So That’s What An Eventful Offshore Passage Really Is

February 7, 2018

    When it comes to offshore passages, we don’t have much to compare with.  The planned passage from St. Marys Inlet to Ft. Lauderdale, FL would only be our third.  

     Once again, it seemed a bit ambitious but very doable.  At 300 nautical miles and an anticipated 2 days 10 hours to complete, this would be equal to our previous two (and only) offshore passages combined.  But our approach from the start has been to approach things conservatively and keep trying to push ourselves further and further as we gained experience and a bit higher comfort level.

     Having finally completed our solar installation project, we had already gotten off the dock at St. Marys Boat Services and worked our way back towards the mouth of the inlet so we wouldn’t have to wait on tides and currents on the day of our departure, anchoring just off Cumberland Island.  With two nights waiting on favorable wind and weather, we had the opportunity to do some sightseeing ashore Cumberland Island during one of the days.

Cumberland Island, GA – Feb. 2018

     Once owned by the ultra wealthy Carnegie family, Cumberland Island is now a protected park.  Driving privileges are maintained only by locals who were named specifically in an agreement when the private island transitioned into park status (on occasion, these permits have to be reapplied for).  Residents of the island are comprised not only of people, but apparently there is also a population of wild horses.

      The area of the island at which we came ashore is a campground accessed by ferry service.  We discretely used the dock to tie off our dinghy, hoping we would not be approached by a park ranger after realizing we had not brought any money with us to cover the $7.00 entrance fee designated on a payment box.

Cumberland Island trails

     We spent only a couple of hours on the island but had a great time wandering down a trail that cut through an amazing forest of (I believe) Oak and Cyprus trees which surrounded us, incredibly bent and gnarled in every direction with strange and eerie gray mossy foliage hanging from the branches.  The trail lead us to a beach on the opposite side of the island which faced out looking upon the vast Atlantic Ocean… our destination in less than 48 hours which now seemed to beckon to us.  Various groups of sea birds, including our now favorite pterodactyl-like pelicans we have grown so fond of seeing, scattered across the surf and beach hunting for food.

     While we could have easily spent additional time at the beach or wandering further to see the Carnegie Mansion ruins, both the chill in the air and the final preparations we needed to make aboard Exit pressed us back to our floating home with some of the afternoon still left to accomplish things.

     We awoke at 6:00am on the 5th, eager to get underway.  The forecast was promising with clear skies and 15-20 knot winds expected from the north.

     By 7:55am, our anchor was secured on deck and we were motoring for St. Marys Inlet against a two knot current.  The skies were clear and a gentle five knot SW breeze seemed to bode well for the day, though the wind direction was not at all as expected and would turn out to be a preview of erratic wind shifts during the entire passage.  A half hour later, a lone dolphin passing by in the opposite direction was interpreted as a good omen.  Though we were still motoring, we had cleared the inlet and raised the mainsail by 10:30am. 

Headed towards the St. Marys Inlet

     At 2:00pm, we had just passed Jacksonville, FL when the shifting winds, now east-northeast at eight knots, finally allowed us to unfurl the genoa sail and shut down the engine.  The difference between having a diesel engine running continuously at 2000rpm and the utter silence of moving under only power of sails is indescribable.  When you need the engine, it’s sure nice to have; but we’ll take sails only any day if given the choice.

Fair winds and blue skies
Minimal wind… but endless space

     The log entry at 4:20pm reads, “Rush’s 2112 playing in the cockpit.  Not hot, but not cold either… life is good!”   I am momentarily distracted by the memory of a similar 2112 moment aboard the Thailand Express train outside Bangkok nearly ten years ago.

     With not another soul to be seen in any direction, the stunning sunset thirteen miles offshore was ours to enjoy alone.

Rapa Nui guardian

     That night, as the wind started dying, it began to clock around to the south, making our sailing angle more and more difficult to maintain, especially with a knot of current pushing against us.  Just after midnight, we were finally forced to start up the engine when we could no longer maintain even one knot of forward momentum.

    Throughout the night we saw almost no other traffic, except for a few dim glows far off on the horizon.

     In many way, though they seem very intimidating, night passages are easier as long as the weather makes for comfortable times in the cockpit.  The ambient light from the stars, and especially a good moon, is more than adequate to sail under.  Furthermore, navigational markers are often easier to spot once they are lit up, as are ships whose direction can be more easily deduced by their red/green navigation lights.

     As the first traces of sunrise began to creep over the horizon, Kris was able to shut down the engine and enjoy a brief stint of using sails only; but the breeze tapered off within a few hours, once again forcing us to fire up the Perkins.

Sunrise offshore Florida – Feb. 2018

     Though our luck with wind was not holding very well, our luck with rockets attained a Las Vegas Jackpot level.

     I had seen an update on Kris’ phone last night about a rocket launch scheduled to occur on February 6th.  Kris did a bit more research and informed me when I woke up that, indeed, there was going to be a rocket launch that day.  We were ecstatic.  And this was not just any run of the mill rocket launch… it was the launch of SpaceX!  

     We gave up on trying to calculate the odds of us unwittingly passing by the actual launch pad at Cape Canaveral within hours of the scheduled SpaceX launch aboard a sailboat that allowed us a better vantage point than anyone else outside the immediate launch area… we settled on less than 2:6,000,000,000 as we appeared to be the only two people on the planet at that location at that moment.

     There was a restricted security area clearly designated on the chart that encompassed the launch area stretching to about three miles offshore which we tracked south alongside of, making sure to stay well on the outside of the line.  However, there was also a less obvious criss-crossing pair of lines that extended fifty miles offshore which were more ambiguous to interpret. 

     It was the US Coast Guard who, just after noon, hailed us on the VHF radio and politely informed us that we were about to enter a Booster Rocket Recovery Area which was restricted to all traffic until the launch, scheduled in about three hours, had been completed and the two booster rockets had been recovered.  We were instructed to turn around and fall back about a mile to the north where we could await a confirmation announcement on VHF that it was safe to proceed.

     It goes without saying that we turned around.

     The ridiculous notion of submitting an insurance claim regarding a collision with a booster rocket…

     … or the idea of potentially experiencing our fifteen minutes in the spotlight by appearing on a CNN video with a headline caption scrolling across the screen “Rogue Sailboat Forces Scrub of Long-Awaited SpaceX Launch”…

     … neither one particularly appealed to us.

     After retreating back beyond the rather innocuous and bland looking yellow buoy (apparently a supreme marker which NASA uses to indicate you are clear of the risk area for being hit by rockets), we sailed in circles for about three hours, eagerly anticipating the scheduled launch time of 3:45pm.

     Eventually, our prime private viewing position we had stumbled upon was invaded by a small fishing boat and big power yacht, who also stopped behind the line of danger to witness the event.  Still, we had a lot of water all around us and plenty of space in every direction.

Cape Canaveral
Cape Canaveral – SpaceX countdown to launch

     At precisely 3:45, we watched as a massive plume of smoke begin to emerge from the base of the launch pad.  Billowing both out and upwards, it quickly engulfed the entire launch tower.  Moments later, the unmistakeable shape of SpaceX, only a bright white cylinder from our vantage point, lifted clear of the apex of the exhaust cloud.  As the rocket climbed higher and higher, it emitted an impressive trail of orange flame which tapered off far behind it.  

     We certainly didn’t expect the massive sonic boom that followed shortly thereafter.

     We also didn’t realize that the booster rockets which had been fired were designed to automatically return to designated landing pads after separating from the main rocket.  After SpaceX had disappeared from view and we thought the show was over, suddenly two bright orange flares appeared in the sky.  We watched in amazement as the two booster rockets, now firing a second time, descended slowly in unison making what appeared to be a completely controlled landing back to Earth.

     We were less surprised by the second set of sonic booms.

     Afterwards, it seemed pretty remarkable to have had the opportunity to witness what may very well have been the birth of a whole new generation of space travel and exploration.  Our timing, though completely random, could not have been more perfect in the end.

     By 4:00pm, Exit was back underway motorsailing with SE winds of only six knots, which really didn’t matter since we we basically headed into the wind.  At least the seas were gentle with only one to two feet of rolling swell.

Crazy blue bottle jellyfish
What we initially thought were plastic bottles… turned out to be Portuguese Man of War jellyfish

    It took us about eight hours to get past the Port Canaveral inlet channel, and we reached the point of Cape Canaveral itself just before midnight.  

    We wanted to hug the point as much as possible, trying to avoid any opposing current from the Gulf Stream which was growing closer and closer to shore as we headed south.  At the same time, the point had a number of very shallow shoals and rocky areas we had to stay well clear of. 

    With SE winds building quickly to 13 knots, three to five foot confused seas, one knot of current against us, and a shitload of lights from fishing boats all around the point (which could be quite difficult to interpret direction, speed, and intent in the dark), getting around the point was quite a messy affair.

     By 12:30am, we were clear of the point and all the fishing boats and had returned to our plotted course.  During the next few hours, things remained uneventful despite the weather continuing to build.  The wind angle continued to force us to run the engine, though we kept the main sail up to try to eek out an extra knot or two whenever possible.

     Then, at about 3:20am, my stomach knotted up as I clearly heard the Perkins engine began to hesitate.  For about five seconds, the engine rpms dropped from 2200 to 1600.  With an audible groan, I tried to wish the engine to fight through it… which seemed to help as the old girl picked back up to regular speed and continued on as though she had merely experienced a moment of diesel indigestion.  I made a note in the log book to change filters in the morning, or if Kris experienced the problem again, before that.  My watch was going to be over at 4:00am and I was looking forward to sleeping.

     However, at 3:45, all prospect of sleep went overboard when the engine again began hesitating.  As the engine speed continued dropping, it became obvious that the Perkins was about to stall anyway, so I shut it down.

     With 15 knot winds and five to eight foot seas in front of us, there was no way to maintain any speed.  Without any speed, we would lose steering.  I called down to Kris that I needed her in the cockpit asap while manually steering the boat, trying to change our angle so we could build back enough speed to control the boat while, at the same time, minimizing the waves from hitting us broadside as much as possible.

     When Kris came up on deck, it became clear that the only options to maintain maneuverability were to point us directly offshore (deep water, safe but headed straight into the waves) or directly at the coast (limited time till land became a problem, but much less pitching about in the waves).  We opted to head towards shore, giving me a couple of hours to try to sort out the engine before we grew uncomfortably close to hard things.

     It seemed obvious to be a fuel starvation issue, same as we had experienced in August heading for Norfolk overnight.  Same conditions too – rough seas had probably stirred up stuff in the fuel tank, clogging the fuel filters.  

     Exit has a backup Racor fuel filter system; but, when switched over, the engine wouldn’t start at all.  Either I was misinterpreting how the valves needed to be oriented or the problem was affecting both systems.

     So I commenced with the process of switching out the primary filter, hoping we could at least regain temporary engine power until morning light would make for easier troubleshooting and work.  While changing the filter out, which was a foreboding dark gray color, I noticed lots of sediment in the bottom of the Racor fuel bowl.  After changing the filter and bleeding the system, I turned the key.  Thankfully, the engine started up straight away and seemed all good.

Dirty fuel filters… never a good thing

     Thirty minutes later, as I was thinking I might be able to go below and get a few hours sleep, the Perkins started hesitating.  The rpms began dropping, and the engine died again… shit!

     Back to the drawing board.  With the fuel filter as dirty as it was, I anticipated similar problems could be occurring at the secondary filter (on the engine) and/or the fuel lifting pump screen.  This meant digging in even deeper.

     Finally, around 6:30am the engine fired back up to life… and thirty minutes later it promptly died again (just as I was again headed for my pillow)… fuck!  This was becoming a drag!

     After another hour of trying various approaches, it seemed apparent that the Perkins was not in good health and this would not be an easy fix.  Kris had been manually steering us for four hours by this point.

     We agreed that battling against the wind and waves for another forty miles to reach the first safely navigable inlet to the south was not a very feasible option (it would be nearly twice that zig-zagging back and forth to maintain an angle of sail).  

     Port Canaveral was some twenty-five miles behind us – not the right direction, but a hell of a lot more appetizing.  We could comfortably sail a nearly straight line to the channel, and the waves would then be following us, making for much easier going.  So, by 8:30am, we were sailing back towards Cape Canaveral.

     I spent the entire morning and most of the afternoon trying to sort out the Perkins, but achieved only limited success.  After endless bouts of trial and error, all I could conclude was that our fuel tank (still nearly half full but now at the lowest level it had been in months) must be full of crap that was chronically clogging the filters and lines and we had an air leak in the fuel system that repeated bleeding did not seem to be helping.  

     The source of the air leak seemed to be the cover cap of the lifting pump.  Air was getting past the screw holding the cap down, and trying to fabricate a replacement rubber washer on the spot did not fully stop the leak.

     By 3:00pm Kris was circling just outside the entrance of the Port Canaveral inlet channel, awaiting a final verdict on the engine.  We had already made a call to TowBoatUS, just in case we didn’t have engine power to get us into a marina.  However, it struck us as odd when they indicated they had no “Notified, On Standby” mode.  Either we needed the tow or we didn’t.  We had also been on the phone with our old St. Marys friend Tom, who gave us great advice both on the engine and the entrance to Port Canaveral.

     By 3:30 we committed to an unassisted approach from a couple of miles out.  The engine was barely holding on – as long as we kept the rpms no higher than 1500 (just above idle), and I poured a tablespoon or so of diesel into the well of the lifting pump cap every few minutes to keep it from sucking in air, it seemed the Perkins would be able to make it in.

     We timed our approach to minimize any surrounding traffic as best possible, dropped the mainsail about halfway down the channel, and slowly limped into the harbor with very mild conditions. 

     Finally, around 5:00pm, we arrived at the Port Canaveral Marina.  It had been thirteen hours since the engine had conked out and more than fifty-three hours and 231 nautical miles since we had left St. Marys, GA.

     We both nearly fell asleep in our beers and a very mediocre dinner at Fish Lips; but, what the hell?  We were safely tied up for the night and would finally get a good night’s sleep… the Perkins could now wait till morning.  We had been hit with another challenge and successfully waded our way through it… hopefully, McGyver would have been proud!

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