On Becoming A Salty Dawg
Rhoda and I were confident in and comfortable with CAYUGA, so our two-week summer shakedown cruise was much more about learning if we could coexist in a small space for more than a few day as opposed to learning more about the boat. After a successful shakedown, there was no reason not to push on with our plan to sail to the Caribbean for the winter.
We decided to join the Salty Dawgs and participate in their fall "rally" -- an event that essentially brings together a group of sailors who want to make a trip from one general location to another, usually over longer distances. The different rally groups and their operational philosophies are varied; this one seemed to be a good fit for me, focusing on individual responsibility, and on having the participants who were more experienced with blue water passages act as mentors for the relative newcomers. The group planned to depart in early November from Hampton, VA at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and sail to the British Virgin Islands, a distance of around 1,200 miles.
The first stage was moving the boat from Annapolis, MD to Hampton. Our son, Tristan and his fiancee, Jenn joined us in Annapolis and helped provision the boat -- especially with organizing and labeling the extensive medical kit that they had helped me assemble.
We had an uneventful trip down the Bay and docked at the marina along with the 60 boats and crew participating in the Salty Dawg Rally. Our long-time friends and ex-cruisers, Max and Lonnie Mattes drove from their home in Williamsburg, VA and provided lots of shore-based support, loaning us their second car while we were in Hampton and insisting that we take aboard their collection of courtesy flags and stainless steel hardware.
Tristan and Jenn flew home to Baltimore, and our crew for the passage began arriving at the airport: Jeff North, another close friend and relatively new sailor, and two other experienced sailors who I had recruited through the Salty Dawg network -- Ken Galeo and Bill Smith. We joined the other rally participants for several days of workshops, weather seminars, and great camaraderie fueled by many gallons of Painkillers.
After Rhoda left to return to work in Ithaca (somebody has to keep us solvent!), the crew set about sizing each other up (see Ken's article) and doing all the final provisioning and boat preparations. Although there was a nominal target departure date for the fleet, the decision was left to each skipper. A few boats left early and a few left "on schedule", but we waited a couple days for a little better weather window. Was I excited? You bet! Although I had made longer ocean passages as crew, this was my first long-distance, blue-water passage as a skipper. But was I anxious? No. I had a very high level of confidence in the boat, in my own knowledge, skill, and judgement, and in that of my crew. That said, I know I'll never achieve the status associated with the traditional definition of a salty dog, because that requires many more years at sea than I have left in this life.
As we approached to exit of the Bay into the Atlantic Ocean, we were surprised by a US Navy coastal patrol boat that zoomed in a few yard off our port quarter! Fast -- think through the scenarios -- did we stray into some prohibited area? Or violate some esoteric regulation? Or worse....??
Nah, this was just one of two escorts for a nuclear submarine, and they were just cautioning us to keep a safe distance from the sub -- and not make any sudden course changes that might be interpreted as threatening...