In 1999 we met two sailors at a First Aid for Boaters course in Pittsburgh and hit it off immediately. Within weeks they invited Jack and me to sail from Annapolis to Martha’s Vineyard and back. In retrospect we didn’t know the boat, we didn’t know the sailors’ experience or knowledge, and for that matter they could have been ax murderers. But Stan and Jim were smart, funny and generally up for anything. We said yes without hesitation.
It was our first passage and our first night sailing. We left Annapolis early on a Sunday morning and sailed up the Chesapeake all day, then motored through the C&D canal as the sun was going down. We would do two-man watches; I was paired with Jim, Jack and Stan would take the first watch. As we left the canal Jim and I went down below to try to sleep.
Jack loves to sail. He sails the wind. Sometimes it’s hard to convince him that cruising under sail is a little different in that you have to sail a course in order to get somewhere. But he excitedly took the helm in the dark and tacked upwind back and forth across the river while Stan checked the chart to make sure the way was clear. That’s when we discovered that the Delaware River is littered with unlighted navigational markers. For as many red and green lights as you see on a night passage, there are as many nuns and cans with no lights. Tacking back and forth across the channel was maybe not the prudent course, and there were a few close calls where Jim and I were awakened by Jack shouting “Tacking!” then tossed out of our berths as he quickly turned the wheel to avoid some obstacle or another.
When Jim and I took over a few hours later we learned that you have to sail closer to a marker and shine a light on it to read the number before confirming your position on the chart, which you looked at using a red flashlight because a white light will screw up your night vision.
The Delaware River, before it widens into the bay, is so confusing at night, with lights ashore competing with nav lights, that most sailing directions recommend against making the passage at night. Somehow we made it unscathed and by dawn we were within sight of Cape May. It was an exhilarating — if frightening — first overnight passage.
But we didn’t learn our lesson. On the way back we once again did the Delaware Bay and Delaware River at night. And once again the shore lights competing with the nav lights made the Delaware River confusing and scary. GPS was just becoming widely available and early-adopter Stan had a handheld unit, but all it told you was your latitude and longitude, which you could then plot on the paper chart. If it was correct, which it often wasn’t because of so-called “dithering,” the apparent attempt by the military to make consumer GPS less accurate for national security purposes.
So with no help from GPS, we made our way old school up the river from buoy to buoy, and we succeeded by luck and diligence to get the boat safely back to Annapolis again.
We count that trip as one of the milestones for us in our journey from Gettysburg Street to Escape Velocity. We probably made every mistake in the book but learned from nearly all of them.
I say nearly. Thirteen years later we came up the Delaware River in the dark. But oh, what a difference a decade makes!
We now have a chartplotter, an electronic representation of the classic navigational charts with our position plotted — now accurately — by GPS. But even better is the iPad, with newer, less cluttered and easier to read electronic charts.
We decided to anchor for the night just before the entrance to the canal behind a little island. Our cruising guide recommended sailing to a particular marker, then following a set course to the very narrow passage between two shoals into the anchorage. Here’s what the electronic version of the traditional chart of the area looks like.
This is on the iPad, but imagine peering at it on paper with a red flashlight in the dark and trying to make out where to go, plotting with compass and ruler.
Here’s the iPad Navionics version. The bold yellow line is our track.
I didn’t photograph the chartplotter version because it’s only slightly less confusing than the traditional chart, except that it does plot our position on it. But in tight squeezes like this one? It’s iPad all the way. We easily found the passage, motored to the right place and dropped the hook, all in the dark.
It’s so much better now!