2001: The First Sailing Odyssey

Main Entry: nav·i·ga·tion
Pronunciation: "na-v&-'gA-sh&n
Function: noun
1 : the fine art of thinking you know where you are
- nav·i·ga·tion·al /-shn&l, -sh&-n&l/ adjective
- nav·i·ga·tion·al·ly adverb

'Twas just last Sunday that I pulled a knob on Pelago and the Westerbeke's burble gave way to the sounds of the breeze in the rigging and the waves on the hull. After six months of being on the hard or stranded in the slip, Pelago was once again riding the wind. I had sailed at least once a month through the winter of '99-'00, so this winter's prolonged abstinance was driving me harder with each passing week. Every spare minute was dedicated to getting Pelago ready for sea.

I had hoped to finish my tasks on Saturday, but after 12 hours of work I still wasn't quite done. Sunday didn't dawn so much as it just got less gray. The forecast had deteriorated and rain was expected. I kept waiting for the cell phone's ring to bring excuses as I set about finishing my tasks but it remained silent. I accomplished a few tasks, including breaking the bimini mount. That should guarantee rain I reasoned, but oh well. My rig had been eased all winter and it was finally time to break out the Loos gauge and tighten it up.

I was nearly done when the first of my crew arrived. I met Kristy when she came for a test drive on Binary as a prospective buyer. That was the last time I sailed Binary as her owner.

After we stowed her gear, I handed her a cordless drill, screwdriver bits, and some wood screws and pointed her at a winch mount and the last holes in the cockpit coaming. We finished just as the rest of the crew arrived.

Ute is an experienced sailor and Erik is an accomplished dinghy racer. I met them though SpinSheet magazine's Skipper/Crew listing and we had sailed together a few times. Erik's friends Jason and Erica had never sailed before, so we had a nice mix of experience on board. (If you are keeping track that's Eric, Erik, and Erica) It took only a few moments of looking at the overcast sky and flags blowing in the steady breeze to decide that we would chance the rain and go sailing.

We started the motor, cast off the lines, and were on our way. The wind was a about 8 kts and little east of south, which is just about perfect for getting out of the West River. One hundred yards from the slip we had the sails up, the motor off, and Pelago was again a creature of the wind and sea.

I turned on the GPS and it took forever to acquire and figure out where it was. While it was churning away I was messing with the lead to my usually reliable depth gauge but to no avail. I joked that perhaps we had sailed into the Bermuda Triangle.

The West River gave way to the Bay and we fell off the wind and onto a course for Thomas Point Light. This picturesque little house perched on pilings screwed into the bay floor is a mandatory waypoint when new crew are on board. Usually you can see the lighthouse as soon as you clear the trees at the river mouth, but it was just a dark spot in the haze. The Eastern Shore remained hidden until we reached mid-Bay and the Bay Bridge never did materialize out of the mist.

The low visibility didn't matter much to me. As long as I can see one shore between Baltimore and Herring Bay, I know where I am. Pelago loped easily through the waves and we soon passed the lighthouse. On daysails like this I sometimes continue up towards Annapolis, but the real controlling factor is the wind direction. I joke that I just go whichever way the wind blows, but that's not far from the truth. The reality is that I try to plan tacks that keep the wind from falling too far aft. I might have gone farther north, but that day we sailed into showers and tacked back south towards less threatening skies. Back down the Bay we went with Pelago and crew enjoying the ride.

Time passed pleasantly despite the occasional sprinkles. They were never enough for me to rue the loss of the bimini's protection and the company was just plain fun. We went far enough south to start to get Poplar Island and Herring Bay just a little before the beam. The wind was slowly building as we brought Pelago around towards home. The rhumbline to the West River would put Pelago directly before the wind with her main blanketing her jib. Rather than wallow along I headed more east towards Bloody Point at

the south end of Kent Island. From there I would jibe west and with luck keep both sails full all the way home.

I settled in on the course paying close attention to the windvane and doing my best to keep the sails drawing well. Boat speed got priority to direction and as long as we didn't run over one of the fishing boats anchored in the Bay I was happy to keep cruising. Bloody Point's details began to slowly emerge. I

hadn't spotted the lighthouse, but the dull, unpainted cement blends easily into the mist. I could clearly see a fishtrap although I didn't remember one there, and rather than risk shallow water, I jibed back across the Bay. I couldn't see the western shore but I remembered that I was always surprised at just how far north I had to point to make the West River. I set my course relative to the Eastern Shore and checked the compass -

- it read almost exactly 180.

My first reaction was that the compass had failed over the winter. My second was that we had, indeed, sailed into the Bermuda Triangle or at least into some uncharted magnetic anomaly. I checked the heading on the GPS.

It agreed with the compass.

I had Erik take the wheel while I fetched the chart. I hate to admit it, but in the interest of expediency, I plotted the GPS coordinates. It was then my pleasure to announce to the crew that not only were we about 4-5 miles from where I thought we were, we were on the WRONG SIDE of the Bay.

For the record let me state that up to that point I had only one beer.

In retrospect, I could have probably pulled the wool over my crews' eyes. They had been fairly clueless about our location once we sailed away from Thomas Point Light. But to do so I would have had to sail south for a while rather than immediately turning north again.

So how could I possibly get so far off course? I realized that once I set my course, I never checked the compass and I didn't pay particular attention to murkey shadows of the land. All I did was steer to keep the sails full. The wind clocked around substantially and I had followed. My jest about sailing whichever way the wind blows was much truer than one might think.

Yesterday Erik emailed me with weather readings from the Thomas Point Light. The wind had clocked around 60 degrees. I probably exacerbated the situation by trying to head as much downwind as possible without the main blanketing the jib.

What would I have done without the GPS? I have a second on board, so failure of one is not catastrophic. I hadn't a clue where the sun was, so I couldn't use it to gauge my compass's accuracy, but I did have a handbearing compass on board for a second opinion.

Once I accepted the accuracy of the compass it was clear that I was on the Western Shore, but where? I hadn't seen Thomas Point Light or the commercial ships anchored nearby, so I was south of there. All I need do was sail north until I spotted the West River.

It would work. Heck, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. ;-)

So there you have it my friends. A tale of a proud navigator brought low by overconfidence.

But the sailing was great.

Fair winds

Eric 5/22/2001

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