Gwynn’s Island 2020

Gwynn’s Island 3/29/20

I’ve slowly been making improvements to my boat over the winter and today, in the interest of our national wellbeing, I decided to practice some social distancing out on the water. And as a completely unrelated benefit, I got to test how well my improvements work.

Previously, every time I’ve launched I’d get blown into the dock while trying to rig the sails. It’s been frustrating and I finally decided to rig a brail line that bundles everything up into a neatish package. My plan is to rig the boat in the parking lot, brail up the sail, and launch the whole thing ready to go. Then I can row out to deeper water, let the sails down and start sailing. Hopefully this will improve the lifespan of the paint on my gunnels.

Now that spring is finally here, I’ve been watching the weather looking for a nice day. The water is still ~50º, so I wanted easy wind, nice air temperatures, and a protected area to sail. Today was forecast to be 10-15mph wind and 80º temperatures, so I set out to a nearby boat ramp on Gwynn’s Island. This island offers a 2.5 x .5 mile strip of water that is ideal. One note if you ever go to this ramp… there are power lines across the parking lot, but there’s plenty of room to maneuver around with the mast up.

My general plan for the day was to sail to the southern part of the island and if everything was going well, continue on to Rigby Island which is all that’s left of a whole line of sandy barrier islands that stretched south. I wanted to scope it out as a potential stopping point on some future camp cruising adventure. After Rigby Island I would consider sailing out to Wolf Trap Light, assuming the conditions were good. Wolf Trap Light is caisson lighthouse about three miles off the coast. From what I’ve been told, the HMS Wolf ran aground there in the late 1600’s, so I guess it’s a Wolf trap! After returning from the lighthouse, I’d take “the hole in the wall” which is a narrow channel between the sandbars that used to be barrier islands. I figured this would give me a good opportunity to practice aiming for a precise location and trying to find it with little in the way of landmarks. The entire trip would be about 20 miles.

My planned path.

However, even the casual observer will quickly see by my GPS path that I didn’t quite make it. Best laid plans…

GPS track

It turns out the warmer air brought a ton of fog because the water is still cold. Advection fog it’s called according to Wikipedia. The 80º weather and 10-15 mph wind didn’t quite make it, although it was a nice 70º day.

Anyway, I got to the ramp around 10am and started rigging the boat in the parking lot. It took about 30 minutes, but I did have some trouble with the brail line tangling up which required me to raise and lower the sail a few times. But eventually I got everything sorted and got the boat launched. Based on the conditions, I’m pretty sure the passerbys thought I was a fool.

The bundle could be neater, but it worked well. The framing could be better too… Totally didn’t notice the reflection in the water when I took the picture.

I rowed out a bit, dropped the sails and rigged the sheet. Much better than trying to do it while banging into the dock! The next problem was the rather concerning lack of wind. There was just a hint of breeze and I started heading towards the bay. I soon began wondering why the boat seemed to crab across the water when I realized I’d forgotten to put the centerboard down. That helped things considerably.

I drifted and sailed along for a little over an hour, in and out of the wind shadow of the island. Things would pick up as I came to the mouth of a creek, then slow down when I was closer to land. I tried every light air dinghy sailing trick I knew, although that was limited to sitting on the leeward side and the occasional wiggle of the rudder to see if that made any improvement. I thought about the oars, but this is my yacht and I’m a proper yachtsman, not some galley slave! Eventually I resigned myself to watching nature go by. Ducks paddled away, a pair of Canada geese honked as they changed course for me, an osprey flew by with a stick, fish splashed out of the water, a waterman cussing his outboard echoed out of the mist.

A pair of ducks that seemed a bit alarmed by their sudden change of pace.

Towards the bottom of Gwynn’s Island I watched a ripple of wind coming and the sailing picked up. Once I was out of the wind shadow of the island the boat speed increased to 4.5-5mph which was a welcome change. It’s nice hearing the gurgle of water and seeing a trail of bubbles off the transom.

The fog that was supposed to burn off before I even arrived at the boat ramp was still hanging around and there wasn’t much to see, so I started following lines of crab pots.

For a while the fog was getting lighter, but it soon changed to thicker than when I left. Before I could see 4-5 crab pot floats, now it was down to 1 or 2. I made the executive decision that if things hadn’t noticeably improved by 12:45 I’d head back. Not because I had any misgivings about the boat, just that it was getting a little boring seeing just a patch of water and then nothing.

The theme from Master and Commander started playing in my head.


Shortly before my self imposed deadline a buoy materialized out of the fog. This is the buoy that marks “the hole in the wall”. I decided that this was a decent accomplishment for the day and I’d turn around here. On a side note, I need to do something about all the lines up by the mast. I think I’m going to add two more belaying pins because currently I have two or three lines per pin and it’s a bit of a mess.

On the return trip I decided I’d try to steer straight runs with the compass, then check the GPS track and see how I did. I did a 180 and headed back to the ramp. So far navigating has been with Google maps on my phone to get an idea of where I am, and then trying to hold a course with the compass. It worked ok and I never felt like I was lost. Also I’m happy to report that my little hook to hold the snotter is working great and I no longer have creases in the sail.

After a while I started seeing trees in the fog and found my way back to the ramp.

By this point the wind had picked up and brailing the sail while on the water was a little exciting. But it worked ok and I rowed the boat back to the ramp. After pulling the boat out and getting everything unrigged, the fog started to lift. Go figure!

I recorded my GPS track to analyze. I averaged 3.6mph, had a top speed of 6.1mph, and spent nearly 2.5 hours on the water. The entire trip was 5.6 miles. I’m not good at estimating windspeed, but if a nearby weather station is to be believed, the wind was somewhere around 5 knots. Steering a straight line with no landmarks was harder than it sounds, but in my defense I was taking pictures. At least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.

So while I didn’t accomplish anything I set out to do, I did confirm the brail line setup is the way to go and I got a lot of confidence navigating in fog. I never once felt uncertain about the boat’s capability which is turning into a welcome theme every time I take it out.

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