It’s really difficult for me to describe how much FUN we had cruising the east coast of the USA. Up to this point we had done very little traveling on the east coast even by land, much less by water. Each region of the U.S. is so distinct and the eastern U.S. has so much history that I feel I really have just learned my U.S. history and geography for the first time. There is no better way to learn geography than by traveling (remember how hard it was to remember where all of those tiny New England states were?) and if you travel by boat you get to sleep in your own bed every night! Sailing the North Atlantic and eastern bays, rivers and sounds presented new challenges for Rutea with shoals, ledges, canals, tidal ranges and currents. As usual in our cruising life, we learned something new every day.
The other delightful part of sailing on the east coast is the number of actual sail boats out sailing! There are thousands of sailboats on moorings in coves, bays and rivers - cruising boats, schooners, sloops, and many, many beautiful classic wooden boats! It almost felt reverential to be among classic Alden- or Sparkman-Stephens-designed wooden boats kept in pristine condition much less the magnificent Hinkley’s and Morris’s. Beautiful craftsmanship and seaworthiness exude from these ships.
After spending a month doing much needed boat projects, exploring the civil war sites and beaches around Southport, N.C. and eating plenty of shrimp and crab cakes we were ready to head north around Cape Hatteras to Chesapeake Bay. Cape Hatteras is similar in reputation to Point Conception in California, a point of land to be respected, notorious for storms and ships lost at sea and a demarcation point for weather patterns on the coast. Needless to say, we chose our weather window carefully and sailed north with the current of the Gulf Stream although from time to time strange little Gulf Stream eddys would be against us! It felt like another landmark milestone to anchor off of Fort Monroe at Comfort Point in Chesapeake Bay where we spent an old fashioned, USA fourth of July.
One could spend a lifetime just exploring the Chesapeake! In 1607 Captain John Smith charted over 3,000 miles in the bay alone mapping all of the nooks, crannies, coves and rivers. We followed much of this waterway trail as we day hopped from Norfolk to Annapolis and Annapolis to the northern end of the bay where we transited the C&D Canal over to Delaware Bay. Summer homes and small villages dot the shoreline. Old screw-top lighthouses mark shoals and shallows. Ospreys give us the eagle eye as we pass their nests and circle in the sky waiting to swoop and grab an unsuspecting perch.
This is not to say, however, that all sailing in the Chesapeake is smooth! The Bay is full of crab pots to dodge and freighters to avoid. Summer squalls with lightning and thunder can crop up in the afternoons and strike with sudden intensity. The wind can drop to nothing for days or of course, be on the nose. And then there are those man-eating-black-flies. As always, one must be prepared and it is particularly important to prepare with fly swatters on board in this part of the world!
The Delaware Bay is a whole ‘nother story! Very shallow, except for the shipping channel, it has a constant parade of huge freighters and tugs towing barges throwing off surfable wakes towards the shallows. The current races with the tides and if your transit is mistimed with the tide (as part of it will be because the transit is longer than six hours) the going can be very, very slow. The banks are lined with industry like nuclear power plants and oil refineries and the only protected anchorage is up a winding, narrow, shallow river- the Salem River- where once you arrive you are greeting by more barges, loading docks and a very teeny turning basin!
If you have a shallow draft boat- like 4ft.- and a short mast, say under 35 feet, you can take the inland waterway up the New Jersey coast all of the way to Sandy Hook. If you don’t, then you must sail up the Atlantic off shore of the New Jersey coast. Now this is interesting because even if you are five miles off of the coast, you are still only in 65 feet of water! We were surprised at the amount of traffic on our overnight passage from Cape May, New Jersey up to Sandy Hook. We passed freighters, barges and tugs, a large fleet of small sloops from the Naval Academy returning from a regatta, fishing boats and several fish farms. The lights of Atlantic City were bright for miles and there were miles and miles of white sand beaches. It never really seemed to get dark. Sandy Hook is a big, wide bay, known for several tragedies, but it does afford some protection for anchoring, a haven for clamming and a staging point for New York City!
The East River is not really a river at all but a 14 mile long tidal strait that begins in New York Harbor and ends just past Throg’s Neck at Long Island Sound. Beginning at the Island of Manhattan there are eight bridges, numerous islands and many, many fascinating landmarks. Traffic on the river is intense with ferries and helicopters crisscrossing commuters back and forth to the unending office space in Manhattan. The shore is lined with marinas and maritime museums, private yachts and small live aboard boats. The United Nations Headquarters fronts the river and whenever it is in session, all traffic on the river is suspended! We could see the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Tower, Citi Field, La Guardia Airport and the Billie Jean Tennis complex where the U.S. Open is held! It was hard not to stop but the East River spit us out into Long Island Sound where we carried on, knowing we would be back in September when we could spend some time.
Long Island Sound introduced us to a whole new world. Referred to by some as the Gold Coast we passed mansion after mansion, huge estate after estate (including the Gugenheim Estate complete with three castles) with opulent homes and manicured grounds. I don’t think I have ever seen such a concentration of money, old money- money from early American industry like steel and railroads and cars and mining and oil spread out over such a huge area. It was really astounding and a bit overwhelming. Of course we had learned about it in school but I had never SEEN it.
At the east end of Long Island Sound it narrows and is dotted with islands. To get into Block Island Sound you need to time the tide and current, once again, as on the ebb tide all of Long Island Sound is trying to get out to sea through these passes and on the flood tide, the entire Atlantic Ocean is trying to enter! Our last anchorage in L.I. Sound was off of Fisher’s Island so we could time our departure through ‘the race’ for the fair tide in the morning. We exited the Sound through the Watch Hill Pass (the foggiest place in L.I. Sound) and headed through Block Island Sound towards Cape Cod. I think we’re in Connecticut now . . .
Surrounding Cape Cod is another huge shoal and sailors used to have to sail about a hundred extra miles out to sea, in the Northern Atlantic, to get around it. After many ships were lost in nasty winter storms the idea of a canal was conceived but it took almost 300 years to complete it! Fortunately for us, the canal is now 17 miles long, 480 feet wide and 30 feet deep. It cuts off many sea miles and provides a protected place to transit from Buzzard’s Bay into Cape Cod Bay. We knew of course, that we would again have to time the current but what we didn’t anticipate having to dodge were the fishing lures cast off from the banks by shoulder to shoulder fishermen competing in some kind of fishing tournament! Across Cape Cod Bay, past Boston we sailed in to Gloucester. It’s now July 24 and we only have 150 miles to go to Castine but the weather is calling for northerlies.
Gloucester is one of the few remaining real fishing ports in Massachusetts. Gorton’s of Gloucester (now Japanese owned) has processed seafood since 1849 and fishing boats offload at its docks both day and night. The harbor bustles with commercial traffic as well as pleasure craft. Craft breweries line the streets and there are many artists and galleries. We are captivated by the charm and energy of the town. Quaint houses with beautiful gardens hang on the hillsides, people are friendly and casual but also serious in their understanding of how difficult it is to make a living from the Sea. The Man At The Wheel Memorial honors fishermen everywhere and The Fisherman’s Wives Memorial honors the wives of fishermen everywhere. The north wind blows for three more days.