This is a collection of things I've learned voaging around the Patomac on my sloop the Toria.


The Wind

I think the first thing I learned sailing is just how little wind you need. Really anything at all is enough to move and you can really get going in 8 knotts. Even my large sloop does fine in low wind. So far the most I've sailed in has been around 14 knotts or so which was really near my limit although the boat was fine.

I personally use for weather reports. They have a very good interactive animated map that runs well even on the cheap celleron based "chart laptop" I have on the boat. When I started I really didn't bring electronics with me beyond maybe a small "flip" cellphone and used paper maps entierly for navigation. I'd highly recommend either a smartphone or a 3g enabled laptop if only for real time weather reports. Sometimes they're wrong but it's rare and having them while you're out is really amazing.

The Tide

A lot of sailing tutorials gloss over current but it's just as important as wind when sailing. If you've ever felt like you hit "invisible walls" while trying to beat up wind it's probably because of your incomplete understanding of the way current works.

Recall the sailboat transform: where the force on the boat comes from work of the wind against the stationary current. If the current is non stationary then you must transform your apparent wind vector accordingly. Note then that if the current and wind are going in even approximately the same direction it is impossible to beat up wind.

When sailing through a confluence (a passage near inlets) you must be able to "read the water" by watching how the wind against the current creates different kinds of waves. This will create boundaries of different shapes that you will be unable to cross at certain points. If you're beating you'll have to sail up or down these to find places where the current or wind change deriction and allow you to pass. If no such place exists then in tidal waters you may have to anchor and wait for the tide to change. This is very common when you're trying to transit inlets.

Gasoline motors

Major Trips

Here I will write about some of the major one-way trips I've taken. Usually these are longer than anything else I've done and push me to learn things.

DC to Huntington

This was the first major trip I took with the boat. At the time I was working for Verisign and while I was fully remote my boss wasn't a fan of my working from the boat so I tried to avoid having to anchor over night. I was also new to sailing sloop rigged boats and had never used the mainsail before so it was really quite an adventure for me.

I drove to DC early in the morning and boarded with about a gallon of water. I don't think I had thought to bring any food which was very stupid. In my haste to leave I also forgot to lock my car but it was missing enough pieces and was such a mess I think even the kinds of people that wander the city there were afraid to touch it.

I motored down the fairway without incident. That's really a big deal as I had overfilled the oil resevoiur in that motor before and it was not reliable. The wind was calm, maybe just a knott or two. Raising the sail was trivial and after that I was off. If I recall it was a close reach most of the trip so I was beating down south past the pentagon and Alexandria. This was before I understood how to sail in currents so for about half the trip I struggled tacking against the tide and didn't understand why. I kept enough leeway for gibing though and made it without incident.

Really the only interesting part was transiting the 495 bridge. There's a periodic recorded announcement from the Coast Guard warning larger shipping vessles that they must schedule raising the bridge at least a day (I think?) in advance. This caught me off guard a little and I was worried I needed to warn them I was coming through. I wasn't ever able to contact them though, heaved the boat, dropped the sails, and motored through. It took me an hour or so and consumed something like half the fuel I had with me because at that point the tide was fully against me. In fact this last mile from the bridge to Belle Haven took the entire rest of the day and by the time I reached my mooring the sun had already set. I inflated the leaky and untested dinghy, paddled to shore, and walked up the trail to downtown Alexandria where I took the metro home.


Huntington to Colonial Beach

Belle Haven is really an excelent marina for sailboats. If you live near Alexandria I'd highly recommend it and it was perfect for me when I lived in Reston. I no longer live there though as it costs about twice as much in rent per month as an appartment down South where my family lives does and I don't really have many friends there. After moving the trip up 301 often took ~ three hours and 95 both ways is very unpredictable. Pretty much any time I used the boat I had to spend the night before and after. Most marinas are ok with a little bit of this but you combine that with the logistic difficulty of paddling out to a moring and you have a pretty complicated situation.

I planed to make one more supply trip before setting off and had already spent the night onboard as I had work the day before (now for a new company with a much more lazes fair attitude and better work/life speration.) One of the juniour workers kindly asked for my canoe back (I went out to my boat by just untieing a conoe and paddling out often. I was told this was allowed verbally by one of the girls in the office but it always felt a bit weird and made me a little undomfortable. Maybe that's the kind of balance they want I'm not sure.) I let him take it and decided it was time to depart. I was still pretty sore from walking for hours the day bofore (that's a whole seperate long storry) so I motored out to the channel and decided I'd begin sailing the next day. This was easy as by now I had replaced the gasoline motor with an electric one although I had left the fridge running so the battery was a bit run down, the charge controller was reading 52 volts which is about 50%.

Day 1

I woke up to some pretty intense rain. I really didn't want to sail in the rain so I drank some whisky I had onboard (it wasn't good so I didn't go through it fast. There's actually still a few mouthfulls left at the time I'm writing this, I really only used it for a sleep aid) and went back to sleep. Some time in the afternoon there was a break in the rain so I got the sails out and set off.

Nearly every time I sailed out of this marina I ended up beached on the nature reserve to the South for one reason or another. This time I had taken percausions to avoid this by sailing out to the channel marker (there's a private buey the marina drags out named "bob" durring the summer when they're opened) and anchored there. I was certain this would be enough. I sailed off directly away on a starbord tack. When I felt I had enough leeway I tacked over to head South. The wind shifted and I ended up beached again. Good grief that was frustrating. Eventually between motoring and the tide I was lifted off the sand and continued beating South. I was joined at some point by a small convoy of racers from Maryland. That felt kind of fun. I belive their far target for the race was one of the navigation bueys near the light house. They were much faster than me.

I continued on with this rediculous idea that I'd make occoquan before Saturday (I had a three day weekend and really wanted to make it to Heathsville by the end of the week since my family was having our annual vacation in the Northern Neck the next week and I thought it would be cool to sail there.) Sometime through the wind changed to a nice beam reach and I kept on sailing down around one bend and another military base. Eventually the sun set as I passed Indian Head and I decided to push myself through the night. Around here was the first change I whitnessed in the sort of marine anthropological culture. Everyone was up at 1:00 in the morning on these pontoons with the throttle wide open and blindingly bright halogen headlamps. There were maybe a dozen such boats and was very afraid of being hit by people who were essentially deaf and blind flying back and forth between Virginia and Maryland.

Day 2

Eventually around day break I made it to Occoquan. At this point I had eaten nearly all the cheese and crackers onboard and realized I didn't have an iPhone charging cable (my new company requires the use of my personal iPhone for their tfa app. It's not TOTP but instead this kind of dumb corporate thing that they wrote themselves. It's actually a product they sell so I think that's why we had to use it.) I desperatly wanted to go ashore but at this point I still hadn't learned how to transit inlets. I beat up and down the mouth of the creek but never made it in.

I found a park with a boat ramp and called and asked if I could tie the Toria up there but they said it wasn't really meant for that so I sailed on. In my haste I had neglected to load any kind of dinghy so I really had to have a dock. I worried I'd be unable to land anywhere before Colonial beach (and this turned out to be true.) Since I was already anchored I searched bellow deck carefully and managed to find an iPhone charger cable and an entire jar of peanut butter. This combined with the five gallon jerry can of water meant I had a good week to make it South which seemed like plenty of time. so I weighed anchor and continued South.

Off on the horizon I could see the three phase high voltage transmission lines next to the first LNG terminal and power plant. At this point I had started sleeping on timers as the wind was slow and I was often drifting. I woke up about a half mile away and navigated under them. The chart said the clearence was 70 feet (over half the hight of my mast from the water line) but it didn't look so high. At some point I heaved the boat and started taking measurements with my graduated telescope but I drifted below the bottom phase during the process. It was a little scary but not difficult to navigate like a bridge.

I anchored on the South side of the power lines. When I awoke the fog was so thick I couldn't see anything beyond my own boat. It was as if I had been transported to another universe. I went back to bed for another hour or so and by then I was just able to navigate although the fog hadn't completely lifted and the sun certainly hadn't risen.

Day 3

As the sun rose I sailed past the military base on a nice beam reach while the fishermen went out to deal with their traps. It was incredibly pleasant.

Durring the midday duldrums I tried to do some laundery but underestimated how much water it would take. I didn't wet anything enough to really ring it out so I was left with soapy dirty wet clothes. I was afraid of using more water at this point so I just left them on the lifeline to dry. I still had a shirt or two and a few changes of underwear although I was completely out of long pants. Shorts were a no go because at this point the sun was out.

I also took a shower using my primitive shower set up on board. It was ok, I felt a little better and it was nice to cool off in the heat. After that I set up the fan which drew a surprising 25 Watts (!) of power. It felt amazing with the lack of wind and intense sun though.

Opposite Maryland point was a condo(?) community with a marina and a seaside resturant. I was hopping I could make it there before the end of the day and at least refill my water containers and get some kind of food other than peanut butter. I tacked up and down this one confluence from a nearby inlet, tried motoring, and a few hours after the midday duldrums had made really no progress. At this point I anchored and googled around and realized the tide and confluence current were conspiring against me. I learned to read the water and managed to get just up to Maryland point.

By nightfall it was pretty foggy, I had used up most of my remaining battery power motoring against the current and had precious little left. At this point I was really exhausted. The moon reflecting off the water and other lights on the shore plaied in the lines in these weird ways. In my exhaustion I began to hallucinated people seemingly come out of the water (mind you I've been onboard for 4 days at this point with very little sleep and very poor food.) I decided pressing on really wasn't safe and dropped anchor.

Initially I used my garden light lantern for an anchor light but that went out at around 3:00. I could hear the Coast Guard complaining about a "navigation hazard" near Maryland point and I belive they were talking about me so I searched for my emergancy anchor lantern + battery (it's one of those giant, nearly useless, 6v square shaped batteries with an incandecent light) and managed to get that going for the night. I finally slept well really for the first time on the trip.

Day 4

Some time early in the morning the radio had drained the very last of my battery power. As the sun rose the charge controller read something like 42 volts which is far bellow what's safe. I'm concerned I'll have to replace the massive propulsion bettery some time soon because of that. The emidate problem of course was that I had no radio, had no running lights, and had absolutely no room for any kind of navigation mistake.

I sailed on as the sun rose. The sound carries far on the water and I could hear an older fisherman with that distinctive coastal Maryland accent lecturing a trainie on how to handle their equipment. It was really very wholesome sounding.

As I came to Mathias point I got ready for work. I had been invited to a meeting that day but nothing I really needed to actively participate in. I tacked around reading the currents and avoiding the shells the navy had shot over into the water there. As I entered the unshielded waters the wind whipped up the waves. I was sorrounded by white caps. and struggled to make progress south. I have to say it's really surriel to be beating and reaching through weather like that while listening to managers talking with eachother about spreadsheet fonts and engineers discussing domain controller changes.

I ended up anchoring in a little tiny anchorage in front of a few houses and spent the day with both hatches open working on some minor changes to a shell script. Around 4:00 slack tide came, I weighed anchor and set off again. Rounding the point now was much easier now. I still reefed due to how ghusty it was which made me uncomfortable. This was actually my first time reafing and it was far easier than I had expected. I was completely unable to point that. Initially that was find as I was on an easy beam reach but the wind slowly shifted South and I started to beat again.

I saw there was a break in the massive cliffs to the West (Maryland is all sheer cliffs starting from around Occoquan) within which was a small Irish pub with a dock. I thought maybe I could stop there once again for food and maybe any kind of supplies. I anchored to haul in my sails and hooked a petrified log. I managed to free the anchor, tried again, found another log which was much harder to free and at this point decided to give up. I unreafed the sails and continued.

The sun was setting now so the wind ws light and the tide was going out which made navigation easier. I had very little power. The laptops had consumed about half the energy generated during the day (yes plural. My work laptop is a massive 80 watt hoggish Macbook, my personal laptop with the 3g modem for internet needs another 40 watts, and the iPhone drew another 15 or so. I don't have a sim card for the iPhone as I'm psychologically incompatible with it and don't want to use it for anything more than I have to.)

It took coming about a couple times but I finally managed to line myself up well with the bridge. I was 200 feet away and sailed under. At the last minute the turbulent air luffed my sails and I had to motor for about ten minutes.

Having cleared the bridge I was now just ten miles from my destination. My batteries were nearly spent. I beat back and forth a bit but the wind against the current was whipping waves over a foot peak to trough. On the Eastern shore was the second LNG terminal. Their pier was completely unlit and i feared alission with it. To the West was the Dahlgran military base with a spoil area.

For some reason I thought this Southern area of the river would be less wide than the Northern part. I don't know why. Well I beat a mile or so North and realized that with my exhaustion I had to anchor. But I couldn't see the shore well enough to sail to an anchorage safely. With the last of my power I managed to call a tow boat. With the dying anchor light he was able to locate me and tow me the last few miles.