CURRENT LOCATION: Anchored near Fort Pierce Inlet
27 28.209' N, 080 19.480' W
Dear Reader, the following entry details our offshore trip from Beaufort, SC to Florida. As you read, you will take note that no seasickness was suffered by the crew of
Prudence on this particular voyage. We appreciate the concern and empathy expressed by may readers following the report of Sheryl's "inner ear disturbance" on our previous offshore hop. We remain hopeful that such a response to time on the ocean will be limited to only the most extreme conditions (or, better yet, may have been a one-time anomaly).
Please brew another strong pot of coffee and prepare for a long story relating the events which transpired over the last few days.
Our single anchor held us just fine off of downtown Beaufort during our single night stay. As we quickly learned, the current only swings the boats about 90 degrees with each tide turn (probably due to the bend in the Beaufort River). We took our time on Friday morning, preparing for another trip offshore. We hoped to time the transit of Port Royal Inlet around slack high tide.
Port Royal is a very
long inlet, and although we had sails up, the motor stayed on for the 4 hours it took to reach the open ocean (it just seems prudent to keep the engine on while in a commercial shipping channel). Unfortunately, once we got to the end of the inlet, we encountered one BIG ship after another, appearing on the horizon. They appeared to be lining up to go into Tybee Roads Inlet, the entrance to Savannah (the next ocean entrance to the south). And, again, anytime we are in close proximity to BIG boats, we like to have the engine on. So, rather than enjoying the silence of sailing, we motor-sailed on.
The line of boats appeared (based on radar echoes) to be unmoving, but it wasn't until I saw, through binoculars, the anchor rode extending from the bow of the nearest boat that we felt comfortable going in between the cars in this BIG boat parking lot. We counted nine BIG boats anchored about 5 miles from shore off the coast of Georgia this Friday night. Who would have thought that a boat could have anchored in 75 feet of water with no land in sight. In addition, other BIG boat traffic coming out the inlet (ones that were
moving, and very fast) kept us on our toes. For two additional hours, the engine droned on and we asked one another, "Is that one moving?!?"
With the engine finally quiet, only the sound of gurgling of the water around the hull remained. We were sailing. Eight to twelve knot winds carried us along on a Beautiful Beam Reach, and the waves were moderate. The only difficult aspect to the conditions was the temperature. It was cold! I suppose we should expect that, since we have been selecting our weather windows to ride on the northerly winds which follow passing cold fronts. A good wind direction for sailing, but it brings frigid air along for the ride. We persevered with the vision of warm temperatures in our future, perhaps even at the end of this long journey we are starting today.
Overnight, the Beautiful Beam Reach deteriorated. Our average speed display showed 5.2 knots, then 4.7...4.0...3.3...2.5...1.5...and eventually...1.0 knots. Daybreak found us averaging 1-1.5 knots of forward speed, with over 200 nautical miles to go. Needless to say, this was not a speed which made us feel comfortable about the projected length of this passage.
We spent the day chasing occasional breaths of wind, tried different sail combinations (even dragging the spinnaker out to the cockpit locker) with no increase in speed. There was simply no
wind. Even the low end of the 5-10 knots forecast by NOAA would have been welcome, but we had nothing. Nothing except the constant flap and slap of the sails as we were rocked by the ever-present swell.
Finally, we tried dropping all the sails, just to see if it would make things quieter (author's note: sails slapping back & forth for hours and hours can get on your nerves after a while). It was then that we learned two valuable lessons. One: The flapping and slapping sails (worked back and forth by the wave action) were actually the source of our 1-knot speed. Two: Without the main to stabilize the boat we were bobbing about like a top-heavy cork, the mast drawing big, lazy arcs through the blue sky.
We decided to start the engine in an attempt to get a rest from this rather nauseating motion and put on some miles toward our destination. Of course, we traded slatting sails for the drone of a diesel engine, but at least we were moving. We had the engine on for a short time when we both heard and felt the "THUMP." It came from under the boat, directly under the cockpit where we sat. We jumped up from our seats, and without words, Sheryl hopped behind the helm and looked in the water astern to see if she could determine what we had hit. Meanwhile, I descended the companionway ladder to take a look at the engine. With a flashlight I can see all the way under the engine and just get a glimpse of the drive shaft. While Sheryl went into neutral and back into gear again, I indicated that I saw nothing wrong.
Sheryl brought the engine back up to speed and we returned to our seats on either side of the cockpit, both a little shaken. I hypothesized that it must have been the prop hitting a jelly fish, and no harm to our boat had resulted. We continued to motor along through the mirror-still water on a beautiful sunny day, but the dark cloud of unease cast a shadow within the pits of our stomachs. Images of a disabled engine out here (30 nautical miles from land), with no wind to sail upon was a frightening visualization. So much so that we unanimously decided (after only about an hour of motor-driven progress) to give the sails another try. If the engine is not on, nothing bad can happen to it, right?
With the engine once again silenced, we listened to the slap-bang cadence of the mainsail and genoa with a new appreciation. We were air-sculling our way to Florida, one nautical mile closer with each passing hour. Some very big dolphin, relative to those we have seen frequently in North Carolina waters, came by to take a close look at our boat. It was as if they were trying to determine if we were O.K. We took a deep breath and sought a place in our minds where we could draw upon the virtue of patience and achieve a certain level of relaxation.
Near sunset, mother nature helped us find that inner peace by bringing back the wind. It was not a lot, but we were close-hauled and sailing at 3.5 knots. At this point, though, it felt as though we were flying along at a rocket-like pace!
A morning wind shift changed our point of sail from close-hauled to running. With the lesson learned from the "bobbing cork" experience, we decided to run under main alone, rather than genoa alone. Note that if we tried both sails with the wind from this direction the main would blanket the genoa. Our average speeds fell to 2.5 knots, but is was still better than yesterday's episode of being becalmed. By afternoon, the wind was off the quarter enough to employ the genoa, poled out to keep it from alternately filling and flapping with the waves. Over 3 knot average speeds were achieved with this setup, and we sailed through a sunny day.
Now in Florida waters, the sunshine and warmer temperatures allowed us to de-layer our clothing for the first time in days. Our moods were bright, and I may have even spent a shift or two at the helm singing along to the oh-so-familiar songs on the classic rock radio station out of Jacksonville, FL. My favorite part of the day, though, was when I was down below (trying to get some much-needed shut eye in the light of day), and I heard Sheryl say, in a loud but conversational yet sing-songy tone, "Helloooo, how are you today? It is really good to see you again!" The dolphin had returned for another visit, and their presence makes her ever so happy. And, when Sheryl is happy, I am happy. With a smile on my face, I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.
As evening closed in, we evaluated our sail plan and decided to remove the jib pole from the genoa. With my height and long arms as necessary elements in the procedure, I was the one to go up on deck. Being not as agile as my better half, the motion of the boat combined with having to unhook the pole hanging several feet off the side was a slightly harrowing experience. Interestingly, the wind shifted just as I was clipping my harness back to a secure point in the cockpit. Perfect timing, as a delay of only a few minutes would have made the process a true ordeal.
Overall, the day was going perfectly fine until... (insert dramatic music here
)...darkness brought with it calm winds. Emboldened by our previous experience being becalmed, we each persevered for several hours on our respective shifts, trying to make the boat go as before. We could handle 1-knot speeds until the next wind came along. Alas, the wave-generated flagellation of the sails was not sufficient to keep our momentum up. We had no wind and we were headed into a 0.5-knot current. We were actually moving away
from our destination. Options were limited, but loosing those precious nautical miles we had worked so hard to achieve was out of the question. We decided to once again employ the engine to soothe our windless frustration. It was 10PM when we started motoring through the dark night.
Within the first hour, we again heard (and felt) a loud "THUMP" sound from under the boat. This time I took the helm and Sheryl checked the engine and drive shaft. Again, all appeared to be in order (Whew!). With no alternative explanation at hand, we decided to chalk it up to another jellyfish meeting its grisly demise in a confrontation with our prop. Consequently, we simply motored on.
Sleep last night came only when exhaustion could overcome the drone of our diesel engine. Morning's first light found us both
in the cockpit and approaching Cape Canaveral. Once we rounded the shoals off of this cape, we put the engine to rest and started sailing again. Nine hours of motoring through the night had moved us 50 nautical miles closer to our goal and cost us under 5 gallons of fuel. A worthwhile exchange, considering the windless conditions.
Once we started sailing again, we were on course for Fort Pierce Inlet, Florida. It was another Beautiful Beam Reach with 70 nautical miles to go. Of course, they say that no beam reach goes unpunished, or was that 'good deed?' Anyway, the winds began to build and we decided to partially furl the headsail. This was in part due to the fact that we were overpowered, but partly due to the fact that we needed to slow down. Yes, ironically enough, we were now going too
fast. Even at a maximum boat speed, we would not be able to make it to the inlet by sunset, so we would have to wait until daybreak to enter anyway, as passing through an unknown inlet after dark is a dangerous undertaking.
By early evening, we were still overpowered with only a scrap of genoa unfurled and a full main. The seas were beginning to build considerably, as well. Put simply, we now had too much wind. We debated about whether to reef the main to present less sail area to the wind during the night-time hours, but two things kept us from reefing. First, the main was acting as a stabilizing force (remember our bobbing cork lesson?), keeping the boat from displaying that sickening rolling motion. Also, last night the wind died after sunset (likely due to a land breeze). We expected the same tonight. We were wrong. Two hours after sunset, the winds were blowing steady at 20-25 knots with gusts to 30 and the waves were huge hills which raised and lowered the boat rhythmically. We held on tightly and cursed NOAA under our breath (East winds 10-15 knots, my #@%!).
We loosened the main and sailed with extremely poor form, but the weather helm was relieved and we decreased our speed. Still, though, it soon became obvious that we needed to make a sail change. In the dark and in big seas, no less. In addition, at this point, a BIG cruise ship on the horizon grew larger and larger, adding to our sense of unease. We fired up the engine in order to help us head-to-wind in order to drop the main and to give us maneuverability around the BIG cruise ship.
Sheryl was the brave soul who went up on deck to lower and tie the main. Attached with a harness and tether to the jacklines, she moved carefully and confidently on the surging cabin top. Once the main was down, the boat rolled terribly with the waves. Sheryl suggested that we deploy the reefed staysail alone to stabilize us in the big winds. She went to the forward deck once again, and rode the bucking bronco to untie the staysail. I was glad to have her safely back in the cockpit, as she raised the staysail. It helped some, but the ride was still one which tested your nerves, stomach and core muscles (an abs workout like you have never before experienced).
With the engine running, giving us good control over course and speed, we looked up at the sky and saw the moon lighting the rather scary white-capped waves on the surface of the water. Thus was born the idea of running the Fort Pierce Inlet at night. Crazy as it seemed, discomfort and downright fatigue forced us to consider the notion. We wanted all of this noise and motion to simply stop. We justified the sanity of this idea by rationalizing that the wind driven seas would only continue to build if we waited until daylight, making a delayed entrance through the inlet even more dangerous.
We checked the tide tables and found that we could make an entry on a flood tide in the few hours it would take to motor the final 20 nautical miles to the inlet, and the moon would be in a position to light the way. (Note: entering on an ebb tide was out of the question, because current against these waves would have made for an incredibly dangerous situation) Although the tide was in our favor, the seas and wind were not ideal for such an attempt. We were experiencing very strong easterlies and planning to enter an east-facing inlet. Not a good scenario, as one can broach while surfing the waves, loosing control at a time when control is oh-so-critical (like steering between two rock jetties). Let's hope that this canoe stern designed boat we have will provide us what we need to keep a straight course.
We would have to worry about all of that when we got there, though, because first we needed to get
to the inlet and get there 'on time.' I tried to steer us on a rhum line course to the inlet, but the angle to the waves was not right. We continuously got rolled from side-to-side and swept sideways by the breaking waves. Attempting to compensate for these wave effects at the wheel was exhausting, and I had planned to be the one to face the Big, Bad Inlet when we did arrive. Therefore, Sheryl took the helm and performed hero act #3 for the night (Note: #1 was going on deck to lower and secure the main and #2 was going back on deck to set up the staysail). She muscle-steered us through 3 hours of rough, rolly seas to arrive at the inlet on time. At times, I was flung about by the force of the rolling, but when we arrived, I was ready to face my challenge at the helm.
The first phase of the challenge was to assess the situation and determine the feasibility of the plan with time to back out if execution did not seem wise. I would steer the boat out a little east of the inlet and try to steer in, on course with the inlet, just to see if I could handle the boat with the waves from the stern. So far, so good. The back end tried to kick around a few times, but with the staysail adjusted for running and the engine throttled back, the bow was pulled by the strong winds and kept the boat pointed west. It would take effort and concentration, but I believed that I could keep the boat from broaching.
The second phase of the challenge was determining if the channel was wide enough for the attempt. I was hoping for something like the previous big ship inlets we had experienced, but as we approached the first pair of red and green flashing lights, they seemed all too close together. Surfing another wave ever closer to the pair of buoys which marked the start of the rock jetties on each side of the channel, I knew that my time to do a 180 degree turn and spend the night at sea was limited. Once past the jetties, I would not feel comfortable trying to do an about face. Hopefully, the rocks would do their job and dampen the waves (rather than just posing the threat of crushing our hull, following a momentary miscalculation of helm control on my part).
Sheryl and I took it one pair of buoys at a time, her sighting on the port and me on the starboard. "Red spotted, how's the green?" "Green spotted you are good, maintain course." As we drew abeam of each pair, we tried to spot the next pair. It was difficult, considering all of the other lights on land and other buoys. Judging distance was near to impossible. Also, the moonlight, though helpful, really only became useful once you were right on top of the buoy (something we were trying desperately to avoid). We made it inside the jetty and were fully committed. Fortunately, the waves began to subside and we rode the incoming current, still trying desperately to spot the next pair of channel markers. Time for celebration was not yet at hand. We had to keep our focus.
The third phase of the challenge was finding a spot to anchor in the dark. A small turning area existed at the end of the inlet, and while I drove circles to stall for time, Sheryl studied the chart by flashlight and devised a plan for getting us safely to the anchor spot. Winds and currents were high, making straight-line travel difficult, but we crab-walked our way to a nearby spot that the guidebook suggested for anchoring. Sheryl took the helm and drove right to the spot we selected among the other anchored boats, and I dropped the 60-lb CQR with about 60 feet of chain into 7 feet of water. We backed down, then shut off the engine.
Our bodies were tingling and our minds were numb. The boat was level and rock-solidly still. It felt strange to be motionless. I poured myself a scotch and we sat in the cockpit for a moment. After a few minutes, Sheryl said, "You are wonderful! I can't believe you went through the inlet. With those big waves, I truly thought you would decide to turn around any minute and head back out to sea for the night." She went below to take a shower and quickly fell fast asleep on the starboard salon settee. I lingered in the cockpit for a while longer, just to be sure that our anchor was holding firm.
Finally, I finished my scotch and climbed into the port salon settee. It was 2AM, but we were safe and secure. After 330 nautical miles at sea, we were ready for a bit of rest.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and that clarity serves us well if we can learn from what it displays. Here are some things from which we hope to learn...
Patience is more than a virtue, it is an absolute necessity when it comes to blue water cruising. When becalmed, or overwhelmed with weather, one must cope with the situation and patiently wait for things to change.
Fatigue is the number one enemy of the blue water cruiser. Special focus must be placed on trying to get enough sleep and taking breaks from the constant stress factors at hand.
The importance of nourishment while underway should not be underestimated, nor should the extreme difficulty of obtaining said nourishment. We had planned simple meals, ones that could be cooked in a single pot or commercial products which required only the addition of hot water. What we did not take into account was the difficulty encountered when doing something as simple as pouring hot water in a rolly sea. In one particular circumstance, I ended up wearing half the broth from my noodle dish before finally placing it on the gimbaled stove and kneeling before it to eat my meal. Sheryl survived largely on saltine crackers which were ever present in the cockpit throughout the voyage.
NOAA weather should be used as a guideline, not an absolute. We planned our voyage to stay within VHF weather radio range and religiously listened to forecasts every 8-10 hours. It was much to our chagrin when we sat with no wind on a day predicted to have steady northerlies. Even more so when held on with clenched jaws in a 20 knot blow which was supposed to be under 15. Predictions are just that, and we shouldn't expect NOAA's crystal ball to provide a perfectly clear image of the future.
When in doubt, reef. Always go with too little sail rather than too much sail. It is always easier to put it back up when the conditions are calm than to take it down when the conditions are overwhelming.
Don't begin a passage on a Friday. (A sailor's superstition which we flagrantly ignored)
Sheryl is the best cruising partner a man could ever hope for. Without her strength, her intelligence, and her witty humor these four days would have been unmanageable and intolerable. I wouldn't want to be doing this with anybody but her.