure a favorable flood into Long Island Sound. This is as close to a free lunch as you get.

Fortunately our ancestors were accurate when they named key coastal landmarks. Hell Gate, The Race and Plum Gut all connote the tidal influence that exists in their respective areas. If you plan to transit these spots you need to know the current. Side-setting flows can move your boat well off its steered course, especially during full- and new-moon spring tides. Current diagrams generally show spring-tide velocities, but they also include a table to compensate for lesser drifts closer to times of neap tides. Now, let’s take a look at some more specific local info, going from south to north, in case you decide to gunkhole your way north, or in case you need to tuck into any of these landfalls on your offshore passage north. For the first-time offshore cruiser, I recommend either Route 1 or 2, which I’ll explain in detail here. The more aggressive choice, Route 3, is not described in the text, but we include detailed advice on on this route directly on the charts, by Michael Carr.

Route #1: Do Some Gunkholing To Get The Passage Started

Chesapeake Bay: Leave Annapolis around the first week in July to escape the Chesapeake heat and allow the waters off Newport to warm up a bit. Those headed up the Bay can stop in the bucolic shelter of the Sassafras River for a quiet nightÕs sleep. The northern end of the Chesapeake is a shallow estuary, like the narrow neck of a funnel, leading traffic to and from the C&D; Canal. At times the approach to the canal can be quite busy, so it's a good idea to scan VHF Channels 13 and 16 when transiting these restricted waters. Large commercial vessels are constrained by draft, so steer clear.

When possible, I prefer to stay just out of the channel and well clear of the tugs, barges and ships. When steaming or sailing toward the C&D; Canal, watch the marks closely; shoal waters pinch in near the head of the bay. Prepare to hug the side of the channel when large commercial vessels march through the cut. Sailing through the cut is prohibited, but motor sailing with the main set is an allowable alternative. Try to time your progress through the canal to coincide with the start of an ebb as you enter the Delaware.

C&D; Canal: Time your passage through the canal to coincide with a favorable current. Faster speed over the ground means less time spent in the ditch where, during the height of summer, the heat can be intense. Chesapeake City is a safe-shelter pit stop. Located near the middle of the canal, it's a good layover if you got a late start or faced headwinds sailing up the bay. The Delaware can be nasty when it blows over 20 knots; if that is what is forecast, consider spending the day here rather than slogging it out. In Chesapeake City, lay over at the dock at Schaefer's Restaurant. Or, if you can get into the snug harbor behind the Army Corps facility directly across the cut, there often is room to anchor. I have used this anchorage after several exhausting trips up the Delaware Bay, a passage that can be grueling when the wind and current are against you. In such situations it may be best to lay over in Cape May or, if planning a trip down the bay, tuck into a quiet anchorage in the Sassafras River until conditions improve.

Delaware Bay: At the mouth of the Delaware lies Cape May, an open, shallow bay with marinas, anchorages and provisions. It's another fail-safe opportunity for the coastwise sailor facing failing weather. Commercial traffic in the Delaware can be quite active; know your rules of the road cold before heading up or down the bay. Again, steer clear of the channel when depth permits; use 7x50 binoculars to identify running lights early; and don't hesitate to use bridge-to-bridge communications on Channel 13 if things look dicey.

Though the bay is well lit, first-time transit-makers are best off rising at dawn and doing the run in daylight. If you must go at night, have both a helmsperson and a navigator working together. Watch keeping, steering and navigating are demanding when traffic is heavy, and significantly more difficult at night. (If you are headed offshore from the Delaware Bay, Block Island is a favorite landfall. For most 35- to 45-footers, the passage takes two or three days depending upon the breeze and your willingness to motor sail. Be prepared for fog. Those with radar and/or GPS will certainly put the gear to good use.)

Cape May: The cape's wide, shallow harbor is handy for those sailing up or down the Delaware. If you want to spend a day or two, carefully anchor, keeping in mind that a breezy afternoon thunderstorm can whip across the shallows (it's not a spot to linger on a lunch hook). If your ground tackle is on the light side, spring for a marina slip. If your boat's draft and masthead height qualify them for the Cape May Canal, you can cut the corner and avoid the current-ridden run around Cape May when entering or exiting the Delaware. Overfalls Shoals or the main ship channel get pretty lumpy in heavy weather. Due to shoal waters, entering New Jersey's better harbors (Cape May, Atlantic City and Manasquan Inlet) can be dicey in strong easterlies. If you attempt to enter in such conditions, consider yourself forewarned. Avoid the experience by carefully monitoring weather broadcasts. If you are constrained by a tight timetable be especially wary about your deadline causing you to sail into trouble off the Jersey coast.

Cautious Sailors Should Stay On The Coastal Route

For those who are taking their first steps offshore, take your time here. I recommend a three-day, harbor-hopping itinerary which goes from Cape May to Atlantic City on the first day, a run to Manasquan on the second day, and a sail into New York Harbor on day three.

Manhattan: Sailing past Manhattan is an amazing experience, with lots of current and navigational demands. For this leg, don't skimp on large-scale detailed charts. Here you must navigate a maze-like channel that you'll share with all sorts of commercial and recreational traffic.

Long Island Sound: The farther east you sail, the more sailboats you'll see. In just a few short hours, you'll leave astern the frantic powerboaters and roiled waters of western Long Island Sound. The transit east is an easy one in all but strong easterly winds. The prevailing light summer southerlies often can make this leg a lovely flat-water reach. If time allows, check the current in Plum Gut; lay a course for Shelter Island and the harbors that dot the north and south forks of Gardiners Bay.

Route #2: More Ambitious Sailors, It’s Time To Head Offshore

When a slow-moving, slack-gradient high-pressure system falls into place, basking the mid- Atlantic states in sunshine and a 15-knot southerly breeze, cruising sailors anchored in Cape May, New Jersey, should feel comfortable about heading offshore. From here, the two-day passage around Montauk Point, New York, and on to New England’s cruising grounds, is a comfortable reach, the right scenario for a first sojourn into offshore cruising.

Keep in mind that these coastal waters are busy day and night. At some point during the transit you will be crossing the inbound and outbound shipping lanes that connect the open sea and the Port of New York. There is no cause for alarm. Keep a vigilant watch and have a clear understanding of the rules of the road. I prefer to cross charted shipping lanes and traffic separation zones on a course as close to a right angle as possible.

If you are a shorthanded crew, you’ll learn quickly why reliable self-steering gear is a cruising sailor’s best friend, freeing the helmsperson to trim sails and tend to other aspects of the shorthanded shipboard routine. Vanes and autopilots are not an alternative to maintaining a lookout. Keep a good watch on this leg. Darkness affects visual perception. Keep a pair of 7x50 binoculars handy to sort out confusing navigation lights and marks lit by what may at first seem to be dim candles.

Reefing and sail changing will eventually become second nature, but even before you set off on this, your first ocean passage, the process should be quite familiar. Whether you reef the main at the mast or from the cockpit, make sure you can reach for the right line or cleat with your eyes closed. Wrestling with an overpowered mainsail at 0300 and wondering which line hauls in the first reef will make you too anxious. Reef early and reef deep. It is much easier to shake out a reef when the wind goes light than it is to tuck one in when the rail is submerged.

Are you prone toward mal de mer? Bring simple precooked meals that are quick to heat. Dine in the cockpit when underway. Drink ginger ale rather than water for the first few days at sea.

The more you can simplify the routine, the less demanding the passage will become. This goes for navigation as well as other more physical aspects of the passage. Take, for example, the simple act of laying out a route prior to departure with a 5-knot speed of advance (SOA). The small-scale chart on which you place your proposed track actually becomes the basic strategy of your passage. By drawing out a track and placing waypoints in your GPS or Loran, you front-load some of the navigation requirements. As you begin to fix your position during the actual passage, you will be able to compare your course to the track you laid out and easily determine what alterations may be needed. This process familiarizes you with what lies ahead well before you start laying fixes on the chart.

As you approach Montauk Point, the effect of tidal currents will become quite noticeable. A quick look at Reeds or Eldridge will let you know what set and drift to expect and how it will change in the hours that follow. I usually stop at Block Island for a day or so before heading on to Newport. The approach is well marked and the anchorage in the Great Salt Pond is an appropriate place to celebrate the success of your first offshore landfall.

Landfall: Narragansett Bay!

Block Island Sound: (If you are gunkholing here from Long Island Sound's flat water, be sure to re-stow loose gear as you venture into the open waters of Block Island Sound.) Block Island's protected Great Salt Pond is a little too large to be a safe hurricane hole and can be pretty rough in a gale, but in light-to-moderate weather it's a great stopover. The pond has a straightforward, well-marked entrance, but one which is fairly narrow and impacted by both ebb and flood tides. Inside lies a nearly circular bay with abundant moorings and anchoring opportunities, much of which lies in a deep grassy bottom -- good ground tackle is a must. Also, consider a side trip to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. The currents in Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound should not be dismissed; the diagrams in Reeds and Eldridge can be merged with tidal data to set the scene on any given day.

Narragansett Bay and Newport: See our Lynda Morris Childress' full feature on Newport and Narragansett Bay in our October '97 issue. Newport's historic deep-water port near the mouth of Narragansett Bay is a must. Also, for a quieter alternative, try one of the many quiet coves that dot the rest of the bay. Dutch Island Harbor is a favorite. Beware: Throughout Narragansett Bay harbors, granite outcroppings and reefs replace the sandbars and shoals of more southern waters. If you view running aground as a mere nuisance, think again. Good, consistent navigation will be your best friend here. If you sail New England waters in summer, be ready to cope with occasional bouts of fog that can turn a clear day into one with zero visibility.

The Return Voyage Home: Many cruisers hop-scotch back to Block Island and sail the next day to Gardiners Bay headed for scenic Shelter Island. If you have extra days, poke around Coecles Harbor, Dering Harbor and West Neck Harbor (a great hurricane hole). Additional spots worth visiting include Watch Hill, Fishers Island, Port Jefferson and Oyster Bay.

Plan to pick up an ebb tide in the East River. This means that you will carry a fair flood down the last few miles of Long Island Sound and meet slack water at Hell Gate, an apt name when a spring tide and a strong northwest wind do their dance. To visit the "Big Apple" sail around the lower tip of Manhattan and make your way up to the 79th Street Marina, where slips and moorings are usually available.

If you are headed home, slip beneath the Verrazano Bridge and duck into the Atlantic Highlands Marina to avoid adverse weather or get a good night’s sleep before tackling the coastal route to Cape May. Strong easterlies can make this a wicked lee shore; entrances to Manasquan and Atlantic City, as well as Cape May, can get nasty. Manage your time to do this leg in fair weather. It can also be a wonderful overnight sail in fair weather. The return trip up the Delaware and down the Chesapeake Bay mirrors your departure.

The game plan I’ve sketched out provides a chance to stretch your cruising legs and sample some interesting landfalls along the way. Such a voyage offers a good combination of overnight sailing and coastal hops, allowing you to control your exposure as you sample coastal and distance cruising. Like any "training wheels" cruise, these first small steps can lead to giant leaps offshore. If you decide to do this cruise this summer, please drop us a postcard to let us know how you made out. We’d love to hear from you.

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Ralph Naranjo is Cruising World's technical editor.