Three Day Offshore Passage Back To The States

June 13-15, 2018

    Three hundred fifty nautical miles.  Averaging five knots it would take us around three days to complete.  

     For us, ambitious.

     But we’ve found ambition is exactly what it takes.

     There were a lot of uncertainties.  

     Uncertainty regarding weather.  Mixed forecasts, depending on who you listened to and what resources you referenced.  Winds seemed to be from every direction at one point or another.  Could be no wind at all.  Could be good sailing.  Could be nasty squalls with bursts of high wind and rain.  

     Uncertainty regarding the course we’d chosen to take.  Around the north open ocean side of Abaco with a long straight northwesterly shot to the Georgia border.  The alternative route, picking our way through the inside shallows to the edge of the Abacos Sea, followed by a shorter jump west across to Florida, would offer better protection from building seas but force a longer threading of the needle through the rocks and reefs until reaching the drop off.

     We preferred the long open ocean passage to Georgia.  If the weather held, we could have some brilliant sailing.  If the winds died, we’d have a long and relentless grind under motor.  If the weather turned ugly, we’d have no where to go…

     Uncertainty.

     But, in the end, we had chosen the straight shot across more open ocean.  Eighty miles offshore from the nearest Abaco land we would still be eighty miles away from the Florida coast. 

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     We were also hoping to get lucky with the Gulf Stream Current.  If we had calculated correctly, we would be approaching it’s apex at just about one hundred fifty miles into our course.  

     Depending on the strength of the current at any given point and our relative angle, we could hope to gain anywhere from a half knot to more than three knots of speed.  Once we found ourselves inside, we figured we could adjust our course to maximize the benefit of the free energy.

Ironically, we noticed that the course we had plotted would take us through the outer northeast corner of the notorious rocket impact area stretching seventy five miles offshore from the Cape Canaveral launch site.  It was part of the same block of restricted rocket recovery space, prohibited to boat traffic during launches, that we had been turned away from just prior to the launch of Space X in February.  

     We figured the chances of another launch being scheduled, once again, at the very moment we were passing through the restricted area to be pretty astronomical.  

     Although I did consider the fact that I had seen a rocket, being launched at Cape Canaveral, from all the way in the Bahamas one night while I was on deck after midnight.  I don’t think that, in the end, we even checked online to confirm there was no launch scheduled.  It would be pretty ridiculous if this level of complacency turned out to bite us in the ass…

******

     Eee-ahh… Eee-ahh… Eee-ahh… a sound reminiscent of a London police car.

     The near silence in the cockpit has just been shattered by a piercing alarm indicating our autopilot has lost its connection again.

      Jeeves, the name we have affectionately given our electronic chauffeur, or autopilot, typically alleviates our need for the sometimes relaxing yet mundane, sometimes arduous and exhausting task of hand steering the boat for hours on end. 

     We just input a heading in degrees.  Jeeves, tied into both navigational electronics and directly connected to the steering system, maintains that course automatically, making adjustments as needed.  Great… as long as it works. 

     Without obvious rhyme or reason,  Jeeves occasionally throws a fit.  He loses his connection link with the navigation equipment, can’t tell where he is, and simply disengages from the steering.  The wheel, no longer being controlled, begins drifting aimlessly… not ideal. 

      The London Police car sounding alarm is Jeeves belligerently announcing, “Somebody had better get to the wheel pretty damn quickly because I’ve just stopped steering and we’re drifting!”

      A probable corroded connection somewhere between the multiple units all communicating with one another has been plaguing us intermittently for months.  Having checked every connection possible, I am left with only connections behind water sealed panels that are constantly exposed to the elements.  So far, the fear of causing other problems by opening these panels has outweighed the annoyance of Jeeves’ periodic outbursts.

     Back to the reality of constant challenges that come part and parcel with cruising aboard a sailboat.

     After switching the autopilot breaker off and back on again to reset the system, Jeeves seemed content to carry on, at least for the time being.  When we are lucky, he’s good to go again for an always indeterminate amount of time.  When we’re not, he throws this annoying tantrum repeatedly until eventually either he gives up or we do, and resort to hand steering for a while.

******

     This passage turned out to be a roller coaster ride, both mentally and physically.  

     Some of the best sailing we’ve ever done.  Some of the most frustrating mandatory motoring stretches we’ve ever done.  Some pretty freaky moments of what have we gotten ourselves into?

     Only seven hours into very mild sailing conditions, vicious looking storm clouds quickly materialized and stacked up across the horizon.  Sitting on less than three knot winds, we had already dropped the main, furled in the genoa, and fired up the engine.  By the time the clouds, growing more and more ominous looking, were on top of us, we were already prepared.  

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Time 1407: Ominous clouds bearing down quickly
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Time 1416 (only nine minutes later): Developing into some pretty scary looking shit

     In the blink of an eye, winds had catapulted from less than three knots to thirty knots.  We were glad we had already dowsed the sails.  This would not be the only storm encountered during this passage.

     We had plenty of opportunity during this passage to experiment more with the subtleties of downwind sailing.  Different configurations, adjustments and setups which had confused us when we were primarily sailing upwind now came more into play. 

     Now, sailing almost entirely with the wind aft of our beam, we experienced the slow paced evolution of better understanding:  6.7 knots of speed before in 8 knots of wind when the gulf stream gave us better than a knot of current and the sail trim was clicking… now less than 3 knots of speed in 15 knots of wind when six foot waves were tossing us around and the sail trim obviously wasn’t clicking.

Erratic weather and conflicting information became a bit of a theme during this passage.  Looking opposite directions often provided opposite perspectives and reversed your decisions…

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Sunrise the morning after the storm
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Looking to port
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Same time… looking to starboard

      Ups and downs… as reflected in periodic ship’s log entries:

June 13: 7:50am – Anchor up under sail; making for St. Marys Entrance (350nm/3 days); forecast S-SE winds at 10-15 knots

9:20 – Outside cut; mild chop with 3-5ft swell well spaced; overcast but no threatening clouds in the sky

13:00 – Wind ❤ knots, Engine on and sails in

14:00 – Squall approaching; winds have shifted 180 degrees to WNW at 15-25 knots; seas building to 6-8ft

15:00 – Sailing a little, then siting a little, then motoring a little, then pooing a little… Squall came from NW… holy crap! Seas calming from 6-8ft; storm clouds still near but perfect sailing right now

20:00 – One reef in the main for the night; currently S at 10-12 knots

June 14: 00:00 – Engine on with main up, wind ❤ knots again. Florida coast and ship traffic lights on horizon…ick!

12:00 – Tired of 12 hours of engine noise; motor-sailing straight towards gulf stream for free ride hopefully

12:45 – Good choice.  Making 5 knots in 5.8 knots of wind… yes!

13:30 – Pod of ten or more dolphins came to play at the bow for a few minutes!

15:00 – Making 6.7 knots of speed in just over 8 knots of wind (1.3 knots from Gulf Stream current)… sweet!

16:20 – Making 5.7 knots of speed in 5.5 knots of wind (2 knots from current)… sweeter!

16:45 – Another bow riding pod of dolphins hung around even longer.  Just entered Cape Canaveral rocket impact area – no rockets in sight, no Coast Guard hails… think we’re ok.

21:00 – Minimal chop but lots of lightning in front of us;  One reef in main & full genoa; Winds SSW at 8 knots but getting 4 knot boost from the GS current – making 8 knots of speed

22:00 – Winds W up to 14 knots with 10.5knots of boat speed!  Seas kicking up fast

23:00 – Wind speed indicator freaking out again (reading 25-50 knots of wind on display).  Amazing bioluminescent light show happening all around us.

*****

     Approaching midnight.     

     Not a single light from shore is visible. 

     Not a single light from another boat to be seen.

     It is a feeling of complete isolation.  Fifty miles offshore in the North Atlantic Ocean, the only thing we’ve seen since last night have been pods of curious dolphins.

     Unable to locate a single outside reference point, my eyes strain to identify anything in the utter blackness outside the cockpit.

     Beyond Exit’s decks, there is only dark.  Clouds have completely smothered any ambient light offered by the stars and moon.

     Sudden streaks of lightning flash all around us, bursting intermittently and without warning, providing  momentary glimpses of a feisty, building sea all around us.

     And yet, in what could be a computer generated Hollywood movie effect, the water surrounding Exit literally is aglow.  It looks magical, in stark contrast to the impenetrable black curtain of rest of the night.

    Both hauntingly dim and distinctly present, churning eddies of sparkles and streaks briefly light up alongside the boat with every wave and swell that breaks against our hull.  

    Exit’s bow appears to cut through a wave of light, as the surge of water displaced to either side by our bow wake glows eerily, the result of bioluminescent organisms in the water.

     It is truly surreal… hypnotic.

     Plus we have apparently found a sweet spot in the Gulf Stream current.  Our GPS indicates that we are currently picking up an amazing four extra knots of speed riding the current.

      As the wind began to pick up, hovering between thirteen and fourteen knots, and the seas continued to build up, Poseidon smiled briefly down upon us in the dark.  Our boat speed steadily rose, the display in the cockpit now drifting between six and eight knots.  

      But a quick glimpse at our GPS revealed, with the favorable four knot Gulf Stream current accounted for, that on this night we were actually learning to fly.  We spent three hours streaking along consistently at between an amazing ten to eleven knots of speed.

     At one point, I clocked us making 11.8 knots of speed in 14.5 knots of wind… Yikes!

     Certainly not being a racer, at times barely being a sailor… it’s times like this that the inexperienced are wisely prompted by that nagging feeling of uncertainty to perform an introspective reality check on their comfort level.

     In this instance, it was the absolute darkness in every direction that was so disorienting.  Dramatic bursts of lightning across the horizon and hypnotic bioluminescence glowing alongside the hull all added to the surreal environment.  The faster we went, the brighter the glow appeared to become.

     There is a sense of being on the edge of control.  We thought our sail decision was sound – a single reef in the main (a reefed main was quickly becoming our overnight standard procedure) and our 130% genoa partially furled.  

     Yet, even with reduced sails, we found ourselves still flying along at 10.5 knots of speed in thirteen knots of wind.  Any feelings of anxiousness came, not from our present  situation.  Rather, it was the uncertainty of Poseidon’s full intent tonight… had we seen the brunt of the storm or was it still building?  

     If the winds reached a sustained fifteen to twenty knots, I wasn’t sure if I’d maintain my smile…

Continuation of ship’s log entries:

June 15: 3:00am – Eeek!  Crazy times!  Still amazing bioluminescence all around us while we learn to fly at 11.8 knots of speed in 14.5 knots of wind with 4 knots of current.

8:00 – Wind clocking north, NW at 8-10 knots; confused seas with 2-3ft chop; losing benefit of GS current quickly

9:01 – 273.2 nautical miles this passage makes a total of 3000 nautical miles traveled aboard Exit!!! Woohoo!

12:00 – Wind dying. NW at <5 knots; engine on

13:00 – Wind shifting. W at <5 knots

14:00 – Wind still shifting; now SW at <5 knots but seas calming.  Still 40nm from St. Marys inlet… not gonna make it by dark… shit.

16:00 – Have decided against night entry into St. Marys inlet; will have to circle until morning once we get close

17:00 – Winds W at 5-10 knots; seas calm but there are BIG storm clouds building to the south

17:30 – Weather warnings issuing on VHF to south; nasty clouds continue to stack; steering east – can’t outrun storm but can try to head for its’ edge

17:35 – Engine on and all sails in; gonna make a run in the opposite direction under engine power.

17:45 – All Hell breaking loose!  Wind W at 20-30 knots, seas 3-4ft

18:00 – Wind dropping to 15-20 knots but seas building 4-6ft

21:00 – Wind holding at 16 knots with sloppy and confused seas, raising double reefed main to try to avoid running engine all night

22:00 – Trying to sail through the night, awaiting first light to navigate inlet

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     Throughout the night, the messy seas that had been kicked up by the evening storm slowly began to settle back down.  The only casualty we found was a flying fish that had become trapped on deck during the rough seas… technically my first catch from the deck of Exit.

     Fortunately, the worst looking clouds had passed just south of us, and we had been relatively near the outside edge of the whole thing.  It could have been far, far worse.

     As can often be the case, the visual intimidation of really scary looking storm clouds approaching, as well as the ongoing uncertainty of whether you’re currently experiencing the worst of what’s in store or just a preview, makes for higher drama at the beginning of a storm than at the end.

     In this case, the storm was undoubtably a whopper that just tagged us with its’ edge.  

     The wind and minimal rainfall just over us had lost most of its ferocity in less than half an hour.  Still, the big ocean swells and confused waves that had been generated further to the south tossed us around for the rest of the night as they passed by.

    Now, as the sun began to rise the morning of June 16, the seas had finally settled back down, and we were on our final approach towards the St. Marys inlet in our own sailboat… arriving back in the States… surreal.

     By 9:00am, we were at the mouth of the St. Marys River.

     At 10:00am, seventy four hours and three hundred eighty five nautical miles after raising our anchor in the Abacos, Bahamas, we dropped anchor just off Cumberland Island in Georgia, USA.

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Dolphin welcome just off Cumberland Island

     Oddly enough, we were within a few hundred feet of the exact same spot we had anchored at in February, just prior to leaving for the Bahamas.

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     The same spot… full circle.  

     Only five months… and one thousand six hundred twenty seven nautical miles… plus at least that number of stories later.

     Sailing through another country…

     Completing our longest offshore passage to date…

     Not living the dream… not retired… just rewired.  

     Shallow draft and deep commitment.

     A lot to celebrate… after a long nap.

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