Christmas on the Atlantic Ocean

December 25, 2017

    The Atlantic Ocean… awesome, relentless, unforgiving.  She can entice you with her endless and incredibly hypnotic beauty, but suffers no fools and will smite you in an instant for being careless or brazen.

     Our journey from North Carolina to South Carolina would involve our third overnight passage (the first two were between Annapolis and Norfolk in August).  At 144 nautical miles, it was almost the same distance as Annapolis to Norfolk.  The two biggest distinctions this time would be that we would not have a training skipper aboard; and, instead of traveling within the relative protection of the Chesapeake Bay as before, the course we had plotted from Carolina Beach to Charleston was scheduled to take us twenty miles offshore… our first offshore passage into the Atlantic Ocean.

     We had discussed this at great lengths and fully recognized the gravity of what we were about to undertake.  We had no intentions of pursuing foolish ambitions that would put us in danger, yet this passage afforded us a great opportunity to stretch a bit further than we previously ever had, and would certainly test our abilities towards their limits.

     Exit would follow a near straight line against the coastline that was gradually arcing away from us.  After having traveled fifty miles, we would be approximately twenty miles offshore.  Then, for the next fifty or so miles, the coastline would slowly arc back towards us, until it finally converged with our line at Charleston, South Carolina.  The weather reports forecasted 10-15 knots of wind, with some gusts to 20 knots, and three to four foot waves expected to subside to one or two feet by the time we reached Charleston… about as good as we could hope for.

     We left Carolina Beach just after 10:00am on Christmas morning.  We had about four hours of channels to navigate through before reaching the inlet to the Atlantic Ocean and wanted to time the opposing currents to have a minimum impact on us, especially at the mouth of the inlet.  We also planned on 24-26 hours to reach Charleston, and we thought it prudent to arrive during daylight hours.  This would give us three hours of light before that window and five hours after as a margin for error.

     Clearing the mouth of Bald Head Inlet, we exchanged tentative looks.

     I asked Kris, “Is everything good?”

     She replied, “Everything’s good.”

     And, with that, we turned Exit into the wind, hoisted the mainsail and the genoa, and set our course for the Atlantic Ocean.

     As expected, the wind was right around ten to twelve knots and we estimated the waves that were following us as three to four feet.  It was biting cold, but the dodger did a good job of providing protection from the wind coming from directly off our starboard beam.

    The space in front of us appeared vast and daunting; yet Exit gracefully rode atop the rising and falling waves that passed under us at a slightly faster speed than we were traveling at.  The color of the ocean surrounding us, still not deeper than fifty to sixty-five feet, stood in stark contrast to the waters we had been navigating through previously.  The muddy shades of brown, characteristic of so much of the ICW we had begun to grow accustomed to, suddenly had been replaced by a deep, rich blue color that reminded us immediately of Tahiti.

    It took a while for both us and Exit to settle in with the sails and rigging trimmed as best we could interpret; but, before long, it seemed we had locked into a groove and found ourselves cruising along solely under wind power at a respectable seven knots of speed. 

   We had less than two hours of daylight left when we shut off the engine.  As the sun began to set, the wind started moving slightly aft and increased to a steady fifteen knots, gusting up to seventeen or eighteen and the seas appeared to be building closer to five and six foot waves.  

XmasNightOffshore
Night offshore Christmas 2017

     Had the wind been forward of our beam, we would have put a reef in the main.  Yet, Exit seemed to be riding very comfortably with the current wind direction so we left it alone.  However, we were less certain about the genoa.  An increase in wind would put the genoa at its limit before the mainsail.  We opted to bring it in while it was still light out and both of us were in the cockpit; and still we managed to maintain between six and eight knots. 

    We continued our two hour watch shifts, with one of us standing watch in the cockpit at all times, until 11pm.  Then we each took a four hour shift so the other could get a bit better rest.  

     By 11pm, the wind had started dropping off substantially.  Between eleven and five o’clock it became schizophrenic, shifting continually between five and fifteen knots and moved to almost directly astern of us.  The waves calmed, and the time was spent trying to coax as much speed from the mainsail as possible.  As the wind fell off to six knots, our speed would drop to three; then, about the time the decision was made to unfurl the genoa, the wind would pick up to between nine and fifteen knots and we would accelerate back to between five and seven knots.

     One thing that had been very conspicuous was the complete lack of boat traffic we saw during the entire night.  A couple of sailboats and commercial boats in the distance.  Not really anyone, which caused us to vacillate back and forth between enjoying the space and wondering if everyone else knew something we didn’t. 

     At one point, a sailboat identified on our AIS as Petronella, which had been overtaking us but moving further offshore, came within about 200 meters of us for some unknown reason but then veered back away and skirted outside of us for the rest of the passage;  nothing else.  

     We hoped we had either under-anticipated the holiday effect on traffic, or maybe just got our first taste of one of the things that makes offshore cruising so desirable… being a tiny object in a huge space to work within.

     By 5am, the wind had begun building steadily.  By 7am, when I poked my head into the cockpit, the conditions had deteriorated into a very messy state.  The wind, blowing steady at seventeen to eighteen knots and gusting between twenty and twenty-two, was coming from far enough aft to pierce directly into the cockpit, leaving very little space to tuck into for protection.

OffshoreToCharlestonSC

     The waves, which had been forecasted as calming to one or two feet, obviously had not received the memo.  Instead, they had gradually built back up and were exceeding anything we had seen so far.  Certainly five to six feet, with many that seemed more like at least seven or eight feet.  Also, the direction of the waves starting becoming a bit more confused, with most of the waves directed at the starboard side of our stern but some coming almost on the beam.

IMG_5225

     We had reached a top speed of 9.7 knots, which seemed amazing considering we were running under mainsail alone.  We cursed the fact that we hadn’t sorted out the stay sail – this was the perfect passage for it… one more lesson learned and one more thing on the to-do list.  Regardless, we were making great time with just the mainsail; averaging seven knots was fine.

IMG_5226

     As noon passed and we closed in on the Charleston inlet, we started thinking about dropping the main.  We envisioned a time, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, when we could comfortably sail onto and off of an anchor point, run narrow channels without relying on the engine, and enter and exit inlets solely under sail power.  However, currently our ambitions were to simply get from Point A to Point B without any mishaps.  And dealing with only an engine helped to massively simplify these already higher stress and more complicated situations.

     The question became when to drop the mainsail?  

     Charleston’s bay would certainly be much more protected and, consequently, should theoretically provide much better conditions to lower the mainsail in.  However, we weren’t sure whether maneuvering might be restricted by traffic and/or space limitations.  We also envisioned potential difficulties in the narrow channel approaching the inlet regarding waves, current, and traffic that, under sail, could further complicate matters.

     The charts gave us a fair sense of the inlet but it would require actually seeing it to get a better perspective of what we were dealing with (another important lesson learned – look at actual photos of inlets on Google Maps prior to getting underway to have a better impression).  But, we wouldn’t know exactly how severe the waves and currents really were in the channel until we were already committed… too late to do anything at that point.

     On the surface, we agreed that the safest bet appeared to be dropping the mainsail before entering the channel and motoring in.  

     Looking around we were less certain of that.

     The surrounding waves, ranging between five and eight feet, were bearing down from both behind and slightly to the right of us.  Breaking waves created confused streaks of foam and spray, and washed over the top of Exit’s toe rails onto the deck, occasionally even delivering a splash of sea spray into the cockpit.

     The digital numbers on the cockpit wind gauge jumped up and down endlessly between fifteen and twenty-one, but lingered around the eighteen knot range.  We were running at around seven knots of forward speed.

     Both of us were clearly nervous about what seemed to be the two options before us.  

     Attempting to lower the mainsail facing any direction other than into the wind, especially in higher winds, rarely went smoothly, and often proved disastrous.  Either the sail piled off of one side of the boom or, even worse, the battens got hung up in the lazy-jacks and the sail became stuck partway down.

     Sill, neither of us relished the idea of bringing Exit one hundred eighty degrees full about into the wind, putting us pounding straight into the rolling five to eight foot waves.  The turn would be rough, with the waves temporarily coming straight on our beam.  And, once the full force of the wind was pushing against us, we were uncertain whether or not Exit would be able to maintain enough speed to steer over the crests of the waves and out of the troughs.

     I was confident in Kris’ ability at the helm, I was confident in Exit’s ability to shoulder through the mess, and I was pretty sure I might possibly be confident about being able to get the main down and secured quickly.

     Kris brought us around as quickly and strategically as possible; yet the instability of having the boat roll back and forth with the big swells momentarily coming at our beam was a clear reminder of how vulnerable we were in this orientation.   As we came around, the boat regained its side to side stability but immediately began bucking up and down as her bow began pounding straight into the cresting waves.  

     We were struggling to maintain three knots… just enough to keep forward steering.  No longer riding the wind, our wind indicator now revealed the true speed of the wind coming at us, which was reaching twenty five knots.

     It was now or never.  I shimmied out onto the deck and tucked into the granny bars next to the mast.  As I struggled with a tangled main halyard, Exit crested over a large wave and descended into the trough on the other side. 

     Kris later recounted how, from the cockpit, she watched wide-eyed as we came down the back of one wave, the top of next the wave beyond looking taller than me standing on deck.  As we slid down the back of one wave, Exit’s bow submarined into the base of the next wave.

     Water cascaded over the bow and washed across the deck, giving me my first proper baptism in the Atlantic.  I grabbed ahold of the mast and realized at this less-than-opportune moment just how wise having a tether would be… that’s one we’ll definitely file away for next time.

     With the main halyard finally untangled (having the mainsail stuck halfway down would have been a catastrophe), the sail dropped quickly and relatively cleanly.  A couple of sail ties secured the main until we could go back and clean things up after dropping anchor.

     Bedraggled, but ultimately still mostly dry under my foul weather gear, I climbed back into the cockpit.  The expression on Kris’ face was crystal clear… she was not enjoying this portion of the passage.

     Kris brought us decisively back around so we were once again running with the waves.  Suddenly, this way didn’t seem so heavy after all… 

    We motored into the channel and, ironically, encountered minimal wind and waves, as well as no traffic.  We entered Charleston Bay and found even calmer conditions, plenty of space to bring down the mainsail, and almost no boat traffic… lessons learned.

     Charleston only has one real anchorage area.  It made that decision easy.

     As we approached, it looked as though most of the ten or so boats at anchor or mooring were unoccupied.  Much more dramatic was the exposed top spreader and mast of a sunken sailboat we passed by, as well as three sailboats which lay awkwardly aground on the shore of a nearby island.  These were the broken victims of, and crushed dreams left by, Hurricane Irma.

CharlestonAnchorage

     Anchoring was becoming more and more challenging as we progressed further south down the coastline.  Four to five foot tides here would produce two knot currents, shifting one hundred eighty degrees in direction four times a day.  Consequently, we would find ourselves swinging around on the anchor chain in a current-controlled “figure eight” pattern, instead of swinging in a typically limited arc dictated by wind direction as we had previously experienced.

      We were careful to make sure the anchor was fully set even though we both felt the fatigue of our twenty eight hour passage. 

     The biting cold of the wind had undoubtably taken its’ toll on both of us.  Yet, had we been beating into the wind, the conditions certainly would have been exponentially more brutal.  

     As for learning experiences, it’s hard to quantify all the information we were exposed to in a day and a half – from epiphanies and moments of clarity, to a much harder to grasp sense that we were finally beginning to gain some level of understanding of the many subtleties required to even begin to approach harnessing the full potential of Exit. 

     We had successfully completed our first offshore passage.  Our 144 nautical mile overnight journey clocked in as our longest nonstop voyage yet; and I would imagine that twenty two hours under sail-power alone will hold it’s place in the Ashby record books for quite some time.  

     Once again, it had been demonstrated that Exit could handle much more than we could.

    It felt amazing… and we wanted to sleep.

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