04 October, 2011

Headin' South

(Note: We're running about a month behind on our Khronicles. We'll try and get caught back up in the next couple of days.)

Position: N 36 45.350 W 076 18.544
Location: Deep Creek Anchorage

We're anchored off Jackson Creek in Deltaville, VA, our old stomping grounds. We decide not to go into Jackson Creek – the weather's supposed to be benign tonight and it will make leaving early in the morning easier if we don't have to negotiate the tight turns and unlit marks of the narrow entrance channel.
We go to bed early and both find ourselves awake at midnight. We toss and turn and try to get back to sleep. Yeah, right! "Trying" to get back to sleep" is a bit of an oxymoron, isn't it? It may have worked some, but we finally decide to get up and make coffee at around 04:00.
Since we're up anyway, and outside the creek, we decide to leave in the dark. We turn on the navigation lights, haul anchor, and and head out into the bay at 06:00. There's a nice breeze behind us, so we get out the big head sail, turn off the engine, and have the best sail we've had so far this fall. The current is with us and we fly down the bay. We don't start the engine and put away the sail until we're well down the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, VA on our way down the Intracoastal Waterway.
We arrive 45 minutes early at the only opening bridge we have to negotiate today. Time to start the "idle into the current to stay in one place" drill while we wait for the scheduled opening. It's our lucky day – right after we head into the current, a barge coming up river calls for a commercial opening (note: bridges that open on a schedule will also generally open at unscheduled times to allow commercial traffic to pass). We call the bridge tender and she lets us slip through on this opening after the barge clears the channel, saving us a big chunk of time.
Since we are ahead of schedule, we decide to do some exploring. We turn off the main ICW channel toward the Dismal Swamp and, about a mile in, enter a small, man-made basin. We've passed this basin every time we've taken the Dismal Swamp route, but we've never stopped here. We feel our way in, seeing nothing less than 9 feet at the entrance and are happy to find 18 feet in the middle. We drop the anchor, back down to set it, and have a peaceful evening all to ourselves.
Days like today are what it's all about – beautiful weather, great sailing, a big dose of good luck, and a quiet place to spend the night.
Note: Of course days like today have to be balanced out by days like tomorrow. We run aground coming out of this idyllic anchorage at 6am the next morning trying to hurry out to make another bridge opening. We are not quite in the middle of the channel. It turns out OK, though. Mark flings himself from one side of the boat to the other to get a pendulum motion going while Julie at the helm is gunning the engine in reverse. Finally he has such a good swing going that the keel comes off the bottom and away we go, just barely making the bridge opening. Sorry no pictures of this hilarious sight you will just have to use your imagination.

02 October, 2011

Another Close Encounter

Date: September 26, 2011
Position: N 38 W 076 17.0 (approximate)
Location: Mouth of the Potomac River, Chesapeake Bay, USA

We've been planning to visit friends in Deltaville and decide to do the trip in a single overnight leg, rather than in 3 day trips so we can spend more time with them. We haul anchor around 5pm just south of Annapolis for the 90 mile trip which should take around 16 hours. The low temperature is going to be in the mid 60s – not too cold - but it will be dark as pitch as there is no moon tonight.

We have just installed an AIS (Automatic Identification System) receiver, which we are thrilled to try out as we have been coveting this piece of equipment for 3 years. The AIS shows any big ships in the area, their name, what course they are on and the closest point of approach. When out in the ocean if a vessel looks like it will be passing very close to us we can hail them on the radio, make sure they know we are there and ask if we need to change course to avoid them. It is not essential equipment but it's VERY nice to have.

As we start to head down the bay there are several AIS targets and we pass the time looking them up and figuring out how this new equipment works, enjoying a new found sense of security from knowing how close they will come. We'll be paralleling the shipping lanes all night so we expect to be kept entertained. We're not too worried about an altercation as all the big ships will stay in the shipping lanes.

Around 11pm Julie goes below for a nap and around 2am we have a change of watch and Mark goes below. It's starting to get a little chilly now and we are approaching the mouth of the Potomac River. This river flows down from Washington DC and has quite a lot of current and more shipping traffic - it's always a bit of a problem area and we need to stay alert.

Julie notices an AIS target on it's way up the bay but it doesn't seem to be any problem. It's still pretty far away and the CPA (closest point of approach) is over ½ mile. She turns on the radar to track the vessel as it may start turning and heading up the Potomac. All the land masses and navigation aids show up on the radar making it difficult to ascertain which blip is the ship. Julie is pondering over the equipment when suddenly a flood light flashes on Rachel.

She jumps up and sees lots of lights closing in on her. Where the heck did that come from? She sees red AND green lights along with lots of white lights. Red and green at the same time is not good, it means the other vessel is coming right for you – head on!! And it was BIG!! Julie calls for Mark, jumps to the helm, and picks up the VHF. Mark is sound asleep, lulled by the steady throb of the engine – he doesn't hear her.

Julie: "Vessel at the mouth of the Potomac this is Rachel".
Other vessel: "This is <garbled>"
Julie: "Do I need to change my course to avoid you?"
Other vessel: "Yes - you need to head east."
Julie: "Roger That"

Quickly looking down at the compass realizes that she's heading SW. Feeling a little confused she gets back on the radio.

Julie: "I'm heading SW. Will you pass behind me?"
Other vessel: "No! I'm passing right in front of you and you need to head east NOW to avoid a collision!"
Julie: "OK."

She madly turns the wheel and slams the engine control to full throttle. The spotlight passes over Rachel again and the lights are REALLY close. Mark pops up from down below. Apparently the engine suddenly screaming at full RPM makes an effective alarm clock.

Mark: "What's going on?"
Julie: "I have no idea where we're heading!"
Mark: "Looks like north east."
Julie: "I know that! I mean I don't know if we're going to have a collision!"
Mark: "Looks like we're moving away – can we back off a few hundred RPM?"
Julie: "NO! Not until I know we are well away from this monster!"

Mark realizes that now would be a good time to just sit and be quiet for a few minutes. There's not much for him to do at this point, anyway, as we are obviously moving away from the other vessel and can only see the green starboard light indicating that the danger of collision is past.

Mark: "I'm going to throttle back a bit now. Are you okay?"
Julie: "Can you take the helm for a while? I'm pretty shaken up."
Mark: " Sure, Petal. What happened, anyway?"

Much discussion ensues about the nature of the other vessel, it's "sudden" appearance, it's lack of AIS transponder, the confusion w/ the radar and the lights, and what could have been done to avoid such a close call. This is interspersed with several comments from Julie similar to "Holy crap!", "I'm still shaking", "Wow! That was close!", and "He was just suddenly there!".

We still aren't sure what type of vessel it was (other than "big"). In retrospect, after referencing our light chart, Julie thinks the lights looked like a "trawler less than 50 meters". That sounds like a menhaden boat, but we're still not certain. Three things we are sure of are: we were having too much fun playing with the AIS; there was no AIS signal; and we totally misread the lights until the other vessel was way too close.

We decide we've been given the opportunity to relearn a lesson we've already learned well: instruments are incredibly helpful, but there is no substitute for an awake, alert, and active watch in busy waters.

AIS is cool, but not all vessels have a transponder. Radar is great, but it can be confusing to read in close quarters. A chart plotter is a big help in keeping track of your position but it can't tell you anything about other vessels in the area. We already know all this, but, once again, we are reminded of it with about as much subtlety as a frying pan upside the head. We decide to add a new ship's policy – from now on whenever we know or anticipate being in a "problem area" we will both be on watch. Four eyes are better than two, that's for sure.

Still a bit shaken,