Delaware Bay and C&D Canal

Industry meets nature.

There is a large amount of commercial ship and barge traffic on the Delaware Bay and River, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal that connect them. On this leg we passed mostly natural, barren shorelines that make you wonder what all these ships are up to. But if you zoom out a bit you quickly see the critical connection that these waterways provide between major East Coast ports including New York, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Norfolk — and all the small towns and power plants in between that require regular deliveries of oil. The big ships are generally constrained to a narrow channel we try to avoid. In the narrow C&D Canal AIS, radar and slow speeds prevent surprises around the next bend.

The leg from Cape May up Delaware Bay and through the C&D Canal was relatively tame weather-wise. We had some headwinds and seas on the initial departure from Cape May as we had to head southwest around Prissy Wicks Shoal. Andante is a bit too big for the shortcut backdoor Cape May canal. Once we threaded our way through the shoals and started up the bay the winds were generally light. We timed the tides just right and enjoyed as much as a 2 kt push on the trip north.

Motoring with the yankee up for a little extra push. We enjoyed speeds exceeding 9 knots due to the strong favorable current.


The banks of the Delaware Bay are pretty spartan. Marshes, a few trees, the occasional nuclear power plant. But there is life, especially birds.

I did not notice any 3-eyed birds.
Bald eagle on Red 8, just offshore of Eagle Island. Coincidence?

The C&D canal is about 20 miles long and connects the Delaware River (just below the big Delaware Memorial Bridge on I-95) with the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay. In many ways this canal is similar to the Cape Cod Canal. Both were expanded from existing small waterways and both are run by the US Army Corp of Engineers. Even some of the bridge architecture is vaguely similar. While the Cape Cod Canal railroad bridge is far more attractive and ornate, the Contrail bridge over the C&D is more active with freight train traffic all day long.

Entering the C&D from the Delaware River.
Conrail railroad bridge on C&D Canal.
The canal is deep right up to the riprap on shore. Which is good because I pulled way over to the side for this guy.

With severe storms rolling in we stopped for the day at Chesapeake City. Its a cute little harbor about 2/3 of the way along the canal with restaurants and bars and crabs. But the anchorage was small and crowded and I had no plans to go ashore. When the thunderstorms hit later that evening two boats (both unoccupied at the time – owners were at the bar) dragged through the soft mud and ended up pinned against the beach and docks on shore. Both boats and crews were fine afterwards. We decided to leave as soon as possible the next morning to find a more secure location to ride out the multi-day gale that was forecast to arrive in the afternoon.

Anchorage at Chesapeake City

Jersey Shore

Long day. Good fun.

Only short-in-stature, challenged-in-draft vessels can navigate the intracoastal waterway protected by the Jersey Shore’s barrier islands. Unlike the ICW south from Norfolk, VA the New Jersey segment is very shallow and the fixed bridges that cross it are shorter than the 65 ft standard. So real boats need to head out into the Atlantic at Sandy Hook and sail offshore to Cape May, a distance of about 120 nm. There are a few inlets in between that can be used to break up the trip (notably Atlantic City) — but we chose to press on and get it done in one 24-hour period.

Friday afternoon we filled the fuel tank, refilled the snack locker, and gave the engine a thorough checkup. On Saturday morning we left the Atlantic Highlands boat basin at dawn. It took more than two hours to navigate north around Sandy Hook, into the Atlantic, and then back south along the beach to the latitude of our starting point. There were lots (LOTS) of little fishing boats for the first few hours. I didn’t see anyone actually catch anything, but from the volume and diversity of boats (and the salty language on the radio) you could tell these folks were serious about their sport.

The Atlantic Highlands boat basin has an amazing view of downtown Manhattan.
After much messing about in inland bays and sounds it was a good to finally be out in the ocean and heading in the right direction.

Weather conditions were generally good with a few clouds and a light drizzle in the morning. A few scattered showers were predicted for the evening. It was cool enough and with enough rain potential that I put up the bimini to provide a windbreak and keep the cockpit somewhat dry. And I bundled up too.

Winds were light and from behind. On a flat sea we probably could have sailed the whole way but with a 2-3 foot quartering swell we were rolling and the sails were not effective on their own. So the engine ran for the first half of the trip to keep us moving at a reasonable pace. The genoa did help stabilize the boat as long as there was enough wind to keep it full. To escape the noise and smell I spent time forward of the cockpit as conditions allowed.

An almost glassy Atlantic

The Jersey shore is not particularly photogenic from 1-2 miles offshore. In some areas there were lots of little cottages and families at the beach, in others the entire beachfront looked commercial. Each of the towns was different, none more so than Atlantic City. The high-rise buildings were visible from more than 20 miles away in daylight and the gaudy lights further still after dark.

Barnegat Inlet is known for its occasionally rough and dangerous conditions. The wreckage of a sailboat was being cleared as we sailed past. The Barnegat Lighthouse is one of the taller and more attractive along the coast.

With the glassy conditions I was disappointed to see no whales. But I was ecstatic to see some brown pelicans. These are generally warm-climate birds that migrate to the mid-Atlantic states in summer and are very rarely seen as far north as Cape Cod. More evidence that we are making significant progress southward.

An afternoon rain shower provided some interesting colors. The full rainbow was visible but I was unable to get a photo of the complete arch as my camera lens wasn’t wide enough.

Right around sunset the wind picked up as a few more small storms passed over us This let us shut down the engine and sail for the second half of the trip. It was glorious cruising along at 7 kts on a starry, moonlit night.

Storm coming
Moonlight

Cape May is a well-protected harbor with an easy-to-navigate inlet. Which is good, because I had to navigate it at 0400 this morning after 22 hours of sailing. Fortunately there was still some moonlight. And also GPS. And radar. And a very effective range. And lighted channel markers. And I had studied other accounts of finding the anchorage in the dark. So using just those few tools we found a nice spot to anchor just off the beach adjacent to the Coast Guard training facility. And then went to bed.

We are literally a stones throw from the beach. We’re well-protected from the weather. Not so protected from the fisherfolk who started zooming by before 6 this morning.
Coast Guard training facility in Cape May

From Cape May the fundamental routing decision is whether to continue south on the outside to Norfolk, or head inshore up the Delaware Bay, across the C&D Canal, and down the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk. I’m looking forward to having some family visit us in the Annapolis area — so we’ll be taking the inshore route this time.

Today, besides napping, I’m working on planning our transit of Delaware Bay and the C&D canal. It looks like the weather should be passable tomorrow – not perfect, but workable – and the all-important tides and currents align nicely with daylight hours. The leg from Cape May to Chesapeake City (near the Maryland end of the C&D canal) is about 75 nm but should take less than 10 hours if we can ride a favorable tide the whole way. A substantial gale is expected Tuesday and Wednesday. If all goes according to plan we’ll ride that out in Chesapeake City. From there its on to Annapolis, then down the Chesapeake to Norfolk to join the ICW.