August 13th, 2022
For quite a while I’ve wanted to do a 50 mile daysail just to see what it’s like, so I’ve been keeping my eye on the weather for consistent wind that would put me on a broad reach all day. Finally it came and I decided on a trip down the Chesapeake Bay from the Piankatank River to Fort Monroe on the James River.
Launching at a boat landing on the Piankatank River. It’s just a gravel ramp at the end of a road and there’s no dock, but it works well enough. Pretty popular with the 12′ jon boat crowd.
I motored over to a nearby dock at a friend’s house for the night with my trolling motor setup I’ve been working on lately. It did well, powering me at 3.5 – 4 mph with 185 watts of power and the stock propeller. Eventually I plan to get a better battery, PWM controller, and a 10 x 6 model airplane propellor to improve efficiency.
Rigged and ready to go for a pre sunrise start. Everything was still and quiet when I launched other than the slight hum of the motor and water gurgling by.
The plan was to head out into the Chesapeake Bay and sail south 50 miles to Fort Monroe where my wife would pick me up. The forecasted winds showed a broad reach on port tack all day long, although I was a bit concerned about the 15-20 mph wind speed.
Heading down the Piankatank with a preemptive reef in. A group of three dolphins puffed their way by as I was beginning to wonder if the reef was really necessary.
As I rounded the corner and saw the open bay in the distance I started hitting some gusts that made me thankful I started out with a reef.
Heading toward the bay on a close reach and the wind was starting to pick up. The waves were choppy and I had to hike hard and let the main luff at times. Off Stove Point I briefly turned around and the conditions improved so much on a broad reach that I decided once I got around Gwynn’s Island things would be ok. As you can see from the map, that was not to be the case!
I made it through some bigger waves at the mouth of the Piankatank and turned south for Fort Monroe. Things did get a bit better after the wet and windy beat into the bay, but the waves were still pretty big. Maybe 2-3 feet? They’d hit the back quarter and slew the boat a bit, so steering took my constant attention. Unfortunately water got on my phone’s camera lens so the rest of the few pictures I took are a bit blurry. Moving along at 5.5 to 6 mph.
The water in the boat was gradually building up because I didn’t have time or enough hands to bail it out. Most of this was due to spray, but later towards the end of Gwynn’s Island a large wave broke over the port side and dumped a truly concerning amount of water into the boat. I could tell I was sitting pretty low and the free surface effect made everything sluggish. Each additional wave splashed a bit more water in and I realized I was soon going to swamp. I managed to get pointed into the wind and did the best I could to heave to and bailed like crazy. Some of the waves were definitely 3′ and occasionally breaking so it took some steering to stay pointed into them. A few times water came over the bow which set me back, but not enough I couldn’t keep up with the bailing.
Eventually I got the water down and had to make a decision. Do I continue on for Fort Monroe and risk this again? Or make for the nearest boat ramp and admit defeat? Fortunately common sense prevailed so I headed for the “Hole in the Wall,” a narrow channel through the sand bars below Gwynn’s Island just under a mile away. I turned onto a starboard tack and started blasting downhill toward it. I hit a new top speed of 10.3 mph and averaged 7 to 8 mph all the way through.
The waves calmed down significantly once I got into the channel and I could finally breathe again with the realization that I would probably make it home in one piece.
I was so relieved (and exhausted) to have made it that I started down the wrong creek! I got most of the way up to Mathew’s Yacht Club on Stutt’s Creek before realizing things didn’t look quite right, so I tacked out and headed up Milford Haven.
The sandbar is a popular beach spot, but today I was thankful it was shielding me from the waves on the bay.
Getting closer to the ramp I came across the recently approved oyster farm a bunch of people were raising sam hill about in the local newspaper’s letters to the editor. I agree it’s pretty ugly and it did get in the way of my tack, but then again fried oysters are just about my favorite food so I can’t complain too much.
Up near the ramp I had a chance to try my lightweight aluminum anchor I’ve been working on. My folding fisherman design is a bit too complicated for its own good, so I used the same geometry on a three piece take apart version. It dug in immediately and held well, although to be fair it was a pretty ideal anchoring setup. Then I tidied up the boat and got all the lines coiled while I waited for my wife to arrive. The boat ramp was chaos as usual, but fortunately my car and trailer are small so I could weave my way around the people who can’t back up. I ended up going 24.1 miles over 5.25 hours with an average speed of 4.6 mph.
And one last picture of how the anchor comes apart. The fluke assembly locks onto the 12.5º included angle tapered end of the 1/4″ thick shank. Then the stock assembly slip fits down to the shoulder and is secured by a carabiner on the anchor rode. I think the taper could be increased a tad since the fluke assembly can get really stuck on there, but a few taps with a block of wood will knock it loose.
After pondering this near disaster of a trip over the last few months I came to a few conclusions:
- It’s probably best to listen to my gut a little closer when it comes to the conditions. I had a few opportunities to turn around and explore the Piankatank River for the day, but I kept going thinking it wouldn’t be so bad on a different point of sail. If I did swamp I knew I’d be blown onto a sandy beach and everything would have likely been fine, but some well meaning onlooker could have gotten the Coast Guard involved for nothing.
- The experience and gradual improvements I’ve made to the boat over the last three years were invaluable. I don’t think this trip would have ended the same way in the first two years.
- Finally, the First Mate isn’t the design I need for what I want to do. I’ve got ideas for some big trips and instead of trying to expedition-ify my boat, I think I want something more purpose built. After another another exhaustive search through boat plans I settled on John Welsford’s new design, Long Steps. He’s a really accomplished designer and if this is what he is building himself to circumnavigate the north island of New Zealand, I’m pretty sure it’ll work for me.
The plans! Thumbing through I feel a little terrified of how much more work it’ll be to build than the First Mate, but I think this should be a lifetime boat. I’m feeling surprisingly ok with the idea that I won’t be keeping my First Mate once I’m done. I probably won’t start building until the end of 2023 or so, and it might be a bit of a slow project considering my 8 month old son Henry is starting to take off and get into everything.