The Beauty of Turning Back - SailNet Community

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Old 11-13-2000
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Kevin Jeffrey is on a distinguished road
The Beauty of Turning Back


If what you thought were benign conditions prove otherwise, turning back is an honorable and morale-boosting option.
Cove Point was getting no closer. The same power plant still hovered to starboard while the same eerie research buoys loomed ahead. If we were closing with the point, our progress could at best be measured in inches.  With darkness less than two hours away that wasn't good enough.

To starboard lay the Chesapeake's longest stretch of bold, unbroken shoreline, unrelieved by even a single anchorage. Between here and Solomons Island one had virtually no choice but to continue on. To port lay the only possible alternative, the Little Choptank River with its various isolated and beautiful anchorages. Unfortunately, it was 10 miles back.

"Here's the situation," said Kevin after a thorough consultation with the chart. "It's 10 miles to Solomons and 10 miles back to Hudson Creek in the Little Choptank." The choice seemed obvious, go on to Solomons. But ahead lay more miles of slogging into headwinds and persistent chop. At our present rate of progress we would get there around midnight, something we were reluctant to do with our limited experience navigating in the dark. There were also the children to be considered. Tristan and Colin, at age three, demanded a great deal of our time and attention, particularly towards the end of the day when they required more than their usual share of assistance. One of us would be completely tied up with feeding, changing, teeth-brushing, and story-reading. To compound the situation with tricky sailing and navigation did not appeal to either of us.

"The mere thought of turning back raised a barrier in our minds."

To turn back, however, was almost unthinkable. We had never turned back. A mile or two might not have mattered. But 10 miles? How could we throw away 10 miles of hard-won struggle against contrary wind and waves? Those miles had been difficult, uncomfortable, and time-consuming. They had also gobbled up a significant amount of fuel as we were motorsailing to help our progress through the waves. The mere thought of turning back raised a barrier in our minds.

We looked ahead toward Cove Point, willing it to come closer. A series of mental encouragements flashed through my mind. Once around that unobtainable point, the last six miles to Solomons would be more off the wind. Perhaps the wind would die down a little, or veer off, or the waves let up. Perhaps we could cut inside those research buoys and sneak around the point. If only Hudson Creek wasn't so far back.

I grabbed the chart and cruising guide for one last hopeful search. They were both quite definite on one point: At the moment we were sailing in the most unprotected waters of the entire Chesapeake Bay. There were no snug anchorages we had previously overlooked. Just one long, unrelenting shore.


Remember, sailing should be fun, not a test of willpower.  Next time you're slogging to windward, consider the alternatives.
I could also sense Kevin's inner struggle as he glanced once again at his watch. Time was running out while we silently debated the odds. Our inherent adversion to turning back began to crumble. With hardly a word, we jibed Kjersti around and headed north for the first time in weeks.

Instantly the sailing seemed glorious again. Kjersti grabbed the wind and took off on a mad, exhilarating dash toward the Little Choptank. Caught up in the pleasure of it all, the strain in our minds began to ease.

"Remember in Hal Roth's book, Two on a Big Ocean, when they turned around after sailing for four hours in Alaska?" I asked. "Sure," replied Kevin, "Or that couple we saw turn back that day off New Jersey?" I remembered them well. We had sailed halfway to Cape May from Atlantic City in strong winds and 10-foot waves when we spotted a large ketch motoring north into the seas. As we came abeam she turned around and sailed back with us. The couple on board had spent an entire day under grueling conditions, going nowhere.

With each successive moment we derived more comfort from the easy motion, effortless sailing, and fast progress. Most consoling of all was the thought of other sailors who had also turned back. Surely that couple in New Jersey had faced a far more difficult decision than we had. And if a pro like Hal Roth could turn back after four hours, so could we. Compared to their experiences, 10 miles was practically next door.

Rounding the northern tip of James Island we entered the Little Choptank in surprisingly little time. The sun set impressively, a few tardy fishing boats chugged home behind us, and Hudson Creek appeared comfortingly close ahead. A large ketch, reminiscent of a miniature Mayflower appeared peacefully in the cove as we sounded our way over to the shore and dropped anchor. Lights twinkled from her great cabin under the poop deck. A lighted day marker flashed a ball of red fire at four second intervals. Crickets chirped boisterously along the shore and water lapped gently on Kjersti's hulls.

The children were soon happily seated in the salon, eating scrambled eggs and toast. I relaxed with a much needed cup of tea and my novel. Kevin lit the cabin light and broke out the wine and our anxieties about the last six miles to Solomons Island were forgotten.

Hudson Creek now remains our favorite anchorage in the Chesapeake. We stayed for two days, waiting for a change of wind. The children built sand castles on a tiny beach, I wrote letters, and Kevin overhauled the engine. A charming man rowed over from the ketch and chatted endlessly about the Bahamas, good Florida marinas, British catamarans, and financing life afloat. If we hadn't turned back, we would have missed all that.


And if you do end up back at the same anchorage you recently left, you'll have the added bonus of meeting up with familiar boats and faces.

Most important of all was our new perspective on turning back. We learned that it served a purpose, was not evidence of failure, and, in the end, did not really lessen our progress. We learned to stay put on those days when conditions were wrong for pushing on. Or to head somewhere else, even if it was off the previously determined route. Many times since we've remembered our experience off Cove Point and reached a decision earlier when conditions grew unfavorable. Above all we learned that the 10 miles forward to Solomons Island or back to Hudson Creek were not equivalent. One was relaxing, quickly executed, and rewarding. The other was tense, difficult, and too dependent on the engine. Now we know that our mental barrier against turning back was self-imposed and unreasonable. Once broken, we were liberated into making the right decision without preconceived notions of the meaning of successful sailing. Wherever we and our boat are going is what matters. Whether forward or back is really irrelevant. What's important is whether it is safe, obtainable, and enjoyable. One other thing we learned—turning back can be fun.


Suggested Reading List

  1. At Odds with the Weather Gods by John Kretschmer
  2. The Cruising Life - How to get Started by Sue & Larry
  3. Children on Board by Kevin Jeffrey
  4. SailNet Buying Guide - Chartplotters

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