Gordon’s Freedom 36 sloop, with it’s crazy “mid-boom” flopping jib, free-standing mast, and somewhat quiet ride, graciously provided us with a fun-filled, enjoyable interim passage from our home-base of Newburyport to Hampton, Virginia. Departure day was chosen about ten days prior, simply because it fit a busy autumn season for me and Kelly, between work projects, boat winterizing and other travel plans.
We arrived for departure at the American Yacht Club dock as Gordon was making pre-passage preparations on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. With an entourage of well-wishers, we loaded Jerry cans of spare fuel, bottles of drinking water and personal gear. Having been through this scenario countless times before, we packed carefully, knowing that all our own sailing gear would eventually be carried onto an airplane heading north.
Gordon’s wife was waiting for him in North Carolina dealing with other priorities, unable to make the trip. Fortunately, being with friends herself, she was comfortably awaiting and watching our southerly progress.
We had been following the weather for several days prior, hoping that the weather gods would align with our plans. Good enough I say. Either we wait forever for that perfect window, or we just get going. Light wind necessitated our trip to begin with motoring, but the seas were thankfully light with a moderate threat of passing showers. We motored through the night with light rain before degrading to heavier squalls as we made a timed westerly approach to fly through the Cape Cod Canal at a speedy 9+ knots. In true Buzzards Bay fashion, an opposing wind with heavy rain and building seas pelted us as we exited the canal at 0300 Sunday morning.
Shivering and with stinging eyes, Gordon and I discussed options: Power into the growing waves and pelting rain toward Cuttyhunk Island, or more optimistically, Block Island, or simply give up the fight sooner and head for a closer and comfortable anchorage. As cold rain soaked through our “waterproof” foulies, we slogged another seven miles in early morning darkness to find a free mooring in familiar Mattapoisett Harbor. Appropriately, Mattapoisett is a Wampanoag word for “place of resting”.
After an evening of rest attached to a “guest” mooring, and Gordon whipping up a delicious breakfast with percolated coffee, we headed out in light and variable wind before another strong southerly made further progress untenable later that afternoon. And as if waiting for our cue, the southwest wind began to really howl just as we secured another mooring in the protection of Cuttyhunk Harbor. For almost 48 hours we finished drying our gear in a mostly sunny breeze and enjoyed each other’s company aboard, and by taking a brief walk-about on the relatively vacant tourist hotspot. In the relatively protected harbor we introduced ourselves to another cruising boat’s crew by dinghy, briefly sharing each other’s itineraries. They were heading west toward Newport, while our plans took us more southwest.
After waiting a bit more the following morning, wind had begun to turn first westerly and clock to the north, and we snaked out of the narrow channel and departed into 3-5ft seas for a lovely broad reach on a direct course toward Cape Charles, Virginia, marking the Chesapeake Bay entrance about 350 nautical miles away. For the first twelve hours or so we honked right along at 7+ knots, with an ETA bragged by the chart plotter of only 30 hours. But we know better than to believe this!
As wind picked up a bit more, gusting to 23 knots later that day, I proposed that we rig the second reef, which wasn’t currently set up due to a missing line in the boom. I suggested going straight to the second reef, because our limited setup made it difficult to switch between reef points, and that’s something I wanted to avoid doing in the darkness. Gordon headed up to unload the sail, and I dropped the sail enough for me to string an old piece of line through the clew and lash it to the boom. I did the same thing on the tack end, but able to utilize an existing line originally made for the first reef which led back to the cockpit. Of course the wind lightened again toward evening, and not having much else to do we re-tied for a single reef. I didn’t like being unable to easily change reefing, but we were going to be ok on this relatively brief passage. Or so I thought.
I awoke before my watch, realizing something wasn’t right as the boat was healing quite a bit. Kelly had been snoozing off watch, laying on the starboard (windward) settee (not the best place, but it was dry) and even though I warned her earlier, she went flying off onto the hard sole. Perhaps it was this event, and her groggy swearing, that really woke me!
Poking my head above the companionway to assess things outside, I saw that Gordon was hand-steering, and he explained that the reef line had broken at the clew. Looking up, I could see that the sail was billowing out and luffing, catching more of the 20 knots of wind than we’d prefer. I eased the sheet, dropped the sail a bit, fed another piece of line into the grommet and pulled it to the boom end with a quick truckers hitch. Going forward on my tether, I also retied the tack with a hard bowline knot. Even if lines are in good condition (these were very tired) I’ve little patience with single-line reefing systems. Never have I found a system that works more to offset the frustration they give in return. Falling back off the wind, and squeezing in the main sheet, we regained speed before the 20 knot wind on a second reef, with mainsail once again nicely flattened.
We dodged the usual commercial fishing trawlers often seen offshore of New Jersey, slowed down to a more moderate pace by morning, and watched the beatific sunrise over the vast Atlantic Ocean. We were being treated to some pretty good sailing for the next couple days, averaging about 5 knots on a beam reach. That is until we were a bit over half way, when upon making a sail adjustment, I noticed that the boom was hanging at the gooseneck. Essentially, it fell apart!
Defunct reefing tackle was all that held the flopping boom onto the mast, and Gordon kept repeating the same expletives over and over. Ok, let’s not panic – all is ok. For obvious reasons, I suggested to Gordon that we adjust course a bit more toward land, and discussed next steps as we targeted Cape May. Since our sailing to this point had been fortuitous, we had used little fuel, and so realized that we could probably, but not certainly, be able to motor to Cape May, NJ or even further. Again to our good fortune, the wind and seas gave us a break, and so we managed to tie a jury-rig, holding the extrusion back onto the boom. Ugly and nowhere close to ideal, this shoe-string setup was sufficient so to keep us sailing, as long as the mild conditions continue, and thankfully, they did. Once reaching close enough to land and a cell phone signal, I updated our weather report, which called for continued favorable mild wind and seas. With renewed confidence, we adjusted back to a more southerly course, keeping well offshore and toward the Chesapeake.
Dolphins, graced us by welcoming our arrival, on our last fifty miles toward Cape Charles. During my 0100-0400 watch I coaxed what wind I could catch with full sails until we dropped to a slow 3 knots. Realizing it would be best not to arrive in Hampton during dark, I didn’t mind going slow, comfortably allowing the off-watch to sleep. I eventually dropped the sails and started the motor just before my watch ended. We crossed the Chesapeake Bay tunnel just as the sun rose over our stern, and a well-rested Gordon motored us on our final leg approaching the Blue Water Yacht Center, where a cheerful staff greeted us at the fuel dock with true southern charm.
We left Gordon and Mirage safely on a slip where he tidied up, made repairs, and awaited new crew arriving in a couple days, to continue his journey down the in-shore ICW. Safe travels to you Gordon!
Time Aboard– Post Script Thoughts:
We’re so happy that we got to know Gordon well, having this opportunity to spend time aboard with him on this passage. As my friend at Alexander’s Map often pleads in more ways than one could ever keep track of, our lifetime is so very short and precious, and that we should be good citizens of the world. Some of us are granted a longer ‘watch’ on this fragile earth than others, an incredible gift of added days. Kelly and I have raised children, prepped them as best we can, and pushed them gently out of the nest. We worked hard for seeing them fly away to persue their own worthy paths. We also gave a disproportionately larger chunk of our lives to “the man”. All for what? We’re still missing so much more in life, and it’s just out there waiting, and we get out of bed every morning fully knowing that chance can keep us going or send a speeding bus to squish us at any time. So with this fatalistic view we choose to make the absolute best of what we have, to travel without leaving a trace, accumulate friends, make happy memories and explore for ourselves, find adventurous living, but only in such a way to sustain this status for for as long as possible without undue risks. Life on the ocean, onward to another port, is like suspended time in a surreal plane of existence. We passionately offer to cruise aboard with friends whenever we can fit it in – a simple but thoroughly enjoyable weekend river cruise, or a weeks-long passage for a thousand miles: please give us more!