Thursday, November 6, 2008

July 2008: Upriver to DC for bottom painting -- Sunrise at Mason Neck

In July it was time for Catalyst to head upriver to the Washington Sailing Marina (really nice people to deal with) for bottom painting.

I headed out of Mason Neck just at sunrise on a beautiful morning, and as I went out the Occoquan Channel into Occoquan Bay & the Potomac, the sun was rising over Mason Neck Wildlife Refuge.

It was beautiful, serene, and surreal as the sunlight hit the fog swirling around the ground in the trees, and as I passed a channel marker there was an Osprey in its nest.

Friday, October 10, 2008

200 Mile Solo Potomac Cruise, Sept. 29-Oct. 4, 2008

Ever since I got Catalyst, I've been planning on taking a cruise as far down the Potomac River as I can to the Chesapeake -- it's ~87 miles from the Occoquan to where the Potomac meets the bay.

I finally decided that this is the year. I didn't get all the way to the Bay due to some time limits but I did do a 200-mile solo round trip in 7 days, stopping at Aquia Creek (VA), Cobb Island, MD (twice), the St. Marys River (MD), Kinsale (VA), and Cole's Point Plantation (VA).

I'm going to post here some, but not all, of the photos I took during the trip. I have all of the photos uploaded and you can see them (with captions) at my Photobucket album. Remember, you can click on any of the charts or photos in this blog or on the Photobucket album to see a larger version (sometimes even 2 sizes larger) for better resolution/viewing.

This map from the Maryland tide finder site shows the Maryland tide stations. My trip started on the Virginia side across from Indian Head and went all the way past Piney Point nearly to the mouth of the Potomac, stopping at St. Marys on the Maryland side (the large river east of Piney Point that branches off to the north), and to the Yeocomico River south of there on the Virginia side. The river is 2-3 miles wide down there and it's a major body of water to contend with between the winds and tides.

The Occoquan River (our home port) is across the Potomac from the Indian Head tide station. Aquia Creek is on the Virginia side, across from the point between Clifton Beach & Riverside, MD. Cobb Island, MD is the tip of land you see just below the label for the Bushwood Wharf tide station on the Wicomico River. Cole's Plantation/Cole's Point, VA is the point you see on the Va. side just above the label for the Piney Point tide station (over the "oi" in "Point"). Click on the map for a larger view.

You can also see the trip laid out on this Google Earth snapshot, beginning & ending at Mason Neck, and going down as far as St. Marys & Kinsale.

I wanted to do the trip in the Fall to avoid the summer heat and the frequent thunderstorms that can make it dangerous to be on the water late in the day or anchored overnight. And Fall sailing on the Potomac is beautiful, I think that September through October and into November is the best sailing of the year; the water is still relatively warm, the air is cooler and crisp and it is gorgeous. One advantage of being here instead of in New England is that we have almost 8 months of sailing season, from mid- to late March through October and into November. One year I took the last sail of the season on December 13, when it was 63 degrees and sunny.

At this time of year, though, I realized I was running out of daylight for longer cruising days, so I decided to go at the end of September-early October, when I would have 12 hours of daylight, probably reasonably warm days and comfortably cool nights.

It was a great trip and I plan to do it again now that I know exactly what to expect and how many more great places there are to see down there -- I never even got into places like Breton Bay, St. Clements Bay, the Little Wicomico R., Smith Creek, and could easily spend another several days in the places I did visit like St. Marys and the branches of the Yeocomico R. around Kinsale -- not to mention actually venturing into Chesapeake Bay towards places like Smith Island and the Patuxent River/Solomon's Island.

I watched the weather forecasts for 2 weeks trying to anticipate a clear weather window with relatively few storms and high winds. The forecast for Sept. 26-Oct. 4 went from great to horrible a few days before I was planning to leave, then on the 24th it suddenly turned good again as a large storm headed seaward, so I decided to go. The weather on Friday & Saturday turned out to be too bad to start the trip, but Sunday was expected to be better, so I decided to leave on Sunday and start with a 20-mile day to Aquia Creek.

Converting Catalyst from a day sailer into a short-term cruising boat took some time & preparation. There's no water tank and only a single burner alcohol stove that I don't trust because you can't see an alcohol flame burning. So I took our Coleman 2-burner camping stove and I made a plywood base for it to sit on for extra stability. I also loaded 20 gallons of water, about 20 gallons of fuel (2 spare 6.6 gal. tanks and a spare 5 gal. refill), Mountain House freeze dried food for breakfast & dinner (very edible), my French press coffee maker (!) & coffee, bread, peanut butter & jelly, Fig Newtons, some power bars, pretzels, apples, and wine. I also loaded on my Baby Taylor guitar, sleeping bag, and XM Radio receiver.

For safety upgrades, I ordered a safety tether and 2 Wichard padeyes with stainless steel backing plates (1 of which I installed in the cockpit) to connect a jack line (a low-stretch safety line that lies on the deck and runs from the bow to the cockpit: the tether attaches to it and the length is designed so that -- ideally -- you can't go overboard while tethered in); and jack lines from Annapolis Performance Sailing with low stretch Spectra line surrounded by a nylon cover.

To keep another eye on the weather in addition to NOAA weather radio, I brought my Blackberry, which has a rudimentary web browser that I could use to access NOAA and AccuWeather forecasts & updates.

Day 1 - Sunday, Sept. 28
I left the Occoquan just before noon, heading for Aquia Creek, about 20 miles downriver.
It was a warm cloudy day and as I passed Quantico there were some ugly looking clouds building to the west, moving slowly my way.
As it turned out the Virginia shore at Quantico was hidden by the advancing rain, but they were just light showers that lingered for about an hour while I motored... not enough wind today to really sail ... welcome to "sailing" the Potomac.

Lesson learned: even though the depth shows 5 feet outside the channel into Aquia Creek, more than enough for Catalyst (4 foot draft), there is hydrilla growing everywhere and it almost fouled my prop and stopped me... next time, have to swing way south and wide around the first channel marker, probably an extra 3-4 miles.

Once I arrived at Aquia Bay Marina, the afternoon/evening turned gorgeous, sunny, cool and perfect. I slept soundly the first night on Catalyst and was up at sunrise for a long trip (nearly 40 miles) to Cobb Island, MD.
Day 2 - Monday, Sept. 29
Monday morning's sunrise was spectacular; soon after I was on my way.

After motoring for an hour or so out of Aquia Creek and past Maryland Point to where the river turns east-west, I had nice wind and sailed for about an hour or so at top speed (hit 7.7 knots over ground) until I was getting into some rocky areas well out of the channel in 15 knots of wind. I took the sails down and motored for another hour or so.

As soon as I turned the corner heading south towards the Rte. 301 bridge, the wind and tide were behind me -- I unfurled the jib and sailed for another couple of hours at 5 knots + on just the jib, with following seas.

Just past the 301 bridge, I passed this beautiful Canadian cruising boat, Sera, heading upriver towards Washington.

As I got near the Cobb Island bar (sandbar) light, I furled the jib and motored in -- this was new territory and I was concerned it could be tricky. But the incoming channel was fairly wide and well marked (some shoals extend way out from shore) so not a problem.

I lined up the very narrow channel into Neale Sound (see photo below), which separates Cobb I. from the mainland and made it in just fine.

I pulled up at Shymansky's Marina (on the right in the photo) at about 5 pm and relaxed a bit before having some wonderful oyster stew and a crab cake at Capt. John's restaurant. After a long day on the water falling asleep is easy and I faded out while listening to some baseball on my XM satellite radio.

Covered 38 miles today, averaging about 4.3 knots.

Day 3 - Tuesday, Sept. 30

I was up just before sunrise to get started on a fairly long trip to the St. Marys River, about 30 miles downriver on the Maryland side. My friend Stan, who has taken care of our cars for the past 15 years, has his boat down here at his father's house and I've heard many stories of how beautiful it is.

Sunrise was a bit foggy and eerily beautiful as I left the Cobb Island/Neal Sound channel.

I was afraid it might be too foggy to proceed out into the river but the fog burned off fast to a gray morning with low clouds. I had to motor for a while to get far enough out to have a sailing angle downriver that would get me past St. Clements Island (see the famous landmark cross in the photo).

Winds were light so I was motor sailing because I didn't want to get to St. Marys too late -- the marina there closes at 4pm.

As I got about halfway down I headed to the Virginia side to look at Cole's Point/Cole's Plantation (no relation to me), where I thought I might stop on the way back. Then it was off past Piney Point on the Md. side to St. Marys.

The weather was deteriorating --lots of ominous dark clouds coming from the southeast.

The wind started to pick up and the rain began, not too hard, but enough that I put on my rain gear and got my tether onto my PFD/harness in case I needed to tie in. I wasn't real comfortable with what I saw coming...

The wind picked up to 15-20 mph right on my nose and we were heading into about 2-3' waves; we were running with the tide so making decent speed. The wind slowed me down and it got choppier.

Trailing me by several miles, but slowly catching up, I saw a large square-rigged sailing vessel of a very old design with multiple masts. I thought it was the Maryland Dove (see below for more) but on the radio I learned it was the Progress, another replica of a colonial sailing ship that does educational and outreach programs in the Chesapeake area. At least there was another decent sized boat around if things got worse. We both chugged downriver at 5-6 kts though I never got close enough to them for a good photo.

At that point I had 1/2 a tank of fuel left (6.6 gallon tank), but I had brought 2 spare full 6.6. gallon tanks that I lashed in front of the mast and on the foredeck, to give me some more range & fuel options. I decided to change to a full tank before things got rougher, figuring I did not want to go forward if that was the case. I had not yet put my jack lines down, which I should have, so I couldn't tie into that line when going forward.

The tank change was easy & I motored through the rain & wind into the St. Marys.

It was much calmer in the river, with a sprinkle now & then and some wind, so I motored & sailed some into the river, up towards St. Marys City (Maryland's first capital) and St. Marys College.

At St. Marys City they have a full-scale replica of the Maryland Dove, one of two ships that carried the original colonists to St. Marys City in 1634. The current Dove is used as a traveling educational exhibit and a reminder of Maryland's historic past. Their web site had said the Dove was at St. Marys so I counted on seeing her.

After cruising by St. Marys City I headed back down and into St. Inigoes Creek, a beautiful place with lots of room to anchor. There were several cruising trawlers anchored there escaping the bad weather -- I'd heard them on the radio coordinating/planning.

Finally I headed over to Carthagena Creek, home of St. Marys Yachting Center (below). Tucked just behind a little point (Dennis Point), it's a very sheltered, lovely location, seeming far removed from the more rousing weather out on the Potomac.

It was great to end a long day with a shower and a glass of wine with my freeze dried Oriental chicken & Vegetables...

Once the sun went down at 7 pm, the bugs came out. The mosquito nets I got with lead weights around the perimeter did a great job of covering the front hatch and the main companionway with all the hatch boards removed, keeping the cabin bug-free and well ventilated. So I couldn't really enjoy the evening sitting in the cockpit but the cabin was just fine. I had some Sylvania LED Dot-It lights that I prefer to the cabin's incandescent bulbs (plus the LEDs don't use up precious battery power since Catalyst has only 1 battery).

After listening to XM's Bluesville channel & playing along w/ my Baby Taylor for a while, I fell asleep.

Day 4 - Weds., October 1
I didn't have too far to go today and there was no wind to speak of (a light breeze on Carthagena Creek), so I was in no hurry to leave. About 9 am I headed out - there was a light breeze on the St. Marys and a waterman passed me by on his way toward St. Georges Island. The Potomac was like glass.

It was heading up to the low 70s and was sunny so I put up the bimini for some sun shade & lazily motored across the river. I decided I didn't have enough time to explore farther down the Potomac; I drifted mid-river while I catalogued the photos I'd taken so far and had lunch, and then motored into the channel into the Yeocomico River, one of the most beautiful in Virginia.

I was headed to Kinsale Harbor Marina, on the middle branch, but also wanted to explore the south branch, which has a couple of coves that are reported to be great anchorages. Unfortunately, as I was making my way in I saw dark clouds building again... there is always the anxiety of coming into a new dock that's unfamiliar and the heart-attack potential for various types of calamity depending on wind, tide, the outboard dying perhaps, etc. At least at home, I'm always coming into a slip that I've set up with various lines to make it as easy as I can to dock. At a transient marina, the slips rarely have lines set up already, so coming in solo can be a challenge, trying to get the boat in and rig at least 2-3 lines to hold her steady enough to avoid hitting something while you figure out how to permanently tie up.

So ... I didn't want to arrive at Kinsale in a storm, or when I was too tired.

As I got into the Yeocomico and headed up the south branch, the darkest clouds were dead ahead and I decided that --since it would take me at least 90 mins. to 2 hours to get up there and back, that with the weather as it was I would have to pass on that for now and see about getting into Kinsale.

As I headed up the Middle Yeocomico I saw Kinsale Harbor, tucked into a little cove.

The wind on the river was picking up and I was pretty nervous. They'd said to "take any slip" but I doubted I could get Catalyst (which weighs ~5,600 pounds) into a slip and tied up to mooring pilings in that wind without help, unless the slip was perfectly oriented.

As I came in, I decided to just tie up to their "T" dock, which was much easier, and we'd sort it out later. The cove was much calmer than the main branch of the river and I slowly motored in (at about 1.0 knot ... "slow is pro"), letting the wind & tide work so I could just nudge the "T" and step off with a bow & stern line. The folks at Kinsale said it was fine to just stay on the "T" which was a relief (next to a larger sailboat whose mast had clearly been sheared off --- wonder what happened there!?!?), .

While I was there I took a look at the 1904 Chesapeake Bay Skipjack, "Virginia W" that they have ... she needs restoration but is an example of a wooden sailing boat from another time when there were hundreds of them working the river and bay harvesting clams & oysters.

I turned around and saw a huge, scary looking thunderhead just a mile or 2 away, heading mostly east --- I realized if it hit the marina that Catalyst wasn't nearly tied up or locked down to take a violent storm, so I hurried back and got things put away and another couple of fenders out. The storm passed by, missing the marina and heading out over the river.

In its wake it left a beautiful sunset. A large cruising yacht had motored into the channel leading to the marina and dropped anchor. I later met Kent, the owner, who said they'd been chased off the river by the nasty storm. He & his wife were sailing Destiny, their Bristol 45.5, as their "retirement boat" from their home in Marblehead, MA, to the Caribbean (Tortola) via Norfolk for the winter.

Today covered about 17 miles.

Day 5 - Thursday, October 2
Small craft advisories were predicted with winds 15 mph gusting to 20 mph. This didn't worry me since I've sailed Catalyst solo in winds gusting up to 25-30, although at that point it goes from being fun to definitely being "work." I reefed the main sail at the dock, left Kinsale at 8 am and as soon as I was far enough out into the river to have a clear sailing line upriver, I hoisted sail. The wind was about 15 mph and the tide was against me ... Catalyst leaned right into it and took off, nearly burying the lee rail, running flat out at about 5.4 knots (the tide was ~1.4 kts. against us) with just a touch of weather helm on the tiller. It is great to see her perform like that, handling such conditions and yet steerable with a light touch on the tiller and well balanced. Bill Shaw knew what he was doing when he designed the Pearson 26 as one of the first combination cruiser-racers: Catalyst is a fairly fast boat that also has the basics of 70s-era cruising/comfort attributes. For the cruising side, a little more comfort would be nice, but for a few days or a week, it's a livable place.

For about an hour I raced upriver, trying to get a better pointing angle but realizing that the best I could do was head up towards Piney Point, where I would have to tack and either hope I'd have an angle to sail, or motor from there around the next point. I dropped the sails at about 9:30 am and started to motor towards and around Ragged Point (Cole's Plantation).

As I headed that way, the wind seemed to really pick up, and so did the waves. The wind & waves were both coming at me, and my speed dropped from about 4.5 kts under full power to less than 3 knots, with the Merc 15hp outboard running flat out. At this point I was surfing 3-4' waves and was kind of enjoying it as long as the outboard didn't start cavitating if/when the propeller came out of the water as we bounced from one wave to the next. The strength and integrity of Catalyst's construction was obvious in these conditions. She was pounding through the waves without any "oilcanning" (hull flexing), or even the slightest hint of any structural stress at all. My concern was that if I was only making 2.8-3 kts, I might not make it to Cobb Island before dark, and I probably would have to change fuel tanks while pounding through rough seas.

No sooner did I think that then I heard the first cavitation as the outboard prop came out of the water and spun up to nearly over revved RPMs .... RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR ... I quickly throttled back, at which point the wind & waves pushed Catalyst sideways and we were rolling 25 degrees or so back & forth while I goosed the throttle & kept one hand on the tiller trying to get enough grip with the prop to go forward and steer into the wind & waves.

Finally made it, and we began moving forward, this time at about 1.8-2 kts. Not good. Wind dead on the nose, can't really even sail with a bit of the jib unfurled because I'd have to point too far down and end up tacking every few minutes. I tried to sail but it was useless to do it on any course that would do me any good making forward progress: I probably could have sailed back to Kinsale (where I left 2 1/2 hours ago) in about 45 minutes, though!

I tried motoring at an angle to the waves but after about 500 yards, that, too, didn't work and the outboard was over reving again with the prop coming out of the water. I ran through my options and realized that it was only 11 am, I'd made about 9 miles of the 30 I needed to cover, and I was really getting tired. Plus, the tide was going to turn in 30 minutes and would then be opposing the wind, so the waves were going to get even bigger.

And with the shallow depth and narrow width of the Potomac, the waves were steep -- the waves were very close together, leading to constantly bucking from wave to wave with no real trough to go through between one wave and the next.

I was just going to have to turn around and duck into Cole's Plantation Marina for the night... any other option was too dangerous.

I don't have any photos of this sequence of the trip because I had all 3 hands full just trying to keep the boat under control. I wouldn't say it was scary or dangerous -- it had the potential to become a dangerous situation but it was extremely tiring. I did wonder once or twice whether I was going to have to call TowBoatUS and get towed in (I had upgraded my towing policy to "Unlimited" before the trip just in case).

I radioed Cole's Plantation Marina and they had room, so by noon I had motored into the lee of Ragged Point (much calmer) and was tied up at the marina (even calmer still -- you could look out onto the river and barely tell that the wind was screaming out there and there were 4-foot waves). They were extremely nice at the marina.

As I was pulling into the channel, I saw Destiny heading this way and they, too, called by radio to see about stopping at the marina. I told Kent that I didn't feel so bad about giving up trying to get upriver when I saw Destiny (45' long vs. Catalyst's 26', and 45,000 lbs. vs. 5,600 lbs.) pull in, too. He said they could have sailed upriver (they can point higher into the wind than Catalyst and power through waves we can't) but it would have been a long, uncomfortable day, and laughed, saying "besides ... gentlemen don't sail upwind in 25 knots or more unless they have to...." He said his wind instruments showed a steady 19-20 mph wind with frequent gusts to 25+. I have no wind instruments on Catalyst but I'm getting good at guessing and that was right about what I guessed. Looking at these photos (which are on the downwind side of Cole's Point) you'd never guess that in the middle of the river the wind is blowing hard (25+) and the waves are jumping.

I spent part of the afternoon talking a bit to Kent about Destiny and their cruising. He recognized Catalyst as a Pearson 26 and told me about his hair-raising trip on a Pearson 26 in 1974 with his then 3-month old son through the Cape Cod Canal into Buzzards Bay, during which he said his wife thought they were going to die (another day with lots of wind, tide, waves). He agreed that the P26s are great boats and can take a lot more than a day like this if not for the limitation of keeping that outboard prop in the water.

Today covered ~15 miles in about 4 1/2 hours (only about 6 linear miles upriver).

Day 6 - Friday, October 3
Friday was uneventful, just a beautiful day of sailing. I motored out of Cole's Plantation Marina at about 8:00 am and saw Destiny's sails just disappearing on the horizon (they had left a 7 am to head as far up towards Washington, DC as they could that day). Once I cleared the Ragged Point light, I raised the sails and had a nice day, sailing for about 6 hours in one long reach up to St. Clements Island, then a series of tacks back & forth across the river towards Cobb Island.

After about a half dozen tacks I decided to motor the rest of the way in, since tomorrow I have the longest day of the trip in front of me --- 50 miles from Cobb Island home. I pulled into Shymansky's at about 4 pm, had a shower and then walked to Capt. Johns for another dose of the great oyster stew and a crab cake.

Throughout the trip, it was remarkable how many fish showed up on my depth sounder/fishfinder once I got past the Port Tobacco River... at times the screen was filled with fish, including some big ones.
Today covered about 22 miles (15 linear miles upriver).

Day 7 - Saturday, October 4

Saturday I knew that I had the longest day of the trip (50 miles) from Cobb Island to Mason Neck, so I was off at sunrise (7 a.m.). I didn't sleep well Friday night because the wind really came up between midnight and 2 a.m. and was pushing the boat up against the T dock, causing all kinds of noises from the rub rail rubbing on the pilings -- the fenders wouldn't sit right and I didn't have a fender board with me (I do now, I made one last week)... so I was up at 2:30 am, 3:30 am and 4:30 am to adjust lines and check things.

It was a beautiful day, about 70 degrees & sunny, with a moderate breeze so that I was able to motor sail for most of the morning and part of the afternoon. I was running against the tide for the entire trip because as I moved upriver, so did the tide, so I never caught up with it --- 10 hours 30 minutes or so of steady motoring & motor sailing at about 5.3-5.5 kts or so. I used the auto-tiller quite a bit though, as usual, with the tide pushing the bow and the wind pushing the boat, it didn't hold a steady course that well so we did a long, swinging "S" pattern... good enough for when I wanted some periods of relief from the tiller. It's an imperfect device but it sure comes in handy many times.

In the photo above we're coming up on Quantico, about 17 miles south of home port, 33 miles from Cobb Island. I thought about ducking into Mattawoman Creek, 7 miles across the river from our dock, and anchoring for the night, but decided not to. I was tired though I was going to miss being on Catalyst and the relaxing rhythm of sleeping on the boat (most nights). But there was a lot of power boat traffic, too many wakes to deal with, and too many boats for my taste already in Mattawoman for me to want to drop the hook there -- I enjoyed the solitude of the cruise where I saw very few other boats on most days, and didn't want to spend the last night surrounded by a floating weekend party.

So I continued on and tied up at our dock at just about 5:15 pm. I took my time, settled in, packed things up, and had a beer to celebrate a 200-mile solo round trip. It was a great week and only days later, it feels like it's both fresh, and yet years away as the day-to-day annoyances of life back in the "real world" get dealt with. With the right boat, I could see spending more time away...

Today -- the final day of the trip -- covered 50 miles in ~10 hrs. 30 mins.

Sailing "Catalyst"

This blog documents the 'adventures' of sailing Catalyst, my 1976 Pearson 26 sailboat. I'm the third owner and Catalyst has spent her entire life in and around Chesapeake Bay. Her first owner kept her in/near Annapolis. My friend Jon's family owned her from about 1982-2003, keeping her at Solomon's Island for several years, and then in Washington, DC and Mason Neck, VA. Since 1993 or so Catalyst has lived on the Occoquan at Mason Neck, VA.

I bought Catalyst in February 2003. I was going to change the name but 3 days after the closing on my slip purchase in September 2003, Hurricane/Tropical Storm Isabelle came roaring through, causing $300,000 damage to the docks. Thanks to my 2 days of work tying Catalyst up in a spider web of lines, she came through without a scratch. The name suddenly seemed right and the name stayed.