September 15, 2017
Lacking the daily rituals of a particular work schedule or having things happening on specific days, the calendar has a strange fluidity about it. Could be Wednesday… could be Saturday. No garbage pickup Tuesday morning to remember Monday night. No darts on Thursday evening. No TV series to hypnotize everyone gathered in the living room for a weekly prescheduled hour. No lawn to mow on Saturday morning. Sure, there are endless tasks to be done… but time, for lack of better way I can think of to describe it, just seems to set its own pace on a boat. Yet, that having been said, there are still noteworthy moments in time when you just have to stop and take notice.
After six weeks of living in a gravel parking lot on the hard, we were now reaching our one month anniversary of living aboard Exit while she was actually in the water! One month… so much we’ve learned about… anchoring, docking, getting up and down the sails (well… the mainsail and Genoa anyway – I’m still convinced the purpose of a spinnaker is to put fear into the heart of reasonable people!), trimming the sails, chart reading, weather monitoring, close-quarters maneuvering, systems maintenance… it goes on and on. We’re still yet to have our first offshore sailing experience. Nonetheless, we’ve spent 700 of the past month’s 720 hours aboard Exit – I hope it’s starting to show!
For our one month anniversary, we decided to pick up the hook in Back Creek, and head across the bay to the Wye River, just outside St. Michaels. Our goal was to find some anchorages which offered a bit of fresh scenery as well as much more opportunity for seclusion… a view of the great outdoors surrounded by a forest of trees, rather than the beautifully manicured back yard of someone’s private waterfront property surrounded by a forest of masts! There are only three things looming on the horizon: helping Dave (the sailing sorcerer/mentor) complete the delivery of a sailboat from Connecticut at the end of the month for the Annapolis Boat Show, my parents arrival during the first days of October to visit us on our new home, and actually attending the Annapolis Boat Show which starts October 6.
Why go do a delivery on some other boat after just purchasing Exit? We pondered this after Dave extended the offer at the end of our Annapolis/Norfolk journey, and came to the conclusion that, while we could easily stay busy every day aboard Exit, there were times when you just have to get off the boat… its kinda like never leaving the house. Plus, part of the delivery would require some time offshore to shorten our delivery time… and offshore experience under guidance is something we can massively benefit from. A non-paying gig but what the Hell… free food, accommodations, and great experience! Dave is not only an excellent instructor and an encyclopedia of sailing knowledge, but he also has a story for just about every topic of conversation that comes up!
This leaves a week before we need to be available for the boat delivery. So it seems an excursion to the Wye River would fit in perfectly as a quiet retreat, with some sailing time built in, before the momentum of activities picks up at the end of the month.
After going through a work-in-progress checklist of things to do/verify prior to raising anchor, we eventually got up the hook and found ourselves outside the marina; but not before Kris racked up yet another flawless docking maneuver at the fuel dock so we could top up our water, get some diesel… and, oh ya, never forget to get the poo pump-out whenever possible!
We made it to the Wye River without incident, and the winds even picked up enough to allow us the pure enjoyment of sailing silently solely under “free power”. With endless anchorages, the idea was to head up the Wye East River and pick a spot along the way.
A number of possibilities were nullified by the last minute appearance of another sailboat with better timing, already tucked away in a sweet anchorage, hidden away from view until you were on almost top of the spot… doh!
We thought maybe we’d be ambitious and try for Pickering Creek, well up into the river. At the time, I don’t think we fully appreciated just how limited the space we would have to maneuver actually was… while the creek itself seemed plenty wide, the charts we were using (both paper and GPS) indicated that the mouth of Pickering Creek funneled very quickly from an eleven foot depth into a narrow channel ranging between 8-10 feet deep. The channel depth seemed fine as we already had our centerboard part way up so our draft was not more than 5-6 feet. What may not have been adequately appreciated was the fact that outside of that safe channel remained about two-thirds of the width of the creek, which sat at a depth of five feet or less, invisible to us, outside of the contour lines on a chart or the actual number on the depth gauges in in front of us there in the cockpit. Also disorienting, the fact that a channel running below the water rarely follows the exact same course as the shoreline, so you can’t simply stay in the center of the creek. Too late, the realization set in to me (the very inexperienced helmsman), that this was a classic “flying blind under instruments alone” scenario… one which required more hours behind the wheel than I had!
Compounding the situation were the physical characteristics of Exit herself. Now don’t get me wrong… she’s a beauty… but she’s also quite a big lass, and close quarters maneuvering is not her forte.
Maneuverability and steering are dependent on a lot of different factors. A boat needs a bit of water going past the rudder to gain any real steering. Some boats can utilize the water movement from their prop motion to gain steering but Exit, with her prop positioned further away than on some other boats because of her daggerboard, doesn’t have that benefit. This equates to the boat needing to be physically moving to have any real steering capability. Some boats also can utilize what is called “prop walk” in which the prop motion (either forward or backward) tends to pull the stern in one direction or another. Not so with Exit… she takes a bit to get going and even a bit longer to get turning. For Exit, another factor is the centerboard – something which gives us only a three and a half foot draft when it is up; but, when down it dramatically improves the steering (read as: makes steering possible). So, realistically, we need a bit of centerboard down to hope for any semblance of maneuverability.
So… that centerboard takes away about fifty percent of the creek depth to work with but allows us to steer. Just keep her moving…
The moment of panic set in as the depth gauges began dropping fast from 9 feet.. to 8… to 7… to 6… and not slowing. Kris grabbed for the winch and quickly hoisted the centerboard… As I tried to bring Exit back into the narrow channel, the number on the depth gauge continued to drop… to 5 feet… then 4…
…now I recall at Herrington Harbor North, just after splashing back in August, putting a marked line in the water to measure the depth with the intention of verifying the number displayed on those very gauges. I told Kris, at the time, it seemed strange that the water appeared to be one foot deeper than the gauges indicated. We both shrugged in one of many “I don’t know” moments and filed it away for a moment just like now…
When the number went below 4 it was like being in a car on the ice with locked brakes – not much you can do cause now you’re just along for the ride… just the holding of breath as you wait for the sickening crunch!
However, at 3.5 feet there was no sickening crunch… nor at 3 feet… thank goodness for that gauge discrepancy… apparently! Then, at 2.5 feet, we felt and heard the now unmistakable sound of a soft bottom sliding along the underside of our hull! We still had just enough momentum that we were able turn off the shallows… but it sure scared the shit out of us; we immediately hightailed it back out of the mouth of Pickering Creek and into what now seemed like much safer navigating space.
Thirty minutes later we we enjoying the quickly-becoming-a-tradition after anchor beers in the cockpit, having found our own private bay and anchorage on the Wye River. Cheers to our day and especially a near miss on running aground… it really was just a soft skim!