December 2015 was an exercise in frustration and, one could argue, a valuable lesson in letting go, for the crew of Thalia. We had meant to spend Christmas in St. Augustine, Florida, but it was not to be. The harder we pushed to get there, the more the universe seemed to conspire to thwart that plan.
It all started with our carefully planned stopover for Thalia in Oriental, North Carolina, while we visited family in Baltimore over Thanksgiving. We had booked the time at our favorite boatyard to have some relatively minor work done, including replacing several old thruhulls, redoing the bottom paint, tuning our standing rigging, and taking a look at the transmission, which was making an alarming new noise.
At the same time, we decided to replace our genoa (headsail) as well as our bimini (the canvas over our heads in the cockpit. It was old and leaky, and not at all waterproof any more).
The agreement with both the boatyard and the canvas place was to have the work done and the sail delivered by December 2 or so, when we returned from Baltimore. Unfortunately, we ended up stuck for nearly three weeks after that, waiting for the sail to arrive and simultaneously dealing with a series of missteps and delays on the part of the transmission people.
Meanwhile, the weather offshore was slowly deteriorating, meaning that even once we did finally escape the boatyard, our windows of opportunity for hopping down the coast to northern Florida got narrower and narrower. We had to cancel our mid-month marina and anniversary dinner reservations in Charleston, which caused the Admiral's first serious meltdown. We then realized we'd be unlikely to make it to St. Augustine by Christmas, and had to rethink our plans (inasmuch as that word applies on a boat). A second meltdown loomed, and the boatyard manager was warned he did NOT want to deal with the Admiral if she was stuck in a dusty North Carolina boatyard over Christmas.
There are no restaurants to speak of in Oriental, so we cooked our own dinner on our anniversary, December 15, at which point we were pretty well resigned to "che serà, serà." Larry had used some of his idle time to make me a beautiful shell pendant as an anniversary gift. The very next morning - much to our surprise - we were told Thalia's transmission was good to go, and - even more to our surprise - the sail arrived. We paid our shockingly expensive bills and hightailed it out of there.
A pelican cruising over Lookout Bight at sunset, the night before we left.
The Atlantic in Winter
Our first stop was at Lookout Bight, a favorite anchorage just inside Cape Lookout, near Beaufort, NC. It's a well protected spot and very scenic, so a good place to hang out while waiting for the right weather to head out into the ocean. Unfortunately, the weather was cold and getting colder, rainy and windy, so there was no temptation to go ashore to revisit the lighthouse or walk the beaches. We waited several days, carefully monitoring the weather, until we found a short but reasonable window for heading back out. Destination: the Masonboro Inlet at Wrightsville Beach, NC, a straight shot southwest down the coast. It's a long day - around 18 hours - but much more direct than the Intra Coastal Waterway (ICW) inland route, with none of the shoaling issues or logistics of bridge openings and tides. Little did we know what logistics awaited us!
The day before we left, we awoke to a rapid-fire series of alerts on our iPhones from our credit card company. Our Chase Visa card had apparently been compromised, and someone was very busily racking up charges at Best Buy, QVC, DSW, Nordstrom, Gazelle, and others. It was fortunate we were in a place with at least some cell phone coverage, so we could deal with it immediately. This does illustrate some of the issues with our sailing lifestyle, though, with intermittent communications as well as the logistics of where to send new credit cards now that those have been cancelled.
Leaving early the next morning, we were shocked at how cold the weather had gotten. With the wind chill, it was 28º when we left Lookout Bight on the outgoing tide on Saturday the 19th. We had on every warm article of clothing we owned, and still shivered in the damp, cold wind. The wind was just a little too close (to the bow of the boat) for us to progress under sail only, so we motored and, when possible, motor-sailed, making reasonable time over what became a very, very long day.
Around 11 pm, we finally sighted the flashing lights marking the entrance to the Masonboro Inlet. We'd been there before, so knew the topography, but the channel shifts often and markers are moved to accommodate shoaling, so it was likely to differ from our last visit. This is considerably more challenging to see and navigate at night, with only flashing lights to follow (and some markers aren't even lit), and with much poorer depth perception than during the day.
With our mainsail up, we were several miles away from the entrance when our engine very suddenly coughed and died. Larry bolted down below to check it out, and I threw out the genoa to give me better control of the boat and to keep her speed up. I sailed her around and around the entrance to the channel while the engineer worked below to diagnose the problem - air in the fuel lines - and to try various ways of fixing it. After a few minutes he got it running again, so we left the sails up and headed back toward the channel.
Almost there, it died again. We repeated the same dance, got it going again, and realized it was going to run for a while and would surely die again. It was now past 1:00 am, and our choices were to motor-sail into Wrightsville Beach, or head out around the well-named Cape Fear in deteriorating weather. We chose the former, furled in the genoa, and motored slowly into the narrow channel with our mainsail up. Fortunately for us, the tide was flooding, so we got considerable momentum from that. Winds were now light - only around 12-15 knots - and Thalia is too heavy to make much headway with only one sail in light winds. We kept the engine rpm low, making it all the way up the inlet and turning north toward the town and anchorage, before the engine died again.
It was now ghostly silent and very dark, the moon obscured by clouds. We sailed slowly upstream, propelled more by the current than the wind. I navigated around a huge dredge in the center of the channel, lit up but sitting idle, and headed toward town. The nearest spot to anchor was just past the dredge, but when we started to drop the hook, I realized we'd be too close to an unlit green navigational mark on the edge of the channel. So we aborted that, and eased back into the channel and closer to town. A few miles further up, I turned her into the wind, Larry at the bow ready to drop the anchor. We got as far off the channel as we could, but the boat was now drifting more sideways than forward, so we dropped the hook. It was 2:00 am. We were numb with the cold and exhausted, so fell into a deep sleep until morning.
Passage to Charleston
The next morning, we were pleased to see we were in a good spot, out of the channel. Larry set to work on the engine immediately, tightening fuel hose clamps, replacing our fuel filter, and closing the valve that leads to our diesel heater system. Once all that was done, the engine fired right up. We kept her at anchor and ran the engine for quite a while before we decided we were good to go. Then, we weighed anchor and headed cautiously down the ICW (a 21-year veteran sailor we had met in Oriental suggested we take the inside route on this stretch, which allowed us to cut inside the enormous point and shoal at Cape Fear). We had an easy day down into the Cape Fear River, stopping at a marina in Southport for the night and indulging in dinner and a few beers at the nearby Dead End Saloon.
Unfortunately, two draft beers were probably more than I should have imbibed in my exhausted state, and I awoke the next day with a resounding hangover. (From two beers! Some sailor I am!) However, this was our last opportunity to sail south before the weather got really bad, so off we went, flying down the huge river with the help of several knots of ebbing tide. I had little stomach (literally) for a 25 hour passage, and the Captain was tired too, but at this point we just wanted to make it to Charleston for Christmas. The good news: the weather had warmed up considerably, and was quite pleasant the entire time.
Our passage was uneventful until the middle of the night, when, on Larry's watch, the wind clocked around to the south, nearly on our nose, gusting to over 30 knots and kicking up very large, choppy swells. He had to take down the sails and motor; having no sails up unfortunately increased the pitching motion of the boat. I was trying to sleep below, but eventually gave up and sent Larry down to try to sleep. A few hours later, the wind backed enough for me to unfurl our genoa, and this calmed our motion considerably and increased our speed by several knots. I think the Captain may have managed an hour or two of sleep at this point.
We arrived in the Charleston harbor mid morning, sailing slowly against the strong ebb current. Knowing from experience how strong the currents are here, we decided to anchor off the downtown Battery to wait for slack current around noon, before heading into the tightly packed marina at the Charleston Maritime Center. As we sailed in, the weather deteriorated, with rain squalls blowing in from the south and soaking us to the skin. The squalls kicked up to a furious volume - some 42 knots - just as we were about to drop our anchor, reducing visibility to near zero. But we got the anchor down and retreated below, indulging in hot showers and a large breakfast of coffee, homemade biscuits, eggs and bacon.
A Return to the Civilized Life
You can only imagine our relief to finally be docked in our favorite city! It was December 22, so we still had time to enjoy some Christmas activities and provision before the holiday. First, though, we cleaned up our boat and slept. Then we dealt with a mountain of laundry and grocery shopping, securing a new string of LED lights that Larry fashioned into a star (using our radar reflector) atop our mast.
Thalia's onboard engineer surveys his handiwork in hoisting a colored light-wrapped radar reflector some 60 feet up the mast to top our "tree."
Our big outing was to The Nutcracker, performed by the Moscow Ballet late afternoon on Christmas Eve. This was a particular delight for me; I've always loved The Nutcracker, ever since my parents took my sister and me to a performance in San Francisco when I was 14 years old.
What a treat! Wine, cheese, and other goodies from sister Maureen, plus these wonderful homemade cookies from brother Dan and sister-in-law Cheryl.
On Christmas day, we opened care packages sent by my brother Dan, sister-in-law Cheryl, and Larry's sister Maureen (our present to each other this year was that new sail).
A charming Santa hat graces the turret of this Victorian home in the old French Quarter.
Christmas dog guarding the front door.
We are so charmed by the architecture in Charleston, including the beautiful old brick and wrought iron work seen throughout the city.
We took another long walk yesterday, pausing for a really lovely lunch at our favorite Charleston restaurant, Cru Café, where we had intended to have our anniversary dinner. Instead we lunched on an arugula and duck confit salad with crispy onion threads, a terrific General Tso's chicken with Asian slaw, and a shared slice of orange creamsicle cake with coconut frosting.
Larry about to enjoy dessert at Cru Café.
One of the many beautiful homes in the historic district, called South of Broad around here.
We've done little in the way of boat projects or work, choosing to take it easy this week and plan the next phase of our journey.
Florida, Here We Come...
After much discussion, we've decided to skip the Bahamas this year. (We'll look at the option of going back to the Bahamas and perhaps to Cuba next year.) We've never seen the west coast of Florida, nor New Orleans, so that's where we're heading. First, though, we'll stop at Edisto Island just south of Charleston to visit with our cousins Honey and Tom, and then we'll make our way slowly south to St. Augustine, where we thought we were going to spend Christmas! It is one of our favorite cities any time of the year, so we'll be happy to be there and to go back to The Columbian for a tapas meal before continuing south. We have friends to visit in Titusville, Ft. Lauderdale, Marathon, Naples, and Sarasota, and are hoping some of our kids and/or friends will decide to join us in New Orleans. We haven't decided yet if we'll try to be there for Mardi Gras, or for a less hectic time frame. Or both! Only time and weather will tell.