Drivin’ South: Tangier Island To Hampton, Virginia Single Handed

By Rich

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The evening of Sunday, October 23 found me feeling a bit anxious about Monday’s forecast. As I sipped my evening scotch I listened to the weather over the VHF and looked online at Sailflow. The very same 20-25 knot westerly winds that I could hear whistling unrestrained through my Sabre’s rig were forecast to persist the next day – at least until 11am or so. At that point the forecast called for the winds to clock to the right and to moderate. If I left at dawn – which was necessary if I was to ensure a pre-dusk arrival in Hampton, Virginia – I would be leaving the tight Tangier inlet in a brutal chop and would need to beat straight into that same steep chop for 4-5 hours before the wind moderated and I could reach under more civilized conditions.

As a few 28 knot gusts whipped through I decided that I could certainly live with that scenario – as long as the forecast was correct and the day didn’t turn into 11 hours of slogging through ugly conditions only to make a stressful low-light approach into an unfamiliar destination. It all turned on whether the forecast could be relied upon. As bedtime approached I decided that more debate on the matter wasn’t going to be helpful. In the morning I would get an updated forecast and I would simply make a dispassionate decision as to whether the conditions met my “launch criteria” or not. If the forecast got worse I could spend a lay day in Tangier. And if the inlet proved too choppy and dangerous, I could always turn back.

Dawn saw no change in the forecast, so I made a tricky escape from the dock at Park’s Marina and made my way toward the inlet behind two commercial fishing boats.

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As it happened, the chop in the inlet wasn’t any worse than could be expected under the conditions and it certainly wasn’t dangerous. The going – both in the inlet and outside of it, however, was extremely slow and wet. The Sabre 42 hull form is extremely resistant to pounding when under sail, but any hull will pound when motoring directly into a steep chop. With the motor at full cruise power I found Le Saberage capable of only 4.5 knots or so (down from just under 7 in calm conditions) while shipping massive quantities of water over the deck. It was so rough, in fact, that one of the two commercial fishing boats turned around and headed back to port.

Hmmm. That kind of thing gives a guy pause.

Still I pressed on, though I quickly decided it would be prudent to make frequent checks below to look for early signs of problems. On the first inspection I found that water was indeed finding its way into my bilge – from at least one source aft and at least one source forward. As usual I checked the rudder stuffing box first for the aft leak and was relieved to find that my usual suspect was innocent in this case. Looking under the aft cabin berth I was actually able to rule out any of the sources from the transom, which left only on-deck sources. That was good. After some more investigation I found the culprit: the town water fitting located on the starboard side of the cockpit coaming. The fitting uses a rubber flap to secure the dust cap, and the rubber cap passes right through a hole in the fitting. While the fitting did not allow rain water to penetrate, it was clearly never intended to be completely immersed in water. Now it was – there was so much water being shipped back along the side deck that the fitting was frequently being dunked below the surface. With the source of that leak identified and ruled out as a threat I began to investigate the source of water coming into the bilge from up forward, and eventually identified the source as the anchor locker or stem fitting – also a deck-level source of water intrusion. Both leaks were an annoyance certainly, but not a risk to the boat and not cause for worry. After checking the integrity of all other fittings below the water line, I concluded all was well.

Before a boat can turn southwest after departing Tangier, it must travel due west to clear a shoal. So I pounded upwind slowly under full cruise power for quite a while before I was able to turn southwest and roll out the jib. What followed was some of the most dramatic and exciting upwind sailing I can ever remember. Le Saberage charged through the chop, making excellent time and shipping more white water over her decks than I have ever seen on any boat. She was sailing beautifully, and I was giddy working the helm.

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After a while it occurred to me that I had better check below to make sure all was still well. What I found wasn’t good. Although I had removed the dorade vents, copious amounts of water had found their way down the forward port dorade stand pipe – presumably by finding its way through the dorade box’s limber holes – and had soaked the cushions.

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To protect the fabric, I spent a few minutes removing the cushions and throwing them into the aft cabin. More time sailing in those conditions convinced me that it must have been a single, dramatic wave that caused the incident because it didn’t repeat itself for the rest of the day.

My next problem was the alarming quantity of water gathering the bilge. Although I was confident the source was above the water line – most likely the anchor locker – I still had to deal with the significant practical problem of removing it from the boat. Because Le Saberage was on starboard tack, the water was gathering along the port side of the bilge and failing to drain down into the sump where the primary bilge pump could remove it. After a period of sailing it had over run the top of the forward head sump and begun emerge from under the floor board in the port side of the galley floor. Not exactly a welcome sight! Once the quantity of water grew large enough to warrant the action, I decided I had no choice but to ease the jib well out – just short of luffing – to stand the boat up so the water would drain. This tactic worked – but only when I stood a “bilge water watch” by periodically clearing the bilge pump pickup while the pump ran. The water had sloshed around enough novel parts of the bilge to find all manner of debris which it delivered in turn to the bilge pump pickup. Between these adventures below I did get some very satisfying time at the helm, gleeful in the spirited conditions. My only regret was the distraction from the fun imposed by the water issues below.

The forecast for the day proved to be partially right. I had left Tangier around 7 and by 10:30 conditions had moderated enough that I set a full main. The promised clock to the right never materialized, however. I was very glad that at least half of the forecast had proven to be correct and exulted in several hours of the best close reaching and beating I can ever remember.

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The Sabre was perfectly in balance – just exactly the right amount of sail area and just exactly the right amount of weather helm. It was magic. Beneath her hull the sea water began to turn an increasingly tantalizing shade of blue as we drove toward the ocean. What magical moments those were during that sail. They were the entire reason for 2 years of work on this project. They were why I was there.

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The end of the trip to Hampton was anti-climactic. About 10-15 miles from Hampton the wind died and I dropped the sails to motor. Hampton Yacht Club is small, scenic and charming with a very friendly staff and good facilities.

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If your club has reciprocity by all means make Hampton a stop. I spent my first few hours there Monday and much of my lay day Tuesday cleaning up and drying out my Sabre. Everything had to come out of the sail locker to be dried and the bilge got a thorough hose out before I swept and wiped down the cabin sole.

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There was some tremendously good news – all of the items on deck that I have worked so hard to seal proved to be perfectly water tight. From the forward hull-to-deck joint, to the portholes, to the hatches, to the port genoa track – not a drop of water got past items I have worked on. Considering the conditions I had just transited, that was a very welcome finding!

Leg #3 Key Learnings: 1) It takes several passages in rough conditions to find all of the sources of water entering a boat. This was only the third time we’ve had Le Saberage in big chop and big breeze upwind in two years and each time we’ve come away with a list of necessary fixes. The good news is that the list continues to shrink. 2) I don’t believe many people operate boats like this in conditions like I saw in this passage very often. Or at least the prior owners of this boat didn’t. There’s just no way the issues we continue to grapple with could have been encountered by the former owners without the cushions being ruined (for example), or wild mildew growing in the sail locker (which we didn’t see when we bought the boat). We must be in a small minority of owners who venture out in more than 15-20 knots or so. 3) I can’t say enough how much I love having AIS on my iPad. Although AIS should never be used as the exclusive collision avoidance system, it is a huge comfort to be able to bring it below when making lunch and have it right by the stove (for example) when below decks).

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1 thought on “Drivin’ South: Tangier Island To Hampton, Virginia Single Handed

  1. Wow! Very good & valuable info here. And a lesson: AIS is priceless! Very impressive, those water tight fixes working so well, and the last few uncovered 🙂

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