Newport to Annapolis


Traversing the inside route between two great sailing cities  (published April 2013)

The passage between Newport, Rhode Island and Annapolis, Maryland is a popular sailing transit between two historic yachting centers on the East Coast. After the Newport Boat Show in September and prior to the Annapolis show over Columbus Day weekend, the route is bustling with yacht deliveries and cruisers heading south for the winter. But while it may be well worn, it is a passage with several route options that need to be thought out and navigated with care.

We were delivering Pratique, a new Outbound 46 (commissioned in May 2012), from Narragansett Bay to Annapolis for the United States Sailboat Show. I had made this passage numerous times before, and Pratique’s owners Bennett and Susan were aboard for this trip. Bennett had several long passages under his belt and this would be Susan’s first real offshore passage, so I was looking forward to a favorable forecast to go with an enjoyable full moon.

Offshore, the rhumb line from Newport to Cape May, New Jersey is about 240 degrees magnetic and I usually budget about 36 hours to cover the 235-mile leg to Delaware Bay. Early forecasts called for a damp and fair easterly flow for the trip, which would have been fine. But as our departure time approached, the forecast predicted an initial easterly that would shift to the south and southwest before building to 20 plus knots on the nose. Then a weak frontal passage early Saturday would bring a shift to the northwest and west.

While Pratique would love the windward conditions, I conservatively opted to head west for the inside route through Long Island Sound, past New York City and down the Jersey Shore. It would be a more comfortable route and only slightly longer, but with some significant tidal considerations. This route also offered numerous potential rest stops where we could wait for the tide or hide from any uncomfortable conditions. Long Island Sound has more sheltered anchorages than can be mentioned. And along the Jersey shore, the Atlantic Highlands, Atlantic City and Cape May are convenient stops if warranted and easy to enter in poor conditions (except for Atlantic City).

We left Barrington, R.I. at 1000 on a Friday and cleared the Newport Bridge at 1200 with a 15-knot easterly that quickly built to 25 knots when we cleared Castle Hill at the mouth of the bay. Out in open water, the Outbound 46 was in her element, easily clicking off 10 knots and sailing comfortably under autopilot, in spite of a steep chop on the beam. Flying the Solent jib and one reef in the main, Pratique was perfectly balanced. As we approached Point Judith, the wind began to clock to the southeast, then south as predicted, which put us on a broad reach down Rhode Island Sound towards the Race and Long Island Sound.
The wind remained steady at about 25 knots apparent and we were flying, but our quick progress was going to put us at the Race a bit early to catch the tidal change. As Watch Hill and Fishers Island became visible, the wind began to decrease and shift to the southwest. We furled the Solent and unfurled the larger genoa to keep moving under sail alone and our reduced speed put us at the Race exactly at slack water, which meant we had nearly six hours of fair tide to look forward to.

By nightfall, the wind had become very light so the trusty 75-horsepower Yanmar diesel went on and we picked up the pace to 7 knots. Severe thunderstorm warnings were posted for parts of Long Island and Connecticut during the night and we dodged our way through some spectacular lightning and heavy squalls after midnight. Winds were generally light between the squalls and we motorsailed the rest of the way towards New York City after several failed attempts to keep our boat speed up under sail only. Fortunately, commercial traffic on the Sound was very light.

Susan bundled against the fall weather, enjoying the passage down the East River
Susan bundled against the fall weather, enjoying the passage down the East River

Hell Gate in New York’s East River boasts one of the most powerful tidal races on the East Coast, which meant we had to time our transit perfectly to make the fair tide at 1100 on Saturday morning. As New York loomed in the pre-dawn hours, we ducked into Port Washington on the northern Long Island shore and anchored to catch a few hours of sleep while waiting for the tide.

At 0900 we were underway again with a light northwesterly wind that followed the passage of the weak cold front. Motoring into the eastern approaches to New York, we made our way under the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges, past Ft. Schuyler and Riker’s Island. We were in the company of several other southbound cruisers—evident by the full cruising kit with extra water and fuel jugs, bikes and kayaks—all of us enjoying the favorable current, and as we passed through Hell Gate our speed over ground was up to 11 knots.

Approaching the United Nations Building opposite Roosevelt Island, we were greeted by a significant U.S. Coast Guard contingent, consisting of four vessels. An armed inflatable came alongside with crew in full battle gear and requested that we stay as far to the east side of the channel as possible as we passed this patrolled area, which we did.  Susan still refers to the hailing crewmember as “the nice young man with the machine gun.” We recalled that there had been a significant meeting of world leaders that week at the UN.
It was Saturday, so we relaxed and took in the sights as we were swept down the East River past joggers, bikers, Tai Chi enthusiasts, the new World Trade Buildings and of course, the rushing, honking traffic along the Manhattan shoreline. Still using the current to our advantage we were soon clear of the Battery and New York Harbor and passed under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge as we entered Raritan Bay. The wind continued to be light and had shifted slightly more to the west, so when we cleared Ambrose Channel and turned south along the New Jersey shore, we throttled back and motorsailed on a nice beam reach.

I shaped our course about two miles offshore, which kept us slightly inside the line of “MoA” sea buoys and clear of the tug and tow traffic plying the Delaware Bay to New York City route.  This tactic also kept us in very smooth water in the lee of the beach with the west wind. As night fell, the wind increased slightly and we were able to shut down the engine and sail at good speed. It was a lovely night with a nearly full moon, but again our speed was going to put us ahead of the 0600 favorable tide change at Cape May.

When I came on watch at 0200, we were close reaching nicely at 8 knots.  Conveniently, the wind steadily dropped all morning, as did our speed, and when we approached Cape May on schedule at 0600 we were ghosting along at about 2 knots. On went the engine and we wove our way under power through the Prissy Wicks Shoal and along the beach under the Cape May lighthouse.

Chesapeake and Delaware Canal
Chesapeake and Delaware Canal

Delaware Bay never lets me down, what little wind we had at dawn was back to the northwest so on the nose once again. I’m sure if we were delivering the opposite direction, the wind would have been southeast. At least the wind was light so we had good speed under power as we made our way up Delaware Bay in the company of a few more cruising boats and, of course, many ocean going ships. Fortunately, it was a clear calm day and these were enjoyable encounters rather than foggy meetings spent staring at the radar. The timing of our arrival at the C&D canal, connecting Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay, again worked in our favor and we entered the canal between the breakwaters just as the tide was turning with us.

We now had a choice to make; press on and arrive in Annapolis in the wee hours of Monday morning, or stop for the night and have dinner ashore at the west end of the canal in Chesapeake City, then head to Annapolis the following day with a late afternoon arrival. Clearly, our decision was easy and we enjoyed a platter of crabs at the Tap Room in Chesapeake City and a good night’s sleep. The tide gods continued to smile upon us the next day, and we carried another fair current from the canal all the way to Annapolis. However, the wind gods were frowning and we had to power in light air during the entire Chesapeake leg, which put us in Annapolis at about 1800 on Monday, giving us plenty of time to set up for the boat show the following day.

Pratique, journey's end, Annapolis Boat Show
Pratique, journey’s end, Annapolis Boat Show

What had originally been anticipated as a good offshore delivery morphed into a timing exercise to negotiate the tides along the Connecticut, New York and Delaware shores. Our inside route was slightly longer, yet when factoring in the brief stops we made, our time underway was slightly less than 55 hours, as compared to 48 to 50 hours it typically takes sailing the offshore route. We had some great sailing, saw the sights, met “a nice young man with a machine gun”, enjoyed Maryland crab and arrived rested and right on schedule to move into the show. This was a good one!

Skip Pond owns Pond Yachts Sales in Rhode Island and is a dealer for Outbound Yachts.  A long time professional skipper, Skip and his wife Madeline now spend their winters cruising in the Caribbean aboard their 40-foot sloop Saralane. Contact Skip through his website

Shipping Lane Tactics: Tips for safe encounters at sea

Sailing along the Northeast coast from Maine to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay takes you through some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. There is almost no greater danger to a cruising boat at sea than an encounter with a ship, particularly one that does not see you and does not hear your call on the VHF radio. It is always prudent to assume that an approaching ship or tug and barge does not see you.

AIS has dramatically improved yacht-ship encounters. This automatic identification system broadcasts your position, course, speed and boat name to all vessels equipped with AIS within a line of sight range. All commercial vessels are required to carry AIS, so you can always see who and what is around you and on converging courses. For coastal cruising, AIS is a valuable electronic upgrade.
A strong VHF radio signal is essential for communicating with ships and you need to have a radio or RAM mic in the cockpit so you can maintain a visual watch while calling on the radio. Some of the new Standard Horizon VHFs have AIS built into them, a handy combination.

It is imperative that you know and follow the rules of the road when encountering a ship. Part of that protocol is to obey the shipping lanes, or when crossing them, do so as quickly as possible. Also, when making a coastal run, stay inside the offshore sea buoys where transiting ships are prohibited. The rule of gross tonnage only trumps the rules of the road when a ship fails to acknowledge your call or fails to turn away when approaching as the “burdened” vessel.

Watchkeeping is the baseline of ship avoidance. A freighter will appear over the horizon and be on your position in under 20 minutes. During the day, you have to scan the horizon every 10 minutes without sitting glued to the radar and chartplotter. At night you need to know how to read the running and steaming lights on ships so you can accurately assess the ship’s course, speed and relative bearing to you. Remember, if the compass bearing to an approaching ship remains the same as you close with it, you are on a collision course.