Category Archives: Skipper’s Tips

A Foggy Trip to Newport

In less than a month, our first race of the season will begin. The Annapolis Newport Race is one of the iconic races on the East Coast of the U.S. and we are delighted to have Suntex Marinas as one of our key sponsors this year. They have helped bring a sense of adventure and excitement to our racing season.

routeWith the Annapolis Newport Race coming up, and the Volvo Ocean Race boats at Newport, RI, I thought it would be a great opportunity to take the available crew up to Newport on the ocean side for some pre-race training. It would be the first sail of the season for them. Given that the plan was to leave on Mother’s Day, we decided to leave later in the evening around 9 pm. After all, Moms were the priority that day!

Manhattan at DuskThe weather forecast was generally good. Winds were forecasted at 10-15 knots (with gusts to 20 knts) from the south and shifting to the southwest later. That would make for a great broad reach through part of the night, then a fun spinnaker run up to Newport. The less exciting part of the forecast was the dense fog advisory in effect until the following day around noon.

Fortunately, the fog held off as we left Liberty Landing Marina and headed under the Verrazano Bridge out onto the open ocean. It was a beautiful initial three hours of sailing on a warm evening with stars acting as our guide. Alas, it was too short though. By 12:30 the fog began to roll in and ended up staying with us for the remainder of the sail up to Newport.

Some of the crew were initially nervous about sailing in dense fog. After all, how can you sail if you can’t see? Granted, at first it can be quite intimidating, but if properly prepared, it is manageable. Obviously, the biggest concern on the ocean is the potential of a collision with a (usually much bigger) boat. However, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the risk. Namely, understanding how to use radar and knowing how to use AIS (Automatic Identification System).

digital_radar_imageOne of the most important tools for sailing at times of limited visibility is radar. Radar gives us the ability to “see” objects such as land, other ships and navigation markers even when there is dense fog and in the dark of night.  However, it does take time to understand radar and to properly interpret what appears on the screen. The crew will have good practice on this sail.

Another tool is AIS which will show nearby boats as triangles on a chart plotter (electronic map). Clicking on the triangle will give you that boat’s navigational details including whether it is on a collision course. The two key terms to know with AIS are CPA (closest point of approach) and TCPA (time of closest point of approach). This data essentially tells you how close the risk of a collision is and when that could occur.

Once the crew settled in to a night of sailing in fog off the coast of Long Island, people relaxed somewhat. However, they soon encountered another challenge. Helming a true course in fog can be quite difficult as there are no visual cues such as the moon or stars to help steer a straight line. Nevertheless, there are still sensory clues that can help. One of the techniques I teach is to feel the direction of wind on your face or head when you are sailing on course and try to constantly be sensitive to that, using it as a guide. Also, the boat will have a certain motion as it sails with the waves on a particular direction. Learning to feel that is important for good helming. Finally, there is the compass that can be used to help steer a straight course. Just remember that you don’t want to simply react to compass changes as the slow swinging of the compass can lead to over steering.

Sailing on a broad reach along the coast there was a time or two when the person at the helm accidentally gybed and began sailing in the opposite direction (oops!). But with time, everyone improved remarkably. For those whom it was a first time sailing in fog at night it was a great learning experience, and they improved considerably by the end of the trip.

foggy sailDaylight hours did not bring any relief from the fog. It stayed socked in around us with visibility less than ½ mile and at times, less than a hundred yards. It was disappointing for some to pass close to Montauk Point without being able to see it. Later as we rounded Block Island, we passed navigational markers less than a quarter mile away although we could not visually see them. However, they did show up on radar and they could be heard through the dense fog.

castle hill lightIt wasn’t until we were close to Newport that we saw our first sight of land. Castle Hill Light slowly appeared out of the fog as we made our approach, and then one by one other landmarks began to appear out of the mist.  As we rounded Fort Adams, we could see the Volvo Ocean Race Village and the six boats all tied up at the docks. It was a beautiful and exciting sight!


castle hill



Transiting Hell Gate

maelstromHell Gate, just the sound of it brought many a man to their knees in fear. Just a small stretch of the East River between New York Harbor and Long Island Sound, for centuries it conjured up images of a treacherous journey through whirlpools large enough to swallow ships and with wild rapids churning up giant standing waves and hidden rocks ready to rip the bottoms out of ships.

Originally named by the Dutch when New York was Nieuw-Amsterdam, Hell Gate or Hellegat was first navigated in 1614 by the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block. Since that time hundreds of ships have sunk in the narrow channel. Some historians believe that “one in 50 ships trying to run the gauntlet of Hell Gate was either damaged or sunk” with up to 1,000 ships running aground annually in Hell Gate prior to the 1850’s. One of the most famous to have ended up at the bottom of Hell Gate was the British Revolutionary War frigate H.M.S. Hussar in 1780. Laden with millions of dollars (at the time) in gold and silver and over 150 men, she struck a rock and quickly sank.

During the late 19th century the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to blow up the rocks and reefs which plagued the treacherous tidal straight. At one point, the Corps used so much explosives that the blast was felt as far away as Princeton, NJ.

east-river-wavesToday, the short stretch of river is much more benign than days of yore, but it can still be a challenge to navigate for the unprepared. Currents can run up to six knots at times and tugs with barges under tow can suddenly appear around the sharp bends of the channel. Adding to that, is the possibility of steep five foot waves near the 59th Street Bridge due to upwelling caused by the subway tunnels running under the river.

Timed correctly though, a passage through the East River and Hell Gate is an enjoyable journey between Long Island Sound and New York Harbor, with stunning views of the UN and much of midtown Manhattan. Depending on the direction of approach, there are different easy steps to follow to make your journey as enjoyable as possible.


Any trip northbound begins in either one of two ways: 1. check for when Northeast flood begins at Hell Gate or; 2. low water at the Battery.

Hell Gate – slack water flood

  1. If using Hell Gate current information, use Eldridge (a book all sailors should have onboard) for when “NORTHEAST Flood Starts”. Otherwise look on the Internet for when slack – flood starts.
  2. Enter the East River at the southern tip of Manhattan when Northeast flood at Hell Gate begins.
  3. The distance from the southern tip of Manhattan (the Battery) to Hell Gate is approximately 7 nautical miles so you can calculate your time to Hell Gate depending on your boat speed.

The Battery – low water

  1. Again, using Eldridge, look for LOW at the Battery.
  2. Enter the East River at the southern tip of Manhattan 2 hours after low at the Battery.


Any trip southbound begins in either one of two ways: 1. check for when Southwest ebb begins at Hell Gate or; 2. high water at the Battery.

Hell Gate – slack water ebb

  1. If using Hell Gate current information, use Eldridge (a book all sailors should have onboard) for when “SOUTHWEST Ebb Starts”. Otherwise look on the Internet for when slack – ebb starts.
  2. Enter the East River at the Throgs Neck Bridge when Southwest flood at Hell Gate begins.
  3. The distance from the Throgs Neck Bridge to Hell Gate is also approximately 7 nautical miles so you can calculate your time to Hell Gate depending on your boat speed.

The Battery – high water

  1. Again, using Eldridge, look for HIGH at the Battery.
  2. Enter the East River at the southern tip of Manhattan 2 hours after high at the Battery.


The times mentioned above are the earliest recommended times to enter from either direction in order to have a fair current throughout the transit. In reality, you could leave up to several hours later, but be aware that the later Hell Gate is traversed after slack, the rougher the water could be (standing waves, swirling eddies) and the more time you will need to maneuver if you suddenly find a tug and barge bearing down on you from around a blind bend in the river.

hell-gate-2As a rule, you should not transit the East River between Riker’s Island and the Southern tip of Roosevelt Island only under sail as there could be considerable commercial traffic (barges, ferries, DEP freighters) and having maneuverability around the many blind bends is critical.

It is also important to monitor VHF channel 13 for sécurité broadcasts from various commercial traffic. This can give you a heads up as to who may be entering Hell Gate and from what direction. Also, a handheld VHF is important. I have seen too many sailboaters attempt to run between the helm and down below to use or monitor the VHF while the current is taking them into dangerous waters. That is not safe boating!

east-river-maydayFinally, as with any passage planning, check the Coast Guard’s Local Notice to Mariners. Because of the UN being along the East River, the western side of Roosevelt Island could be closed due to security restrictions. This could leave only the eastern side open for travel and there is a lift bridge on that side with only 40 feet of clearance when down. Plus the current can run as fast as 7 knots on that side. Several sailboats have been dismasted on that bridge.