Into the Delaware

Phil & Nikki Hoskins
Mon 5 Jul 2010 23:22
The Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bays although sitting geographically alongside each other could not be more at variance. Delaware Bay being the 'Cinderella' of the two, having no good cruising areas with the warning that putting into any of the few small rivers on the eastern side would ensure a warm welcome from the local horse flies to be remembered for a very long time. Once it was Indians but now it's the bugs that ambush you!  The west side of the bay has nothing whatsoever to offer.
                                                                                              The only view of any interest on the Delaware Bay - the Miah Maull Lighthouse
The pilot advises that the weather in the bay can turn very nasty very quickly and with so few places to run and hide (without getting bitten alive) it was not a prospect to be considered. The bay is about 50 miles long compared to the Chesapeake length of 200 miles so all transients set off to ensure they reach the other end by the end of the day. Whether sailing or motoring, everyone is in a hurry to get through, endeavouring to stay clear of the commercial traffic steaming to and from Philadelphia. Our day can be summed up as follows. Blistering start, 15-20 knot west winds and swatting flies, 7-8 knots through the water at times pushing a flood tide before the tide ebbed in our favour, the wind then dropped to 12-15 knots by early pm, still swatting flies before a VHF warning was issued for the area immediately north for damaging storms with wind gusts to 75 knots just north of the bay. Then warnings of thunderstorms for the Delaware Bay itself for late afternoon. So it was on with both engines, the cockpit still a killing zone, motoring on as fast as we could to reach Cape May harbour, by now pushing against the tide again!
Cape May harbour or to be precise Cape May Canal was where our 'wheels' came close to falling off. Unlike the fixed bridges of the ICW further north through Virginia and the Carolinas which have a minimum air draught of 65 ft the two road bridges spanning Cape May canal have only 55ft clearance and to be brutally honest we didn't quite know what our exact air draught was. It certainly wasn't 65ft as we had passed under so many bridges at 6 knots quite precociously but 55ft brought some concerns and it was into the boat's owners manual for any snippets of information that could give us a clue, especially as we had lengthened the mast by one foot during the refit to facilitate the bimini cover.
The luff length of the mainsail was 41ft that was a start. The height of the gooseneck to the waterline looked to be about 10ft and Skip calculated that above the mainsail headboard to the wind anemometer was another couple of feet making 53ft. That was close and didn't leave much room for the VHF aerial that was standing proud of those precious items. However, we were arriving at Cape May a good 3 hours before high water and figured we would have maybe 56-57ft clear air draught on the bridge so maybe we would make it OK after all. The alternative was going round the outside of the Cape where there are tide rips and shallows. Besides which the skies were now becoming very dark and threatening behind us so into the canal we steamed. Skipper dressed for the occasion in longer socks and a shirt to ensure he wasn't harassed by the marauding flies just at a critical moment of manoeuvring slowly under the bridge girders. They seem to know when your mind is on other things and use the occasion to bite whatever is exposed.
There was no immediate answer to all the estimated calculations as the first bridge was still 2 miles down the canal, enough time to ponder how close things might be in doing some damage and what if anything would come crashing down from the mast head. Fortunately the current was against us which although meaning we were slowed in our progress to the bridge we would at least have more control of the boat approaching the bridge, the plan being to sneak up as close as possible and edge under with Nikki on the bow to give a yes or no to any further progress. It was tense.
We could have done without the fast powerboat blasting past us on the final approach to bridge one as we had to let its wake settle before we idled forward. From a distance the bridge looked impressively high. Skip figured if that was as high as he had been when hoisted up in the boson's chair on the odd occasion then not being one for heights that would have scared him to death so surely we would go under quite easily. To make the tension more unbearable there was no air draught gauge before the bridge to give some indication of actual clearance.
The man fishing by the bridge shouted NO! which echoed back from the steel girder work that made up the span. Nikki shouted at the same time as the VHF aerial twanged back as it contacted the first girder halfway down its length before straightening. The boat was still inching forward and it was decision time. Onwards or retreat? Skip chose onwards and a further 4 twangs of metal against metal were audible before we emerged the other side - a look of furry on the Admiral's face as she strode back along the deck shouting there's two more bridges to go and the tides still rising!!!
Bridge two was a low railroad swing bridge just yards on which was open and we blasted past that with full speed ahead to make the next bridge about half a mile distant. The thought then struck us that we could be stuck between the two bridges for some hours waiting for the waters to recede and the weather was turning really foul behind us and Cape May harbour beckoned. Bridge number two could have been catastrophic if Nikki hadn't violently gesticulated to the fast approaching power boat coming from behind to stop as their wake was a good 18 inches high and we were already approaching the first girder of the span. They stopped immediately, whether out of genuine concern or merely sensing some good entertainment to be had provided by some hapless cruisers who might shortly get showered with glass and electronics equipment at any moment. This time there was an air draught gauge which horror of horrors showed it to be less than 55ft! Onwards we went. Once again the twang of the poor VHF aerial could be heard echoing around the bridge structure. Four more 'twangs' and we were clear with the sounds of cheering from the couple in the powerboat behind. We were into Cape May harbour and anchored just as the thunderstorm hit the harbour with torrential rain and visibility down to just feet. A yacht that had been cruising down the bay with us and obviously too high to go under the bridge arrived in the anchorage two hours after us having had to weather the storm out on the Cape. The 'Admiral' says that's where we will be going next time - storm or no storm! We anchored just off the Cape May Coastguard training facility where we were treated to daily reveilles and team building chants from the new recruits. A bit different to our own Coastguard!
   Dog-house dog on dog watch anchored at Cape May                                                      Coastguard Cutter 'Vigorous' heading out of Cape May on patrol