37. The Jersey Shore

Is this joke still relevant?

When the time came to leave Cape May, I got underway without really knowing which way to go. On my way south in the fall, I’d taken the outside ocean route down from Atlantic City. It’s basically a straight line down the coast, and without all of the twists and turns of the ICW, it’s about 20 miles and three hours shorter. There are also no traffic, bridges, or shoal spots to worry about. All in all, it’s a much better option.

This time though, the forecast was right on the edge of what I’d consider acceptable for an open ocean transit, and there wasn’t better weather on the horizon any time soon. To make the decision a little harder, what I was seeing out the window didn’t match what the forecast had called for. It was a fairly calm, clear, beautiful morning.

I waffled back and forth several times as I made my way from Utch’s toward the fork in the road. A left turn would take me up the inside route, and a right would take me to the open North Atlantic. At the last second, after effectively flipping a mental coin, I decided to take a right toward the ocean. It looked pretty reasonable from inside, and there were lots of fishing boats out there, so it couldn’t be too bad. I figured I’d go stick my nose out past the breakwater and see how it felt.

It felt… different. It was something Sylphide and I hadn’t encountered before. The waves that we’d plowed through in our previous travels had all been shorter and steeper wind waves, the product of smaller bodies of water. These ones though, were long rolling ocean swells. They might only have been four feet or so, but the motion was entirely different from what we were used to.

In smaller seas, the boat tends to roll and pitch around her axes, sometimes with harsh, jerky motions, and frequently with spray on the windshield. Out in these swells the motion wasn’t as jarring, but there was a lot more of it. She was heaving, yawing, and even doing a bit of light surfing in addition to the regular rolling and pitching. It was more like driving over small hills than splashing through waves. She felt like a very small boat, on a very, very big pond.

I checked the forecast one more time, and the tide tables for the Absecon Inlet at Atlantic City, where I’d hoped to come back in for the night. The wind and seas were supposed to get worse out of the south, and I’d be arriving when the current was at full ebb. That kind of wind-against-current situation can make for a pretty dicey inlet on a boat as slow and unathletic as Sylphide. So, with that in mind, I bravely turned around, and headed back in at Cape May.

So began a very, very long day. I joined a swarm of twenty something foot fishing boats, who always travel everywhere at full tilt, and funneled toward Two Mile bridge. The bridge answered my call immediately and politely, and was open for me in no time at all. So far so good then.

Around a few corners, and we were snaking our way past Wildwood, living up to it’s name with the ever present throng of full speed runabouts. George Redding bridge was the next one in line, and they answered quickly. I asked what the clearance was, and I was right on the edge of being able to fit under it. Sylphide is 22 feet tall, and the bridge said I had 21 to 22 feet. I decided not to take that chance, and asked for an opening, which I was obliged with.

Once I was clear of the bridge, I said my customary thank you to the operator, who then told me that I was no more than 15 feet tall, and that I was nowhere near needing an opening. Now I’m no engineer, but I did use a tape measure to check that figure, and I don’t think it was malfunctioning, but he seemed to be a little annoyed with me for asking for an opening. I’m not sure why he would rather I crash into the bridge, but I guess next time I will, just to spite him. I chose to just say thank you instead of arguing, and was on my way.

I continued along what felt like the New Jersey Turnpike. It was a sunny saturday in June, and the traffic was just biblical all day. I was being passed and waked about every two minutes. The ICW is curvy and zig zaggy as it is, but the number of boats just drifting in the middle of the channel was absolutely stunning. They always seemed to congregate on corners, in the narrowest channels, where my chart was most confusing, effectively turning this barely navigable waterway into a slalom course.

I lost count of how many times my depth sounder alarm went off. I knew this stretch was infamous for it’s shifting shoals and shallow waters, but Sylphide only needs 3.5 feet. You can barely float a rubber ducky in that much water, surely there must be that much water. Surely there must be. With the way the locals zip tie their throttles in the fully opened position, you’d think the channel was a thousand feet deep, and a thousand feet wide, but no. Parts of it are narrow enough that Queen Elizabeth could piss clear across it, and are so shallow that they’re barely wet. At one point, and I swear to God this is true, I watched a Jet Ski run aground at full speed less than a hundred feet off my starboard side. Those things need so little water, you can run them down the sidewalk if the humidity is high enough.

So, eventually the inevitable happened. I was transiting the Ben Folds Five thorofare, coming up to a ninety degree right hand turn at marker 304, where the visible channel was about sixty feet wide. With a train of a dozen or so boats coming the other way, I stood to my side of the ‘river’ to pass them, and WUMP. Dead stop. Shit.

I tried reversing off, but she didn’t budge. Shit. I decided I wouldn’t be able to do anything while this mile long parade of boats passed by, so I sat there like a log and waited, while everyone slowed down to rubberneck at me. After a few boats went by, even though Sylphide was still firmly rooted, she started to turn broadside to the channel. I tried to straighten her out, but she would have none of it. I took up almost the whole channel, but even still, the traffic kept shoving past me.

Eventually, I decided I’d waited long enough, and in true New Jersey fashion, I just started doing whatever I wanted to do, and to hell with everyone else. I worked the rudder, and worked the engine, and managed to shift her off the bank. Sylphide was apparently no worse for the wear. No vibrations, no leaks, no harm done. I then proceeded on my way down the middle of the channel, letting everyone else find their way around number one from now on.

I trundled on through the endless traffic, ceaselessly staring at my depth-o-meter, sawing at the wheel, following the drunken stagger of a waterway. Every time I passed an outlet into the ocean, I longed to go through and out into the open ocean. I made my way to and through Margate City, with it’s opening bridge, with no lines and no waiting. Then it was on to Ventnor City, and a few other properties on the Monopoly board. Then I started into the outskirts of Atlantic city, where there was plenty of lines and waiting for everyone.

I lost about half an hour waiting for the Dorset Ave bridge, which only opens on Orthodox holidays and the 31st of February. I jogged back and forth in the super skinny channel, and eyed up a spot that’s listed as an anchorage on Active Captain. It had been a stupidly busy day, and the thought of stopping for the night was beginning to sound awfully nice. It was early yet though, and I was determined to get past Atlantic City, and pressed on.

Shortly after Dorset Ave, came Albany Ave bridge, which greeted me with the news that it’s next opening would be at six. I looked at my clock to find that it was about twenty after four. Sigh.

I started looking for some place to tie up, and found one right next to the bridge. It was a nice looking floating dock belonging to a restaurant. The dock was empty, and the place looked to be closed. I tried calling a few times, and was even excited at the prospect of getting some takeout, but I got no answer. I decided to throw caution to the wind, and to throw some lines around some cleats, and give ol’ Perkins a little rest. I needed one too, honestly, and I made myself a sandwich and sat out on the back porch for a while.

The owner of the restaurant stopped by a short while later in a sharp looking Range Rover Sport, and very graciously allowed me to wait there for the bridge free of charge, so long as I wasn’t planning to stay overnight. The restaurant had closed for the day, due to some protests that were happening in the area, which thankfully stayed peaceful.

After Albany let me through, It was a short hop to the next opening bridge, but before I got there, my fathometer zeroed out on me for the 3404933983749rd time that day, around marker 207. She kept floating though, and I caught a break at the next bridge, which was a railroad job that had opened for the night.

The next next bridge wasn’t so lucky, though. Absecon bridge only opens on the hour, which meant that I had another 40 minutes to kill. I drove in circles, did 49 point turns, drifted, and jogged back and forth. Then I drifted aground again. There’s a shallow spot on the north side of the channel which is marked on the navionics charts, but not on my Coastal Explorer charts. Guess which one I was using at that moment.

Sylphide was pretty firmly planted. More so than last time, in fact, with the inbound current working against me. I backed and filled, ruddered hard over one way, then the other. I transferred my not inconsiderable weight around the boat to no effect. I was channeling my inner Captain Jack Aubrey, thinking about starting the fresh water over the side to lighten up, when she worked herself free. Again, no harm done.

I made it through the last opening bridge of the day, and found ever deepening water on the other side. I was nearing the Absecon Inlet at Atlantic City, where the water is deep, and wide, and friendly.

I pulled into the Brigantine anchorage area at about 1930 that night, only an hour or so before sunset. There were a few boats anchored in Brigantine 1, and some mooring balls that I didn’t know anything about were taking up the rest of the area. I probably could have wedged myself between that mess and a bowrider full of half naked and fully rowdy drunken Jersey bros, but I decided to check out the other anchorages. Thankfully the one marked Brigantine 3 was empty, with loads of space, and good depth.

I splashed the anchor there, in the back yards of a few dozen rich people’s houses. One of them was bathed in a really tacky blue light, and was crawling with folks singing Billy Joel songs until late that evening.

It had been a very, very long day, and I was utterly exhausted. I slept like a log that night, despite the blue glow, and karaoke.

In short, two paths diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one more travelled by, and I will try really, really, REALLY hard not to take that one again.

Apologies for the lack of pictures and other multimedia stimulation in this one. I was so firmly attached to the wheel, that I had a hard time finding time to pee, let alone take pictures. Thanks for reading my scribbles!

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