Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race

This past week has been one of the best on the AJ Meerwald for me this season. We got back to Bivalve around five in the morning the day before yesterday after an exciting week participating in the Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race.

We left Bivalve in the wee hours of the morning on the 13th, headed for Baltimore.  Our crew of nine and our three volunteers were split into two watches with 6 hours on and 6 hours off. I was in the A watch and we were on first so we cast off docklines and got underway at 0200. With hardly any moon and very little light pollution, the stars were crystal clear in the sky and wonderfully numerous. It was surprisingly warm for the middle of October and, despite our lack of sleep, we all felt fresh and ready for the upcoming adventure. Although night watches can be stressful (it's somewhat like driving down a country road with no headlights) and bitterly cold, they are also the best. There is something so peacful and wonderful about sailing on the open water under millions of stars with nowhere to be but there. 

First light after a long, cold night on watch

While on watch, we rotate through a few different stations of an hour each. One person is always on bow watch, one is at the helm, one does boat checks and wake-ups at the end of the watch, and anyone else is on standby. Bow watch is probably my favorite, especially when there's nothing to report. On bow watch, we are on lookout for anything the person at the helm may not be able to see. During the day, we use hand signals to communicate with the helm but at night we walk back to tell them what we see. The best bow watches are when we are flying along with nothing to be seen for miles and you are occasionally weightless as the bow is lifted by a wave and sprayed by the sea as the bow plunges back down.
The best

Being at the helm can also be amazing, especially at night when it's too dark to see your heading on the compass and the best thing to steer by is the stars. Somehow it's incredibly calming, just you and the stars. The helm can be frustrating,  though, sometimes. The boat doesn't always like to stay on course and at times you are constanly fighting to stay on course - especially when under sail power and a small change could mean losing the wind and your power. One of my favorite times at the helm was on the way back from Portsmouth, VA after the schooner race. The wind had picked up right before our night watch and we were motoring right into it. The seas were swelling up to five feet and hitting the waves at the wrong angle sent the boat into a corkscrew which is very unpleasant for those below decks. When she hit the waves head-on, the boat would dive down an incredible amount so that the sea itself- not just the spray - was coming over the bow. The view from the helm, where you could see the extreme angle of the boat, was awesome and it made up for the fact that you were constantly fighting the sea and trying to avoid crashing into any buoys in the vicinity. 

Boat checks are also exciting in rough seas. They are normally just a calm check and recording of the bilge levels, navigation lights, battery levels, engine readings, course ordered, and weather conditions (and a welcome escape to the warmth below decks), but with the boat careening in every direction it becomes a test of your ability to avoid crashing into everything and waking up the entire off-watch as you check the bilge in the forepeak (the hold at the front of the boat where the crew sleeps), or to avoid dropping everything and/or falling into the engine room as you try to climb down the open hatch over the engine.

Our transit to Baltimore was relatively uneventful and took about 16 hours. After making it to Baltimore, most of us just wanted to sleep. Some of the crew went out but because we were on 24-hour dock watch and my hour on watch was in the middle of the night, I sat on deck and read for a while and went to bed early.

The next day we had education programs in the morning and a parade of sail in the evening. The parade was pretty cool because we were just sailing around Baltimore harbor and got to see all the other boats in the race while also getting a look at the city. I was on bow watch for most of the sail which meant I got a lot of practice tending the jib while tacking (when we turn through the wind the sails cross over to the other side of the boat and the crew member at the bow is responsible for making sure our forward-most sail, the jib, crosses properly). This would have been fine except that our volunteer mate, Tom, was firing our mini cannon (actually pretty awesome when you have ear protection) on every boat that came near us and it was very difficult to plug my ears to avoid going deaf while also holding on to the line and maintaining control of the sail.
Parade of Sail

The race started the next day at 1:00pm and it took us about 30 hours to make it to the finish line in Norfolk/Portsmouth, Virginia. All the boats are required to sail the whole way and turning on the motor results in disqualification.  We didn't place into the top three in our class but we did finish without motoring which doesn't happen every year. Most of the way was great sailing with a top speed of 9.5 knots (about 11mph)! We crawled across the finish line going about 2.5 knots at around 8:00pm, took in sails, and motored into port around 10:30pm. Although we were exhausted, a few of us on A watch went out for a bit to celebrate the fact that we had made it and were off watch and free for the next day and a half.
Sailing to the starting line
The race is on
At the dock in Portsmouth

The next day was a day of relaxing and enjoying Portsmouth. My watch had the whole day off and we went out for brunch, enjoyed the pool and hot tub and showers in the hotel where the crew had a couple rooms booked, went to the cookout for all the boat crews, explored the town, and hung out with crew from the other schooners.

We left the next day and made our way back up the Chesapeake Bay, through the C and D canal, across the Delaware Bay and up the Maurice River back to our home port of Bivalve a day and a half later. The transit was quite exciting as we spent a good portion of the time heading straight into strong winds with relatively high seas, in the dark but we made it back safely at around 5:30 in the morning. 

It's amazing to think that we have only a couple weeks left. We'll be mostly in Bivalve with one more big adventure to Chestertown, MD for downrigging before we all go our separate ways!