August 26-30, 2017
The training we had been receiving under the guidance of long-time sailor, delivery captain, tech guru, and sailing community personality Dave Skolnick was both incredibly insightful and incredibly overwhelming at the same time. The culmination of this training, which would effectively tick all the required boxes put forth by our insurance company and let us off the proverbial leash, was a nearly 300 mile round trip on Exit from Annapolis, MD to Norfolk, VA. While Dave would be aboard to offer advice, insight, and assistance as necessary, it was our job to plan all the logistics of the passage (including provisioning, planning meals, course plotting, boat preparations, etc) and actually get the boat there and back. The schedule, as set forth by Dave, was to be a 48 hour nonstop voyage.
An early start to the day. Lots of prep work going through our pre-departure checklist which included shopping for food, checking engine fluids, and verifying proper operation, pumping out the holding tank, topping off the battery and refrigerator charge with the generator, getting everything on and belowdecks properly stowed and secured, double checking the weather forecast, discussing our intended course and any hazards or points of note along the way, securing the dinghy to the stern davit… generally confirming everything we would need to have, know, or do during the passage.
Dave arrives and we go through everything with him, confirming we have considered anything he deems necessary, as well as embellishing on anything he feels may be incomplete or overlooked.
We fire up the trusty Perkins 80hp diesel engine, release our lines from the mooring ball… and Exit is underway on her first real maiden voyage with us as owners (not including the day trip from Deale to Annapolis).
Late afternoon and evening:
While underway it is imperative that either Kris or I be in the cockpit at all times. This is not simply to steer the boat (which is under autopilot control much of the time) but to provide a watch for any potential hazards on the water (marker buoys, other boat traffic, land… all of which we want to avoid contact with). On a 24 hour sailing schedule, this can become quite taxing as there are constantly things needing to be done by someone, not to mention making sure we get enough rest to maintain vigilance, awareness, and clear thinking. We decided that during the day we would each take three hour watch shifts from 10am to 10pm, then I would do a six hour shift from 10pm-4am and Kris would cover the 4am-10am watch (this seemed perfect as I am the night owl and Kris is much more of a morning person).
The wind was almost non-existent throughout the day and evening which, unfortunately, meant we were motoring for the entire fist day. Speed by motor averages about 6 knots, as does a good sailing pace; so it was not so much of an effect on how long it would take us. It was simply a desire to be sailing as much as possible rather than motoring (plus the wind is free, whereas the diesel gets swallowed at a rate of about one gallon every hour with the engine running).
As the sun set, we embarked on a new first – we had never driven a boat at night! Dave checked on us regularly, asking questions and giving advice. It seemed he had a story relevant to every topic (as well as a lot of stories that were told simply for their entertainment value). The entire time we were expected to sort things out as best we could, but it was very reassuring having Dave aboard to offer additional insight as well as the more than occasional bit of assistance.
With the nightfall, things became much more challenging from a navigational perspective. Though the lights on markers, navigational landmarks, other vessels, and even passing towns often provided an easier target to spot than during the day, it was an exasperating and exhausting experience trying to sort out exactly what we were seeing. Boat traffic undoubtably created the most difficult challenge – distance, speed, direction of travel, and identifying the type of vessel all became very hard to interpret in the dark. On more than a few occasions massive cargo ships, cruise ships and tug boats towing huge barges behind them provided surprises when we misinterpreted their distance or direction. The cargo ships, traveling at speeds which closed the gap between us at an alarming rate, often seemed like the most menacing things to deal with. Finally, at 11pm, after a particularly confusing bout of sorting out the lights of a handful of vessels that were approaching us from different angles, Kris went to bed leaving me alone in the cockpit as Dave had retired to his berth to catch a rest.
The arm for the throttle control protrudes a bit forward of the helm pedestal when the engine is engaged; both Kris and I had already bumped it accidentally a couple of times with our butts when standing in front of it in the cockpit causing the engine rpms to drop. So, when the engine started to slow as I was standing in front of the pedestal trying to look up at the wind indicator on top of the mast, I thought it was my butt that was to blame. I reached back and brought the throttle up a bit whereby the engine returned to its previous speed of about 2000rpms. Just as Dave’s head poked up through the companionway and I started explaining to him that I had inadvertently bumped the throttle, the engine started dropping off again… only this time I knew for a fact that I had made no contact! Again, I brought up the throttle but the engine speed continued to slow, and finally the Perkins stalled. A persistent and noisy buzzer immediately triggered at the engine’s control panel on the companionway steps and, as we tried to restart the diesel, it simply turned over and over without firing up. Not an immediate emergency but also certainly not ideal!
Obviously, this was a problem that needed solving but there was a much more immediate issue… without forward speed there was no ability to steer the boat. And, though conditions on the water were not that rough, uncontrolled drifting and bobbing about at night with other boat traffic in the area and land not far off was far from a desirable situation. By this time, Kris had sleepily emerged from belowdecks wondering what in the Hell was going on. Dave immediately took charge of the situation and declared that getting the engine running was of secondary concern. The priority now was getting the mainsail up so we could regain control of the steering. While he remained in the cockpit trying to keep Exit into the waves as much as possible, Kris and I went out on the deck to start sorting out the mainsail… something we had never attempted at night.
The combination of the boat pitching around in the waves, the darkness, difficulty hearing each other between the deck and the cockpit in the wind, and technical difficulties we were having – like getting the sail battens (hard plastic pieces sewn into the sail to help it maintain its shape under sail) clear of the lazy jacks (a rope system set up on both sides of the boom and mast to help contain the mainsail when it is being lowered), not to mention the overall stress we were feeling knowing the engine had conked out, all led to a rather formidable struggle.
When things finally settled down and we were sitting in the cockpit, comfortably moving again under the power of the mainsail and Genoa, we were shocked to learn two hours had actually passed!
By 5am, I was exhausted. Both Dave and I went to bed, leaving Kris alone in the cockpit to continue her watch and complete the first night of our passage under sail.
When I emerged later that morning, we were only a few hours away from Norfolk. The plan was to sail the rest of the way until we reached Little Creek (just beyond Norfolk) and try arrange a tow boat to get us into Cobb’s Marina, where we could sort out what had happened with the engine. Earlier, we had been averaging around 6 knots under engine power but now, under sail, we were traveling at 8 knots (even reaching 10 knots at times). Dave joked that we should have put up the sails earlier as he tried to make contact with the tow boat and sort out the logistics for our rendezvous. We got to work trying to sort out the engine issue while we were under sail with the hope that, if we could figure it out before arriving at Little Creek, we could call off the tow boat.
While Dave and I were below, my head buried in the engine room with Dave asking questions and advising, Kris called down to us, “I don’t want to depress you, but I’m sitting up here with dolphins!”
I groaned and said, “Thanks for that.”
Dave quickly told me to get up on the deck and enjoy the moment. Dolphins are one of a handful of things that have the ability to put an ear to ear grin on your face despite a bad situation. So, for about fifteen minutes, we forgot about our engine woes and took in the magic of having a small pod of ten or so dolphins swimming around us. Gracefully darting back and forth, occasionally breaking the surface momentarily or even leaping a bit out of the water, they seemed to be playing with us, toying with Exit as if to say “We’ll show you what hydrodynamic really is!”
After a brief but invigorating break watching them, I returned belowdeck to continue trying to troubleshoot the source of our engine failure. But, it was to no avail. My skills as a diesel mechanic quickly proved to be lacking. By about 1pm, we were tacking back and forth a couple of miles outside the marina entrance, trying to keep some distance between us and the land until the tow boat called us to say he was ready.
With the tow boat providing our forward power secured to the side of Exit, we humbly made our less than triumphant Norfolk entrance into Cobb Marina sails down. As Kris steered for both vessels, the tow boat captain Berry happily chatted away with us. He knew Dave from an previous delivery we had been told about earlier.
After safely arriving and tying to the dock of the marina, we once again set about trying to diagnose the source of our Perkins’ ills. All indications seemed to point towards a fuel system issue and it appeared that we definitely had air in the system, but bleeding it at the fuel filters, fuel pump, and injectors only resulted in the engine turning over without firing up.
Frustrated with our lack of success, and pending the hopeful response we awaited from Dave’s inquiry on Facebook trying to garnish ideas and suggestions from colleagues and friends, we decided to call it a day and headed to a restaurant/bar with the memorable name of Captain Groovy. Dinner and multiple drinks took the edge off a less than perfect afternoon. By the time we returned to Exit a few hours later, Dave had dozens of responses to his Facebook post, most of them confirming what we had already concluded… tomorrow was going to be an educational foray into changing both the external Racor fuel filter/water separators, the internal secondary fuel filter, and more bleeding of the fuel system.
August 28 – 9:00am:
We had spare Racor primary filters aboard but, despite all the spare parts aboard Exit, a spare secondary filter was nowhere to be found. So, while Dave arranged for one to be delivered from the nearby Napa parts store, I commenced with changing out the Racors. It involved not only the physical changing of the filters, but also a lengthy process of tracing of all the lines in the fuel system and sorting exactly how everything was laid out and routed. We learned very quickly just how important it is to not only learn the specifics of how the boat is configured, but also to label everything clearly (something which was not already done) which makes the diagnostics and repair job much easier and timely. We would take this lesson to heart and, soon after, start the time-consuming (but also insightful) process of attempting to label every water hose, seacock, fuel line, and electrical switch we could identify.
Our hope was to complete the repairs, confirm that the engine was functioning smoothly again, and get out of Little Creek by late afternoon or early evening to start the return journey from Virginia back to Maryland. The biggest concern was a pretty serious storm that was developing and moving our way. Dave sat, working at his computer, occasionally answering questions I posed while I wrestled in the tight confines of the engine compartment. Another lesson learned was that, while a given repair may not be that complicated, performing it successfully in the tight quarters allowed by the constraints of very limited boat space created it’s own challenges.
We also had developed a slow water drip coming from the ceiling in the starboard berth which had to be traced. Removal of some interior trim and a couple of panels revealed the source of the leak to apparently be one of the cockpit speakers. Tied up to the dock, our position was fixed (unlike at anchor, when the boat always swings to face into the wind); the pounding wind and rain were driving straight into the cockpit from astern, and the resulting bath apparently exceeded the speaker’s “marine” capabilities. After a quick tape job sealed off the speaker from the elements, the focus returned to getting the engine back on line.
By mid-afternoon, all filters had been changed out and the fuel system bled. We crossed our fingers, turned on the key, and pressed the start button. The engine fired up straight away but still ran rough, indicating that a couple of the injectors still required some additional bleeding. Moments later, the Perkins engine sprang to life, running smoothly like nothing had ever happened. We cheered, and high fives were enthusiastically exchanged. It looked like we were back in business!
The weather, however, had different plans for us. Multiple checks with different weather sources confirmed what we feared. Small craft advisories were already in effect all up the coastline and a serious storm was bearing down on us quickly. The forecast called for 6-8 foot waves and winds gusting as high as 50-60mph! It was certainly no hurricane, yet wind and waves of that caliber hitting us straight on the bow would mean motoring the whole time, and it would be a miserable slog for at least twelve hours, certain to beat the crap out of us the whole time.
We wanted to get moving but prudence and common sense told us to hunker down, prepare Exit for high winds by securing everything aboard, and hope for a quick break in the storm. Once again, we found ourselves in unchartered territory as we now had the learning experience of getting ready to face a storm on our boat that, at least, we’d experience from the relative safety of a marina.
With everything on deck safely stowed away or secured, we watched as the storm descended upon us. The wind began to howl and the rain pounded down. At one point, a gust blew through that picked our ten foot aluminum hulled dinghy up from the arched davit it was secured to at the stern of Exit about four feet above the transom, inverted it at a ninety degree angle so we could actually see the inside of the dinghy floor from the companionway, and slammed it back down with a sickening thud. The lines and davit held but we heeded the warning and immediately clamored up on deck in the maelstrom before the storm had the opportunity to rip our dinghy clean off the davit or, even worse, break the davit itself. Dave calmly advised us to drop the dinghy into the water, pull the drain plug at its’ stern, and partially sink the dinghy to protect both it and the boat… which we did quickly.
With nothing to do but wait, we headed back to Captain Groovy for dinner and plenty of drinks. It didn’t look like anything was going to change in the weather for the foreseeable immediate future so we reserved ourselves to a evening of food someone else could prepare and plenty of drinks.
It was now mid-afternoon but the wind and rain still had not let up. The forecast indicated that the storm would still deliver 5+ foot waves and relentless wind for quite some time. Though we were starting to get a bit of cabin fever, we could do nothing but continue waiting.
By dinner, we had decided it was time to mix things up, so Captain Groovy’s was sidelined in favor of a longer (and wetter) walk to Sushi King for sushi and saki. After dinner, we noticed on the walk back to Exit that conditions definitely seemed to be improving. We agreed to head to bed with Dave getting up to check the weather status and realtime forecasts and updates every couple of hours. If the wind and rain continued to settle down, we would make a run for it as soon as possible.
August 30 – 4:00am
With two hours still to go before sunrise, we awoke to Dave smiling and asking us “Do you want to go home?”
We climbed out of bed and quickly completed our preparations to depart from Cobbs Marina. At around 6:00am, we released our lines from the dock and slowly began making our way out into Chesapeake Bay. The wind and waves had not completely subsided, but had quieted down substantially. As we crept forward at only about three knots, we were grateful for waiting out the storm.
By 7:00am, we approached the shipping lane which ran just offshore. With nearby Norfolk being one of the busiest Navy hubs in the world, shipping traffic through the area was constant.
As we were creeping along, our VHF radio crackled to life, announcing that boats in the area should be aware of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier that was just entering the shipping lane. We saw the Navy vessel headed towards us, basically on a near intercept course with us. Dave joked that, “At least this was not a ship from the Navy’s 7th Fleet, which had been responsible for three collisions and a ship’s grounding over the past six months resulting in multiple fatalities!”
When we hailed them on the radio, we were told to maintain our current heading, as they already had seen us and would pass safely off our bow. It at this point I realized that our training captain Dave was not only a very experienced sailor (and apparently ex-CIA operative who, when active, was only four steps removed from the President!), but also was obviously a powerful sorcerer with powers far beyond our comprehension! During our training run, he had not settled for providing merely simulated scenarios for us to learn from; rather, he had managed to conjure up actual engine breakdowns, heavy storms, and now had even summoned the U.S. Navy for us to deal with!!!
Finally, the wind began to shift off our bow enough that we could hoist the sails, shut down the engine (which had run like a champ since departing Little Creek), and sail in relative silence without the relentless sound of the diesel chugging away below. It was most satisfying to finally sail having chosen to do so, rather than out of necessity due to a mechanical failure.
As the sun set and the night settled in, we continued sailing north making good time. That night, traffic seemed to be much lighter. The constant and unnerving sense of menace, trying to discern the intentions and movements of boats around us, slowly began to give way to a peaceful sense of comfort. Though there was always an awareness of who and what was in our proximity, there slowly grew a feeling of becoming one with Exit. Watching the wind subtly shift and responding with a slight change of the sail trim, we found ourselves gaining more and more understanding; patiently trying to coax another half a knot of speed became more of the focus than the uncertainty of navigating in the moonlight. The stars blanketing the sky above provided a backdrop for the comfort of solitude, not the foreboding sense of hidden dangers. When Kris climbed up into the cockpit to take the watch just before 5:00am, I was exhausted, but also exhilarated at the level of comfort that had settled in. The learning curve is steep at first… so much still to learn, but we also had learned an amazing amount already.
August 31 – 9:00am
The pace we had set since leaving Little Creek had been respectable, building from the creeping two knots under power in churning waves as we entered the Chesapeake Bay just outside Cobb Marina to over eight knots in steady breezes overnight. By mid-morning we were making a around six knots, as the wind dropped off slightly. The journey back had taken right around 27 hours.
As Annapolis became visible in the distance, Kris came down and woke me up. I don’t recall exactly what Dave had suggested, but for some reason I recall being on deck starting to make an adjustment at the mast when the boom vang (a four foot long pole angled between the mast and underside of the boom, placed to help support the boom) simply dropped to the deck with a clang! A closer inspection revealed that all four rivets securing the pole to a fitting under the boom had corroded and failed, sheering off simultaneously… the sorcerer once again conjuring his spells.
Though befuddling, this was certainly nothing like the engine stopping. We were able to tie off the pole and rely on the topping lift (a rope running from the back of the boom to the top of the mast) to keep the boom from dropping down into the cockpit when we lowered the mainsail. It seemed to be less of a disabling problem and more a reminder that anything can happen at any time.
We slowly entered the familiar surroundings of Back Creek and dropped the anchor slightly further up the creek in much nicer surroundings than right off Jabin Marina’s launching docks where we had been before. At our previous location, there was much more boat traffic passing by and constant activity at the dock. With what looked like a parking garage for boats, power boats were stacked in cradles four stories high; a fork lift with extended forks on the front moved about all day long lifting boats into and extracting boats from the storage shelves. Kris and I had joked that it looked like a power boat vending machine… drop your quarters in the slot, hit the B-14 button, and watch your boat get dropped from the shelf into the water!
The location we were now anchored in was only a few minutes away but seemed much more secluded; plush and well groomed back yards of waterfront houses looked out at us for 180 degrees of our view.
After rowing Dave back to the dock, we settled in the cockpit for several well deserved beers and reflected on our experience. Our 300 mile voyage had spanned not 48 hours, but rather 5 days. Not a harrowing offshore passage covering weeks and thousands of miles, but still an incredible adventure that turned out to be an unbelievable learning opportunity filled with a multitude of firsts for us and certainly a worthy source of many, many entertaining and memorable stories for future reference. We had not conquered… but we had survived and undoubtably learned! What more can you hope for?