The First Month Cruising on my J/34c
By Pam and Glenn Cooper
Our getaway date was October 3rd. but work required on our rudder bearings and refrigeration delayed our departure. The days we stayed at Crocker's Boat yard featured delightful early fall New England weather. When we pushed off on October 7th the forecast was headed "south"; cold, grey and building winds.
Our home port is Manchester-By-The-Sea, Mass. For the first week our itinerary was to go to Mamamroneck, N.Y. via the Cape Cod Canal, Block Island and Port Jefferson, Long Island. Glenn's mother lives in Mamaroneck, she is elderly and a bit frail, and we wanted to pay her a visit.
On our way to NY we punched through a week's worth of really "stinky" conditions with one low point in particular: large, steep, close seas on the entry into Buzzard's Bay (30 knots of wind on the nose against a ripping tidal flow). This was clearly a miss-calculation on our part. We took such a pounding - first Colette's bow aimed where John Glenn was headed and then plunged straight toward China! The pounding was so great that when we finally settled in for the night the first thing we did was check the engine mounts. Between leaving Manchester and arriving in Mamaroneck we counted 10 minutes of sunshine. Most of the sailing was close-hauled and rarely we had less then less then 20 kts of apparent wind; toss in howling rain storms and big seas through Block Island Sound. Each day, however, we tucked in concluding that in spite of it all we were having fun.
Our plan was to use the dock at a yacht club in Mamaroneck but when we arrived it was clearly not to be. About 50 yards away we heard a voice call out, "Nice J-Boat ... can we help". It was one of the guys at McMichaels (a J-Boat dealer). They told us to grab a place on their docks and sort out our problems the following day. The next day I chatted with Howie McMichael about our plans in Mamaroneck and beyond. Howie insisted we stay put and be their guests as he considered us to be in the J-Boat "family".
When we started sharing our cruising experiences on this web page we had no intention of making this into a "commercial" for J-Boats. Instead our idea was to let people know how we have converted our mid-sized "J" cruiser from a comfortable weekender/week-long boat to a real livaboard. It has also been our intention to pass along what we've picked up from cruisers who have been at it longer than us.
As far as we're concerned it is J-Boats responsibility to fight the wars with the so-called "cruising" boat manufacturers as to what qualities make a "proper" cruising machine. However, after a month at it we have seen ample evidence why our Colette is a far better choice for cruising than the heavy displacement - can't sail except for a gale over the stern - cruising boats.
Here's just one example of the kind of experiences we've found along the way: It took us 32 hours to sail (and motor) from Mamaroneck to Cape May. The last 5-6 hours into Cape May found us in 3-4' breaking seas and a wind gusting above 25 kts. apparent smack on the nose. We had a reef in the main, and were flying our 110% jib. What a great way to enter a new port after an overnighter: like a big swooping bird. Once in, we heard all sorts of "war" stories about mean, tiring motoring conditions from the boats ahead of us.
In Cape May we met a couple who did "only" the Sandy Hook run to Cape May in 36 hours ... motoring all the way. They were very tired and told us about all the wrestling they had to do with their helm while motoring against a 20-25 kts wind. They are sailing a Pacific Seacraft 37'. Two Island Packet owners told us similar stories. All had bought their boats convinced that no matter what kind of a beating they took, their boats would do just fine. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Naturally we told them about our experience of "finger-tip" helm control while enjoying an invigorating morning sail. That afternoon, I'm sure, we could have sold a few J-Boats! Pam at helm leaving NYC....heading South....Pam and I got stuck in Cape May for 4 days first waiting for an engine part, and then because a huge cold front pretty much shut down Delaware Bay (nasty stuff right on the nose and "tight" navigation). Delaware Bay is no sailor's paradise. It is shallow, features a strong tidal flow over dangerous shoals, and is full of commercial traffic. I think sailors have only one good reason to go there: to get to the Chesapeake. Our original intention was to spend a few extra days going down the Chesapeake, and to sample what we would like to explore in more depth during next spring.
After seeing all the victorian homes in Cape May (they're lovely), and becoming intimate with our diesel's cooling system, we were getting itchy to leave. Finally we decided to go on the outside, down the Delmarva Peninsula to Norfolk, and bypass the Chesapeake for the time being. We and NOAA were forecasting NW winds for about 24 hours then real light and variable air from the south. Time to go. When we left the other cruisers stayed waiting for a window up the Delaware. One other couple was planning to go on the "outside" but they decided to delay it a day.
The run to Norfolk was further proof that in the real world of how cruising boats are typically used we J-Boat owners have a measurable advantage. The first leg is 2-3 hours to cross the mouth of Delaware Bay to Cape Henelopen, N.J. The wind was NNW and blowing 20-25 kts. Waves came tumbling down the bay like demonic bowling balls. We did the traverse with a single reef in the main and a furled jib. The weather cloths we added around the cockpit kept some of Delaware Bay from joining us! With the sea state being a bit bouncing, and knowing we'd be sailing overnight, we opted for comfort. Once we put the cape between our stern and the Delaware entrance the sail was unforgettable. With main and 110% jib (by the way our 150% jib is wintering in a storage locker), and a broad reach in 15-20 kts of apparent wind, we flew. Our boat found wave crests and worked them for all they were worth.
For people who are thinking about overnight passages here is what we do. Once night comes we always shorten sail ... assuming we're not motoring. We also put on safety harnesses and attach ourselves while in the companionway before stepping into the cockpit. Another rule is never leave the cockpit to go forward if alone. We run our radar on standby if the weather is clear but have it at full function if the viz is limited. We use it mainly for collision avoidance. Should we be maintaining a collision course of two miles or less we make sure both of us are awake together, doing whatever alleviates the situation, such as manuvering of hailing the other vessel via radio, etc.
Before we left on our trip we changed the waterline to reflect all the weight we were adding. In fact, Pam and I joked about just calling the toe-rail our new water line! On the way down the Delmarva we were convinced, even though we had to raise the waterline nearly 3 inches, the boat's performance didn't seem to be noticiably compromised. Concerned we would arrive in Norfolk too early, and to assure as much sleep for the off-watch as possible, we furled the jib once night fell. Early Morning Watch Approaching Norfolk, VA.
When we calculated our speed upon arriving in Norfolk we discovered we made the run from Cape May with an average speed over the ground that exceeded 7 kts! More than that we were there ... we were rested ... and it was warm! As predicted the wind faded and backed and we entered Norfolk close hauled doing about 2.5 kts. wearing bathing suits! After two weeks of feeling winter's threat we had finally tasted the reappearance of summer. Two days later we entered the ICW via the Dismal Swamp Canal.
After a few weeks of being "on the road" Pam and I concluded there is no cruising quality more important than having a boat that limits fatigue. Everything is tougher to do, and becomes progressively more dangerous if you're tiring. A boat that will lie secure on its beam ends on coral but will beat the brains out of the crew is not a good cruiser. If you're tired there's a better chance you'll end up on the coral than when you're fresh and alert!
Along the way we've found other advantages we have over most other cruisers. One Hinckley owner bypassed Charlston because they felt their boat was not manuverable enough to handle the high winds and currents they would have to tackle to enter the City Marina. If you're gunkholing in Maine or headed south on the ICW you'll have to enter certain areas where you're a stranger.
With unforeseen currents, flukey winds, limited space you want to know you can tip-toe around safely. On the ICW there are quite a few traffic jams, especially waiting for bridge openings. We have watched boats go aground because they weren't nimble enough in tight situations. By the same token we've had several skippers ask us what kind of boat we had as we held fast in one spot or backed slowly, around hazards, in conditions almost like a rush-hour New York subway ride. Our J-Boat is nimble on the "outside" and nimble where space can't be found.
Most people do not have windlasses and our observation is most also operate with undersized primary ground tackle. Ours is a bit oversized for a J-34c: 35# CQR with 30' of chain attached to 200' feet of rode. We also beefed up our stemhead. We don't have a windlass and, as you can imagine, getting the hook up can be arduous. But every night we sleep comfortably.
In Charleston one of our anchorage neighbors was using the same ground tackle as us. He, however, was on a 33' Hans Christian, which has huge windage compared to us, and displaces 20,000 lbs! How did he sleep? Our shape, above and below the water, helps us sail better and hang on the hook better when the day is done. Typically we can be safe on lighter ground tackle then can other 34 ft. boats, which means less fatigue. We are using a nylon rode backing 30 ft. of chain and a CQR as our main anchor. Our preference would be to be on all chain. Next time!
Several times we have had visitors who are familiar with J-Boats including a mechanic in North Carolina who crews on a J-24. All want to clamber aboard Colette and see what's below. Few have been on a "J" crusing boat, and they're always surprised by the amenities and comfort surrounding us. In Beaufort, N.C. we berthed next to a couple sailing a Sabre they've had for ten years. The boat was a beauty and showed lots of loving care. The guy told me he was close to buying a J-160 at the Annapolis show but his wife stopped him! He assured us she'll cave.
End of the unexpected commercial. Here are some early impressions of our "voyage". First, the ICW. Starting early 1998 Pam and I started reading up on the ICW and also attended the Atlantic City Sail Expos' "going south" seminars. Our impression was we'd be facing what the Allies faced at "D-Day"! One seminar talked about tactics for staying in the channels as large power boats - which he called "Hatter-Asses" - charged by. We saw the "ditch" as a necessary evil. "Make sure the insurance is paid up", was constantly on my mind.
We have loved the ICW. We entered in Norfolk and haven't left. Of course sailing is a rare pleasure ( we haven't hoisted the main for two weeks). The anchorages are heavenly; the place teams with wildlife; every place throws its arms open to us "boat-bums"; and few days go by where there's not a dolphin pod greeting Colette.
Now for those power boaters: they are extremly thoughtful. Only twice, during the last 30 days, did we have a power boats pass is with too much way. One was a Coast Guard vessel! It must be frustrating for people with 1000 hp power plants to throttle back to a crawl to edge by a "snail" but they do. I hope sailors appreciate the "stinkpotters" on the ICW.
How about tugs, barges and fisherman. Same story ... all are very hospitable and helpful to sailors. Actually we are surprised how few commercial vessels we encounter. Want to make a few new friends? Chat with bridge tenders. They are kind and helpful, and regularly wish us a pleasant trip.
We've grounded 4-5 times, once in a channel at low tide, once because of a navigation error, and once because we cut a buoy to close. Nevertheless we both feel ICW navigation is very manageable for a couple. We make our "general" plans the night before and change them as we go. Key are low water hazards, places where channels change, places to call it quits for the day, and adverse currents. There is one place in the ICW where the danger of rocks exist. It is after Myrtle Beach, S.C. on the route south. We passed it (useually called the "rockpile") at high tide and never had less then 10' under our keel.
We've stopped at a few marinas. We do it if we're in a place we want to explore where the anchorages make it tough (Charlston, for example). We also like to be alongside for doing routine maintainance (getting rid of used oil, etc). Marinas we especially thought memorable have been South Jersey Marina in Cape May, the free dock at the auto/boat visitor's center on the Dismal Swamp Canal (it's the only rest stop in America that has "parking" for boats and cars!), the free tie-ups in Elizabeth City, N.C. where the "Rose Buddies" come to the docks at 4:PM to host a wine and cheese party and present the ladies with red roses grown in a garden just for that purpose next to the dockage, and the Alligator River Marina in N.C. The anchorages have been better still.
In marinas we average about $1 to $1.25 per foot and pay about 75 cents a gallon for diesel. In one marina we paid 67 cents!
There are too many "can't miss" places to mention here. A few extra special places are, again, the many river, creek and marsh anchorages that are just off the beaten paths, and the special waterfront cities/towns of Beaufort (pronounced "bowfort") N.C., Charleston, S.C. and Beaufort (B'yew-foot), S.C. All are worth, as the Guide Michelin would say, "a side trip".
Before we left on our trip we invested in many guide books and a few charts. The order should have been reversed. Moreover, sailors will be frustrated if they invest in the typical ICW glossy guide books. They are really for power boaters, especially if a priority is finding the local shopping malls. For us the "essential" information sources are "Sailor Bob's Guide to ICW Anchorages", the superb "Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook" by the Kettlewells, Claiborne Young's guides to the Carolina's and Georgia ( we plan to get his Florida guides), and NOAA charts for going off the beaten path. We're sure there are others that are helpful for sailors and in time we'll discover them. By the way, we also make constant use of Reed's.
We meet lots of people for a day or two and then they're gone. So many are headed for the Bahamas that we feel sure we'll rendezvous, enjoy happy hours, and swap stories later. Maybe 25-30% of the other sailors we meet are Canadians. If anyone wants to seize Canada the time to do it would be late November. I'll bet no one is there except for a few hockey players!
That's about it for now. When we look down at the compass it says "S". Ahhh. Glenn is growing a scruffy beard, and Pam is thinking about it! Our "plans" are to try and be in South Florida for Thanksgiving and, hopefully, my daughter Colette, who our boat is named for, will join us there. In the next "edition" we'll talk more about the liveability of our "home", and also talk about using one key accessory we haven't had a chance to enjoy thus far: the swim ladder!