Yeehaw! Another Crossing, Another Stretch for Us
15 May 2008 | Fernandina Beach, FL
Beth - exhausted but thrilled
It was 52 hours from the time we left Foxtown, Little Abaco Island, on Tuesday morning until we hooked a mooring ball in front of Fernandina Harbour Marina on Thursday. Those 52 hours and 327.85 nautical miles were filled with new experiences and old ones, with wind, waves, sunshine and moonlight, with exhilaration and misery.
We listened to Chris Parker, the weather guru on the Caribbean Weather Net, tell a boat planning a similar route that if he didn't mind 8 ft swells from the NE at 11 second intervals, he'd be able to start a crossing that day. The wind was from the N but should be moving to NE by night and then to E and ESE on Wed. Higher winds would be moving into the northeast coast of Florida on Thursday night. We knew the Gulf Stream could be messy with N in the wind, but we figured we could handle it as well as that other boat and we wanted the time to make miles up the coast to Fernandina Beach, right on the Georgia border.
It was easy going across the banks - over the beautiful green water that we kept watching wistfully, knowing as it turned darker and darker that it would be more than a year before we would see it again. We had the mainsail up but because we needed to keep an average of 6 knots, we also ran the engine. We talked on VHF with a few other boats who decided to stay on the banks and wait for the wind to move E before setting out, and it caused us to go over our figures and calculations again. When we heard Tonga Time and Journey say they were out there and continuing, we were comforted. Every skipper has to make his/her own decision, and every boat and crew has different tolerances, meaning that passage making should never be a "monkey see/monkey do" decision, but still, it is nice to know that others have made similar decisions.
As dusk settled, we moved from the 15 ft depths to 2000 ft depths (catching one more barracuda before we quit fishing), put a double reef in the mainsail and adjusted the yankee just so. The wind was nicely off our starboard bow; we turned off the engine that had been running long enough to charge up those sluggish batteries, and settled into sailing.
It was a beautiful beginning. The waves got a little choppier, and the swells built gradually. The sun went down and the moon came up. We settled on our familiar watch routines - roughly 2 hours on and 2 off. Jim always takes a little longer to settle into sleep, and for his first couple of off-watches he merely got horizontal. He followed his usual routine of figuring out everything that could possibly go wrong and what he would do about it. I can usually sleep whenever my head comes near a pillow so I followed my usual routine of letting go of everything when I was "off" so I could handle things when I was "on".
As the waves grew, the noise increased until down in the cabin it was deafening and we wondered aloud how this little fiberglass craft could withstand such pressure of water crashing against it. Every join in the boat creaked and groaned, the dishes started to rattle in the cupboards and the few books that weren't well enough secured flew off the shelves. In the cockpit, the groaning and crashing weren't as loud but the sound of wind through the rigging was more evident. We both grew a new crop of bruises because every time we moved we banged into something.
Back a few years ago, when we made a family trip to Disneyworld and I decided to demonstrate a newfound courage for thrill rides, I can remember being ever so grateful that one roller coaster ride was through the darkness. I forget the name of it, but I will never forget that blessed feeling of not being able to see what I knew would scare me. I just hung on and waited for it to end. This felt something the same - except it went on for a looong time.
It was thrilling to feel Madcap plowing through the waves as she heeled over, climbing the swells, rolling over the tops and down the other sides. Because of the heaviness of the boat, the full keel, and the beautiful design of the bow, she never felt unstable. The water parted and the waves whooshed along the sides and off the stern with an occasional curl of water splashing up into the cockpit. We were in the flow of the Gulf Stream, the wind was blowing 15-20 knots with gusts to 24 and we flew along at 8 and 9 knots - even spotting 10 from time to time.
The trouble was all the motion in different directions - up and down and side to side. For the first time ever, I was seasick. Neither of us can ever stay below in conditions like this unless we are flat on a berth, preferably asleep, but this time it didn't go away even when I was above decks, trying hard to see the faint horizon that kept appearing and disappearing. I can now tell you that hanging over the rail of a sailboat is only marginally more interesting than hovering over a toilet bowl.
From the time my watch started at 1:30, I stayed in the cockpit. Jim came out at 3:30 but I didn't dare go back downstairs so I curled up in a corner, a cold miserable little pile of flesh and bones. We took turns napping there and watching. Fortunately, while Jim was not exactly comfortable he never did get sick, bless his heart!
By morning, we were 25 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral and debating about whether to call it quits and go in, or whether to keep on going. If we continued, it would save days and days of travel. The wind had shifted and we were out of the large swells into ones more in the 2-4 ft range. The entry through this channel was a little more complicated, with a bascule bridge and a lock to contend with. On the other hand, we were both exhausted, and wondered about our ability to handle another 24 hours.
After half an hour of dillydallying as we moved closer to shore and further north, we made the decision to stick with our plan. It would allow us to try a 2 night passage, a stretch in our experience, and would allow us to test our recovery ability. I managed to keep down a gravol and headed for bed. Jim carried on with amazing stamina.
It was the right decision. We each got some good solid sleep during the day, and while the water was not exactly smooth, the swells stayed down to 2-4 ft. Despite not being in the Gulf Stream any more, (we stayed about 20 miles off the coast) we made reasonable time. The winds finally shifted but too late to do us much good since we did our westerly traveling early and were now heading north. The light and variable winds were mostly behind us meaning the engine was on. We hauled down the Bahamas courtesy flag and ran up our yellow quarantine flag and kept knocking off the miles.
During the second night our reefing line broke and on Thursday morning, the baby forestay with the staysail on it came loose from its footing. It was a reminder that heavy weather sailing puts a lot of stress on a boat, and was also a reminder that good luck was still with us. If either of those had happened during our night of high wind, it would have been a lot harder to deal with.
We were both exhilarated when we came in the St Mary's channel, rounded Fort Clinch and picked up a mooring in the Fernandina Beach harbour. Jim called Customs and made an appointment to check in at 2pm so we had time to have wonderful hot showers to wash away the salt and stiffness from our bodies and perk us up for the visit. It seems that every check in is different. For this one, we were both asked to go to the office - a 10-minute walk from the marina. No one visited the boat and there were no questions asked about anything we had on board. The officer was welcoming and friendly.
Back at the boat, we popped the cork on our champagne, replaced the quarantine flag with the Stars and Stripes, and took a quick nap before heading ashore again to join our friends Steve and Sandra for dinner.
Whew! What a fine feeling of accomplishment! Whew! Did bed ever feel good that night!