Hazel was Pooped (episode I of a mini series)

The first thing you need to know is that the title is literal. It’s not some cute figure-of-speech that Hazel James was tired. It’s not some sophomoric, scatalogical humor that, like Jonah, Hazel was swallowed whole—but, unlike Jonah, she exited via the tail end of the leviathan. I mean that Hazel was nautically pooped. The definition comes from the Old French poupe meaning the stern or aftermost deck of a ship (as in the poop deck).

The story starts in early October in the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. Rhett and I had been comparing the calendar to our southward progress and were concerned we were falling behind our general outline for the voyage. When we embarked in early June from South Florida, our plan was to sail the 1,400 or so nautical miles to Maine in a handful of longer passages, then spend a month in Maine and hop our way south in a series of daysails and short passages, arriving home in late October. While that was the plan, we were enchanted and overwhelmed by Maine and spent nearly two months exploring The Pine Tree State. Thus, as we talked through our options in early October in the northern Chesapeake, we considered continuing our “leisurely” southward sailing and extending the voyage into November or December, or accelerate our progress south to be home in late October.

While that seems like a clear cut choice, our cruising philosophy is to put sailing first and the calendar second. We sail whenever possible and with favorable winds, and if the wind isn’t favorable, wait it out and enjoy wherever we happen to be at the time. Others, who I won’t judge, rely a lot more on motoring if the wind is not 100% ideal. The additional fact that we were in the thick of hurricane season complicated our day to day sailing decisions; we also needed to keep an eye on the sky for tropical disturbances. After a bit of discussion, our decision was to continue hopping south, but also hunt for weather windows that would give us the opportunity to make multi-day passages, recognizing that those windows are not guaranteed to materialize.

On Saturday, October 9th, after enjoying the eagles of Tilghman Island we sailed 53 nautical miles to the much more isolated Smith Island. Although both have “Island” in their names, on the map Tilghman Island looks like a peninsula and is connected to the mainland of the Eastern Shore of Maryland via a drawbridge. On the other hand, Smith Island is a true island—accessible only by boat.

The sail from Tilghman Island (red dot to the north) to Smith Island (checkered flag).
The drawbridge connecting Tilghman Island to the mainland of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

After we exited the Tilghman Island channel and rounded a fish trap, we spent the day with a fresh easterly breeze on a port-tack beam reach clicking off the miles toward Smith Island. When we departed Tilghman Island in the morning, our plan was to anchor in the Chesapeake, on the lee side of Smith Island for the night. While that would offer us an easy in and out, with minimal time and distance navigating shallow water, Smith Island was low-lying and it would offer limited protection from the weather. While that was the plan, throughout the day it became clear that wind was going to howl that night and we’d be a lot more comfortable tucked into a safe harbor for the night. With that in mind, I started studying the charts and reading our guide book carefully to understand the approach-channel to the fishing village of Ewell on Smith Island. The good news is that there was a town dock in Ewell that we could tie up to for the night for $20 and, once there, we could (hopefully) get a restaurant dinner and a good night’s sleep. The not so good news is that the channel to Ewell was narrow and shallow with a tricky hard turn to starboard halfway in.

Fish trap off Tilghman Island.

Interestingly, about five miles from Smith Island and Ewell, we passed the grounded and rusting hulk of American Mariner, the US Navy’s only active live-fire target ship in the Chesapeake Bay. According to the description in our electronic charts, “Periodically the Navy will activate a restricted zone and direct vessels to immediately vacate the area in preparation for live fire exercises.” Even from a distance, it was clear that this ship had been on the receiving end of some serious and accurate target practice.

American Mariner…shot in two!

Late afternoon, we made landfall at Smith Island. Daylight was fading and we quickly doused Hazel’s sails and fired up her diesel engine and started into the 1 1/2 mile channel to Ewell. We wanted both as much daylight and as much “water” as possible. By this point it was 90 minutes after high tide, and with every additional minute of delay the depth of the already shallow channel was getting shallower. While we made it to the town dock at Ewell successfully, on our home stretch into the village I got off our line and out of the channel ever so slightly and felt Hazel’s keel begin to stick on a sand bar. Although I was able to keep her moving and power-through the “skinny” spot, I was surprised. I knew it was going to be shallow but I didn’t think it would be that shallow. While relieved to clear the bar without getting totally stopped, my first thought was, How are we going to get out of this place?

The tricky approach to the village of Ewell on Smith Island.

After we secured Hazel on Ewell’s otherwise deserted town dock, we focused on dinner. Rhett and I were famished after a hard day of sailing and were hoping that our payoff from navigating a dicey channel was that we could enjoy an all-cake restaurant meal on Smith Island: Chesapeake Bay crab cakes finished with a slice of Smith Island Cake which—as every schoolchild knows—is Maryland’s state dessert. As Rhett researched restaurants with her one-bar of cell signal, intrigued I found an online description of Smith Island Cake and read it aloud, “…eight to ten layers of yellow cake with chocolate frosting between each layer and slathered over the whole.” Rhett looked up from her phone, gave me a deadpan stare over her reading glasses and replied laconically, “You had me at ‘slathered.'”

Eventually, Rhett found a bed and breakfast that, per its website, was the only place in the village serving dinner. Rhett called the B&B and while her epicurean dreams of an all-cake dinner were buoyed when a helpful gentleman answered her call, soon after her dreams were dashed upon the rocks when he replied, that the bed and breakfast had closed for the season. When she asked hopefully if he knew of any other places in town where we could get dinner, the tone of his reply was as if she had asked him to fly her to the moon, “At SIX FIFTEEN on a Saturday night?”

Rhett and I ended up cooking dinner on Hazel and forgoing a slice of Smith Island Cake. Humor was our only solace. As we cooked, ate, and cleaned, over and over one of us would look at the other, raise our eyebrows in mock surprise take our voice up an octave and exclaim, “…at SIX FIFTEEN on a Saturday?” Although it felt good to laugh, it was cold comfort on a colder night—we would have preferred hot crab cakes instead.

Before we went to bed that night (after our last, jocular, “SIX FIFTEEN?” was uttered), I checked the weather and noted to my chagrin that the next high tide at Ewell was at 4:15 a.m. Sunday but sunrise was not until 7:00 a.m. That left us with a couple options to attempt our escape from Ewell. We could embark at 4:15 a.m. and take advantage of the deepest water of the day but have to navigate a difficult channel in total darkness (not an easy proposition as there were many unlit channel markers), we could wait until sunrise and have good light but be more than two hours after high tide and have to contend with shallower water than we had on our way in, or—finally and most conservatively—we could wait around all day Sunday in the “bustling metropolis” of Ewell until the next high tide at 4:30 p.m., giving us only a few hours of daylight sailing. It was a classic dilemma, none of the options were good.

After a lot of thinking, I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m. and went to sleep with the idea of splitting the difference between options one and two. We’d embark about 5:45 a.m. and try for a compromise of deeper (but not the deepest) water and hint of daylight from the coming sunrise. Although I drifted off to sleep with that plan in mind, my dreams were troubled and I awoke on my own steam at 3:00 a.m., convinced that my “jack of all trades, master of none” compromise plan would get us into trouble. I roused the crew and told her that I thought we should immediately prepare to embark and leave the dock in darkness at 4:15 a.m.—dead high tide. While Rhett usually has the helm when we navigate channels and I watch the charts, I told her that I’d take the helm on this transit and she was happy to be relived of that duty (little did she know what the captain had planned for her).

An hour later, we were prepared for the day’s sailing, had hot coffee brewed and left the Ewell town dock exactly at high tide. Just before embarking, I handed Rhett one of our powerful flashlights and said, “On our way out, I need you to be searching for the reflective but unlit channel markers. It’s imperative that you locate them early and track them with the flashlight’s beam to help me keep Hazel on course.” I added, “Be careful though, keep the beam of light out of the boat. If you shine it on Hazel’s white topsides, it will blind us and ruin our night vision…. No pressure though.” I was at the helm splitting my attention between the water and the two sets of electronic charts we were running, while Rhett was in front of me peering intently forward and judiciously using the flashlight to locate our next channel marker. It was an intense half-hour navigating the channel but we made it cleanly without encountering the bottom and thus cleared our first hurdle of the passage.

Once out of the channel and into the open Chesapeake we started sailing south with a stiff northeasterly breeze. As color grew in the eastern sky heralding sunrise, we discussed our plan for the day. Our course was generally toward Cape Charles, Cape Henry, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay at a range of 55 nautical miles. We’d hope to reach a marina or anchorage late-day and close to the mouth of the Chesapeake and then wait for a settled weather window to enter the North Atlantic and head south toward Cape Hatteras (140 nautical miles south of the mouth of the Chesapeake). However as the morning wore on and the already stiff wind freshened into the 20+ knot range and Hazel’s speed increased, another plan hatched in my head. Although the Coast Guard had issued a small craft advisory, I thought, What if we just go for it now and keep sailing out into the Atlantic this afternoon and take advantage of this north and east wind? It’s a bit stronger than I’d like but should be nothing that we can’t handle and would push us southward in a hurry.

As I was nurturing this plan, Rhett was taking a much needed nap and when she awoke, I posed the question to her, “I’m thinking we continue sailing out into the Atlantic this afternoon.” I added that it would be “bumpy” out there but I thought we’d be fine and the wind should mitigate in the next 24-48 hours and it would put us on the front end of a good weather window that may allow us to sail all the way to Florida, or at least to South Carolina or Georgia. Besides, I had been looking at the charts and there were no good anchorages near the mouth of the Chesapeake and getting to a marina would involve a significant diversion from our southward goal. Rhett considered my proposal, said she was game, and we laid in a course for the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel where there was a high span designed for smaller vessels like Hazel to transit.

When we were were five miles from the Bay Bridge Tunnel, we passed a large-ship anchorage for freighters and tankers. While we’ve all been dealing with the supply chain disruptions of the pandemic—it was amazing to see fifteen of these behemoths in one place waiting for space to offload in the Chesapeake.

Container ships and tankers anchored in the Chesapeake and waiting to offload.

Soon after we passed the anchored container ships and tankers, the Bay Bridge Tunnel came into clear view and with the wind now solidly in the 20+ knot range and whitecaps all around, Hazel rocketed under the two spans of the fixed bridge and we were in the Atlantic. Although the bridge spans were reported to have a clearance of 75 feet and the top of Hazel’s mast is slightly less than 50 feet off the water, the approach to a fixed bridge is nerve wracking—especially when sailing downwind at speed and a last minute bailout would be impossible. It always looks like there is less clearance than there actually is. All our checking and double checking of heights worked and we cleared the bridge and were onto our next challenge of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Approaching the two spans of the Bay Bridge Tunnel.
Between the spans.
Happy to be in the ocean with the bridge spans behind us.

If you’re wondering how this story ends, you’ll just have to wait for the next episode (or maybe episodes, I haven’t thought that far in advance). The only thing I can tell you at this point is pretty obvious: We lived to tell the tale.

Fair winds and following seas!

Or, perhaps better said, “…following seas…of a reasonable height!”

9 thoughts on “Hazel was Pooped (episode I of a mini series)

  1. Wow, glad you made it safely through that shallow and narrow channel and then back again in the dark – but more importantly, no crabcakes after 6:15?? Oh the humanity!

    1. Yeah Craig. Reminds me of the WC Fields story when he and his entourage were lost in the Amazon Jungle without a corkscrew. He said, “We had to survive on food and water for several days.”

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