The Rest of the 'Susie Q' Story...

Mia had been following our progress since we left Green Turtle on the Thursday. I would call her daily on the sat phone for a weather report, and she would update our position on our website, which automatically posted the information on Facebook. The night before we got into Rock Hall, she posted this:

“Andy and Susie Q will arrive to Rock Hall sometime tonight (maybe...?)

The boys got a bit too excited this morning, sailing 8 kt and dreaming about dinner in Annapolis. I was going to go down and meet them, but understood at 4pm when they were around Solomons (40 miles away) that it was not going to happen.. I will meet tem for breakfast tomorrow instead (maybe I am speaking too soon..? )

So, the lesson learned? When you start to dream about being ashore, something will happen to delay it, for sure! You are not there until you are there, so don't plan your arrival too much.

Will anyone learn this lesson? Of course not! :)”

And with that, Facebook joined the ranks of the banana, departing on a Friday, and whistling, as something you just do not do on a boat. Only a few hours after Mia’s prediction, we ran hard aground in the channel outside North Point Marina. This is the long version of what happened…

I love taking new people ocean sailing for the first time. Clint Wells, the English mate of ours, joined us on Arcturus for the voyage across the north Atlantic in 2011. It was his first time offshore, and he loved it. He learned fast and he loved the adventure. He was great company.

This time I brought along an old high school friend of mine, Andy Staus, who had never even been on a sailboat before. A few weeks prior to the trip I had posted the crewing opportunity on Facebook. I got responses from a lot of my sailing friends, but Andy’s intrigued me. We used to hang out in elementary school as little kids, but I had lost touch with him since we graduated high school. Our SVHS ten-year reunion happened in December, and it was there that we sort of reconnected again. He told me about his adventures in Alaska working as a guide, about skiing out in Idaho at Grand Targhee, then about traveling around the US marketing those same types of trips, and finally about going back to school to become a nurse.

There must be something about climbers and sailing then. Andy’s an avid rock and ice climber, while Clint is a professional tree surgeon, spending most of his time high up in the branches of trees in Norway, where he works. Both of them were phenomenal crew.

We left Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos on a Thursday morning, having to play the tides right just to get out of the marina. Susie Q, a newish Hanse 400, draws six-and-a-half feet, and her owner even admitted it was probably a mistake to bring her to the shallow Abacos for the winter. But we made it out with no problems and motor-sailed through Nunjack Channel to get into the open ocean for the first time.

The wind was filling in from the north, on the nose, but we were in the midst of a high pressure that had settled over the eastern USA, so the weather was fine. We rolled out the headsail and cut the engine. As I trimmed the jib, I swore I could see sky through a large portion of the leech of the sail. Indeed I did – it had torn nearly from top to bottom, blowing out three panels vertically along the leech just inside the roller furling sun cover. So we took it down and began the long repair.

Susie Q, thankfully, had in her inventory a nice little sail repair kit with a very handy sewing awl. We did not have enough material to fix the sail correctly, with one large patch the length of the leech, so instead sewed in 16 smaller “band-aid” patches to try and fix it up well enough that it would make it to the Chesapeake. Andy proved his meddle right off the bat – it took the two of us sewing, plus my dad stretching and holding the sailcloth over 8 hours to mend and re-hoist the sail. It was not pretty, but it worked – we never had another issue with it (though I kept a wary eye on it for the duration).

The wind built from the southwest ahead of a coming cold front and we rocketed through the night, surfing over 12 knots at times in the helpful current. Andy and I spent an uncomfortable morning on the foredeck rigging the storm jib in the midst of a thunderstorm – the wind touched 36 knots a couple of times - but otherwise, the first few days offshore were fairly uneventful. Not sure of the weather forecast, we headed into Beaufort for a morning, only to head back to sea almost immediately (after some hot coffee, lunch and more diesel fuel). We lost six hours to the stop.

Leaving Beaufort, we took advantage of the last of the southwest wind and broad reached up the Carolina coast, along the Outer Banks and towards Hatteras. We were racing a weak cold front which we knew would bring north winds, forecast to blow 25 knots for a short while, so we wanted to get around Hatteras before that. Sure enough, as predicted, the front went through right at midnight, on my watch, and we spent the next eight hours beating to windward around the notorious Cape in frigid temperatures and 25 knots of wind.

But it did not last. My noon the next day we were motoring again, north along Virginia Beach and towards the Chesapeake in calm but cold weather. We crossed the Bay Bridge-Tunnel after midnight on a Tuesday, and continued on up the Bay, back in familiar territory, strange only for the fact that that early in the season (it was the first week in April), we had the whole place to ourselves, save for a couple commercial ships.

There was a reason for that – it was freezing! The low temperature that last night on the boat went down to 36º, and it felt much colder motoring into the stiff north wind that had again picked up during the evening. I was dressedin every piece of long clothing I had packed – two thermal longsleeve shirts, my black fleece and heavy Helly Hansen wool sweater and my foul weather jacket, plus long-john pants, sweatpants and my foulies on top of that. I mostly hid behind the dodger.

And then we were there. Almost. So close! It was particularly cool for my dad and I to be heading back into Rock Hall on this trip. As a kid, he and my mom had kept all of their previous Sojourner’s there. It is where I grew up sailing, and I will admit to feeling a little nostalgic heading back in that direction, indeed to the same marina (North Point, where Lori still runs the show and remembered us).

But I we were getting ahead of ourselves. Only a few hours earlier, we had thought that we were making enough speed to maybe make it to Annapolis in time for a late night dinner at McGarvey’s and a good night’s sleep before continuing up the Bay the next morning. My dad foolishly asked me what kind of oysters I was going to get – “raw or steamed?” he shouted from the cockpit before I went off watch and into my bunk. Well that little question pretty much ensured that the wind and current would turn against us, which it did, and we never passed Annapolis until about 11 o’clock at night. So much for that. And then came Mia’s Facebook post, and that was that.

It was after 1am as we approached the familiar channel into Rock Hall. We easily navigated around the Swan Point bar and turned the corner at the floating red marker outside the harbor, aiming right between the red and green daymarks just off the jetty where I used to fish as a kid. My dad seemed to recall a floating green just beyond these, which was indicated on the chart, but we never saw any sign of it.

100 yards from the daymarks, the glowing, friendly light of the fuel dock at North Point in sight, we touched the bottom. I managed to maneuver the boat around slightly, and we took another go at it, then touched again. By then we were really stuck. All I could do was pivot the boat on her keel, first 90º one way, then 90º the other way, but all that managed to do was dig us in even deeper. 100 yards!

Andy checked the tides on his iPhone – we apparently had about an hour to figure this out before high tide, and I took out all the stops. We hoisted the mainsail to heel the boat. Nothing. We shifted everything onboartd to the starboard side to do the same. Nothing. Andy climbed onto the boom and swung way out over the 47º water in the middle of the night. Nothing. We were really stuck!

Ironically, I had recently written an article about kedging to get the boat unstuck in similar situations. Just before high tide, Andy quickly inflated and launched the dinghy and rowed out the anchor as far as it would go – it actually reached into the channel, between the marks, we were that close – and we started winching our way to freedom. Or so we thought. That didn’t work either, and only managed to get the anchor stuck in the mud – when Andy tried to retrieve it, his effort nearly sunk the dinghy! So that was that. I was out of options. We went to bed. It was 4am. We felt shame.
Mia and the boat’s owner came down the next morning to pick us up. She brought along the coffee maker and some fresh eggs. I rowed into the fuel dock at North Point to pick them, up, and managed to get a glimpse of the comical sight in the channel – Susie Q was parked, bow slightly raised, smack in the center of the channel. The anchor rode was stretched tight towards the marina, two empty yellow diesel cans marking it’s place in case any of the waterman tried to come out while we slept (only one did – he waved, but didn’t offer to help, and I’m sure had a good laugh at our expense). Thankfully, for my sake, the boat really was right in the center of the channel. I kept trying to blame myself, but it seemed as though we’d done everythingt right. Ten out of ten times I would have brought the boat to the exact same spot, even in broad daylight. The owner was cool about it, and there was no harm done to the boat (though a bit to my pride).

We had breakfast onboard and waited for the towing company to come over from Baltimore later that morning. When he arrived it took over 30 minutes to pull us off. I asked him where we went wrong. “I don’t think you did,” he said. “It’s just really shallow here.”

As it turned out, that floating green maker that was supposed to be outside the main channel, was in fact sitting on the beach behind the fuel dock at North Point. It had blown away at some point, and being so early in the season, they hadn’t yet replaced it. The sandbar had in fact grown since I was a kid, and local knowledge now says to favor the red side of the channel.

After our rescue, we slowly motored Susie Q into her slip at the end of A dock and cleaned her up after the seven-day delivery. Very appropriately, in the slip next door was the old Sojourner, the big Irwin ketch that I spent my teenage years on with my family, and which still calls North Point home. My dad noticed the old Evinrude 9.9, the motor we took to the Bahamas when I was nine, was still hanging off the stern. The trip on Susie Q was finally finished. Lesson learned.