A late-season delivery

Finally freed from the confines of the canal, Acadia, a Pacific Seacraft 40, gallops south in a crisp norther. Photo by Mike Martel

Guest Perspective: Capt. Michael L. Martel

I awoke in the darkness with a start, disoriented, only to eventually realize that I was still in my bunk, fully dressed and wrapped in my blanket against the cold. Even though the last two days had seen the air grow milder, I was still curled up, my body angled against the boat’s hull. What time was it? I knew that it had to be somewhere in the middle of the night. The boat’s little diesel engine droned on steadily, and Acadia moved swiftly through the water with only the barest rocking motion. Only a few instrument lights were on in the cabin. The other crewman, Tom, was also bundled up and asleep. But where was Ivan, the owner?

I crawled out of my bunk, rubbed my eyes, then grabbed the companionway ladder and climbed up a step to peer out into the darkness. The north wind was gusty, and we were sailing under a full, bellying genoa while motor sailing, speeding down a waterway that was clearly no longer the narrow Chesapeake & Delaware Canal that we had entered when I went below, presumably for a brief nap. Ivan was at the helm. He seemed to be nearly always at the helm. He was happy to sail and steer for hours on end, watch after watch, never appearing weary, and he rarely sought relief. He was a stoic guy, a Ukrainian of boundless energy. This was his first journey in his new boat, a Pacific Seacraft 40, on a delivery from Newport, R.I., down to a marina near Cape Canaveral in Fla., and he had hired me to be his skipper and also my friend, Tom, a very capable young sailor and mariner, as mate.

As we flew downwind and downstream, tall steel bell buoys, lighted with flashing red and green lamps, broadcast their message as they passed quickly astern on either side, sentinels allowing us to pass. “Ivan,” I called to him. “I’ve overslept my watch. You should have awakened me at least an hour and a half ago to relieve you. You must be exhausted. But I’m here now.”

“I am OK,” he answered quickly, even cheerfully, in his thick accent.

“I’ll put the kettle on for tea, then,” I replied, “and join you in the cockpit.”

“Yes,” he replied, nodding happily. “That would be very good!”

Before going below I added, “It seems as though the tide has finally turned, and is now running in our favor.”

“Yes,” Ivan said. “It was against us when we first entered the canal, you remember, but then later it has turned with us. It took us right through the canal.”

I smiled to myself, knowing that we had played the tides like a violin, so to speak, down Long Island Sound, through the East River and Hell Gate, down the New Jersey coast and up the Delaware from Cape May. Now we were promised a day of favorable tides running down the Chesapeake. With luck, we would stop somewhere tonight to rest, possibly Deltaville, Va., according to my plans, and then the following morning head south to make Hampton Roads and enter the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) before dusk.

The knotmeter showed that we were moving over the ground at nine knots. No wonder we’re making such good time, I thought. We blew right through the canal and are already in the upper Chesapeake. The shores on either side of the waterway were rapidly expanding in distance as we headed south.

The kettle boiled, the mugs were filled with tea bags and hot water, and then were brought out into the cockpit, steaming. In the nighttime October cold, the radiant mugs were a welcome source of warmth. I snuggled into the puffy folds of my offshore jacket and settled into a corner of the cockpit seat, sheltered by the dodger and resting against the coiled bundles of halyards that led forward to the rig. Here I could rest and observe everything, like a bundled cocoon with protruding eyes, sheltered from the brisk wind and sloppy chop but, in reality, sheltered from nothing. In the darkness, out on the bay, there is no shelter. Shelter and safety are often dependent upon being in the proximity of nothing. The distant lights on shore might seem reassuring, but they aren’t. You can’t reach them, and don’t want to; invisible shoals, rocks and other hazards lie in between. The safest place in darkness, notwithstanding the bulk-carrying behemoths occasionally charging down on you at 15 knots or more, is out in the middle of the channel. Prudently, you follow the silent lighted sentinels that guide your way down to the lower bay, and yearn for the blessing of daybreak when all things will become visible.

Nighttime traveling out on the water, speeding through the darkness, is a magical time; simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. It is exciting, like a chill shiver traveling up your spine. It is as real as real can be, and nothing is what it appears to be. Lights, for example, are misleading. Everything is two-dimensional. A pale-yellow light at the end of a dock a quarter mile away shines beside an array of friendly looking red lights that are actually a row of power-plant stacks five miles inland. In the wind and thermal disturbance from the water, lights become dancing phantasms. The mind is tricked, the eye is fooled, and the glowing chart-plotter becomes a source of faith and salvation, bearing information that must be trusted, since your life most likely depends upon its reliability.

This experience was by its very nature a thrill that attracted Ivan. Just knowing that he was alone, or very nearly alone, piloting his boat down the bay in the wee hours, surrounded on either shore by a population of multitudes safely asleep in their warm beds, completely oblivious to our passage through the outside world of darkness, tickled him. To most of them, the thought of being out where we were at this hour, in this season, racing south through wind, wave and current would be justifiably frightening, unimaginable. And yet, Lord, here I am!

After living most of our lives in artificial illumination at night, these same hours on a boat become a source of fascination. After a few nights sailing one’s eyes become so accustomed to the darkness that eventually you can more or less see through it. And yet what if an unlit buoy, raft or obstruction – something impossible to see – should suddenly loom directly before us? We can’t worry about that; only snuggle closer to the side of the cockpit and forge onward, trusting to good fortune and luck, hoping that our course remains unobstructed. It’s always easier, I mused, to not fear the unknown.

Day followed night, with dawn illuminating the world as we passed under the Bay Bridge. The wind then freshened to nearly 30 knots and chased us down the Chesapeake under gray fall skies. At last, by 7 p.m., we had fought our way into the choppy mouth of the Rappahannock, secured a quiet berth for the night in a secluded Deltaville marina, and found much-needed rest in quiet waters. The next day brought us into the ICW by dusk, and landfall at a marina in Portsmouth, Va., before Tom and I flew home the next day. Ivan and his son would take the boat the rest of the way down the ICW. We had one final, jolly, beer-soaked dinner together in downtown Portsmouth before heading off to the airport the next morning to fly home to Rhode Island. It had been a grand adventure of sailing, wind, cold and constantly changing weather, but, in the off-season, that’s what coastal sailboat deliveries are all about.

Capt. Mike Martel, sailing out of Bristol, R.I., holds a 100-ton Master’s license and is a lifelong boating and marine-industry enthusiast.