Each year, I try to stretch my sailing experiences a bit beyond what I did the year before. Last year, I decided to take on the Moonlight Race.
When I first started racing my boat, I tended to come in dead last. Part of it was inexperience, part of it was trying to avoid the other boats, afraid I’d get my damaged if I was too close. But that also meant that we were getting back to the docks after dark. So we learned to sail in the dark early on.
Besides, it’s never completely dark on the river. If there’s no stars or moon, there’s always the homes that line it, the Coleman bridge, and the power plant. Each, if not iluminating the area, does it make it possible to at least get our bearings. The only real obstacle to worry about are the shallows on both sides of river and the shallow areas at the mouth of the river. So, as long as my depth meter is working and visible, it should be no problem.
The first step was to find the route and figure it out in the daytime. The route required us to start at R-22 on the York River, round York Spit Light, then back to R-22.
I’ve sailed near that area numerous times, when heading down to Hampton. But I couldn’t remember ever seeing that structure before. So I wanted to sail by it, both to get an idea of what the time would be, and to be able to identify it when I saw it.
Wendy and I headed out one morning, in search of the structure. I had 3 different sets of coordinates for it, so we only had a general idea of where it was. We headed out of the river, having the usual difficulty doing so.
The prevalent winds are such that the boat wants to go across the river, not up or down it. This we knew. That meant that one the hardest parts of the race would be getting out of the river itself. So this was one of the things that Wendy and I had to work on.
It was taking forever, as usual, to get out of the river. So we motored a bit to get out of the river, rather than waste our whole time in the river, rather than looking for the structure.
Once we got out of the river, we had mixed weather: no wind to too much. Well, not really too much. It wasn’t dangerous. But we did move quite quickly.
When we got close to where the light should be, we started looking for it. The spot was near the intersection of two different routes in the area. And, there was a third route nearby. Between them, there were a number of different markers with the same numbers on them. This threw us off. In addition, there were a number of different structures in the area, none of which looked like the picture we’d seen. Our time was growing short, so we headed back, having not found the structure.
First Moonlight Run
Our next practice session was a nighttime one. Dew, one of the more experienced sailors I know, and his girlfriend, Kelli, joined me, along with Wendy. We headed out about 1/2 an hour before sunset.
It was cold enough to be brisk, but not uncomfortable. And the wind was great.
With Dew’s help, we made it out of the river without motoring. In fact, the only problem we had heading out was getting too close to Tule Marsh, another shallow spot on the river.
I did learn, too, that iPads are not the best of navigation tools at night. Their light is too bright and leaves you partially blinded when you look away. Add to the fact that they are difficult to see in the middle of the day, too, and I don’t think that my iPad will become a navigation tool that I’ll rely on too much on my boat until I have one with a bimini to shade me.
We made it out to the York Spit light and I understood why Wendy and I had such a hard time finding it the first time. It had been destroyed in one of our storms and never rebuilt. So it was essentially just a platform with some sticks on it, not anything like the picture above.
On the way back, we had another problem: the house lights went out. I hadn’t charged the house batteries, and we had been running both lights and music the whole way. I didn’t worry about it, since I have two ‘house’ batteries. I use one at a time, so I assumed that the other was still charged. Nope. We switched over to it and it was dead as well.
Later, when I had charged them both, I found that one discharged as the other did. I still haven’t figured out whether the circuitry is bad or one of my batteries is dead. Another chore for this winter.
So, anyway, back to the story…
As I said, we had plenty of light surrounding us. We had picked a night near the full moon. Unfortunately, I hadn’t checked on the time of moonrise: the moon wasn’t rising until early, early morning, so we were sailing without the moon to guide us. But we had the GPS, we had the landmarks I mentioned, and we had a depth gauge that worked to keep us from bottoming out.
The only slight issue we had was the tug that couldn’t see us and didn’t answer our call on the radio (unlike Robert Redford in All is Lost, I do have a spare VHF radio in cases of emergency. Luckily we did stay out of his way and didn’t get run over.
We did make it home safely, quite late. And that was something else we were checking out – how long would it actually take us to make the run.
The Race Itself
Well, the race got cancelled. We got out there and there was only us, one other racer, and the committee boat. The rules require that there be at least 3 boats racing to make it official, so the race was cancelled.
Crew that night were Dew and Kelli. And the three of us decided that we wanted to do the race anyway.
The wind was strong. The waves we 4′-5′. It made for a rough ride heading out. And it ended up hurting Kelli’s back. She spent time in recovery afterwards. Luckily, the temperature was great and the company wonderful. Luckily, too, Dew was with us. I wouldn’t have made the run without him.
The waves were with us coming back, so we surfed home. And, as I said, the temperature was great. This time, I did made sure the house battery was charged so we were able to enjoy our music out and back.
Coming into the York River, we had the moon, we had the lights from the bridge and from the power plant. And the winds were calmer in the river. It made for one of those moments you want to savor forever.
Will we do it again? Heck, yes!