Like all of us—in life, sometimes I just feel stuck.
However, before you think, Uh oh, Dan’s depressed, hear me out. While the word “stuck” has a general negative connotation in the parlance of our times, it’s undeserved as a blanket sentiment. “Stuck” can be good when you consider some of its antonyms: unmoored, untethered, insecure, precarious, etc.
Aboard Hazel James, Rhett and I are often trying to get ourselves stuck. Stuck means that we can shut our eyes, that we can rest, that we can sleep—not the 20 to 30 minute catnap sleeps of a passage, but real sleep, when we can dream and our brains can reset.
A boat’s anchor is often colloquially called its “hook.” To get ourselves purposely stuck, Rhett and I have developed a reliable anchoring procedure. One that generally results in a good hook set with a minimal amount of shipboard discord between the captain and crew. The final steps in the procedure—after we have selected the general location where we want to anchor, noted the time of day we will anchor and how that time fits within the constant ebbs and floods of the tide, approached and surveyed the area visibly and with Hazel’s depth-finding sonar, determined the amount of anchor chain we will use (adjusting for the tides and weather), and dropped anchor and played-out the appropriate length of anchor chain—is to allow the anchor to set in the bottom and then test it to make sure we are truly stuck.
The “set” is key as Hazel’s anchor—which is conservatively sized for her 14,000 pounds of boat and gear—weighs 33 pounds. To put that in context, if Hazel weighed as much as a 150 pound human, her anchor would be a mere 6 ounces. What gives an anchor its power, is its flukes—its “fins”—and allowing those flukes to dig into a favorable and shallow bottom. After I’ve lowered the anchor to the bottom and laid out the appropriate amount of chain, Rhett—back in the cockpit at the helm—puts Hazel’s diesel engine (nicknamed “Ox“) in dead-slow reverse for one minute. This drags the anchor ever so slowly across the bottom and with any luck, the anchor pierces the seafloor and digs in. Next, Rhett gradually gives Ox more power in reverse to test our hook set. As she does this, we’re both finding and watching range marks on the shore—observing two fixed and apparently overlapping landmarks off Hazel’s port or starboard beam, that are separated by some distance, one near and one far. If the two landmarks appear to change relative position, we’re dragging anchor and need to find better bottom. If the two landmarks don’t change position then we’ve got a good set. Once Rhett has accelerated Ox to one-half or two-thirds astern propulsion without our range marks changing relative position, we’re done and we breathe a sigh of relief. At that point Ox is putting as much pressure on the anchor as a good 35 knot blow would, and we can rest assured we probably won’t move regardless of the overnight weather.
The Chesapeake Bay—with its protected coves, shallow water, and muddy, silty bottom—has turned out to be ideal for getting ourselves purposely stuck.
While extolling the virtues and methods for getting deliberately stuck, it’s only fair to acknowledge that—as in real life—there’s the “other” kind of stuck, the “stuck” that you didn’t want to have happen.
It’s been said that there are two types of sailors: those who have run aground and those who haven’t yet run aground. While that’s a pithy statement, one that might look good on one of those artificially weathered “Life’s a Beach” or “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere” wall hangings made in China, I’ve always thought the aphorism was an oversimplification because—up until yesterday—we weren’t either of those types of sailors, we had been in a kind of purgatory…an in-between place.
What I mean is that we had “bumped the bottom” before with Hazel but had never firmly run aground. In getting Hazel into “skinny” water, just slightly shallower than her five-foot draft—for an instant we’ve been slowed by the friction of the bottom. There were two good things about our state of purgatory. First, we had always been able to either keep moving through the shallow area or pivot immediately and head back to the deeper water from whence we had come. Second, when we had bumped, it was on soft bottom—sand, silt or mud—and not hard rock or coral. Fortunately, in our cruising this summer in Maine—the land of hard rock ledges—we never bumped. In one tiny harbor in Casco Bay, we saw one boat bump hard, and the dreaded crunch was clearly audible several hundred feet away as the boat visibly shuddered to a stop.
Unlike passing through religious purgatory (by cleansing the soul and entering the kingdom of heaven), passing through our only-two-types-of-sailor purgatory was precipitated by the captain getting just a little too big for his breeches and misinterpreting some rather vague directions from a marina attendant. I believe that the captain’s statement to the crew, “No worries—we’ll get in there and figure it out.” was the fateful utterance.
Our destination was the Tilghman Island Marina in Knapp’s Narrows on Tilghman Island on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Approaching the marina, our electronic chart looked like this with our destination being the upward pointing red chevron.
We were approaching from the north (the top of the chart) and, going in, knew it was going to be skinny. Also, we were riding an ebbing tide and our ETA coincided with dead low tide (the shallowest water of the day). The day before, the first-mate had made arrangements via phone for a berth for Hazel for a couple nights in the marina. The instructions from the marina staff were to favor the south side of the channel during the final approach and then, “Moor your boat on the long dock with the sign on it.” The marina staff also added that since it was off season, they would likely not be around when we arrived for last-minute communications or clarifications.
About a half hour out from the marina (and a half hour from low tide), we zoomed in in our electronic charts and got out the magnifying glass for our paper charts to study the approach and marina basin in detail. This is what we saw:
We would approach in the channel from the west (the left of the chart) and shortly after the red number 4 channel marker find the marina on starboard (to the right, circled in green above).
One helpful aspect of electronic charts is that photographs of especially tricky areas of navigation can be embedded. The marina had such a photograph and we studied it carefully:
The view in the photo was from the north looking south so in that view, we’d be approaching from right to left. While we didn’t see an obvious “long dock” with other boats moored to it in the photograph, we figured we’d get out of the channel and get inside, into the marina basin, and figure it out.
So with that plan, we started our approach keeping the green channel markers to port (left) and reds to starboard—following the red-right-returning rule (keep the red buoys and markers to the right when returning into a channel). Rhett was at the helm (steering and controlling Hazel’s throttle and speed) and I was on the binoculars and charts. The helmsman (or, in this case, helmsperson) masterfully kept Hazel’s starboard beam a few yards from the red channel markers thus favoring the south side of the channel. Hazel draws five feet and we saw her sonar register shallower and shallower water—10 feet, 9.5 feet, down to minimum of 7.2 feet—”skinny” but OK, a little more than two feet of water under the keel. Once we were through the reported shallowest part of the channel and the sonar was back up to 10-12 feet of water, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. At that point I took the “con” (the conduct of the ship) and compensated for the following tide that was pushing us in the channel and swung Hazel’s bow to starboard and into the fateful marina basin (see green arrows in image above).
While I’d like to say that it was at that point that things started to go wrong. In retrospect, when things actually started to go wrong when I as the captain had said an hour before, “…we’ll get in there and figure it out.” As we entered the basin our problems became evident. Hazel’s sonar’s shallow water alarm was set to seven feet and as we passed the threshold of the basin—the point of commitment—it sounded. Concerning, but not the end of the world, I thought, we still have two feet. More concerning was that there was no obvious “long dock.” Yes, we had seen a sign on our way into the basin and the marina attendant said that the long dock had a sign on it, but it was a “Welcome to the Marina” sign, and on the outside of the basin, in the channel. I heard a nervous voice say, “RHETT, I need a plan here!” and then realized it was my voice (so much for calm, cool and collected leadership!). In the next instant, the readout showed 5.5 feet, then 4.7 feet, then we lurched to stop. We were aground (see red “X” on the image above).
In the short term I knew that time was not our friend. The longer we were on the bottom, the more we’d sink into the mud. I put Hazel’s rudder hard over to port and gunned Ox (the engine) and managed to swing Hazel 180 degrees so at least we were were pointed in the right direction, out of the basin. It was at that point that the oddly insouciant marina manager showed up. He yelled out in a friendly voice, “Can I help you?” An odd question as I thought our predicament was rather obvious. I managed a plaintive reply, “We draw five feet and we’re on the bottom! Where should we go?” Despite there being a couple other unoccupied sailboats in the basin, he responded with a cheerful but extended monologue about it being low tide and that a reported five-foot draft in a cruising boat is generally more than five feet because as boats become laden with gear they float lower in the water and, that over years of use, their hulls absorb water causing them to float even lower. His monologue seemed like an eternity when all Rhett and I wanted to do was try to break free of the bottom as soon as possible. As I listened, I was considering rudely cutting him off but then thought that if we were stuck badly, we may end up depending on him to haul us off and thus needed him on our side of the problem. He concluded by saying that the proper place for transient sailboats like us was on the outside of the basin, in the channel and he wasn’t sure why we didn’t get clearer directions (or, I think by insinuation, that we didn’t follow the directions we were given).
As he left us to our devices, aground in the marina basin, I gave Ox some throttle and Hazel moved an inch or two forward then firmly stopped. While it was good news that we had been able to spin her and were pointing out of the basin, the not so good news is that in spinning her I had apparently worked her into water that was a couple inches shallower (every inch matters in a situation like this). In addition, in listening to the marina manager’s extended dance-mix of an explanation, we had burned any opportunity to break free quickly . After a couple more attempts it was clear that we were hard aground.
While time had not been our friend in the short term, we were now past dead low and the tide was starting to flood. With a little patience the water would rise and “time” would transition from foe to friend. Also to the good, the wind was light and there was no chop in the basin and we weren’t at immediate risk of hitting other boats. I saw an opportunity to pivot Hazel’s bow to starboard by 10 feet or so and, with some flexibility and athleticism, Rhett could step off Hazel’s pulpit on the bow and onto one of the marina’s inside docks and secure a few lines from Hazel to the dock to help us kedge Hazel free or, at the very least, secure her if she got out of control.
Eventually, after half an hour of waiting and patience, and a combination of lines and winches and diesel-powered thrust by Ox, Hazel inched forward and broke free of the mud. With Rhett on the dock and me at the helm, Hazel and I exited that fateful basin, made a sharp starboard turn and we secured the good old girl outside of the basin (blue arrow and “X” above).
We exhaled and enjoyed a second sigh of relief for the day. However, unlike the first—premature—sigh, this one was genuine and persistent. We had simultaneously gotten ourselves unstuck and transited our sailor’s purgatory to the “other type of sailor,” the sailor who had run aground.
While I’ve been trying to make more frequent micro-posts to our satellite tracker, it felt good to sit down here and create an honest-to-goodness blog post. Our recent travels have been dizzying from Salem, Cohasset, the Cape Cod Canal, and New Bedford in Massachusetts; to Rhode Island with ports of call in Newport and Block Island; then to New York and Sag Harbor and New York City; down the Jersey Shore to Cape May and up the Delaware Bay and River to the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal into the Chesapeake Bay.
Speaking of dizzying, we are now sailing south in the lower Chesapeake Bay (37 degrees, 13 minutes North; 076 degrees, 03 minutes West for lat-lon junkies). I’m snug in Hazel’s saloon typing this with the last of our cellular connection before we head offshore, while Rhett has the con (conduct of the ship) and is sailing Hazel in 20 knots of wind doing great! A favorable weather window appears to be opening for us so we’ve altered our plans and rather than spend the night in a marina near Norfolk VA. We’re going to push on and transit the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and continue out into the Atlantic, bound for Diamond Shoals off of Cape Hatteras. It’s 120 nautical miles from the Bay Bridge Tunnel to Diamond Shoals and with any luck we will the infamous shoals the afternoon or evening of Monday, October 1010/10. You can track our progress here, along with any micro-posts I have time to make.
Fair winds and following seas!
4 thoughts on “Stuck”
Wish we could’ve met up! We live right on the western side of Kent Island (in the Cape St. Clair area of Annapolis). Please do let me know the next time you’re out towards the Chesapeake again.
Saad, yes, too bad. The timing was rough with all the back-to-back boat show traffic. Will definitely let you know when next in the area. Happy holidays!
Hi Dan. Youâve been in pompano for a while, and no missive. Great sail south?
Dana and I are returning to Sunkissed (in the DR) soon so we probably wont be seeing you or meeting Rhet â¹. But always enjoying your letters.
Pat, Thanks for the note and just the time to be getting out of AK I suppose?
Yes, long delay between “missives.” My memoir manuscript Heeling is Healing has been occupying the majority of my writing time. Also doing a lot of work on Hazel.
Rhett and I are planning to depart S FL shortly after Christmas and head for Eleuthera and then the Virgins and then further south in the Caribbean.
We hope to hop home in the spring through the DR so hope to see you there! Let us know if you fly through ft Lauderdale on your way to the DR.