Tangier Island 2021

May 21st, 2021

Sailing to Tangier Island has long been an idea of mine, but I didn’t think it’d be my first overnight trip. I figured something more sedate than sailing across the Chesapeake Bay would be sensible… but everything seemed to line up so I went for it. I did 68.5 miles overall with an average speed of 3.4 mph. Both days were plagued by light and contrary winds, plus tides I didn’t fully understand so each leg took 10 hours.

On Friday I set off from Windmill Point at the mouth of the Rappahannock with the wind coming directly from Tangier, so I headed due east as my attempt to tack north to stay close to land wasn’t working. Around the shipping channel the wind died out and I started drifting. I tried rowing, but I felt like I wasn’t making much progress for how much effort it was taking. I eventually got through and was able to tack north where the wind shifted and I could head downwind towards the island. I arrived after sunset and had a real adventure with a lee shore in the dark.

Getting the jib ready to hoist after launching. Mom went with me to the ramp so she could take my car and trailer back since overnight parking isn’t allowed. I sprung this trip on her with as little advance warning as possible so she had less time to worry. My wife was a little worried, but optimistic. Dad, however, thought it sounded like a great idea.

As Bilbo says, I’m going on an adventure!

I’ve always managed to sail through this narrow pass into the Rappahannock without tacking. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.

It’s a little weird looking at Windmill Point and knowing I won’t be coming back here today.

Heading east out into the Bay. This guy was motoring along downwind with his sails just flapping around and I have to say I felt a little smug. Who needs dinosaur squeezin’s to go wherever they want? I might have changed my mind a bit by the time I got home.

Pretty light winds so I stretched out across the main thwart.

Up ahead a whole patch of water started churning with fish trying to get away from a pod of dolphins. I tried to take some better pictures when they were closer, but my phone seems to have a bit of a delay on the shutter.

After the show was over it was back to lounging around.

Up on the horizon are two posts that mark the shipping channel. The wind died so I took the sails down and started rowing, but I wasn’t making much progress against the current.

Eventually the wind came back and I got through. Looking towards the Eastern Shore I saw what I thought was a flare from an oil refinery which was odd since I didn’t know there was a refinery there. Then I noticed a second flare directly below the first one and realized it’s a range light to mark the center of the channel.

Once I went east enough, I started north toward Tangier. I could make out the water tower from probably 15 miles away.

As I got closer to the island the wind shifted and I could go downwind. I thought this trip was going to be like the Vikings sailing across the Atlantic or the Polynesians across the Pacific with nothing in sight for ages, but there was pretty much always a marker or something on the horizon to aim for. Crab pot buoys were everywhere.

I had a pretty sunset, but I quickly realized that meant I was going to be sailing in the dark since I was still 3 miles from the island.

There’s the island on the horizon and a flock of pelicans heading in for the night.

This picture might not look like it, but it was dark! Straight ahead is just about where I got shipwrecked.

As I was coming in, I saw a large tripod thing which I thought was a marker on the end of the sandbar. As I got closer I could just make out the beach maybe a foot above the water and the sound of crashing waves got disconcertingly louder. I pulled a hard right and went down the beach while reaching for a flashlight I thankfully got out of a drybag before I needed it. I flicked it on, but the light hit the sail and just about blinded me. Squinting through the neon green spot in my vision I saw a row of 4 or 5 jagged piling which I managed to avoid. The beach disappeared, but the waves were still breaking on the bar underneath. I kept going until things looked ok, then made a 180 and headed for Cod Harbor with the rudder bumping the bottom. As I got closer to the marsh I took the sails down, rowed over, and anchored. The sand has changed a bit from Google’s picture, so I drew that in.

At some point I decided I was sheltered enough so I tossed my anchor over. I payed out about 20′ of line and set up my tent and sleeping setup. I didn’t take a picture of the tent because it was so bad. But basically imagine a line 6′ up the mast to the top of the rudder with a 8’x10′ polytarp slung over it. Every time my boat swung through the wind, the tent would inflate and then flop over to the other side. It sounded like being inside a bag of potato chips being opened every 30 seconds. I think I managed about 3 hours of sleep from pure exhaustion.

May 22nd, 2021

The next morning I woke up at 5 to a nice sunrise off my port side and the sound of workboats chugging along.

Off to starboard I watched an egret walk his way along the edge of the marsh snapping up breakfast. Mine was a ham and cheese sandwich from yesterday.

Ahead I saw a narrow entrance where the sand has almost made it to the marsh. I would have been more protected in there, but it wasn’t bad where I was. I was surprised by how comfortable the gentle rolling felt while I tried to sleep.

I rowed through and over to the beach so I could walk around, but the sand was really rough. Like, it was painful to walk. I don’t know what’s different about this sand than what’s down on the Outer Banks, but something is. I decided I didn’t have time to make it to the town and plus the museum doesn’t open until 11am when the tourist ferry arrives.

So I rigged up the sail with a reef since it was blowing pretty good and got ready to leave.

Heading back towards the narrow entrance.

And out!

Someday I’ll come back and see if their crab cakes are any good. Maybe my wife and I will take the ferry, since she’s made it clear the dinghy isn’t an option for some reason.

One last look at the island.

There’s the low beach and that tripod thing that I thought was a marker. The breaking waves continue to almost straight ahead.

I later learned that this marker is what I should have gone around and what I sailed through was all really shallow. That’s why the light changed from white to red as I got closer to the island. One of the benefits of a small boat I guess.

Again, the wind was blowing from exactly where I wanted to go, so I figured I’d go south until I was at Windmill Point’s latitude, then turn west. I couldn’t quite go due south, so I turned once I hit the Eastern Shore just off Nandua Creek. I totally underestimated the tide, so I got pulled south and at one point thought Stingray Point was where I was supposed to go. Eventually I realized my mistake and made it back, but not before running out of wind and resorting to rowing.

Pictures never seem to do the waves justice, but it was pretty rough. This is my first time sailing with a reef and I was impressed with how it tamed everything down. I would definitely have been sitting on the side deck and hiking otherwise. It really turned a puckering ride into a pleasant sail and I still made 4-5mph upwind.

Up ahead is the Eastern Shore and Nandua Creek. Never heard of it before and looking at the satellite map it’s pretty sparsely populated. Probably not a bad place to live.

Heading across the Bay. I really need to learn about crossing currents because just pointing west wasn’t cutting it.

Eventually around midday the wind calmed down enough I thought I’d shake the reef out so I backed the jib and hove to.

Next I took out the reef and tied the snotter off temporarily to the end of the sprit. When I raise the sail to the top of the mast, the sprit comes with it since I’ve got the snotter block tied to a pendant from the main halyard. After the sail is up I can properly tension the snotter and cleat it off back on the centerboard case. I still need to tie the nettles into the grommets so everything is ready to go.

There’s Windmill Point dead ahead, but little wind to get there. My phone was at about 3% and for some reason it wouldn’t charge from my backup battery. It was a little stressful trying to guess when I’d arrive and coordinate with my folks to meet me.

Then this rig passed me and I started considering the virtues of powerboats. Especially since the wind shifted and I decided to row the last mile and a half back. My phone died 2/10 of a mile from the ramp just as I saw dad pulling in with my car and trailer.

And with that my first beach cruising adventure was over! I went nearly 70 miles to a remote island to get no sleep, eat soggy ham and cheese sandwiches, and walk on a beach that hurt my feet. It occurs to me that I could have just stood on a pile of Lego in the comfort of my own living room, but somehow I’m already thinking about the next adventure.

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