This is the first voyage that I have ever completed. I had no idea what to expect or if seasickness was an issue. In total I have only spent about 25 hours on a sail boat and on top of this I have only ever been in the protected waters of a bay or sheltered beach, where it was safe and familiar if anything was to go wrong. Considering we had invested all our money into the boat, I was feeling pressure, as we had committed to this and I wasn’t even sure if I could handle at life at sea.
It was a rushed departure from Norfolk, Virginia on Thursday 22nd of June, 2017. We had to refuel in the morning which was a stressful task as we are such a big boat and trying to move out of the jetty spot without hitting another boat was tricky. Jesse was also getting used to the motors on this boat as we had only motored it out and back in of the inlet at Little Creek, Norfolk on a very quick hand over sail. It wasn’t far to move but when we got to the dock I had to throw the ropes and tie the fenders. I didn’t realise I had to tie the fenders and so I hadn’t practiced. I was trying to wrap them around copying another knot when I was getting yelled at to hurry up. Frustrated, I started to think that I was in over my head and emotions began to overwhelm me. I’m not one to jump straight into things; I like to take my time, analyse, go through all the options and to be prepared. This was all a foreign language; I didn’t like this feeling at all. I wished we had completed more practice sails and got to know the boat a little better. We had only ever taken this boat out once before for a few hours and I didn’t have to tie fenders then!
After refuelling we had to get off the dock quick for the next boat. Again this was chaotic and I wasn’t ready to depart then; things needed to still be put away but we had to move and it was too difficult to go back to our spot on the jetty. So we motored out of Little Creek into Chesapeake Bay, over the 37km long car tunnel, then into the Northern Atlantic. With no wind we continued to use the motors and maintained a speed of 4 knots an hour. There were no other boats on the water at all. I began to feel really heavy, almost like my body was stoned. Jesse was making fun of me and I couldn’t handle it, I had nothing for him. Finally, I ended up going and lying down below deck and dazed in and out of sleep for 4 hours. It was hot, I was sweaty and the flies kept biting me! Heading into the night it was still calm, so we put up the jib and it caught a little bit of wind that pushed us up to 5 knots. We agreed upon 4 hour rotated watches. I was excited about my first night watch. Completing it, I felt satisfied, a job well done and it wasn’t so bad after all, actually I think I enjoyed it. I read a little, night dreamed across the dark water, listened to the sounds, ate my food slowly, becoming lost in my own world. Jesse and I would pass each other on our change over (ships in the night) but I was in another place and likewise when I came to relieve him.
The next day after lunch the wind started to pick up from behind, which also meant the swell did too. Jesse and I were both up when unexpectedly there was an abrupt call on the radio. When we went down below to listen closely we heard another vessel asking if somebody was calling a distressed over the radio, ‘Mayday’ to be precise. We started to go into emergency mode. Unfortunately, We could only hear one side of the conversation. As it unfolded, the distress call came from a small fishing vessel who couldn’t start their engine. This vessel also had a very weak transmitter and as the swell was increasing quickly from the south, upon seeing this larger boat approach they took no chances and used the Mayday emergency call to get their attention. Luckily for them it worked, the Coast Guard was notified and a tow was arranged. Jesse said he had never heard a Mayday call before and here we were on our second day in hearing an emergency call.
After the excitement passed I began to feel sleepy. I decided to lay down for a quick nap before my watch. At around 4pm and I was awoken to a very rolly boat. When I went up to the cock pit, Jesse was at the helm. Apparently the voltage had gone down on the house batteries and wasn’t going back up. He was trying to save power because we needed to put the auto pilot on at night. This was daunting as the voltage was alarmingly low. He couldn’t leave the helm as the wind and swell behind us had picked up dramatically and we were rolling around like we were in a washing machine. Everything had to be switched off that was consuming power, fridge, lights etc. It was then up to me to go into the engine room and try something with Jesse’s guidance. From the helm, Jesse had to yell as loud as he could so I could hear over the engines. I began to flick a few switches and try a few things. Finally, we managed to get the inverter to charge the voltage. This gave us some comfort that the auto pilot could be turned on and hopefully there would be some sleep during the night.
Shortly after, the computer started playing up, which meant we couldn’t load our charts and look at our course. There was a bit of panic (from me) but frustration from Jesse. Luckily somebody had given us paper charts in Norfolk, so we pulled these out and began to plot where we were. As the sun started to set the wind picked up to 30 knots, with gusts of 35 knots from behind and the swell was climbing to around 3 meters. Tossed around from side to side, I came to the realisation and prepared myself that this was going to be a long night. The sun had set and Jesse showed me how to plot, a very quick 101. I completed a couple of plots and realised we were getting pushed closer and closer to land. At this stage we had the sails down, the motor on and the auto pilot steering. We were trying to go with the angle of the swell as best as possible. However because we were getting pushed closer to land, we had to then change our course further away from land which meant hitting the swell at a very uncomfortable angle. This stretch of coast is notorious for shipwrecks. There are approximately 20,000 shipwrecks which lie off the Mid-Atlantic coast from Virginia to New York. I knew this because a week before we set sail I saw this on a poster. Now this poster was in the forefront of my mind…
It was coming up 12am, and I was feeling very frightened. At one stage a wave came up tipped us over to one side and crashed right on us. I freaked out as this happened, my legs began to shake and twitch and I couldn’t control them. I was really scared. Rolling up into a ball, I pressed myself into the corner of the seat and tried to hold myself there. It was then I realised there was nothing I could do, I couldn’t call somebody to get us, we just had to accept that this is how it is, there is nothing else you can do but ride it out. Jesse was on watch, he did a few more plots and said that everything was okay, we were moving away from land. This gave me reassurance and I began to feel sleepy. He told me to go and get some rest for a couple of hours because he would need some soon. I laid in the v-berth, again rolling up in the corner and managed to fall asleep. 2 hours later Jesse woke me up. He needed sleep. I was exhausted, I couldn’t open my eyes. Painfully, I managed to drag myself up and stuck my head out of the companion way. I was falling asleep standing up. I washed my face and slapped it a few times but this didn’t help. In my Safety Grab Bag (the bag I grab if we have to board the life raft) I had packed some lollies. I don’t normally eat sugar so I grabbed them out ate a few and just to make sure I ate a small spoon of coffee. It was gross (that was the coffee, the lollies were amazing)! I went downstairs and made myself do some plots; it was at this stage I started waking up. Interestingly, I found that I had become more in tune with the motion of the boat rocking back and forth and was able to support myself better through these motions. Around 5am the first flickers of light came through and I began to see the swell again which I didn’t like. However there was some irony as what had scared me so much in the beginning I had actually gotten used to and learnt how to basically ‘roll with it’. There was also reassurance and developed confidence in our vessel after a whole night of being thrown around I saw that she could really handle herself. Surprisingly nothing broke and everything besides the can and clothes cupboard stayed in place. I guess we passed the test to see how well we packed and sorted the cupboard space! Around 6am, I started to become really sleepy again and began falling asleep standing up. I woke Jesse up and we changed places.
When I woke up it was 10am and when I looked outside I found a very different story. After I went to bed Jesse explained that all this cloud cover came over and it started to pour, then the wind changed which Brough thick fog. After a short period the fog suddenly cleared, the sun came out and you could see New Jersey. We were getting close! The wind and the swell had died down and we were back to almost pleasant sailing, although we had quite a lean. We both completed another watch each and then at around 7pm we started making our way into Sandy Hook, New Jersey. After anchoring here we had our dinner, a drink and then without any hesitation went to bed.
At around 5am we were woken up with a strange movement. I got up to find Jesse outside. He checked the depth measurement and we were on the bottom! We had checked the charts but because it was a spring tide and the current wind angle, it had blown us towards the shore direction. We were just hitting the bottom, so figuring we’d be off when it was high tide, we went back to bed. After a couple of hours more of sleep, we woke up and got ready to leave, to continue our journey to New York. Unfortunately we had been running the generator to charge the batteries and it had over heated. Our anchor is all chain and the boat has a motorised anchor winch, so the generator needs to be on to operate it. By this time the wind had changed and it was high tide. It was time to go but the generator wouldn’t start. We waited and waited and tried to start it a couple of times but still nothing. We were running out of time with the tide and it was getting very close to not being able to leave at all. Finally it started and quickly we pulled the anchor up we then set sail to cross the bay over to New York where we were aiming for an anchorage behind the Statue of Liberty.
We headed off towards the Statue of Liberty only managing 2 knots. This was okay to take it slowly, as there was a bit of traffic coming in and out of the mouth of the Hudson River. We checked a tidal chart and it said the tide was coming in, yet we were still going 2 knots, when we should have been doing 4 knots. Another website had told us that you either loose or gain 2 knots depending on the way of the current. This didn’t make sense. If were coming in as we were and we should be gaining 2 knots then we should have been doing 6 knots? And also if it had just been high tide at Sandy hook which was so close how could it be going into high tide here on the other side of the bay? Thinking that maybe that it had something to do with all the current coming from the Hudson and East rivers, we kept slowly chugging along, hour after hour.
Sailing into the New York City harbour was incredible. Going under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, I was in awe of human ingenuity. It’s a two level bridge and reminded me of that bridge you always see in the movies when gangsters hold out someone over the edge or other dramatic car scenes with people on the bottom level. Coming up on to Manhattan I realised how enormous the city actually was, with high risers as far as the eye could see. It didn’t look that big from Sandy Hook, It looked as big as Melbourne! It also felt so surreal to finally see the Statue of Liberty. Again it was a lot smaller than I thought it would be. Standing on Liberty Island so pronounced with beauty and elegance, it stood out like a beacon against the skyscrapers and high risers. Oddly enough the sights and surrounds I continued to see felt somewhat familiar. I put this down to growing up watching T.V shows and movies based in and around New York. Thinking that media had such an unknowing impact like that upon me without ever before realising, was in fact quite daunting.
7 hours later and 15 miles under our belt, we finally made it to the entrance of the Liberty Anchorage. However there was a small, narrow passage that we needed to go through that was very shallow at low tide. Because the tidal chart we looked up said it was high tide we congratulated each other for managing to hit it right at that time and so we continued on entering the passage. All of a sudden the water started getting shallower and shallow. Why was this happening? Were the charts all wrong? It was down to 0.8 meters under the keel. Our clearance is 1.6 meters. Visions began flashing before my eyes of us getting stuck and having to get tugged out of there, or having to abandon ship (I always think the worst, probably because of those New York based T.V shows!). Being so caught up with the depth and the chart we didn’t notice the casual everyday people, sitting and fishing from the rocks. Suddenly one of the engines started making a funny noise. Jesse looked back and saw a man putting his hands up in the air. His fishing had wrapped around our port propeller! Turning it off we were able to start the starboard propeller to keep advancing slowly. The depth started to creep back up and we started to breathe again. What seemed like eternity was over and we had made it through. Even through relieved making it though, we were still confused as to why it was so shallow. Was the chart wrong? And if so was it going to be too shallow in the anchorage? The passage was too small to turn around, having come this far we entered a small area where there were 3 other sailboats anchored. There was just enough room for one more! We were so fortunate, even if it was a super tight squeeze. After dropping the anchor (and rectified it after me stuffing it up again), we sat there questioning what had just happened. Looking up the tidal chart again, it definitely said high tide. Looking up another tidal chart we saw that this one said low tide. Well everything started to add up. It was low tide and the first tidal chart we had looked at was incorrect, which we still couldn’t work out why. We had picked the worst time to come into New York harbour along with the narrow passage, at its shallowest point, leading into the Liberty Anchorage.
Nearly running aground was truly terrifying and it took it out of me. All I wanted to do after that was go to bed. However because the area was so tight it prohibited us from dropping too much anchor so there was a chance of us drifting or swinging and hitting another boat. Because of this I was worried and couldn’t relax to fall asleep. At around 12am some gusts came through at 20 knots, (even though the weather report said maximum 10 knots). It got us both out of bed, we held our breath and watched if we were dragging. It looked like we were holding, however it was looking tighter than before. This happened a few times during the night. Sleeping in the v-berth which is at the bow (front) of the boat meant that I could constantly hear any movement of the anchor chain. Bang, creak, as the metal on metal would hit and pull. The next day it all started to catch up with me. My glands were up, my head ached and all I wanted to do was close my eyes and stay in bed. When I’m really run down, this is what happens. My mood also becomes really pessimistic. I was hating this. I was hating the constant states of anxiety and worry, I was hating that I couldn’t just go and get off the boat. I was hating that New York was so close but we couldn’t go and see it. I was questioning it all, what had I signed up to? It wasn’t meant to be like this. Jesse couldn’t relax either and this made him distant from me. I felt so alone and I wanted to pack it all in.
After 2 anxious and sleep deprived nights at the Liberty Anchorage we decided that we needed to get to a place where we could anchor properly, relax and finally explore New York. After some research, we decided to head to a spot in Long Island Sound which was up the East River 14 miles away. Not far right? Well of course there were a few complications. The East River has strong current and there were sections along the way, such as Hell’s Gate, were current tore through and if you couldn’t go any faster than 7 knots (which we didn’t do with our engines) then you had to time it right to make sure you were passing through at slack water (meaning either at low or high when the water is just about to turn around and there is little movement). Hells Gate was 7 miles up the river. Low tide/slack water at the mouth was at 7am and so the slack at Hells Gate would be at approximately 10:30am; at 2 miles an hour that was perfect timing. Not too complicated… Although then there was the narrow passage from the Liberty Anchorage going back out into the harbour. Neither Jesse nor I were going to do that at low tide again. So we devised a plan. On our way into the anchorage there was an area between Liberty Island and the main land that should be okay to anchor for a night, regarding that the winds weren’t too strong, as the current would be strong here and the boat would move with the water, not the wind. We figured if we left Liberty Anchorage and went through the passage at high tide during the day we could anchor here and then head off early in the morning at low tide. It was all we could do and just hope that the wind didn’t pick up to much.
Before we did this Jesse needed to get the fishing wire off the propeller because we were going to need both engines for this trip. I was petrified because we had been warned that there were a lot of sharks in the harbour, although Jesse reassured me (and possibly himself) saying that there was too much traffic. He put his wet suit on, grabbed a torch, hoped on the dingy and went in. I prayed to the universe which I realised I had been doing a lot since we left. He came back up and had a bunch of fishing line. He had to do this around 5 more times to get it all off. Finally he had removed the last bit. I could breath as he was back on board the boat, washing thoroughly, as the water was alive with all kinds of dead things. I was surprised he didn’t come up with a human limb on him! Even though the water was calm he said he literally couldn’t see a thing in front of him and had to feel his way around. Then he tried to tell me he saw a shark, yeah good one mate…
It was time to lift the anchor and get out of here! As I began to feed the anchor up I could feel that it was covered in all kinds of gunk such as fishing line, with seaweed caught to it and plastic bags, it was horrible, not to mention the smell of the thick mud! We did our best trying to get off what we could and then headed towards the passage making it through with enough depth. Once on the other side we quickly dropped our anchor in a reasonable deep area and waited it out. We were literally 300m from the Statue of Liberty, what an anchorage! Soon after a German sailboat, the same size as ours, anchored and then another sailboat. This gave us some comfort that people must do this often and in fact we were lucky we got here at this time. Watching the Statue of Liberty with all the cruise boats coming and going and with Manhattan in the background was pretty awe-inspiring. We sat there, watched, drank coffee, read occasionally. I was amazed at how many Statue of Liberty cruise boats kept coming, one after the other filled with people and this was a Tuesday! I began to relax and the thoughts of packing it all in started to disappear. That night, with the Statue of Liberty in the fore front, we were privy to a wonderful firework display comping from the shore of Manhattan. We are not sure why this happened as it was still a few days away from July the 4th. As I watched, I began to be reminded of something, which is that on an adventure the bad times are truely ugly but, the good times will blow you away.
On the next day we attempted to head up the East River to Port Washington. It took us a few starts to get across form Statue of Liberty to the other side, where the mouth of the East River was. This was because the tide change was later then what predicted and we really didn’t want to start motoring across too slowly as there was a lot of traffic in the harbour. Being caught in front of a Staten Island Ferry wouldn’t be fun. A few more laps and then we felt it was time. As we crossed miraculously there was no traffic, no Staten Island Ferries, no tugs, amazing! We got across and saw another sail boat with an American flag. We figured they had done this before so when they took off into the mouth, we followed. We didn’t have proper charts so we also thought it would be wise to follow them. The weather was perfect as we were coming up the river. Everything was amazing, going under each of the bridges was spectacular, looking at the famous sky scrapers and watching the helicopters take off and land right next to us; it was a grand first entry into New York!
We gradually navigated our way up the river. The current started to pick up and everything seemed to be going well. We made it Hells Gate and shot through like a rocket. After we were through the current settled down and so did our adrenaline. Cruising on in to Manhasset Bay we discovered we could tie up to a mooring for three days for free, perfect! We tied up, had a beer and I finally realised that I had official completed my first maiden voyage and that I don’t get sea sick. Although only a week had passed, I was amazed at all the events that had taken place and the new discoveries we had made. Such as we needed a navigation system we could really on, the anchor chain needed to be marked and most importantly that I don’t get sea sick! It also left me wondering, is this what’s to be expected for future voyages or was this just out of the ordinary? But for now it was all over and even though I was quite content to be stationary for a while, I felt the thrill and excitement of the possibilities that could lay ahead. As any maiden voyage can go two ways; never again or left with a taste for more which you could say is lucky, as Australia is a long, long, way, away. With out a doubt there is going to be a lot more hard work and sleepless nights ahead but this cruising life sure does have something about it.