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Top 10 Challenging Cruising Waters in the Northeastern US

The East River waters boiling all around us. We chose Hell Gate as one of the most challenging (and fascinating) bits of water in the Northeast.

1. Hell Gate, NY

2. The Race, NY

3. Fishers Island Sound, NY

4. Woods Hole, MA

5. Plum Gut, NY

6. Maine in Fog (anywhere NE in fog)

7. Nantucket Sound, MA

8. NJ inlets in a storm

9. Vineyard Sound, MA

10. Tie - Delaware Bay, PA/DE/NJ

10. Tie - Buzzards Bay, MA

When we were chartering in the islands once, the young man checking us in asked, "Is it really that challenging to sail on Long Island Sound. I've heard that it's one of the toughest bodies of water to negotiate." We were perplexed. We hadn't really thought about it, but when he mentioned it, we realized that, comparatively speaking, the answer is yes. We started thinking about it relative to the Chesapeake (piece of cake), the Carribbean islands (child's play), Maine, Florida, and many other places we've sailed. We haven't sailed the West Coast but we are limiting our thinking to the Northeast, our cruising and coverage grounds.

Therein lies our set of conclusions. There is no doubt that tides and hellish currents, square waves and boiling waters, a rocky shoreline, hard bottom, tricky inlets, fog, thunderstorms, and lots of boat traffic (including some VERY BIG ships) combine to make Long Island Sound "interesting." It takes a fair bit of seamanship to be comfortable cruising these waters, and it makes much better seamen of those of us who do - something we should all be very proud of. What was a bit eye-opening was that four of our top five selections proved to be in the environs of Long Island Sound.

The most challenging spot in our opinion is Hell Gate on the East River which flows from Long Island Sound to New York Harbor and back again. Hell Gate is on a precarious turn in the river and the current can run in excess of 5 knots. If you are transiting at the height of the ebb or flow, you will experience a strong set that will carry you toward the banks. Thankfully, the first time we transited, we followed the Pride of Baltimore and watched her drift thus were able to anticipate and compensate. Of course, going against the current in a slow boat won't work at all. Now that we've done it a few times, it really isn't that bad. It's just a matter of careful planning to time the tides properly.

The Race, at the very southeasternmost end of Long Island Sound, is the exit point for boats heading out to sea (and of course back again). At this point, the water goes from about 40 feet deep to more than 300 in a very short distance. It is here that the waters squeeze through twice a day creating an amazing tidal zone where the rip currents run at high speed. If you're heading against the current here in a sailboat, you'll be practically standing still with the water boiling all around you. Best to drop a couple of hooks in and try your hand at fishing.

Third on the list is Fishers Island Sound, which is the Northern egress from Long Island Sound. It is dotted with islets and passages through which, once again the water squeezes through. It is a fascinating place to transit at the turn of the tide when glassy smooth water turns into a boiling cauldron all around. Until you realize what's happening, it can be rather daunting.

Woods Hole separates the mainland of Cape Cod from the Elizabeth Islands. Through this cut between the islands runs the water between Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound. Once again, current plays a major role, combined with ferry traffic, research vessels, and fog.

The fifth selection, Plum Gut, lies between the infamous Plum Island and Orient Point on Long Island's North Shore. It's truly almost as challenging as The Race, particularly when the seas are at odds with the wind. The chop can be jaw jarring. What I love to do is watch the depth meter go from 323 feet to 67 feet in less than half a mile. Of course, you need to avoid the shoals that extend out from the point. It's worth the trip to get to Gardiner's Bay and the Great Peconic Bay and charming destinations like Greenport, Three Mile Harbor, Shelter Island, and Sag Harbor.

Number six is Maine in Fog (modified to include anywhere NE in fog). That awful white hand of "Mister Fog" (aka "Mist or Fog" on NOAA VHF weather reports) can be completely disorienting, and without instrument navigation, getting lost along a rocky shoreline is a boater's worst nightmare. Thankfully, chartplotters, GPS and radar have made it a bit safer than it used to be. Friends of ours went to Maine as the beginning of their world cruise, and spent two months completely enveloped. When the sun finally came out, they cruised for three days and left. Unfortunately, fog is what Maine is best known for (tied with lobsters).

Nantucket Sound has triple hazzards. Shallows, shoaling, and fog. We've always had deep draft vessels and have always gritted our teeth the entire way there and back. Once in the fog. Once was enough. Of course, it is also "out there" in the ocean so the wind can wreak havoc as well.

In eighth place are NJ inlets in a storm, where the waves can pile up high in narrow twisting channels that are normally sporting strong currents. Broaching for small boats becomes a real peril under such circumstances. Combine that with few choices along a long stretch of coastline for safe harbor and channel markers on the ICW system running North to South (which translates into red on the right when heading out rather than returning once you are within the ICW) and it can be a little hairy.

Vineyard Sound, Delaware Bay and Buzzards Bayare more waters plagued by strong currents. Buzzards has the fog monster. Vineyard Sound has the added challenge of ocean proximity which translates into a lee shore in a storm. Many ships were lost here in the early days before good weather prediction. Delaware Bay has the detriment of few anchorages if you run into trouble, uninteresting landscape, and much oceangoing monster ship traffic to watch out for.

So in all, we've got some very interesting challenges as boaters in the Northeast. But then, how else would we learn to be better seamen? It takes doing to learn. Books can only take you so far (they can tell you what the tides and currents are likely to do). It takes you and your boat to make it happen safely. So take some courses, ask people with knowledge of local waters, then go and experience the beauty of the land we live in and the joy of boating. And it is beautiful, so just remember that peaceful anchorage, that perfect slip, that ideal mooring at the end of the trip, and enjoy the journey.

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