39. Carolina, Here we Come, but Mind out for Alberto & Gordon
25 May 2012
We left Tortola at 1100 on the 15th May. By nightfall the wind had got up to 20 knots from the ESE so we took in the first reef, and in the small hours, with rain squalls up to 27 knots, we took in the second. We held this rig all the next day but, after some stronger gusts in the evening, we took in the third. On the fourth day we encountered heavy rain squalls and shifty winds, never managing to catch up with the clear skies over the horizon ahead. At dusk however, the wind fell light and boxed the compass, causing us to set full sail, gybe then tack; but within three hours we had two reefs in again as a strong wind filled in from the north. Not only did we now have a head wind, but also a foul current.
We had originally planned to be through the Panama Canal by now, but the lost time waiting for our new rudder would have meant missing out on many of the places we wanted to see in the Caribbean. We therefore decided to postpone the transit for a year, which left us with the decision as to where to go for the six month hurricane season. Rather than being confined to a hot and humid area to the south of the "hurricane box", we were attracted by the opportunity to cruise the eastern seaboard of the United States. Our insurance company required us to be north of latitude 35 degrees by the 1st of June to be covered for "named storms". Tropical cyclones are given names when the wind speed reaches 34 knots and become hurricanes when they reach 64 knots. The statistics suggested that tropical storms were almost unheard off in May and quite rare in June.
We were therefore a bit disconcerted on day six to read in a forecast downloaded over the SSB radio, that Alberto, the first named storm of the season, was predicted to move north-east across our path. It rained for most of the day; the wind then dropped and by 2300 was non-existent, so we started the engine. We got an update on Alberto's track the next morning, altered course slightly to the west and kept the speed down to about 4 knots to allow him to pass at least 100 miles ahead. By 1800 the wind had filled in enough to stop the engine, and during the night it steadily increased so that by morning we had two reefs in the main and several rolls in the genoa. The wind never exceeded 25 knots as a result of Alberto, but the weather was very disturbed, we saw lightning in the distance and it left an awkward sea. Over the next 36 hours we shook out a slab (reef in the main) or took one in again twelve times, tacked, gybed, started and stopped the engine twice, as we encountered calms, squalls and massive wind shifts. We'd expected to have reached the north-east running Gulf Stream by now, but all we'd encountered so far were counter-currents along the edge.
A distraction came on day nine in the form of a brown booby, which circled low over the boat a couple of times then plonked itself down on the windward deck whilst we were having supper. Completely ignoring us, it preened itself for a several minutes then tucked its head under a wing and went fast to sleep. We named him Gordon Brown Booby. Whilst we were both down below he hopped into the cockpit, but, as neither of us fancied sharing a night watch in such close proximity to this rather grumpy looking bird armed with a fearsome beak, we eventually persuaded him to move, rather grudgingly, to the foredeck. There he went straight to sleep again, swaying gently: his claws dug firmly into the teak. I envied his ability to sleep so well through several sail changes, and he finally woke up and flew off at 0800 - without a word of thanks for his free ride.
The Gulf Stream at long last gave us a bit of a lift that night, but we were through it by mid-morning still with about 80 miles to go. We weren't keen on spending another night at sea, and, as the wind was now dying, we started the engine to maintain speed. A 30 knot rain squall hit us just after lunch, but soon passed. As the sun was setting we found the safe-water buoy off Beaufort - its whistle moaning wheezily in the swell. No wonder it took Europeans so long to discover America: we were less than six miles away and still couldn't see land. We picked up the lights on the buoys marking the channel one by one until we were inside the harbour, anchored off Fort Macon and turned in for a long sleep, having covered 1238 nautical miles.