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A Boater's Guide to Passage Planning

A smart voyager identifies unique ocean features that can move you more swiftly over the bottom or set your plans adrift.
Boating Safety

I well recall one early fall passage from New England to the Bahamas, a mini-cruise that could've gone markedly wrong had we not opted to tuck in at Norfolk and do the inside route around Cape Hatteras rather than gamble against a low-pressure system forecasted to deepen off the Carolina coastline. By this point, I'd seen firsthand what being in a powerful ocean current could be like when the weather deteriorates; I wasn't eager to duplicate the experience.

In this particular instance, my wife, Lenore, and I had left Maine astern in early September and cherry-picked our way south using post-cold front northwesterlies to put the wind on the quarter and lay seas flat. In between frontal passages, we gunkholed at Martha's Vineyard, visited quiet harbors along Long Island Sound that had been abandoned since Labor Day, and saw how glaciers deposited moraine and sculpted an estuary. Granite ledges gave way to the sandbars and muddy bottom of the mid-Atlantic region, and western Long Island Sound narrowed, morphing from seaside suburbia to the high-rises and bedrock of Manhattan. We rounded Sandy Hook on the heels of a cold front, with clearing sky and a three-day fair-weather forecast in hand.

The passage south tracked along the coastal 10-fathom curve, inside the route big ships ply but right where coastal barge traffic is common. Careful watchkeeping was imperative. With a westerly wind, the sea quickly calmed, and by evening the wind had settled down to an even 15 knots; sailing couldn't have been better. The next morning, the glitz of Atlantic City rolled by, and despite the clear sky, rising barometer, and friendly forecast, we began to notice a sizable long-period swell moving in from the south. Ocean swells are often a harbinger of bad weather; their very existence announces that a gale is brewing not that far away. And in this case, the foreboding signs of weather were amplified by the fact that despite the northerly wind shift and the drag of shoal water, the prominent southerly swell survived. So it came as no surprise that a day later, as we sailed down the Delmarva coast, the forecast announced a developing gale off the Carolinas. It would likely remain stationary and intensify over the next 48 hours, and that was bad news for us.

In such conditions, easterlies scour the coastline, and entrances to shallow, sandbar-choked small-craft harbors along this stretch start looking like scenes from Ride the Wild Surf. Boats attempting to negotiate these channels are in danger of being spun broadside, and in really bad weather, they can be swamped by the breaking seas. The condition is exacerbated by shallow water that steepens wave faces, causing them to break well offshore. When caught in such conditions, it makes sense to carefully track soundings and bottom contours, plotting a course for deeper water or preferably picking a safer inlet to seek shelter.

Along the New Jersey shore, Cape May, Atlantic City, and Manasquan Inlet get tricky in really bad weather. The entrances to Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, and Ambrose Channel are the preferable heavy-weather options. This time, our plan of action was to avoid the confrontation with the fall gale by ducking into the lower entrance to Chesapeake Bay and taking the inside route around Cape Hatteras. Another option would've been to sail into a Little Creek or Willoughby Spit, Virginia, marina and wait for the system to pass to the north and east.

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