We prepared to leave Cape May in the rain with nothing but grey skies ahead of us. The ride was choppy and the swells were frequent, which made the autopilot absolutely useless – thankfully Talaria didn’t have a problem with this. She glided through the swells like the bad boss lady that she is, without the slightest hesitation. I already knew she was a seaworthy boat but I hadn’t realized how much of a beautiful beast she was. Strong and elegant, she maneuvered up and over each swell, solidifying my confidence in her seaworthiness. We maintained this dance all the way to Ocean City.
Even though I had sworn against entering an inlet in complete darkness after our Atlantic City adventure, there we were in the middle of the night blindly trying to find our way into Ocean City, Maryland. Lucky for us the markers were not lit, of course, so with a flashlight I went up to the bow to search for them. When I finally was able to spot the markers indicating the entrance to the anchorage, they were so close to one another there was no way we could have fit between them. Romain said, “No way, we’re not going to try to get in there.” Back into the channel we went. We figured we could just drop the anchor around there, more or less. No one was around and we were exhausted from the day – this would have to do.
We slowed down the boat and found our spot. After a bit of a struggle to release the pin from the anchor I got it free and dropped it into the water. Our ten feet of chain slid down first and I counted the length of the rode in five feet intervals. Fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, until I released enough line equivalent to five times the depth of the water. Satisfied with the length of rode, I tried to tie it off on the cleat but found myself in a tug of war, wrestling the line against the boat. We were moving forward and pulling the anchor line with it. There was no way I was going to win. Without any gloves on I tried to hold onto the line but could feel the rope burn kicking in.
I yelled back to Romain to stop the boat, “STOP! STOP!” but only the bow of the boat could hear me. I tried to turn my body around and yelled even louder, halfway facing Romain at the helm. Romain shut off the engine and came running to the bow to help me secure the line. He grabbed it with the slightest effort and tied it to the cleat. Turns out he couldn’t hear me from the helm and didn’t realize I was struggling with the anchor. We’ve managed to have many arguments about not hearing one another too many times. You can guess we’re still learning how to use hand signals, the appropriate kind, to communicate from opposite ends of the boat. Learning to sail with your partner puts you on the fast track to overcoming any communication issue; I highly recommend it if you’re up for a challenge.
With the boat secured slightly off of the channel we turned on the anchor light and called it a day. The next morning, we woke up to the dark and set off at first light. As we were leaving the inlet we noticed the depth sounder was showing uncomfortably low numbers. From eight feet of depth we quickly saw five and a half. We draw six feet so technically we should have touched the bottom. Romain and I stared at each other and I said, “It must be a hiccup,” because we definitely didn’t hit anything. We kept moving forward and sure enough the depth sounder was reading eight, then nine, and up to twelve. It truly must have been a fluke, we were fine and off we went. Little did we know that in a few hours we’d experience the same low depths but with a different outcome.
The motorsail from Ocean City to Wachapreague was perfect. We glided through the water, now appearing more and more turquoise the further south we went. The morning’s layers of sweaters were coming off one by one and soon we were sailing barefoot in glorious sunny weather. The water was much calmer and it was a nice reprieve from the previous day, but we both knew the ease wouldn’t last. When we purchased our dingy we were told the outside route, along the Delmarva Peninsula, was the way to go. However, it was cautiously advised to honor the ocean marker when entering the inlet. In the words of our sailing advisor, “It will look like you’re entering the mouth of hell, with waves crashing on each side, but just stay to the middle and you’ll enter a beautiful inlet on the other side.” Excellent, the mouth of hell. Just the sort of inlet of I was hoping to encounter. Technically we already passed through Hell Gate back in New York so what’s a little further down the tunnel of hell.
We began to see the honorary marker from the distance and prepared to enter the inlet by rolling up the headsail. There were two buoys to the far left, very close to one another, a red and a green, indicating the channel. Normally we would navigate carefully between them, but they were placed on what according to the charts was a giant shoal. We ignored the red and green buoys and stuck to the middle of the inlet with a dedicated eye on the depth sounder. We could see the waves crashing over on each side of us. The mouth of hell seemed to be an accurate description at this point. We took turns looking ahead and watching the GPS, remaining dead center while we diligently maneuvered our way inside.
As we made our final approach into the mouth of hell we felt a surprising lift from our stern. Talaria surfed up onto the wave and we were carried like a sacrificial lamb deeper into the inlet; hell was more than happy to accept us. Inside the inlet’s mouth we found calm waters with absolutely nothing around us, just marshland and flat water. We were still monitoring the GPS closely when we heard a power boat coming up beside us. The captain was leading an eco-tour and slowed down to congratulate us for getting all the way inside. He was surprised to see we made it this far. Thumbs up all around! We were gloating slightly and thought proudly to ourselves, of course we made it, no problem! It wasn’t so bad after all. He speeds off and yells, “The water is still coming in, you can ride the high tide all the way into town!” A rising tide, very convenient. If only we had planned that one intentionally.
After our congratulatory encounter we made our way forward and discovered the original anchorage we wanted was a lot more open and unprotected than we thought. As we were struggling to decide which way to go we noticed the depth was dropping. From twenty feet we were suddenly in ten, then eight, and then six. Shit, shit, shit. Which way do we go? The charts say we should be in nineteen feet of water, why are we getting down to five? We tried to read the water but it was impossible to tell with any certainty. I thought perhaps the depth sounder was acting up again since we saw five feet earlier that morning and nothing happened. But then Romain asked, “Do you feel that? I think we’re touching the bottom.” The boat cockpit felt solid. Very solid. Before I could even respond, the boat tilted to port on her keel. Yes, we’ve definitely grounded. Damnit we’re stuck. In a panic I radio the coast guard and try to make sense of our location. We go through the systemic Q&A: two persons on board, no injuries, 34-foot sailboat with a dark blue hull, needing assistance after running aground. Are we in distress? Do we have tow boat insurance? I don’t know, are we in actual distress? We’ve grounded and can’t get unstuck, so to answer the questions, yes and yes.
As we’re going back and forth on the radio with the coast guard, we luckily manage to get off the ground but have no idea in which direction to go. Before we could make a deliberate decision a wave picks us up and slams us onto the ground. It’s a heavy whack that hits the bottom and we do a sort of hopscotch across it, the keel bouncing us off three, four times. I’d never felt a boat hit the ground so hard. The depth sounder read a ghastly four point nine feet. With the coast guard still in communication, we heard a power boat approaching us. It was the same eco-tour boat that congratulated us on our arrival only five minutes ago. He heard our distress call on the VHF and returned to our rescue. “Follow me!” he commanded. There was a couple onboard the tour and I couldn’t tell if they were excited to join the rescue mission or annoyed for the intrusion; my guess was the latter.
We followed the captain carefully, until he told us we could drop the anchor. “Make sure you let out plenty of scope, but you’ll be fine here,” he reassured us. We were in well over thirty feet of water and could see the current was strong. He asked if we needed anything else – water, diesel – but we kindly said we were okay and thanked him again for the rescue. Once anchored we turned off the engine and went down below to assess the damage in more detail. Some wooden trim above the floorboards had come off, but aside from that we couldn’t see any visible harm from the grounding.
Romain opened the bilge, manually lifted the pump to drain its contents, and locked his eyes on the remaining water level. “The water seems to be coming in faster than normal,” he said, crouching to the floor with his ear inside the bilge, listening intently for any hint of water leaking through the hull. We’ve always had some water in the bilge, but we never actually sat there watching the intake rate after manually emptying it. The paranoia began to take over. In a trance we stared at the remaining water inside the bilge and listened to the fizzing noise beneath the hull. “No, no, we always have water in the bilge, this is totally normal,” I said, trying to console him. I couldn’t find a rational explanation for the noise, but I did my best to convince Romain, and myself, that I was certain it was not unusual. We’d never listened to the bilge before so for all we knew the bubbling noise had always been there. Several phone calls to our wise and coolheaded sailor friend later, we decided all we could do was note down the times the bilge pump went off. If it went off every hour then we most likely had a tiny leak, but nothing too grave. If it started going off every few minutes, then we definitely had a nightmare on our hands.
Continuing our assessment of the boat we heard another power boat approaching us, this time it was the coast guard. They very kindly came by to check on us to make sure we were all right and even hopped aboard to inspect our bilge. Romain was a little bit more reassured the boat would be fine, but only by a sliver. The coast guard asked us if we had enough food and water for a few days. There would be a storm and small craft advisory starting that evening, and suggested we may want to get a second anchor ready. The good news was we had a second anchor, but we didn’t have any line for it, which basically made it useless. I still brought it out just in case. At least we had enough supplies and all the safety equipment, with the bonus of knowing the coast guard was stationed nearby.
We set up separate beds in the saloon that night. It was going to be a bumpy night, with a lot of lighting, so we wanted to sleep away from the mast but also closer to the centerline of the boat where it was most stable. We took off our wedding rings and any other metal jewelry. As we lay there we could see the fierce, fluorescent lightning outside, the entire view through the port covered in flashes of stark white. We were in the middle of nowhere, we shouldn’t have been able to see anything, but the night sky was shockingly bright. The lightening came down in numerous streaks, flashing with a loud boom all across the marshland. Yep, we had definitely entered the mouth of hell.
When we woke in the morning the lightening was gone, but the weather advisory was still in place. The anchor had definitely dragged during the night and the strong winds forced us to take down the bimini. We closely kept monitoring our distance from the anchor on the anchor alarm and decided to let out a few more feet of line just in case. The current was fairly strong and brought a lot of debris along with it. Our poor anchor line kept catching huge chunks of the debris, which we tried to remove, but it would eventually compile again to form a nest of branches and thick straw.
The forecast warned of gusts over forty knots for the next two days. We were stuck. There was no way we could get out of there any time soon. We had our dinghy but the town was several nautical miles away, and without a motor, it would take ages for us to get there by rowing. Besides, with the wind the way it was there was no way we were going to attempt a dinghy ride. I began to prepare a second go bag. We had one already, where we kept our EPIRB, water, and a few other essentials, but I was getting seriously concerned and needed another bag with our things ready to go. I even wrote down a mayday script, practicing until I had it memorized with our longitude and latitude coordinates, and quizzed Romain on the ICAO alphabet. I couldn’t just sit there and worry. If we were to go down I wanted to be prepared for it, and frankly, the focus helped to expend the stress towards something useful.
Each day we kept planning our escape, this time purposefully calculating our departure during high tide. We would wake up and eagerly check the weather in hopes of a miraculous surprise, but the advisory wouldn’t lift. After the trauma of entering this inlet we didn’t want to take any chances on our way out. So what do you do when you’re stranded on a boat in the middle of nowhere? You start to enjoy yourself! Not to say it was the best time of our lives, but eventually we just sort of accepted the situation. We were stuck but things could have been much worse. The boat didn’t sink and we had plenty of cognac and wine to pass the time. We made a short video for our YouTube channel, had a few drinks, and even had a little shower with the bucket of rain water we collected. We were wild beasts, embracing the adventure.
By the fifth day the advisory was finally over and we could leave – freedom at last! We had psyched ourselves up for this departure, we were more than ready. Following the advice of the eco-tour captain we left at high tide and mirrored our path into the inlet but avoided the area where we grounded. Nice and easy, we took it slow, monitoring the depth sounder closely once again. I went up to the bow to look for signs of shallow water. As we passed the shoaling where we ran aground, we stayed to the middle of the inlet and made our way closer to the exit. The crashing waves were just like they were when we entered, except this time we could see them coming toward us. Cautiously we followed our exact path on the GPS. The depth got down to eight feet, but just as we began to worry we could see a monstrous wave approaching. Talaria took it straight on and we were once again lifted high into the air. The wave passed underneath her belly and we did a nose dive forward. I grabbed onto the transom to brace for the landing. “Holy shit,” I said to Romain as the water crashed over the bow on impact, “that was huge!” We both broke out in laughter. We’d come full circle, entering and leaving the inlet on a massive wave. It was kind of hilarious. Now we just needed to get to Hampton and then we could really celebrate, not with a drink, but with a triumphant, well deserved shower.
Take a look at the video we made while we were stranded in Wachapreague. And if you haven’t done so already, please subscribe to the rhumbeast channel. Cheers!