The plan sounded good. I would cross Chesapeake Bay aboard my 16-foot outboard-powered Dory skiff for a weekend of hanging out with friends during Downrigging Weekend, an annual event held the last weekend of October in Chestertown, Maryland.
The weather report stated wind from the northwest at 17 to 23 mph, gusting to 34, with seas of 2 to 3 feet — borderline conditions for a boat like mine. But I balanced this against my years of experience operating small craft. Besides, my John Dory skiff is seaworthy for its size. I had made all preparations and communicated my plans to my wife and friends. I had plenty of fuel, oars, a GPS and waterproof VHF, required safety gear, good ground tackle, and even a drogue/sea anchor, should that be needed.
I set out. Halfway across the 10 miles of open water, it became tough to steer. Then the waves steepened considerably. While surfing down a large wave, the outboard motor clicked into the partway-up position, eliminating my ability to control the boat. Luckily, I was able to reach down and lock the outboard into the down position.
It got uglier. I stuffed the bow into a trough and put 8 inches of water into the boat in a second. Noticing a smooth patch of water, I pulled the transom drain — the bilge pump was already working — and sped along at full throttle until the water was out.
Man, did that wake me up. I changed to a quartering course, which was easier and safer but headed me away from my planned destination. I began to tire from constant steering in chilly conditions. My body stiffened and my reflexes slowed.
Finally, I spotted a pier. Tied up, I lay down on the warm wood. The air was cold, but the shining sun warmed me. I rose, called my friends, and waited for them to pick me up.
From this experience, I learned you cannot fight wind and waves and sometimes must change course for safety’s sake. This makes it important to have a Plan B destination. I also learned that my waterproof VHF radio did not work, not because it shorted out, but because the speaker filled with water and I could not hear it. I was fortunate to have a cellphone in a waterproof bag.
I was lucky. I was dressed correctly and wearing a life jacket. But I wouldn’t do it again.
[Giving due weight and consideration to weather forecasts and not overestimating one’s abilities are other lessons worth learning. Also, some newer VHF radios, like Icom’s AquaQuake, possess features that ensure audibility even if the speaker gets soaked. —Ed.]
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