Thursday, June 28, 2012

Casting Bread on Troubled Waters

It's never a beam reach. But on this perfect day
off the Jersey shore, it was.
Today we had a glorious sail along the Jersey shore from Cape May to Barnegat Inlet. This was a blue sky day to savoir. We had a soldier's wind with sufficient vigor for Sweet Pea to put her shoulder down and muscle aside old swells as she clenched a bone. The old schooner route runs just off the beach, giving us a sheltered run in sparkling green water. Now and then a particularly enthusiastic gust pegged the speedo to hull speed and we sprinted toward that day’s finish line. 

That day's Tidy Loaf. Anita was concerned that the photo op
might end by the loaf diving overboard when we heeled.
Fortunately that didn't happen.
Sailing under a brilliant blue sky had dispelled my gloom and put me in the mood to do some baking. The loaf had actually been started several days prior during a rare period of strife among our crew. I baked it along the Jersey shore. And then, to celebrate a perfectly delightful sail, we consumed it underway. It was my peace offering and a heart-felt apology.

An unnecessary cruising wound.
The emotional waters were troubled because I had acted as if I were a single hander despite Anita’s being aboard. The day before I had decided to raise anchor and head out at first light. Instead of being consulted or even informed, Anita was unexpectedly launched out of a sound sleep into a churning chaos. Then as she stumbled about below, rescuing her laptop and other items in a cabin totally unprepared for rough seas, she whacked her heel a good one on the settee’s corner.  Shortly thereafter her head popped out of the companionway and she tersely offered her opinion.

One time at Jekyll Harbor Marina in Georgia we and a number of others on the dock were audience to a couple's docking follies. As a power vessel approached, she clung to the bow, clutching a line. He maneuvered and loudly corrected her every move. Perhaps he had the best of intentions, but every barked command sounded like a skin of abuse stretched over an old grudge. The fast running current made the landing difficult, so he got to do a lot of correcting. After tying off, she turned and shared her opinion with him (and everyone else within a quarter mile). “I don’t know why I come on this fucking boat,” pause, “with you”. Later the spectators agreed that it was that pause before the tag line that made it so withering. This became the catch phrase when we chatted on the dock. At Jekyll a first mate had only to pause, look significantly at the captain and say, “with you” for everyone to understand exactly what was meant.

I really did have good intentions but intentions are such a weak excuse. Since Anita and I typically go months without any strife, it was a memorable blow up. If Anita added, “with you” it was under her breath. But it would have been well deserved.

How could this have happened? It all started when we had departed Havre de Grace two days before, headed out of the Chesapeake and down the Delaware River, bound for Cape May. The forecast was for winds to clock from southwest to northwest, at 20 knots, gusting to 30. The moon was perfectly aligned to start the next day’s ebb early in the morning. The plan was to get through the canal on one day's flood, anchor overnight and leave early the next morning on the ebb. This would put us in Cape May well before dark.

We made a quick stop in Chesapeake City where Vulcan's Rest Fibers' siren call beckoned Anita. She got an hour’s shore leave. After that the fading flood gently flushed us out of the C&D Canal and into the Delaware River. We had motored through the canal with almost no breeze – sailing is prohibited anyway. However, as we turned southeast on the river the first gusts from the southwest told us that the wind was beginning to obey NOAA’s instructions.

It was too late in the day to make Cape May before dark even if we could sail at top speed the entire way. Running the lower Delaware in the dark wasn’t something we wanted to do, even with radar to take the sport out of dodging ships, tugs dragging distant barges and lots of towers and buoys. What about all those pot markers and logs? Who would take the sport out of dodging them?

There are only a few choices for anchoring on the Delaware. We had previously experienced tucking behind Reedy Island when the flood ran against a building northwest wind. That had been an anxious night. We circled like a junk-yard dog on a chain and then at dawn had to sort out two anchors in a twisted Bahamian moor. Wind against current can be wicked rough.

We anchored in 16 feet of water, west of the first bend
near the north bank of the Cohansey River.
This time we ventured into the Cohansey River, a protected anchorage about a third of the way between the C&D Canal and Cape May.

The entrance can be heart stopping if you wander toward the starboard bank and manage to thump on the shoals. I knew that from experience. Several years before I found myself sawing the wheel this way and that, searching for deeper water and regretting having come into such a tricky entrance. On departing the next morning I realized that the channel carries 18 feet of water and hugs the northwest bank. I had foolishly let the current set me onto the southeast bank, well out of the channel. 

This time we slowly motored against the ebbing current midway between the two banks, barely gaining as the depth meter spun down and my anxiety peaked. The least depth we saw was a generous nine feet. Gracious, staying off the sandbar makes quite a difference. Had I stayed even closer to the northwest bank I would have seen 20 feet, just as before.

After chugging upriver and sniffing out various spots, we snuggled up to a weather shore with the current running across the wind. The holding was excellent in thick mud. Despite the rigging’s moaning, I had a peaceful night in this snug anchorage.

Not Anita. Worries from home intruded. She kept a private watch and wondered how things back in Atlanta could possibly work out. She’s our expert worrier. I joke that only her dedication keeps all those unfortunate outcomes at bay. Perhaps so.

By first light the wind had softened to a breeze without any punch. The weather gods had spoken and apparently NOAA hadn't listened to the news.  I started thinking that we would have a long day's motor with a dying breeze on the stern. 

Without nearly enough worry on my part, I naively decided to sneak out while she slept in. The ebb was strong, what wind there was would be with the current and when she woke, we would be half way to the Cape May Canal. Wouldn’t it be lovely? She didn’t stir as I clanked in the anchor and crossed the bar. 
The Delaware River was just a bit choppy.
It was a washing machine. The wind may had softened up the Cohansey but on the Delaware it was still as hard as a punch on the nose. The gusts really stacked up the Cohansey’s River’s two-knot ebb. Wind against current can be wicked rough. Who would have thought?

As for the Tidy Loaf, its pre-ferment was two days at galley temperature. At the end of the pre-ferment it looked like tan soup without a bubble dotting its surface. Two days is longer than I usually let it sit. I was busy doing other things. 

Using the pre-ferment despite its lack of froth, I mixed a particularly wet dough by shorting the flour. In bakers' lingo, it was well hydrated with the flour-to-water percentage being lower than my usual mix. As a result, it was more like a 90-pound weakling than a muscle-bound weight lifter. As I kneaded I simply wasn’t in the mood for more tapping in flour and stirring. I had other things on my mind and quit early, putting it to bed in the fridge before we dropped anchor off the Cape May Coast Guard station.

The top knot is that last bit of dough that sticks to the bowl.
It emerged the next day, puffed up and full of itself, covered with prominent gas blisters, and as light as a good meringue. After rising for an hour or so, the resultant loaf had an enthusiastic oven spring, practically turning flips on the parchment paper. 

This may have contributed to its especially crunchy crust. Cleaning crumbs from the cockpit after enjoying its tangy chew was part of the pleasure.

Anita graciously accepted a slice of warm bread, smeared with butter. We arrived at Barnegat with less than half the loaf aboard. I’m really hoping she knows why she comes
on this boat . . . with me.

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