Oh this adventure started long before we left the docks for this was our first attempt to use the sailboat overnight. So much to do and think about prior to out departure. Normally we would prep a cooler with some snacks and sandwiches, but now we had to consider not just extra meals, but bedding, clothes and any extra equipment we may need. When we purchased the boat in 2013, one of the extras on board was a Magma BBQ set. However the previous owner shared with me that the BBQ set was missing some pieces. Great, I’m brand new to boating and now I have to figure out what is missing from this BBQ. Since it wasn’t urgent in the learning curve in 2013, I left it off until I knew we were going to need it. I thought that if we wanted something hot to eat for dinner this trip, we would need the BBQ. So after ten other things were completed to prepare for the trip, I went down to West Marine with the Magma BBQ in hand.
I patiently waited in the BBQ aisle of West Marine while another customer occupied the salesperson for what seemed like 20 minutes. I peeked out of the aisle for more help but stayed close thinking that this other customer has to be done sooner or later. Eventually another salesperson saw me and asked if I need assistance. “Yes please”, as I put down the mostly clean but still old and used BBQ on the floor and showed the salesperson what I had and then said, “ok now what am I missing”? Luckily the Magma BBQ doesn’t have many parts and the salesperson figured out that we were missing the regulator. A trip to the computer to make sure that we had the right regulator and that it was indeed in stock and we were set. Yes! Got all the pieces connected and just needed the propane to go with it. I told myself that I would test the BBQ at home before using it on the boat. I didn’t want a mishap on the boat with the BBQ. Tested perfectly and now could check off another item from the list.
When you watch these survivor-type reality shows on TV, completing small tasks feel like major victories and definitely boost morale. For me, waking up the next morning of this trip and being able to have a hot cup of coffee was going to be one of those victories. On board we have a two burner alcohol stove. I recalled bringing it home in 2013 and cleaning it up, but I didn’t recall actually using the stove considering that I didn’t have denatured alcohol. I never even heard of denatured alcohol before buying the boat. Since it was near the propane section at West Marine, thought might as well grab some too.
We were introduced to the South Bay Cruising Club by a gentleman that was around when I was down at the boat doing some work. It was the reason why we were doing this overnight trip. The club does a “rendezvous” almost every weekend during the sailing season. What better way to do our first overnight than with other people nearby to help? I mean I did suggest sleeping on the boat one night in our slip, but we have the boat at a yard, not like a full service marina, so it would be like taking a camping trailer to the mall parking lot and sleeping there overnight. It’s doable but not really adventurous.
Oak Island Lead is west of the Robert Moses Bridge in the Great South Bay. This was our first trip west of the bridge and boaters on the south shore of Long Island know that there are many shallow spots and shoals that you have to be cautious of, especially sailboats that draw more than 3.5’ of water. We were told by the people hosting this rendezvous that we should only get into Oak Island Lead during high tide. High tide for this trip was going to be around 4pm.
When I prepped for the trip, I checked the chart and my GPS to plot the course. We would do our normal departure from our canal and then head west under the Robert Moses Bridge until we hit the State Channel and follow that south past a couple of smaller islands, including Oak Island. Around the south side of the island there would be some houses then a cove where the other boats would be anchored. Oh, not only would we be doing our first overnight on the boat, but we would be doing it at anchor too. Our sponsors for the club gave us some tips for the channel via an email the night before. I read it but I should have printed and brought with me (sound like some foreshadowing to you?).
On the morning of the trip, I was wide awake at 5:30am. This early wake up is not uncommon for me. Not sure why my internal alarm goes off so early, it just does sometimes. The early rise out of bed was well needed anyway since I wanted to bring gear to the boat before bringing the family and food down there. A part of my Spring cleaning was to bring home the anchors and clean up the rode and lines for the anchors. Sitting in the anchor locker all winter caused some corrosion to the anchor chain and line. One item that I had purchased in the Spring was an anchor holder for the pulpit. I figured at least this way the anchor wasn’t sitting in an inch of water at the bottom of the anchor locker. So that had to be installed also that morning. After completing the anchor holder and setting up the anchors, I put the BBQ away along with the propane and denatured alcohol. Now back to the house to pack my clothes, food and family.
Moving about the house was like being in a tiny supermarket. I grabbed food and supplies from the cabinets and pantry like I would go through a supermarket when you are hungry. I knew I was over-packing but better to have than not to have. Timing would be key as I knew that I wanted to get to Oak Island during high tide. If we left the house at 12pm and then left the dock at 1pm that would be ample time to get there before high tide. Everything is packed and we were off to the boat.
Everything is aboard, sail cover off, sheets ready, halyards ready, oil checked, gas checked, water tank filled, we are good to go. Out of the channel, we begin to set the sails. Hoist we go as the main and head sail luff in the lightest of breezes. Hmmm, this sail may take longer than expected. Either that or we will be motor-sailing. With the winds coming from the north, northwest, we didn’t feel the winds until we were clearer of the canal. Then wham! Now we are in 15-20 knot winds that were pretty much right in our face from the west. My wife is not the greatest of travelers on a sailboat and it was best to roll the head sail and lower the main sail and power our way upwind.
An hour of motoring along and we passed under the Robert Moses Bridge. Another 30 minutes and we were in the State Channel heading south towards Oak Island. Keeping one eye on the channel markers and the other on the GPS, we made our way south. Here is where the real fun began. The channel is narrow, but not impossible. As we motored down the channel, we gingerly passed Grass Island, then came up to where 2 channels crossed. Now if you look at the chart and you look at your GPS, both will state that the deeper water is towards this platform in the middle of the channel. What I didn’t do is review the email that I received stating to keep right of the platform. I thought it said, “keep the platform to the right”. Boom, there’s the bottom. OK, reverse and let’s get off this shoal. Once the brain locks in on one then, it’s tough to convince yourself that your brain is not right. We turn around and go back to deeper water.
The funny part about the Great South Bay and its channels are that the channels can be 10’-20’ deep but stray outside the channel and you are in 2’ of water. Unfortunately we aren’t in the Caribbean where the water is crystal clear and you can see 40’ deep. We attempted a few more times (I really embarrassed to say how many times) before we said, “forget this, let’s just go home”. So we start back up the channel towards the bay. On the horizon (well not that far) was a sailboat heading into the channel. It had to be Jay and Stephanie. They mentioned that their boat had red bottom paint. When they got closer, we yelled out that we bottomed out a couple of times. They said, “ok, just follow us in, we will lead the way”. We reluctantly turned the boat around and headed south again. But they are now 50-100 yards ahead of us. As we try to catch up, boom! There’s the bottom again. I don’t get it, they just sailed through the channel but yet we bottomed out again. “I’m done with this” as I put the boat in reverse yet again and turn her towards home.
A minute or two go by and I look back and see the red sailboat heading in our same direction. We were monitoring the radio and the cell phone and saw that I had a missed called from Stephanie. Called her back but no answer but they are still heading in our direction. I slow the boat down and contemplate with the wife our options, “Do you want to try ONE more time?” Well we came this far, might as well try again. Turned the boat to the south again and met up with them. This time we were going to stay right on their tail. Another couple of harrowing minutes through the channel by the same platform, but this time we were victorious! We made it through the channel and made our way around to the south side of Oak Island. Quick check of the depth finder and we are good, plenty of water between us and the sandy bottom of the channel. Almost there!
As we approached the other boats that arrived earlier that day, Stephanie told us that they were going to raft up next to another boat and once set, then we can move in to raft up as well. But in the meantime, we should hold still until they are set. After a few minutes go by, I’m trying to figure out what is taking so long. Then Jay and Stephanie head back our way and state that the boat they are trying to raft up to is too close the shallows and needs to move further south, but they are going to put down anchor, then we can raft up to them when set.
There’s the signal, we move forward to approach their boat. However, it looks like the boat that was repositioning itself is now stuck on the bottom. “Don’t be too obvious, but look over there”, I tell my wife, “We aren’t the only ones who hit bottom”. Fenders out, lines ready, and we raft up with no issues. As we breathe for the first time in about 45 minutes, I see Jay getting his dinghy ready so we can help out the other boat that is now aground. I quickly volunteer to join him as well assess the situation.
Other boat that is now aground, is a 36’ boat and its owner has made his way into the water, about waist high. Not sure what he will be able to do from there but now that we are there to help, he moves back into his boat. Another boat on this rendezvous is a sailing trawler and its owner offers to pull him off to deep water. From the dinghy, we run a rope from the trawler’s stern to the bow of the other boat. The trawler fires up its engines and slow pulls the slack from the rope and now edges forward to move the boat. More power, not much going on. A little more power and the bow of the sailboat starts to swing towards deeper water. But it still takes even more power to nudge the boat off the shoal and free it from the sandy bottom. Everyone back to their respective boats and let’s officially get this rendezvous started.
In case you were wondering what happened the next day. I did get my cup of coffee made on the alcohol stove and as for navigating the skinny channel, we followed behind a veteran sailor who knew exactly where to hug the coast and where to stay away from the coasts of Oak Island and Grass Island.